“Think Again: 9/11,” by Juan Cole.
Published in Foreign Policy No. 156 (Sep. – Oct., 2006), pp. 26-28, 30, 32. Copyright Foreign Policy, all rights reserved. Not for further reprint.
These responses were my assessment of 9/11 and the Bush Forever Wars five years after the attacks. It is perhaps worth revisiting them now, 20 years after the attacks. I think I mostly got it right. I pointed out the US had not refashioned Iraq and Afghanistan but just continued the civil war in both countries by backing the previously weaker side. I pointed out that in many ways 9/11 had also been a disaster for al-Qaeda. I pointed to the future threat of cyber-terrorism. One thing that I would like to underline to today’s readers is that the things I said here in fall, 2006, were extremely controversial and would have been angrily denounced by everyone in official Washington. After you read it, you can see what Bush was telling people around the same time here. Because I said these things I was widely and viciously attacked by the right wing in the U.S., who deluged my university administration for years with demands that I be fired; I was subject to an illegal and outrageous investigation of my private life by the CIA; and I was turned down for a job at Yale (which they had asked me to apply for!). As all Wolverines know, the University of Michigan is in any case the best university in the world, and I was always unlikely to leave Ann Arbor. I say all this not in any search for sympathy; I am aware of my privilege. I say it because much of what I said here later on became common wisdom, and I just want to underline how unusual these views were at that time. In fact, it was brave of Foreign Policy to print them; the Bushies and Neoconservatives were vindictive.
9/11 Was a Victory for Al Qaeda
Only somewhat. The operation was certainly a tour de force of large-scale, theatrical terrorism. But did it really advance the goals of the organization? As a result of the attacks, al Qaeda lost its bases and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. Some al Qaeda strategists had wanted to expand the Taliban’s rule from Afghanistan to neighboring countries, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and eventually Pakistan. Instead, the movement’s leaders were forced to either flee overseas or take refuge in a remote network of caves. Military strikes and intelligence operations have disrupted the organization, and hundreds of key operatives have been arrested in Pakistan. Intercepted correspondence and Internet postings reveal that some al Qaeda operatives are bitter toward Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for incurring the full wrath of the United States. Although al Qaeda as a movement or franchise may have benefited from the successes of the Iraqi insurgency, al Qaeda’s leadership did not anticipate the Iraq war. The organization has capitalized on the fighting to further its message and recruiting, but the war was not part of its overarching strategy.
Small Attacks by Local Cells Have Replaced 9/11 -Style Operations
Probably. Post-9/11 terrorism — from Bali to Madrid to London — has become the province of small, local groups who are emulating al Qaeda but not in direct contact with it. These cells can learn a few tricks on the Internet, and they can certainly inflict pain, but they cannot hope to accomplish much. At most, they can carry bombs onto trains. The economic and social disruption of these operations is limited, which is why al Qaeda itself would not bother with them. The core al Qaeda leadership prefers terrorism that has a powerful psychological and political impact. Attaining that level of impact has now become very difficult. The 9/11 hijackers exploited conceptual gaps in U.S. security procedures: American experts did not expect hijackers to be capable of piloting jetliners, and they did not expect them to commit suicide. It would be very difficult to accomplish such an advanced operation again. The organization’s command and control has been severely disrupted, and security agencies around the world are watchful. But al Qaeda is not out of the game entirely. In February 2006, its operatives almost succeeded in bombing the Abqaiq oil refining facility in Saudi Arabia, which would have caused an enormous short term spike in the price of petroleum and widespread fuel shortages. But the fact that a once porous Saudi security apparatus foiled the attack highlights al Qaeda’s limited capabilities.
9/11 Was a Clash of Civilizations
False. The notion that Muslims hate the West for its way of life is simply wrong, and 9/11 hasn’t changed that. The exhaustive World Values Survey found that more than 90 percent of respondents in much of the Muslim world endorsed democracy as the best form of government. Polling by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has found that about half of respondents in countries such as Turkey and Morocco believe that if a Muslim immigrated to the United States, his or her life would be better. The one area where Muslim publics admit to a value difference with the United States and Europe is standards of sexual conduct and, in particular, acceptance of homosexuality. In other words, Muslims reject what might be called Hollywood morality, just as do American conservatives and evangelicals. Those differences alone do not drive people to violence.
If it is not a clash of civilizations, what is it?
It is a clash over policy. Bin Laden has expressed outrage at the occupation of the three holy cities — Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem- – by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia (now ended) and the Israeli possession of Jerusalem. Before the Iraq war, polling consistently showed that Muslims were most concerned about the United States’ wholehearted support of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. The bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq has now created another point of tension: The Muslim world does not believe that Iraq will be better off because of the U.S. intervention. Autonomy and national independence appear to be part of what Muslims mean by democracy, and they consider Western interventions in Muslim affairs a betrayal of democratic ideals. September 11 and the American response to it have deepened the rift over policy, but they haven’t created a clash of civilizations.
