Analysis of the evolution of al Qaeda that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and beyond reveals insights for countering future attacks more helpful to protecting the United States than the "Keystone Cop" activities of official Homeland Security. Let's see why.
Prior to Sept. 11, al Qaeda attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia produced considerable local destruction and not a very large number of deaths. Not identified at the time as al Qaeda, U.S. media treatment of these attacks left unclear whether they were spontaneous, planned, coordinated or even accidental. When U.S. servicemen or citizens abroad were victims of terrorism, the attack stories got attention pretty much according to the extent of the death and destruction, not unlike stories of train wrecks, air crashes, or collapsed, burning buildings. An event in the American homeland got a little more attention. Still, little lasting impressions remained with most Americans, even after the car bombing attack on the World Trade center basement in 1993.
If on Sept. 11 only one World Trade tower had been leveled by suicide bombers, Americans by and large would have been confused as to whether it too was an accident or planned. After 40 minutes of fantastic drama and horror watching the first tower hit and burning, a huge and growing number of viewers had eyes glued to TV sets. Suddenly, multiplying the drama and the horror, clearly visible to all, the second World Trade tower was hit by a second plane in exactly the same way as the first. Instantly it was clear that the two attacks were planned and coordinated. The drama and significance were further magnified by the suicide bombing of the Pentagon, multiple TV replays, and two failed attacks aimed at prominent government targets.
The Sept. 11 events forced U.S. terrorist experts to abandon their universally held mindset that no terrorists, even those capable of facing certain death in some country abroad, could function reliably as suicide bombers in the United States. The experience changed the United States perhaps more than any other event in the nation's history. From the terrorists viewpoint it was a fantastic success, produced by careful months, perhaps years, of planning, preparing and testing. The total cost to the terrorists and their backers for the Sept. 11 attacks was less than a mere 0.001% of the costs to the United States to counter future attacks. The number of Sept. 11 victims was 100 times greater than the number of dead terrorists. Our leaders assure us that even this vast cost will not stop terrorism in the United States ever. Facing such miserable odds, ferreting out the future intentions and capabilities of al Qaeda and other would-be terrorists and somehow thwarting them is the best the United States can do.
An analysis of the "messages" al Qaeda intended to send to the world will improve those odds. The attacks were carefully selected to make clear that no matter how wealthy and internationally dominant (symbolized by the World Trade towers) the United States is, and no matter how militarily powerful (symbolized by the Pentagon), the United States can be successfully attacked at an infinitesimal fraction of the cost the country would have to incur to punish and thwart future attacks.
Then, another twist: within a month the startling anthrax scares. Perhaps initiated by al Qaeda wannabes, the anthrax attacks were aimed at not very-well-liked political figures, the U.S. Post Office, and sleazy news operations. Unlike the Sept. 11 suicide bombers who challenged the most cherished capabilities of the United States, the anthrax cases challenged aspects of the United States that most Americans are not particularly proud of.
All agree Sept. 11 was the 'wake-up call" that forced American leaders into a campaign to eliminate al Qaeda, hunt down members and obliterate them, wherever they took sanctuary. President George W. Bush called it a "war on terrorism" rather than the alternative, an international police action, despite the fact that wars against non-state actors (e.g. war against drugs and war on poverty) have a history of burning up money and year after year never succeeding.
Presidents facing terrorists tend to like the "war" word because they can muscle from Congress huge funds and approval for corner-cutting military action. When at war, the U.S. military might carpet bomb a large area harboring terrorists and ignore collateral damage. That option, of course, would be off the table if the area were a terrorist cell somewhere in a U.S. city.
In contrast, an international police action against terrorists as murderous criminals, recommended by myself and others, would have cooperatively put at U.S. disposal the capabilities of Interpol, the intelligence services of 100 countries, the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations, representing the credibility and clout of most of the non-U.S. world.
Ordinary Americans, beset with the difficulties of educating children, inadequate healthcare, a deteriorating environment and a sluggish economy, are scraping to get by financially and fear for the safety of their families. They have some sympathy for attacks on these symbols, but none want to solve problems by violence against other innocent and bedeviled Americans and few want to attack other countries. An exception was explained in the previous column, "How Bush Held On To U.S. Public Opinion." When a war is undertaken by the president and treated as justified by the mainstream media, a brave willingness to die occurs in a majority of the nation's young men.
Not all of them fall in line at the sound of war's trumpets. Fully covered by the media were two exceptions, the sagas of home grown terrorists, (1) Ted Kaczynski, the college graduate hermit who believed that technology was ruining the world, and (2) Timothy McVeigh, a good soldier in the first Gulf War, who believed government was the problem.
Much has been learned since Sept. 11 about al Qaeda suicide bombers. Generally they were well-educated, not poor, driven by ideology to help their people and contemptuous of materialism and affluence. They were ready to die in order to instruct the world that Western government and technology, military and commercial, were ruining the Muslim world.
After the Soviets were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan, the United States sided with the Taliban, enforcers of extreme tyranny and, after U.S. withdrawal, providers of al Qaeda sanctuary. Osama bin Laden sought the withdrawal of Americans from economic penetration and military action in Arab countries. Only when terrorism against U.S. forces in the Arab world failed to get attention from U.S. leadership did bin Laden and al Qaeda realize that made-for-TV, spectacular attacks, Sept. 11 style, were necessary to get that reaction. In that, they were right.
The United States is struggling with three unsettled wars, (1) Iraq, (2) Afghanistan, and (3) Terrorists in 60 countries. These wars are likely to continue for some time and their numbers might rise to include North Korea, Iran and others. If we withdraw soon, warlords, dictators or undemocratic mullahs are likely to take power in Iraq and Afghanistan and we may have to re-conquer them in a decade or so. Neither U.S. rhetoric nor capability for military action would be significantly raised, nor would the United States withdraw from military invasions, even if new terrorists were trained and financed to reach new heights of violence, employing
In the 22 months since Sept. 11, none of these more violent threats have materialized. That can best be explained by the analysis given here of the attitudes of the suicide terrorists. The Sept. 11 events told America and the world the whole terrorist story with nearly perfect effectiveness and impact. The performance was worthy of Olympic gold, the Noble anti-peace prize, or a Villains-of-the-Millennium prize. The terrorists got everything they sought and much more. Their attacks since Sept. 11 have been aimed not at Westerners in the United States but at Westerners enjoying themselves on holiday in Muslim countries, e.g., Israelis at a luxury resort in Kenya, and tourists in Bali.
Based on the analysis of terrorist motivations presented in this column it is reasonable to predict that we will not see extremely murderous attacks on the United States again in our lifetime. This prediction is contrary to what many people believe, and it has this policy consequence: the longer it remains valid, the more the American public will shift away from supporting the organization of our defenses based on fear of terrorism.
I am less complacent than the average American and totally disagree with the behavior of all terrorists, domestic and global. Nevertheless, their motives, behaviors, and actions must be studied and understood to increase the likelihood that the United States and the world will thwart their actions. This fact is buried in the public view of top Bush officials, who ignore or vilify terrorist motives, while mainstream media seldom question such official attitudes. Do ordinary Americans recognize it? We do not know. Poll database searches reveal they have never been asked.
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