The 9/11 Attacks: Understanding Al-Qaeda & the Domestic Fall-Out from America’s Secret War
With American military personnel now entering service who were not even alive on 9/11, this seems an appropriate time to reexamine the events of September 11, 2001 – the opaque motives for the attacks, the equally opaque motives for the counter-offensive by the United States and its allies known as the Global War on Terror, and the domestic fall-out for Americans concerned about the erosion of their civil liberties on the homefront.
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Before venturing further, it’s worth noting that our appraisal is not among the most common explanations. Osama bin Laden, his lieutenants at Al-Qaeda, and the men who carried out the attack against the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon are not “crazy,” unhinged psychopaths launching an attack against the United States without what they consider to be good reason.
Nor do we consider then-President George W. Bush to be either a simpleton, a willing conspirator, an oil profiteer, or a Machivellian puppet whose cabinet were all too happy to take advantage of a crisis.
The American press tends to portray its leaders as fools and knaves, and America’s enemies as psychopathic. Keeping the narrative simple – “Black and white,” “good versus evil,” “right and wrong,” etc. – is intellectually easy, even with something as complex as the 9/11 attacks.
Instead, it is our considered opinion that the events of 9/11 and those that followed in direct response to the attacks – including the invasion of Iraq – were carried out by good faith rational actors who believed they were acting in the best interests of their religion or their nation.
This does not in any way absolve the principals from moral responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It does, however, provide what we believe to be a more accurate and nuanced depiction of events than is generally forthcoming from any sector of the media – because we see these principals as excellent chess players who, in the broad sweep of events, engaged in actions which are explicable.
Very few people dispute one simple fact: On 9/11, 19 men hijacked four planes, three of which hit their targets: the World Trade Center Building 1, the World Trade Center Building 2, and the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
What is less often talked about is perhaps an even more stunning feat the hijackers pulled off: Being able to evade the attention of the United States intelligence community while planning their attacks. Indeed, their acumen with regard to covert operations was so great that they were effectively able to steal an air force for the attacks. It’s not that they were absent from the radar of U.S. intel services – it’s that no one was ever able to connect the dots.
Indeed, they understood the game so well that Osama bin Laden was able to call his mother two days before the attack to tell her: “In two days you’re going to hear big news, and you’re not going to hear from me for awhile.” He knew he was under surveillance by the NSA, but he also knew the turnaround time on intel was three days.
Another oft overlooked quality that the hijackers had was discipline and intestinal fortitude. It is important to remember that courage is a virtue, but it does not carry a moral weight of its own. The men who perpetrated the attacks on 9/11 went to their deaths in a disciplined fashion, carrying out their orders to the letter. This is not something a coward, a simpleton, or a psychopath does.
While the evidence for the attack was able to be collated in hindsight, it is not an exaggeration to say that the United States was more surprised by the attack of 9/11 than it was by the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Because the propaganda machine hammered away so heavily on the “cowardly men who hate our freedom” line, there was not much in the way of careful consideration of the actual political motives of the hijackers, the Petro-Islam that funded them, the ancient, antagonistic split between Sunni and Shi’a, the fall-out from the 1979 Iranian revolution or the 1970s energy crisis, the historical context of covert American involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, nor the perceived “imperialist humanitarianism” of American military adventures of the 1990s in Muslim nations like Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and Kosovo. Alone, none of these factors were deadly. Combined, they provided a lethal combination.
It’s helpful to start with the domestic situation in the United States in the 1970s. Still in the throes of the Vietnam defeat, Congress had little appetite for defense expenditures or additional covert wars. However, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, saw an opportunity to use the Soviets’ favorite tool against them when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979: The sponsored war of national liberation.
This was also post-Watergate era, and there was a focus on transparency in the government. This included sweeping changes to how intelligence operations were conducted in the United States. The battle against the spooks was fought by Idaho Senator Frank Church, who held hearings demonstrating that the American intelligence community was simultaneously untrustworthy as well as bad at its job. The end result was a hamstrung CIA and NSA, because they were found to be illegally spying on Americans.
