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The Road to September 11

ISSUE:  Spring 2002

Historians looking back at the tragic events of September 11 will discover the roots of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon originating in three episodes that occurred in 1979. The first event was the Iranian Revolution which overthrew the Shah and created an Islamic Republic under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The second occurrence was the successful conclusion of the Camp David meetings between Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin, wherein Israel and Egypt concluded a peace treaty which not only ended the state of war between both countries, which commenced with the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, but also witnessed the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. The third incident was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States during the Carter presidency responded to Soviet aggression by aiding the Afghanistan opposition against the invasion of their country. Despairing, however, of being able to form a unified coalition, because of the intense ethnic divisions among the country’s clans, the United States covertly sent financial aid and arms (including stinger missiles) through the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s counterpart of our CIA, to unite the Afghani opposition under the banner of Islam.

In supporting an Islamic Jihad or holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the United States seriously underestimated the appeal of Muslim fundamentalism among not only the poor, but also its attraction for many among the educated classes. Drawing on selected passages from the Koran, Islamists, as they came to be called, rejected everything but the technology of the West, especially the secularism and perceived decadence which they associated with the United States. Despite differences between Shiite and Sunni Islam, many Islamists agreed with the declaration by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini that the United States was “the Great Satan,” by which he meant that the exportation of the American life-style throughout the Islamic world threatened the spiritual life of Muslim society. Thus, as many of Muslim fundamentalist mujahideen or “holy warriors” arrived in Afghanistan from throughout the Arab world to join the Jihad against the Soviet Union, the Islamist made little distinction between America or its Communist foe, inasmuch as they were both considered a debased infidel enemy. Among the “Afghan Arabs” who came to Afghanistan eager to fight the Soviets was the Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden. In the aftermath of war against the Soviet Union, which lasted from 1979 until the Soviet departure in 1989, Osama bin Laden began his odyssey through the world of militant Islam that would propel him into the forefront of the global Islamic terrorist movement.

Once the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, the United States became embroiled in the Gulf War (1990—91) against Saddam Hussein, and in the process forged a coalition with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to expel Iraq from Kuwait. In an unprecedented departure from tradition, the Saudis gave permission for the United States to station its troops on bases in Saudi Arabia. For Osama bin Laden, the presence of American troops in the holy land of Arabia was an affront to Islam and a sin against Allah. Quoting from the Prophet Mohammad, bin Laden swore that “if Allah wills and I live, God willing I will expel the Jews and Christians from Arabia.” It was under these circumstances that Osama bin Laden broke with his Saudi benefactors, and declared war on both the Saudi royal family and the United States. In one of his subsequent tapes, bin Laden declares that “if you don’t fight, you will be punished by God,” and urges Muslims to travel to Afghanistan and be tutored in the arts of holy war.

Although bin Laden’s primary objective was to overthrow the Saudi royal family and install in its place an Islamic republic, this was not his entire agenda. The defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan emboldened Osama bin Laden and his followers to believe that they could also drive the United States from the Middle East, replace moderate Muslim governments with Islamic republics, and then proceed to destroy the state of Israel. This ambitious plan was to be implemented through his terrorist organization, al Qaeda (The Base), which he organized in 1989. The objective to replace pro-Western Arab and Muslim countries with Islamic republics did not originate with bin Laden. The model for an Islamic republic, in fact, achieved its first success during the Iranian revolution when the government of the Ayatollah Khomeini established a government based on the tenants of the Koran, and in the process eliminated from public life all influences of Western life, which ranged from pornography, popular music, and immodest dress, to Western-style education, and the liberated role of women. In the process of bringing about these drastic changes, the Iranian clerics accused the United States of corrupting the Muslim world, and used the same type of arguments advanced by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyad Qutb who viewed the West as living in Jahiliyya or barbarism and ignorance.

Sayyad Qutb, who was executed by the Egyptian government in 1968, was an important influence on bin Laden, and the developing strategy of al Qaeda. In his most influential work, Signposts on the Road, Qutb asserted that many Arab believers who called themselves Muslims were, in fact, nonbelievers. Therefore, contended Qutb, their governments were un-Islamic, and real Muslims not only had a religious duty to reject such leaders and governments, but to also overthrow them with force. Thus Qutb argued that Jihad could be fought not only against the infidel but also against ostensibly Muslim regimes. Having visited the United States in the 1950’s, Qutb found Western ideas of commerce, civil society, and free expression incompatible with Islam. He opposed treaties, alliances, and other forms of statecraft with the West as weaknesses and capitulation to the infidel. Qutb’s critique of modern culture demanded that Muslims imitate the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who fought against the idolatry of Mecca in the 7th century, and engage in a similar Jihad against the infidel United States, as well as Muslim governments that compromised the pristine nature of Islam by aligning themselves with the West.

