What were the causes of 9/11?
by Peter Bergen
No event in recent times has produced as many explanations as the 11th September attacks twelve years ago. Within the space of an hour, al Qaeda inflicted* more direct damage on the US than the Soviet Union had done throughout the cold war, a cataclysm* seen by more people than any other event in history. Yet it took only 19 men armed with small knives to destroy the World Trade Centre, demolish a wing of the Pentagon and kill 3,000 people. This mismatch has led some — especially in the Muslim world — to seek a deus ex machina* to explain what otherwise appears inexplicable. .... Osama bin Laden himself claims that al Qaeda was solely responsible for 9/11. In 2004, he released a video in which he explained his dealings with lead hijacker Mohammed Atta. After the largest criminal investigation in history, the US government’s 9/11 commission also concluded that al Qaeda was solely responsible for the attacks.
The most credible explanations
None of the following explanations is alone sufficient to explain the attacks, but together they do help us to understand 9/11. They are ranked in ascending* order of importance.
10. Radicalisation caused by the Afghan jihad.
While there is no evidence that the CIA trained or funded Bin Laden or his followers, the Afghan war against the Soviet Union nonetheless radicalised a generation of Arab militants. They swapped business cards, gained battlefield experience and came to believe that they had played a big role in the destruction of the Soviet Union. All of these factors would lead to the founding of al Qaeda in 1988, established to take the jihad to other parts of the globe.
9. A particular reading of Islamic texts.
In the many discussions of the “root causes” of Islamist terrorism, Islam itself is rarely mentioned. But if you were to ask Bin Laden, he would say that his war is about the defence of Islam. We need not believe him but we should nevertheless listen to what our enemies are saying. Bin Laden bases justification of his war on a corpus of Muslim beliefs and he finds ammunition in the Koran to give his war Islamic legitimacy. He often invokes the “sword” verses of the Koran, which urge unprovoked* attacks on infidels*. Of course, that is a selective reading of the Koran and does not mean Islam is an inherently violent faith, but to believers the book is the word of God.
8. Decline and stagnation in the middle east and the “humiliation” of the Islamic world.
Bernard Lewis is the best-known exponent of the idea that the Muslim world is in a crisis largely attributable to centuries of decline, symbolised by the fate of the once powerful Ottoman empire* and its ignominious* carve-up* by the British and French after the first world war. Lewis also argues that the problems of the middle east were later compounded by the import of two western ideas — socialism and secular Arab nationalism — neither of which delivered on their promises of creating prosperous and just societies. The economic and political failures in much of the Muslim world are underlined by statistics such as the fact that the non-oil revenues of all of the gulf states add up to less than the GDP of Finland.
Three weeks after 9/11, as the US began launching air strikes against Taliban positions, a video of Bin Laden sitting on a rocky outcrop was broadcast on Al-Jazeera. On the tape, Bin Laden said, “What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. The Islamic world has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for 80 years… Neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live in it in Palestine, and not before the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad.” So in his first statement following 9/11, Bin Laden emphasised the “humiliation” of the Muslim world and the negative effect of US policies in the middle east. In this sense, Bin Laden seems to agree with Bernard Lewis. Indeed, Bin Laden often talks about the “humiliation” suffered by Muslims at the hands of the west. For Bin Laden, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Ottoman empire between the French and British has the same resonance that the 1919 treaty of Versailles did for Hitler. It must be avenged and reversed.
7. The spread of communications technology.
The humiliation felt by some Muslims is amplified by the communications revolution. The umma, the global community of Muslims, is far more aware of conflicts around the Islamic world — and the role of the west in some of those conflicts — than was the case a decade ago. The creation of Al-Jazeera in 1996 coincided with Bin Laden’s first call for a holy war against the US. Since then Arabic satellite channels and jihadist websites have proliferated*, sensitising* Muslims to the oppression of their co-religionists in Kashmir, Palestine, the Balkans and so on. These grievances have fuelled the spread of al Qaeda’s ideology and underpinned the rage of the 9/11 hijackers.
6. Authoritarian middle east regimes helped incubate the militants.
Sayyid Qutb, the Lenin of the militant jihadist movement, and later Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s number two, were radicalised by their time in the jails of Cairo. It is no accident that so many members of al Qaeda have been Egyptians and Saudis.
5. The alienation of Muslim immigrants in the west.
Three of the four 9/11 pilots and two key planners, Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, became more militant while living in the west. Perceived* discrimination, alienation and homesickness seem to have turned them all in a more radical direction. This is true for other anti-western terrorists. Swati Pandey and I have examined the biographies of 79 terrorists responsible for five of the worst recent anti-western terrorist attacks. We found that one in four of these terrorists had attended colleges in the west.
4. US foreign policies in the middle east, in particular its support of Israel.
By Bin Laden’s own account, this is why al Qaeda is attacking America. His critique has never been cultural; he never mentions Madonna, Hollywood, homosexuality or drugs in his diatribes*. US support for Israel, especially the support it gave to Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982, first triggered Bin Laden’s anti-Americanism, which during the 1980s took the form of urging a boycott of US goods. He was later outraged by the “defiling” export of 500,000 US troops to Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
3. Bin Laden is an astute tactical leader and rational political actor fighting a deeply felt religious war against the west.