Thus you had an intelligence community both out of favor in Washington and discreetly called upon to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan as part of the larger Cold War chess board.
Still, covert ops were needed. And while the CIA could covertly foot part of the bill, it could not afford the whole thing. But the CIA learned quickly that it had a natural ally both against the Soviets and against the new radical Shi’ite regime in Iran – the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia, who at the time had what was effectively an endless supply of petrodollars without the constraints of public oversight and democracy to get in the way.
The need was mutual. Having seen how badly the oil embargo hurt the United States in the 1970s, the Saudis were not eager to see enemies of the United States (namely Iran and the Soviets) emboldened. Instead the Saudis were eager to see the U.S. put its muscle into a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. They had both the insight into the situation on the ground and the money to throw behind it. America had the muscle and the materiel.
Common enemies make for uncommon allies, and the covert alliance between Washington and Riyadlah in the 1980s was no exception.
The Saudis would provide funding and personnel to support a covert effort by the CIA to build an anti-Soviet guerrilla movement in Afghanistan. The goal was to build a quagmire for the Soviets while the U.S. urgently rearmed. The means was an alliance between the United States and Muslim fundamentalists.
Such an alliance was not new. In fact, it was effectively American policy since the rise of Arab socialism (both Nasserism and the two flavors of Ba’athism housed in Syria and Iraq). The Arab Socialists cozied up to the Soviets without fully entering their sphere. In response, the United States sought refuge in the conservative monarchies of the region: The Hashemites of Jordan and Iraq (until 1968), the Shah in Iran (until 1979), and now the Saudis.
The funds largely came not from official government coffers, but from the Saudi royal family and the aristocracy of the nation. This was to have some degree of plausible deniability.
There was one additional factor: Pakistan. Pakistan was a long-term American ally, torn between the secularism of its founders and the Islamism of a large segment of its population. It was also terrified of being trapped between a Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and a pro-Soviet India.
Pakistan did have a long experience in Afghanistan, as well as territory contiguous to Afghanistan – where training camps, logistics systems, and bases of operations could be constructed. The North Vietnamese had Cambodia and Laos; the United States had Pakistan. A three-way alliance was created. The United States would provide training, coordination, and strategic intelligence. The Saudis would provide money and recruitment of mujahideen. The Pakistanis would provide their territory plus their intelligence service, the ISI, to liaise with Afghan forces resisting the Soviet invasion.
Jimmy Carter presided over the creation of this fateful alliance. Earlier in his administration, he had spoken of America’s “inordinate fear of communism.” He was not as interested in destroying the Soviet Union as much as he wanted to find a basis for accommodation with the Soviets and end what had been a decade of decline in American power.
Carter certainly did not consider – nor would any reasonable person – that the result of aiding Afghan guerrillas against Soviet occupation would help stimulate the collapse of the Soviet Union and, a generation later, lead to the rise of Al-Qaeda.
Enter the Reagan Administration and their point man William Casey. Bill Casey was a legend among the intelligence community, seen as something of a mad genius. Few people ever understood what he was talking about, but his results spoke for themselves. He was Reagan’s go-to guy for encircling and suffocating the Soviet Union. There were many aspects to Casey’s strategy, including baiting the Soviets into an arms race that would bankrupt them, underwriting Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland, and supporting resistance by Russian Jews. Afghanistan was simply part of this increasingly aggressive pattern of pressure on the Soviets.
A key part of this strategy that would come back to haunt the United States later: Casey thought it was a great idea to encourage young Muslim men to travel to Afghanistan to wage jihad against the Soviet invaders. These men were, at the end of the war in 1989, equipped with captured Soviet equipment, generous gifts of cash and materiel from the United States military, and trained by United States Special Forces.
