In the wake of the immense tragedy of the recent attacks on American soil it
is difficult to get beyond the horror and shock of what has just happened
and engage in serious reflection on the sources of violence against the
United States. This is understandable given the almost unbelievable nature
attack. Yet it is more necessary than ever if one is to find ways to
prevent such attacks in the future.
What we will see in the next few days and weeks will be further
investigations, arrests of individuals and intense speculation about which
groups or states did this and how the United States should respond.
Unfortunately, if the pattern of past responses to such attacks is repeated,
we will probably not
learn a great deal about the reasons behind why this attack happened, or the
broader sources of violence against the United States over the past decade.
Instead the usual array of retired generals and military analysts will be
trotted out to explain the tactical elements of their favored military
We now have seen substantial evidence of a Middle Eastern connection to this
attack and media coverage has frequently mentioned the name of Osama bin
Laden as the number one terrorist suspect and mastermind of this operation.
As we are inexorably led down the road to military confrontation in the
Middle East, it is necessary to gain clarity about the specific actors and
their motivations before one can even think about how to respond. For
Americans who like their hero's and villains portrayed in simple dichotomies
of good and evil, the result of this kind of clarity will be disturbing
because the United States has created many enemies through its policies in
the Middle East over the past century and bears a significant amount of
responsibility for creating a fertile soil for anti-American hatred. Any
American response that does not address this truth is doomed to further the
cycle of violence.
Who is behind the attacks?
The recent attacks on U.S. soil are most likely related to an escalating
series of attacks and bombings on U.S. targets over the past 10 years. In
order, these attacks include: the recent bombing of the USS Cole in October,
2000 that claimed 17 lives; the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania in which hundreds were killed; the 1996 car-bomb attack on a U.S.
barracks in Dharahan, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans; the 1995
car-bomb attack on an American National Guard Training center in Riyadh,
Saudi Arabia that took 4 lives and, of course, the 1993 World Trade Center
truck-bombing that killed 6 people and injured over a thousand others.
All of these attacks have been attributed to Islamic radicals based in the
Middle East and Central Asia under the rubric of a very hazy notion of
"Islamic fundamentalism." Indeed a number of people from these regions with
links to certain militant Islamic groups have been arrested and charged in
some of these actions. Breathless reports of a shadowy Islamic conspiracy
against the U.S. led by Osama bin Laden have generated a steady stream of
cliché's about this new enemy and its hatred of the U.S., but unfortunately
precious little light has been shed on understanding why this is happening
and what exactly these people believe. Their enmity towards the U.S. is
explained as little more than the product of a fanatical and inherently
anti-Western and anti-American world view. Stephen Emerson, a so-called
terrorism expert who frequently appears in the media, claims that "the
hatred of the US by militant Islamic fundamentalists is not tied to any
particular act or event. Rather, fundamentalists equate the mere existence
of the West-its economic, political and cultural systems-as an intrinsic
attack on Islam."
Any explanation of Middle Eastern violence that relies upon the notion that
Islam is an inherently violent or inherently anti-Western religion is false
and misleading. First, Islam is one of the world's largest and most diverse
religions and like Christianity or Judaism there are thousands of views
within Islam about the religion and also about violence and the West.
Secondly, there are major differences even among explicitly Muslim militants
and activists regarding these issues-some insist upon non-violent struggle
and others regard violence as a legitimate tool. There is no way one can
generalize about Islam or any religion for that matter.
So who are the perpetrators and what drove them to carry this horrendous
act? The most likely perpetrators of these attacks are related to an
extremely small and fringe network of militants whose motivations do not
derive from Islam so much as from a common set of experiences and beliefs
that resulted from their participation in the U.S. backed war against the
Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980's. These militants were recruited
by the CIA and the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani intelligence services to
against the Soviet Union during the 1980's. They came largely from the poor
and unemployed classes or militant opposition groups from around the Middle
East, including Algeria, Egypt, Palestine and elsewhere in order to wage war
on behalf of the Muslim people of Afghanistan against the communist enemy.
Among the many coordinators and financiers of this effort was a rich young
Saudi named Osama Bin Laden, who was the millionaire son of a wealthy Saudi
businessman with close contacts to the Saudi royal family. Although
accounts vary regarding his actual participation in the war, he played an
important role in helping these groups recruit volunteers and build
extensive networks of bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan after 1984.
This network of conservative Sunni Muslim militants, who became known as
"the Afghans" in the Middle East, also served another purpose for the U.S.
and its allies in the region. Not only were they anti-Communist due to
their rejection of its atheism, they were also opposed to the brand of
Islamic radicalism promoted by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and its
leader Ayatollah Khomeini largely because it was based on Shiite rather than
Sunni Islamic doctrine, a major doctrinal cleavage within Islam. The
revolution had had toppled a major ally of the U.S., the Shah of Iran, who
played a major role as a pillar of U.S. hegemony in the oil rich Persian
Gulf and was threatening key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and
other oil rich states. Therefore, the clear aim of U.S. foreign policy
therefore was to kill two
birds with one stone: turn back the Soviet Union and create a
counter-weight to radical Iranian inspired threats to U.S. interests,
particularly U.S. backed regimes who controlled the massive oil resources.
The failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East
But this policy has now turned into a nightmare for the U.S. and has likely
led to the recent attacks against the U.S. in New York and Washington D.C.
After the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan in 1989 the "Afghan" network
became expendable to the U.S. who no longer needed their services. In fact,
U.S. actively turned against these groups after the Gulf War when a number
of these militants returned home and moved into the violent opposition
against U.S. allied regimes and opposed the U.S. war against Iraq in 1991.