Like others before him, Bin Laden has made a rational choice to adopt terrorism as a shortcut to transforming the political landscape. It is clear from the 9/11 commission report that Bin Laden intervened to make two key decisions that ensured the success of the attacks. The first was to appoint Mohammed Atta to be the lead hijacker; Atta would carry out his responsibilities with grim efficiency. The second was to rein in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s plans for ten planes to crash into targets in Asia and on the east coast of America simultaneously. That number of attacks would have been hard to synchronise and might not have succeeded.
2. 9/11 was the collateral damage of a clash within Islam.
The view that 9/11 was the result of a conflict within the Muslim world was brilliantly articulated in early 2002 by middle east scholar Michael Scott Doran in a Foreign Affairs essay, “Somebody Else’s Civil War.” Doran argued that Bin Laden’s followers “consider themselves an island of true believers surrounded by a sea of iniquity* and think that the future of religion itself, and therefore the world depends on them and their battle.” In particular, Egyptians in al Qaeda, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, hold this view, inheriting it from Sayyid Qutb, who believed that most of the modern middle east is living in a state of pagan ignorance. The Egyptian jihadists believed that they should overthrow the “near enemy” — middle east regimes run by “apostate*” rulers. Bin Laden took the next step, urging Zawahiri that the root of the problem was not the “near enemy” but the “far enemy,” the US, which propped up the status quo in the middle east.
1. The 9/11 attacks were the fruit of Bin Laden’s flawed* strategic reasoning*.
Bin Laden’s total dominance of al Qaeda meant the organisation was hostage to his strategic vision. His analysis of US foreign policy was based on the US withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983, after the attack on the barracks that killed 241 American servicemen, and from Somalia in 1993 after 18 US soldiers were killed in Mogadishu. From these retreats, Bin Laden concluded that the US was a paper tiger, capable of withstanding only a few strikes before it would withdraw, leaving client regimes in the middle east vulnerable*. But the US response to 9/11 was to destroy the Taliban regime and decimate al Qaeda. Although 9/11 was a tactical success for al Qaeda, it actually threatened the organisation’s future.
Some of the harshest critics of the 9/11 attacks have been al Qaeda insiders such as Abd-Al-Halim Adl, who in June 2002 wrote to the 9/11 operational commander, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, saying: “Today we must completely halt all external actions until we sit down and consider the disaster we caused. The east Asia, Europe, America, horn of Africa, Yemen, Gulf, and Morocco groups have fallen.”
To conclude, 9/11 was collateral damage in a civil war within the world of political Islam. On one side there are those, like Bin Laden, who want to install Taliban-style theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco. On the other side there is a silent majority of Muslims who are prepared to deal with the west, who do not see the Taliban as a workable model for modern Islamic states, and who reject violence. Bin Laden adopted a war against “the far enemy” in order to hasten the demise of the “near enemy” regimes in the middle east. And he used 9/11 to advance that cause. That effort has, so far, largely failed.
Yet Bin Laden and his attacks on the US have shaped an ideological movement that will outlive him. Binladenism has drawn tremendous energy from the war in Iraq, and will probably gain further adherents* from the conflict in Lebanon. Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was prescient when he warned in 2003 that the Iraq war would spawn “100 new Bin Ladens.” It is that new generation of militants that is Bin Laden’s legacy.
Prospect Magazine of Sep. 24, 2013
* to inflict damage - Schaden anrichten
* cataclysm - Katastrophe
* A deus ex machina (Latin: "god from the machine") is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.
* to ascend - aufsteigend
* unprovoked - grundlod, ohne Anlass
* infidels - Ungläubige
* Ottoman empire - Osmanisches (türkisches) Reich
* ignominious - entwürdigend, schändlich
* carve-up - Zerstückelung, Aufteilung
* to proliferate - sich ausbreiten
* to sensitise - sensibilisieren
* to perceive - wahrnehmen
* diatribes - Hetz, - Schmähreden
* iniquity - Ungerechtigkeit
* “apostate” - vom Glauben Abgefallener
* flawed - mit Fehlern behaftet
* reasoning - Schlussfolgerung, Gedankengang
* vulnerable - verwundbar
* adherents - Anhänger
1. Why has the Afghan-Soviet Union War contributed to the emergence of al Quaeda?
2. How has the Koran added and legitimized to the attack on 9/11?
3. Bin Laden asserted that 'humiliation and degradation' of the Islamic world by British, French and American forces led to the event of 9/11. What does he particularly mean?
4. Why is the communication technology one of the reasons for the spread of al Quaeda's ideology?
5. What is it that contributed to Bin Laden's antipathy against America besides its support of Israel?
6. What did Bin Laden and his followers understand by 'near' and 'far' enenies?
7. What was Bin Laden's strategy and why was it flawed?
8. Why was 9/11 collateral damage in a civil war of Islam?