It is impossible to understand Al-Qaeda without first understanding what the Afghanistan resistance movement did to the men who formed it. It was a nine-year war against one of the biggest powers in the world, spanning the inhospitable Hindu Kush fought in an asymmetrical fashion. By the end, the men who fought it were hard as nails.
The mujahideen descended upon Afghanistan for a variety of reasons. They were trained in Pakistan, before setting off to work with Afghan rebels. No matter the nation they hailed from, their Islamic faith and hatred of the Soviet Union were the fuel that powered them. The American government encouraged this and it even received public attention in Rambo III, released three months after the end of the war in 1988 (at the time, this was the most expensive film ever made).
What’s more, the Islamic world was buoyed by the victory – it was the first time in centuries that an Islamic army had won a battle against foreign invaders. That this foreign invader was also an atheistic superpower was not a fact that was lost on the mujahideen. Nor was the fact that the force who defeated this army was a multinational Islamic force, not an “Afghan” one.
American and Muslim views of the war were starkly different. The Americans viewed it simply as one piece of the larger Cold War puzzle, one that they had been the primary force behind. The mujahideen, and to a lesser extent, many within the Muslim world, saw themselves as having single-handedly brought the atheistic empire of communism to its knees. In contrast, the Americans felt that they were owed gratitude from the mujahideen and the Islamic world as a whole.
Once the war was over, the United States did what it usually does with its allies: Maintained a casual relationship and expected to be reached out to by the Afghan fighters. This did not happen and is the genesis of the cleavage between the two.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. was covertly working with the mujahadeen to defeat the Soviets, thanks to a covert alliance with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Elsewhere in the Middle East was another covert balance-of-power strategy: The U.S. was also working with Iraq and Saudi Arabia to contain Iran whilst also occasionally arming Iran against Iraq to prolong the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980s.
Neither America nor Saudi Arabia wanted to see the Ayatollah Khomeini brand of Islamist radicalism spread around the Islamic world. America was in the throes of defeating one revolutionary ideology with the Soviets. It did not want to begin dealing with another, especially one controlling so much of the world’s energy supplies.
The Saudis were obviously more well acquainted with the nuances of Islam than the Americans. They were also less concerned about the revolutionary aspect of the movement than the Shi’ism. This is the dominant strain of Islam in Iran, but also throughout a region of the Arab world known as the Shi’a Crescent.
(The split between Shi’a and Sunni Islam is analagous to the split between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland – just taking place atop a much more strategically important portion of the world, the oil-rich Persian Gulf.)
The Saudis were profoundly antagonistic toward Shi’a, belonging to an ultra-fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. From a more practical perspective, the Saudis saw Iranian power as a threat to their oil revenues.
America and Saudi Arabia had similar interests that didn’t quite overlap in the 1980s, but were enough for an alliance of convenience – the goal was to keep Iran penned in and to stop the spread of revolutionary Shi’a Islam. What the Americans didn’t know at the time was that they were building up Wahhabism while combating Shi’a.
To contain Iran in the 1980s, the United States encouraged Iraq, its ally at the time, to invade Iran. This encouragement was of the low-key variety, assuring Iraq that it would not stand in the way of an invasion of Iran and offering the U.S. plausible deniability through diplomatic channels.
Iraq was looking to settle a score from a previous war against the Shah’s Iran in the 70s, one where the United States had backed Iran. What America really wanted was a protracted and exhausting conflict that would sap the energy of both countries. The Saudis and other Gulf oil nations were ready with cash. Iraq invaded in September 1980.
Such a policy was not novel in American history. America allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler, and with Communist China to contain the Soviet Union. But as with both of these cases, America was creating a new problem while solving the old (known colloquially in intelligence circles as “blowback”).
Iraq’s goal was to be the dominant power in the region, first through defeating Iran, then through conquering Kuwait. The United States simply wanted the balance of power maintained and used the Iran-Contra affair to arm Iran toward that end. The famous Iran-Contra affair, engineered by Bill Casey, was part of this strategy – with Americans delivering Hawk surface-to-air missiles and TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran in order to help stave off an Iranian defeat, while also arranging for supplies to Iraq. Under the circumstances, it was a clever move until better options emerged.