The War on Terror Has no End
That’s the plan. The Bush administration has defined the struggle vaguely precisely so that it can’t end; George W. Bush clearly enjoys the prerogatives of being a war president. So, the administration has expanded the goals and targets of this war from one group or geographical area to another. There is an ongoing counterterrorism effort against al Qaeda and, more broadly, the Salafist jihadi strain of Sunni radicalism. Then there is the struggle to empower the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and to crush permanently the Pashtun-centered Taliban. In Iraq, the goal is to ensure the primacy of the Kurds and the Shiites over the Sunni Arabs. And then there is the effort to contain or overthrow the secular Baathist regime in Syria and the Shiite ayatollahs in Iran. Even North Korea sometimes gets included in this sprawling campaign. It is less a coherent war than a hawk’s wish list.If the war on terror is indeed all these things, then it could drag on for decades. More likely, the American public will not tolerate such a costly grab bag of initiatives for much longer. If there is no major attack in the United States, pressure will build on Washington to stop fiddling with the politics of Kandahar and Ramadi, much less those of Damascus and Tehran. At some point, the American public will have to choose between paying for Bush’s ongoing wars and Medicare.And that will be the true end of the war on terror.
9/11 Radically Changed U.S. Foreign Policy
No. American policy has changed only at the margins. The attacks temporarily removed constraints on U.S. political elites, allowing them to pursue their policies more aggressively. As we now know, President Bush and his advisors wanted to undermine Saddam’s regime well before September 11. Absent the attacks, the administration might have employed a limited bombing campaign, a covert operation, or a coup attempt. The attacks suddenly made a years long land war in the Middle East politically palatable. But that energy has now dissipated, and it has left behind little fundamental change in U.S. policy.Despite talk of a war on terror, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, the Persian Gulf monarchies, Morocco,and Pakistan remain close U.S. allies. Relations with Libya were warming in the Clinton era, and the Iraq war didn’t alter its trajectory. American support for Israel remains steadfast. And Iran and Syria were in Washington’s sights well before 9/11.It is possible to imagine a response to 9/11 that would have been dramatically different. The United States might have allied with the Baathist secularists in Syria and Iraq, and with the Shiites in Iran, to counter the extremist Sunni threat. Instead, all Washington’s old friends in the area (including the three regimes that had recognized the Taliban — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) are still friends, and the old enemies are still enemies. The most dramatic changes, of course, are in Afghanistan and Iraq. But both countries have effectively been fighting civil wars for 25 years, with the United States backing the losing side (the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq). After 9/11, the Bush administration transformed the losers in those conflicts into winners. But the civil wars continue, with the unseated groups now playing the role of insurgents. The change is significant, but the transformation is far less complete than what was imagined in the spring of 2003. The administration’s plan for liberalization and democratization in the Middle East has yielded little beyond a failed state in Iraq, an unstable Lebanon torn between Hezbollah and Israel, and polite but noncommittal noises from allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The Next 9/11 Will Be Even Worse
It’s anyone’s guess. Al Qaeda’s efforts to acquire nuclear material have been amateurish. In 2002, U.S. agents in Afghanistan seized canisters from Taliban and al Qaeda compounds, only to discover that al Qaeda operatives had likely been duped into purchasing phony nuclear materials. The organization has pursued other tools of mass destruction, but without much success. Al Qaeda agents were reportedly planning to use poison gas in New York’s subway system, though it appears that Zawahiri mysteriously called off the operation. Perhaps the experience of the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist group in Tokyo deterred him; its 1995 attack killed 12 people rather than the thousands the terrorists had hoped to claim. Still, it would be irresponsible to minimize the threat. Technological advances are allowing small groups to wreak major damage, and al Qaeda has often attracted skilled engineers and scientists. Breakthroughs in DNA research, for example, could lead to designer viruses that would be a terrorist’s dream. The Internet has created new vulnerabilities as major engineering infrastructure, from dams to nuclear plants, has come to rely on it. The world’s financial systems are increasingly vulnerable as well. Governments, universities, and corporations must ensure that emerging technologies don’t go astray. Al Qaeda may not have fundamentally changed the world on 9/11, but that is no reason to give it a second chance.
Want to Know More?
1 For a discussion of the roots of 9/11 and insight into what makes militants tick, see Fawaz Gerges’s The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006). Noted Islam scholar Gilles Kepel examines the politics behind radical Islam in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002). Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon speculate on what the next 9/11 might look like in The Next Attack:The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right (New York: Times Books, 2005). FOREIGN POLICY and the Center for American Progress surveyed more than 100 leading foreign-policy experts about the prospects for America’s war against terror in The Terrorism Index (FOREIGN POLICY,July/August 2006). Richard Clarke offers an insider’s look at the U.S. government’s struggle to adapt to the world of global terrorism in Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004). The 911 Commission Report (New York: Norton, 2004) examines the attack in minute detail, assesses the policy failures that made it possible, and suggests reforms to prevent it from happening again.