What Was the Meaning of 9/11?
By Nayyer Ali MD
It’s been 15 years now since 19 hijackers seized four commercial jets and destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center while also striking and damaging the Pentagon building outside Washington DC. This condemnable plot was the grand theatrical gesture of Al-Qaeda, a group founded and controlled by Osama Bin Laden to be a base of operations from which the Muslim Umma could strike its enemies.
What was Bin Laden really trying to accomplish? Killing thousands of Americans and destroying two iconic skyscrapers had a deep impact on the American people, but what was supposed to be the long-term gain?
Initially, the explanation was that Bin Laden wanted to attack the US because of its “freedoms”. This was a very self-satisfying answer, as it made the reason for the attack something most Americans were proud of, and felt deserving of emulation by the rest of the world. Therefore, no need to fundamentally reconsider American policy in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.
This “freedom-hating” had an obvious flaw. If the terror was due to hatred of free societies, then why didn’t the terror groups attack other free societies, such as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, or Canada? The targets were picked for another reason.
To understand what the attacks were really about, the best source is Bin Laden himself, in the 1998 World Islamic Front Statement, where he explains what he is doing and why.
This statement was actually issued jointly with the Egyptian Islamic Group, the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh, and the secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan. This was not just a simple one-person show. There were three main grievances. First, he stated that “for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples”.
Secondly, he points out the devastation that the US has inflicted on Iraq by virtue of a very tight policy of economic sanctions preventing Saddam from buying most foreign goods easily, and that policy prevented him from purchasing the imports needed to restart the Iraqi economy after the devastation of the First Gulf War in 1991. He writes, “Despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million... despite all this, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres… so here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors”.
Finally, he attacks Israel and its massive support from the US. Bin Laden notes, “Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there”.
Given these three major issues, he sees as the only course a monumental struggle with the US and its other industrial allies, and especially Israel. By keeping the Arab nations weak and disorganized, the US was protecting Israel. He concludes by issuing a Fatwa, a legal ruling, that he does not have the standing to issue. In his mind all the aggression lies with the US and its allies, and none with the Arab citizens of the time. At this point he declares it is important for all Muslims to carry out Jihad against the US. But in his Fatwa he still couches this as a defensive act against an aggressive America. He states, “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim”.
What Bin Laden was attempting was the Pearl Harbor strategy, a strategy that failed when first tried. In World War Two, the Japanese wanted to build a massive East Asian empire, but this could not occur if the US opposed them. So they decided that they would conduct a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, sink the US Pacific Fleet in one blow, and force the US to come to the negotiating table, an outcome that the Japanese felt was much more likely than an aroused America hell-bent on revenge for Pearl Harbor. In the end it was Japan in ruins.
Bin Laden was trying a similar approach: to conduct a shocking sneak attack against the US. Then to see if the American authorities would actually fight to retain US influence in the Middle East, or would they pull away, leaving the political field open for successful overthrow of the un-Islamic puppet regimes that run almost all Muslim countries.
But just as the Japanese found out, poking Uncle Sam was not a good idea. The US invaded Afghanistan and quickly forced Bin Laden over the border to Pakistan. If Bush had stopped there the US would be doing very well, but instead he then turned around and invaded Iraq, at a massive cost of oil wealth, lives, and a description of purpose that turned out to be false.
Without the Iraq invasion, Bush would have maintained the sympathies of the world for the US as the injured party had on 9/11. Instead, he squandered it in the greatest miscalculation of modern American history. The Iraq War was a complete fiasco. It cost over 3 trillion dollars, killed 6,000 Americans and wounded another 40,000, plus large numbers of psychiatric diagnoses. Among Iraqis we have no accurate account of war dead, but several hundred thousand is likely conservative. And now Obama battles to defeat ISIS, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (in Iraq).
Bin Laden’s 9/11 attack set in motion a number of consequences. In the end it was the very people that he wanted to protect and save that suffered the greatest. I was hoping on the day of 9/11 that this was a one-time event, and that terrorism by Muslims against the US would not become common, as it was by the Palestinians against the Israelis. While it did not become common, it was frequent enough and deadly enough to command attention over the next 15 years.
Just this past week, a young Afghani-American was arrested for building and deploying pipe bombs. Among his property were Jihadi videos.
Needless to say, the horrific attack on 9/11 deserves to be wholly condemned.