The war between Iran and Iraq lasted over nine years and caused millions of deaths. Iraq won a Pyrrhic victory.
After that war ended, Iraq turned its attention toward Kuwait – to the victor goes the spoils of war. The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq from 1980 to 1989, April Glaspie, quietly assured Saddam Hussein that it had no interest in internal Arab affairs. This was a good wink-and-nod during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, but state department policy had changed with the Fall of Communism, which Glaspie was somehow ignorant of.
The subsequent response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Desert Storm, enraged the Muslim world because Christian troops were stationed in Islam’s holiest nation, Saudi Arabia. But the difference now was the mujahideen veterans. They didn’t share the more conservative view that the United States was a necessary ally. What’s more, they viewed those who had not fought in Afghanistan with a degree of contempt.
There were three lessons the mujahideen had absorbed through their experience in Afghanistan: First, that Islamic nations are not as weak as they had previously believed. Second, that the current leadership, even the conservative, religious monarchies, were corrupt and unnecessarily reliant upon the United States. Third, the United States, a Christian nation, was the last super power and needed to be fought against and ultimately humbled to break the traditional reliance upon the country, as well as to inspire the Islamic masses with a greater degree of confidence.
They also knew a great deal about how the Americans thought, collected intelligence, and how they would fight based on the Afghan experience.
Their focus turned in two directions: First, to attack the United States in a manner that would provoke a massive response, the ultimate goal of which was to bait the United States into a war against the entire Muslim world. Second, to leverage the defeat of America and its allies in the Muslim world into a recreated caliphate. This was the kernel of the plan to attack the United States on September 11, 2001.
The placement of American troops on the Arabian Peninsula during Desert Storm was seen as an invasion of Christian crusaders invited by the ostensible defenders of Muslim holy sites at Mecca and Medina, the Saudi royal family. This is when forces like those who formed Al-Qaeda began to see conservative Muslim monarchies as corrupt and weak.
The Americans believed they were, for the most part, dumb farmers who couldn’t learn anything useful, but they were wrong. The mujahideen included many like Osama bin Laden who were wealthy, well educated and intelligent. They quickly learned from the American intelligence community about covert operations. They also had a ready-made financial network from the Afghanistan adventure that had never really shut down. Finally, while the Islamists hated the secular regimes of the region, they were happy to adopt their primary strategy – terrorism, the purpose of which is psychological rather than financial or military.
The new grouping spent years working behind the scenes, testing holes in American intel and security, while at the same time figuring out what the intelligence community was paying attention to and what it wasn’t. It largely did this through orchestrating fake attacks, then monitoring the response. They also learned how to exhaust the resources of the system by sacrificing low-level operatives in an attempt to distract and hamstring the intelligence community.
Throughout the 90s, radicalization of the Islamic world against the United States grew, thanks to extensive American involvement in Muslim nations like Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and Kosovo. Al-Qaeda saw these recurring U.S. military interventions in the Islamic world as both a direct challenge and, more important, an opportunity to mobilize support by labeling the United States an enemy of Islam – which could be used to forment a pan-Islamic uprising and recreate the caliphate.
Petro-Islam and the 9/11 Hijackers
In a cruel twist of fate, the radicalization of the Islamic world against the U.S. was further exacerbated in large part with American dollars in a process known as Petro-Islam.
Consider the following cycle: The U.S. – along with just about every other industrialized country – buys oil from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family uses a portion of their oil revenue to fund the spread of Wahhabism abroad, encouraging the creation of mosques and madras.
From 1982 to 2005, during the reign of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, over $75 billion is estimated to have been spent in efforts to spread Wahhabi Islam to various, much poorer Muslim nations worldwide. By comparison, the Soviets spent about $7 billion spreading communism worldwide in the 70 years from 1921 and 1991.