Bin Laden’s spiritual leader Abdullah Azzam was also influenced by Qutb. Azzam, a Palestinian who was killed along with his two sons in as yet unsolved car bomb assassination in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1989, developed the idea of the Jihad in its present form. Both a cleric and a university professor, Azzam, who on different occasions visited the United States to preach Jihad against Israel and raise money for the holy war in mosques throughout the country, was also the author of a half dozen books, and was instrumental in introducing Arabs to the Afghan struggle against the Soviet Union. Initially focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azzam diverted his call for Jihad to Afghanistan where he helped organize the Jihad Training University at the Jalozai camp, and helped integrate Palestinian mujahideen into the Afghan Arabs brigades, where his Al Had Jihad group was subsequently merged with al Qaeda.

During the decade of the 1980’s several events added to the growing stridency of Islamic fundamentalism. The assassination of Anwar Sadat by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in 1981 signaled that the Israeli-Palestinian controversy was more difficult to resolve than had been imagined inasmuch as Islamists refused to accept the legitimacy of Israel under any circumstances, including Israel acceding to the creation of a Palestinian state. Guided by their belief that it was an affront to Allah for Israel to rule over established Islamic territory, the Muslim Brotherhood saw the “Pharaoh” Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, and the subsequent treaty between Israel and Egypt, as a betrayal of Islam. Sadat’s assassination served as a warning to any other Muslim leader that peace with the Jewish state would bring about the same consequences. One could speculate that Yasir Arafat’s failure to sign the peace agreement with Israel at Camp David in July 2000, which would have created a Palestinian state and resolved the conflict with Israel, may have had much to do with Arafat’s fear of assassination.

The decade-long war between Iran and Iraq (1981—88) introduced the West to suicide bombers, wherein Shiite Iran sent young soldiers strapped with bombs on “martyr” missions against the enemy. Although suicide is forbidden to Muslims, this is not the case in regard to martyrdom. Promised that they would go directly to Paradise, streams of young Iranian soldiers martyred themselves against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Following the war Iran, according to Osama bin Laden biographer, Yossef Bodansky, created suicide terrorist training camps in preparation for future “martyr” missions against the West. Although martyrdom in the name of defending Islam is associated with Shiite tradition, the West’s analysis of Islam discarded this practice as being applicable to Sunni Muslims who constitute the majority of the world’s Muslim population. The World Trade Center attack would prove the erroneousness of this appraisal, inasmuch as 15 of the 19 suicide perpetrators came from Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim country.

The perpetrators of the suicide bombing of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon appear to have been influenced by the Islamic ideology of Takfir wal Hijra (“Anathema and Exile”), an Egyptian-founded extremist movement allied with al Qaeda. The ideology provides religious justification for murdering not only unbelievers but also those who think of themselves as Muslims. It appears that several of the hijackers, including the Egyptian born Mohammad Atta, the alleged leader of the suicide bombers was a Takfiri, In their zeal to defend Islam, the Takifiri find a religious dispensation in the Koran to disguise their objectives, the goal of which is to blend into corrupt societies in order to plot against them. In order to camouflage their identity, the so-called “sleepers” will drink alcohol, eat during Ramadan, dress fashionably, engage in promiscuous sex, and violate many of the prohibitions listed in the Koran in order to integrate themselves into the societies that are their targets. Reports indicate that many of those involved in the suicide bombings had links to the al Qaeda, terrorist organization, and were motivated by the same profound hatred of the United States that activated the Afghan Arabs against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

During the mid-1980’s Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia to join the Mujahideen, and quickly allied himself with Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician, who was also a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, and implicated in the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Like bin Laden, Zawahiri was a proponent of creating Islamic republics throughout the Middle East, and during the 1990’s he became the second in command of al Qaeda. Described as an intellectual, and bin Laden’s chief strategist, Zawahiri is thought by many in our government to be the architect of the World Trade Center attack on September 11.

