The Roots of September 11, 2001

September 11, 2009

The infamy of the attacks on 9/11 has had different effects in the Middle East and South Asia than it has had in the United States. While America still grieves for the victims and the innocence that was lost, many in the Muslim world see the events as a cultural lesson. A lesson that many of them believe has not yet been learned. The carnage of September 11 was vile and evil, but it could happen again. In order to understand the “how” one must look at the “why.”

We now know that former Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda criminal network, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that gave them sanctuary were the perpetrators of the attacks. On October 7, 2001 bin Laden released a televised message where he praised that “Allah had blessed a vanguard group of Muslims, the spearhead of Islam, to destroy America.” With this message, bin Laden laid claim to the mantle of Caliphate (Muslim leader) and attempted to rally all Muslims to his side. Bin Laden had anticipated that the United States would take military revenge on Afghanistan. It was bin Laden’s hope that the events of 9/11 would act as a provocation for attacks against the Afghan civilian population. He believed that Muslim reaction to U.S. repression of the Afghans would build comprehensive solidarity among the Muslim nations. This would allow bin Laden to become the leader of the Muslim world. It was his hope to then forcibly convert the rest of the world to Islam. When this did not happen, bin Laden asked America’s President Bush for a truce. 

Bin Laden did not anticipate the precision of smart weapons used in the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan. Precision-guided munition limited civilian casualties who were to be used as human shields. The collateral damage was limited and bin Laden’s hope for a catalyst of mass movement was diminished. His dream of moving Islamists into positions of power in every Muslim country hinged on mass bloodshed. 

The Islamist movement has failed to retain political power in Muslim countries. With all of its success in the 1970s and 1980s, Islamists are losing ground even in Iran which has often been understood as the Islamist success story. The decline of the movement as a vehicle for mass mobilization accounts for the more sophisticated and devastating forms of terrorist attacks against current NATO & U.S. Coalition troops- as well as the events of September 11, 2001. 

Osama bin Laden’s chief grievance against the United States has been the U.S.’s involvement in Saudi Arabian politics. America’s support for the House of Saud (Saudi royal family) and its presence within the country has kept bin Laden and fellow Saudi dissidents from being able to overthrow the regime. Furthermore, bin Laden claims that having non-Muslims so close to the holy city of Mecca (located within Saudi Arabia) is an affront to Allah. Bin Laden’s resentment mirrors that of other Muslims who object to America’s support for Israel. 

The United State’s patronage and protection of Israel is often cited as the motivation for most Muslim hated of America. This is debatable; however, since religious ideology as represented in the writings of famous jihadists such as Sayyid Qutb point out that America’s liberal culture is just as dangerous as its backing of Israel. America’s hegemony is resented by militant Muslims, because they believe they are God’s chosen people. As such, they should be the ones that wield world-wide cultural, religious, political, and economic power. Since they do not, militant Muslims implicitly believe that America is evil and explicitly communicate this belief to other Muslims by describing America as “the great Satan” and chanting “death to America.” 

The invasion of Iraq and the recent events in Afghanistan have set a stage for the Muslim civilian casualties that bin Laden was hoping for. The guerrilla warfare that is now being waged in both countries has limited the advantages America had with its smart weapons. The more civilians that die, the more Muslim resentment grows. Like chess players, the al Qaeda network and the Taliban are arranging for NATO forces to mistakenly kill Afghan civilians. These groups are still expecting the Afghan conflict to be the catalyst that unites the Muslim world. However, the reality is that such actions are only fueling al Qaeda recruitment. If American troops do not want to play into the terrorist’s hands, they need to revise their strategy for engagement. 

In the meantime, bin Laden and like-minded militants will continue attacks on the United States and its allies. Their goal is to expose the fragility of the West’s hegemonic empire. They believe that if radical Muslims can explode the myth of American invincibility, they can convince Islamists to unite throughout the Muslim world for an overthrow of America’s governmental system. Ultimately, it remains bin Laden’s goal to frame himself as the eventual leader of this imagined Muslim coalition.

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