The money was used to establish 200 Islamic colleges, 210 Islamic centers, 1,500 mosques, and 2,000 schools for Muslim children in both Muslim and non-Muslim majority countries. The schools were “fundamentalist” in outlook and formed a network “from Sudan to northern Pakistan.” By 2000, Saudi Arabia had also distributed 138 million copies of the Quran worldwide.
These Saudi-backed Wahhabi institutions radicalize Muslims. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and all of the hijackers are believed to have been practitioners of Wahhabism.
To make this nefarious cycle worse, the U.S then sells weapons to the Saudi royal family so that they can maintain their grip on power via military force – all whilst vacationing abroad in opulence in places like the south of France, while their citizens suffer under totalitarian rule back home. It’s a sick, vicious cycle driven by petrodollars funneled from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia and then back to the American military-industrial complex.
American Intelligence Underestimates Al-Qaeda
The American military and intelligence communities were largely caught with their pants down after the 9/11 attacks. This is precisely why so many conspiracy theories popped up in response. The American intelligence community had a plan in place for a war against Britain and Canada after World War I. It plans for even the most far-fetched contingencies. But it had not planned for anything remotely similar to what happened on 9/11.
The intel community largely saw groups like Al-Qaeda as nuisances who were more likely to blow themselves up or kill themselves than anything. They were ready for an attack on the power grid. They weren’t worried about poisoning the water supply, because such an attack was simply logistically unfeasible. They weren’t worried about nukes, because they were hard to get and even if someone did, one intel agency or another would know within hours. Islamists had attacked the United States before, including at the World Trade Center, the USS Cole and attacks on embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, but none of these were terribly impressive.
Hijackings were expected and well-worn territory. But hijackings with a suicide attack were unprecedented. There was no game plan for this. And unlike the response to the attack on Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt cleaned house, President Bush left the same men in charge. It was business as usual.
One question is always raised when discussing the twin post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq: Why did the United States invade Afghanistan and Iraq when most of the hijackers and the bulk of their funding and logistics hailed from Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, Egypt? The answer to this question might surprise you.
Afghanistan was chosen as the place for counter-attack for a simple reason: The Taliban was there and had never fully consolidated power. The Northern Alliance opposed it and was available for hire at the right price.
Strategically, it also brought in the Russians, who were facing both a homegrown Islamic threat in Chechnya as well as Afghan encroachment on Central Asian republics ethnically close to the tribes of the Northern Alliance. Finally, it was important to the United States to send a swift, sharp action against the Islamic world in response to the 9/11 attack. For a variety of reasons, Afghanistan was seen both as the easiest and the one with the least PR damage – the Taliban was widely perceived as an outlaw regime and wasn’t even recognized by the United Nations.
Iraq was chosen for a distinct purpose: To shake the Saudis out of their slumber and bring them into the fight against Al-Qaeda – or at least pressure them into stopping their funding of Al-Qaeda, as the U.S. State Department noted in a cable leaked by WikiLeaks:
While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority. Due in part to intense focus by the USG over the last several years, Saudi Arabia has begun to make important progress on this front and has responded to terrorist financing concerns raised by the United States through proactively investigating and detaining financial facilitators of concern. Still, donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide. Continued senior-level USG engagement is needed to build on initial efforts and encourage the Saudi government to take more steps to stem the flow of funds from Saudi Arabia-based sources to terrorists and extremists worldwide.
This had to be done without once again committing the error of putting American boots on the ground in Saudi Arabia, a la Desert Storm, and thus inciting a pan-Islamic counter-offensive as Osama bin Laden hoped.
The claimed pretext of WMDs is laughable on its face: If the United States actually believed that Iraq had WMDs capable of striking America, it would not have spent months sabre rattling and provide a due date for invasion. It would just strike.
What’s more, if the occupation of Iraq had gone smoothly, the United States would have become the preeminent power in the region, encircling Iran with U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Iran’s eastern flank – with a base of operations that bordered most of the major powers in the region: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and Kuwait.