They were particularly opposed to the unprecedented positioning of U.S.
ground troops in Saudi Arabia on the land of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca
and Medina. As a result, in the past decade there has been a vicious war of
intelligence services in the region between America and its allies and
militant Muslim groups. Many Egyptian Islamists believe the U.S. trained
Egyptian police torture techniques like they did the Shah and his brutal
Savak security police. Moreover, the CIA has sent snatch squads to abduct
wanted militants form Muslim countries and return them to their countries to
face almost certain death and imprisonment.
The primary belief of this loose and militant network of veterans of the
Afghanistan war is that the West, led by the United States, is now waging
war against Muslims around the world and that they have to defend themselves
by any means necessary, including violence and terrorism. They point to a
number of cases where Muslims have born the brunt of violence as evidence of
this war: the Serbian and Croation genocide against Bosnian Muslims, the
Russian war in Chechnya, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the Israeli
occupation of Palestinian lands, the UN sanctions against Iraq and the U.S.
backing of dictatorships in Algeria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example.
They claim that the US either supported the violence or failed to prevent it
in all of these cases. It is these beliefs that enable them to justify not
only targeting U.S. military facilities but also its civilians.
It should be clear that this network is only a very radical fringe of
militants who have decided that they must use armed tactics to get their
message out to the U.S. and others. They differ in important ways with the
wider current of Islamic activism in Arab world and more globally which in
addition to its Islamic orientation has an agenda about social justice and
social change against the dictatorships and corruption in many of the
pro-Western countries in the region. They are anti-Iranian. They are now
anti-Saudi. Their actions have sometimes even been condemned by militant
Muslim organizations ranging from the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt to the FIS
in Algeria to HAMAS in Palestine. They are somewhat disconnected from these
movements in that they do not locate their struggle in a national context,
but rather in a global war on behalf of Muslims. Nevertheless, they
certainly share many common sentiments with this wider current of Islamic
activism. There is no question that the one-sided U.S. support for Israel,
the U.S. sponsorship of sanctions against Iraq as well as U.S. support for
dictatorships across the region have created a fertile ground for some
sympathy with such militancy.
Osama bin Laden is not the mastermind of these attacks as is often claimed
in the media; he just facilitates these groups and sentiments with logistics
and finances, as do others. He is simply a very visible symbol of this loose
network and the U.S. obsession with him most likely works to increase his
standing as an icon of resistance to the U.S. The network with which he is
linked has no geographical location or fixed center; it appears to be a
kaleidoscopic overlay of cells and interlinkages that span the globe from
camps on the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands to immigrant communities in Europe
and the U.S.
The rise of this militant network and their adoption of violence against the
United States represents a clear failure of U.S. strategy in the region,
especially the U.S./Saudi/Pakistani model of alliance between conservative
Sunni Islamic activism and the West. The problem is that US has no
alternative political strategy because they see all Islamic activists as
their enemy and refuse to address the root causes of anti-American
sentiments in the region. Moreover, the U.S appears to have no long-term
strategy to address the sources of grievances that the radical groups share
with vast majority of Muslim activists who abhor using violent methods that
would include, for starters, a more balanced approach to the
Israeli/Palestinian conflict, ending the sanctions on Iraq, moving U.S.
military bases out of Saudi Arabia, and supporting the legitimate
aspirations of regional peoples for democracy and human rights.
How to truly defeat terrorism
Many of us accept the premise that terrorism is a phenomenon that can be
defeated only by amelioration of the conditions that inspire it. Terrorism's
best asset, in the final analysis, is the anger and desperation that leads
people to see no alternative to violence.
While only a fringe element has seized upon violence as their solution, many
of the world's 1.2 billion Muslim people are understandably aggrieved by
double standards. The U.S. claims that it must impose economic sanctions on
certain countries that violate human rights and/or harbor weapons of mass
destruction. Yet the U.S. largely ignores Muslim victims of human rights
violations in Palestine, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir and Chechnya. What's more,
while the U.S. economy is propped up by weapon sales to countries around the
globe and particularly in the Middle East, the U.S. insists on economic
sanctions to prevent weapon development in Libya, Sudan, Iran and Iraq. In
Iraq, the crippling economic sanctions cost the lives of 5,000 children,
under age five, every month. Over one million Iraqis have died as a direct
result of over a decade of sanctions. Finally, the U.S. pro-Israel policy
unfairly puts higher demands on Palestinians to renounce violence than on
Israelis to halt new settlements and adhere to U.N. resolutions calling for
an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands.
That anger cannot be extinguished by Tomahawk missiles or military
operations. The present U.S. strategy for ending the threat of terrorism
through the use of military force will only exacerbate this anger and
desperation. When innocent U.S. citizens are killed and harmed by blasts at
US embassies or bases, or used as cannon fodder for suicide hijackings, the
U.S. government expects expressions of outrage and grief over brutal
terrorism. But when U.S. Cruise missiles kill and maim innocent Sudanese,
Afghanis, and Pakistanis, the U.S. calls it collateral damage. Even if Osama
bin Laden is killed or captured, the fertile soil that creates such figures
will still be there. Moreover, any attacks may simply serve to inflame
passions and create hosts of new volunteers to their ranks
There is no justification for the horrendous attacks on innocent American
civilians in New York or Washington. These attacks have served no cause;
they have likely set back efforts to build popular movements and
international solidarity that, in the final analysis, are the best chance of
achieving social justice and change in the Middle East and elsewhere. Yet,
at this difficult time, Americans should critically examine policies with
which Arabs, Muslims and many others have legitimate grievances. Instead our
leaders refuse to admit the flaws in their policies and find it easier to
demonize those in the Arab world who oppose them as a way of diverting
attention from their own mistakes.
Military solutions to the problems in the Middle East and the terrorism that
has resulted from these problems is not a policy but a recipe for more
violence and bombings.
Steve Niva teaches International politics and Middle East Studies at the
Evergreen State College.