Bin Laden, the son of a Saudi billionaire, used his wealth to help finance the war against the Soviet Union. He also brought with him the zealousness of Wahhabi fundamentalism, the Islamic belief system of the Saudi royal family, which seeks to promote a pure version of Islam as it was practiced in the time of Mohammed. Founded by an 18th-century cleric, Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, his teaching sought to remove the many disparate readings of the Koran that had evolved over the centuries, and live by a literal reading of the Koran. The House of Saud, responsible for Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, was expected to protect the kingdom from any foreign and un-Islamic influences. At the conclusion of the war against the Soviets, bin-Laden formed the al Qaeda terrorist organization comprised of so-called Afghan Arabs who opposed Westernized Arab governments, and sought to spread Wahhabi type fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world.

After the Soviet departure from Afghanistan, however, a chronic civil war broke out among the country’s various ethnic groups at the very time when the United States was supporting the construction of a gas line across Afghanistan from Central Asia. The fighting resulted in the migration of large numbers of refugees into Pakistan, thus threatening the stability of its borders. Seeking to impose order in Afghanistan, both the United States and Pakistan supported the ethnic Pushton Afghan Taliban (fundamentalist students from the Pakistani Madrassas or religious schools), who subsequently were able to unite the country. Led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban occupied all but the northern part of Afghanistan by 1996. Opposed to Western secularism, the Taliban brought not only the semblance of stability to much of Afghanistan but also imposed a pristine Wahhabi-like form of Islam on the country which included the severe repression of women. The Taliban also welcomed Osama bin Ladin when he returned to Afghanistan in 1996. Bin Laden not only shared the Taliban fundamentalist theology but placed much of his wealth at their disposal. In return, the Taliban permitted him to set up training bases for his terrorist al Qaeda organization.

Bin Laden’s journey, which eventually led him to Afghanistan, began after Saudi Arabia expelled him following his denunciation of the Saudi royal family for allowing United States forces to protect the kingdom during the Gulf War. Banished from Saudi Arabia in 1994, bin Laden moved to the Sudan where he became a disciple of Hassan Abdullah Turabi, the country’s fundamentalist spiritual leader. It was during his stay in the Sudan that we can mark bin Laden’s ascent into the hierarchy of international terrorism.

Expelled from the Sudan because of American pressure, bin Laden briefly resided in Yemen, then Pakistan, and he finally arrived in 1996 at his destination in Afghanistan. In the years between his ejection from Saudi Arabia to his arrival in Afghanistan, bin Laden’s organization orchestrated many terrorist operations including; the recruitment of Ramzi Yousef, to spearhead the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, participating in the ambush killing of 18 American soldiers in Somalia in 1993, the bombing of the American embassy in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and the suicide mission against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000.

Although the existence of Israel remains an anathema to Muslim fundamentalists, it was never high on bin Laden’s agenda. It was only after the World Trade Center attack on September 11 that bin Ladin became a strident champion of the Palestinians. Prior to his crusade against Israel, he had displayed only marginal interest in the cause of the Palestinians, but in his role as champion of Islamic fundamentalism, he has included the destruction of the Jewish state as part of his terrorist agenda, although for all his denunciations of the Jews, al Qaeda has so far never attacked an Israeli or Jewish target.

Bin Ladin’s primary objectives, however, remain the overthrow of the Saudi royal family as well as toppling all pro-Western regimes in the Muslim world and replacing them with Islamic republics governed in accord with the teaching of the Koran. For this to transpire, however, the American presence in the Middle East must first be removed, and toward this end bin Laden declared war against the United States in 1998 when he formed the “World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders.” The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 marked the beginning of this struggle on American soil.

Although the inability to find a formula to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exacerbated tensions in the Islamic world against the United States because of its support for the Jewish state, the contention that the failure to resolve the impasse between both sides is at the core of the terrorist war against the United States is belied by bin Laden’s own pronouncements prior to September 11. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is only one grievance among many that bin Laden has against the United States. The terrorist attack on September 11 was planned as much to inflict damage on bin Laden’s sworn enemy, the United States, as it was to demoralize the American public to the extent that it would pressure the Bush administration to abandon our military presence in Saudi Arabia, discontinue the bombing and sanctions against Iraq, abandon our backing for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as to withdraw U.S. support for Israel. Although bin Laden is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, the reality is that should Israel disappear tomorrow, his al Qaeda organization would continue to fight against the United States, as well as moderate Muslim governments, until Taliban-like regimes are established throughout the Islamic world.


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