In both cases, the United States underestimated both the continued resistance it would face from Islamic fighters in each nation and the depth of the old vendettas amongst the liberated. (Calling Iraq or Afghanistan a “nation” is akin to calling Frankenstein a man; both are heterogenous and held together by totalitarian regimes.) Sectarian violence erupted in the power vacuum in both Iraq amongst the Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni factions, and in Afghanistan amongst the 14 recognized ethnic groups and various tribes.
To fundamentally understand the attack of 9/11 and the United States response is not to ascribe any moral weight to either side in either direction. But what is clear is that the fighters of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are sincere in their desire to reestablish the caliphate of Islamic theocracy as it existed at the time of Muhammed – and that the United States intelligence community continually and woefully underestimated their seriousness.
It’s almost a cliche, but in some manner of thinking, the terrorists have been wildly successful. American civil liberties have been severely curtailed since 9/11 and a culture of unquestioning obedience to authority under the guise of “security” has been ushered in. The TSA has effectively groomed the American populace to accept totalitarianism at its airports, despite the fact that the TSA is ineffective at preventing terrorism in airplanes (some airports have a zero-percent compliance rate during audits and security checks, and all attempts at airplane bombings since 9/11 have been thwarted by passengers, not the TSA).
It’s worth noting that 9/11 was a massive intelligence failure on the part of the NSA and the CIA. Rather than being held to account, they had their powers massively expanded in the wake of the attacks. Maureen Baginkski very candidly said just weeks after the attacks, “You have to understand, 9/11 is a gift to the NSA…We are going to get all the money we want.”
The PATRIOT Act was passed with virtually no oversight after 9/11. It has not been dialed back one iota since, despite the revelations of Edward Snowden. Snooping agencies like the NSA and CIA, who had their power severely curtained in the 1970s, now effectively have a blank check, both literal and figurative. This doesn’t even include the number of private security firms receiving big money from the federal government.
We are now all living in what is effectively a soft totalitarian state, where our every communication is tracked unless we are willing to take extreme measures to protect ourselves. By all outward appearances, there is no going back.
What’s more, there is still a fundamental inability to acknowledge who the United States is actually at war with. The Global War on Terror is sometimes spoken of in terms of criminal justice and sometimes in terms of a war on a concept. It is telling that the enemy is now frequently referred to not even as “terrorism,” but “terror.”
Such confusion did not exist after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR did not speak of bringing the perpetrators to justice – he spoke of an act of war. What’s more, FDR was squarely focused on the state actor who committed the attack, namely Japan. He did not speak about Japan’s allies or even unrelated countries like George W. Bush did when he spoke of an “Axis of Evil,” none of whom had anything to do with the attack on 9/11, some of whom (North Korea) were tangentially related at best to a militant global revolutionary Islam.
President Bush did not want to declare war on the Islamic world, so he chose Al-Qaeda. But then he confused the issue by invading first Afghanistan, then Iraq. President Obama created further obfuscation when he took pains to divorce the religion of the perpetrators from their ideology whilst massively expanding covert drone strikes all over the world, thus blurring the line between warfare and assassination.
18 years later, we are no closer to a clear definition of an enemy and a statement of goals than we were on September 12, 2001. What would constitute victory in the Global War on Terror? No one knows.
The Geneva Conventions have provisions for guerrilla fighters. Two rules must be met for protection under the Conventions: First, fighters must carry their weapons openly. Second, they must wear uniforms. The Islamist terrorists do neither and are thus not protected. During the Second World War, such fighters would have been treated to a perfunctory military trial and summary execution, whether caught by the Axis or the Allies.
Unless the United States is clear about who its enemy is and the price it is willing to pay to defeat it, we are destined for an endless war with ever-growing encroachments on American liberties. If this is the path America chooses, then there can be no doubt that we have already lost the war.
Article posted with permission from Ammo.com