Addressing the Sources of Middle Eastern Violence Against the US

With the recent attacks on American soil it is difficult to get beyond the horror and shock of what has just happened and engage in serious reflection on the sources of violence against the US. This is understandable, given the almost unbelievable nature of this attack. Yet it is more necessary than ever if one is to find ways to limit such attacks in the future and develop long terms policies against further violence.

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by Steve Niva

September.21st.2001

Who is behind the attacks?

The recent attacks on US soil are most likely related to an escalating series of attacks and bombings on US targets over the past ten years. In order, these attacks include: the recent bombing of the USS Cole in October, 2000 that claimed 17 lives; the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which hundreds were killed; the 1996 car-bomb attack on a US barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans; the 1995 car-bomb attack on an American National Guard Training center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that took four lives; and, the 1993 World Trade Center truck-bombing that killed six people and injured more than a thousand others.

All of these attacks have been attributed to Islamic radicals based in the Middle East and Central Asia under the rubric of a very hazy notion of "Islamic fundamentalism." Indeed a number of people from these regions with links to certain militant Islamic groups have been arrested and charged in some of these actions. But rather than details and specifics about these Islamic groups, their complex relations to one another and their motivations, we are usually treated to simplistic portrayals that explain their hatred of the US as little more than the product of a fanatical and inherently anti-Western and anti-American world view based on their religion. For example, Stephen Emerson, a self-proclaimed terrorism expert who frequently appears in the media, claims that "the hatred of the US by militant Islamic fundamentalists is not tied to any particular act or event. Rather, fundamentalists equate the mere existence of the West -- its economic, political, and cultural systems -- as an intrinsic attack on Islam."

Any explanation of Middle Eastern violence that relies upon the notion that Muslim activists are inherently violent or inherently anti-Western is false and misleading. First, there are many different kinds of Islamic activists in different countries around the world who have a wide variety of views on violence, the West, and the goals of their activism. Some favor violent revolution but the vast majority simply want to make Islamic teachings more central to the social and legal norms of their society. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that Islam is one of the world's largest and most diverse religions and, like Christianity or Judaism, there are thousands of views within Islam about the religion and also about violence and its justification. There is no way one can generalize about Islamic movements or Islam for that matter.

So who are the perpetrators and what drove them to carry this horrendous act? The most likely perpetrators of these attacks are related to an extremely small and fringe network of militants whose military training and specific ideological views developed during their participation in the US-backed war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and developments that followed over the next decade. These militants were originally recruited by the CIA and the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani intelligence services to fight against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. They came from different classes but mostly from militant opposition groups from around the Middle East, including Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, and elsewhere, in order to wage war on behalf of the Muslim people of Afghanistan against the communist enemy. In Afghanistan, they joined forces with some of the most reactionary and militant Afghani fighters, who were chosen over more moderate forces by Pakistani intelligence services, the most directly involved agency in prosecuting the war.

Among the many coordinators and financiers of this effort was a rich young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who was the millionaire son of a wealthy Saudi businessman with close contacts to the Saudi royal family. Although accounts vary regarding his actual participation in the war, he played an important role in helping recruit volunteers and build networks of bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan after 1984. Bin Laden himself denies ever knowingly working with the CIA, which may be true, but there is also no question that he was an important figure in this major US-backed effort, the largest CIA covert operation in history, and must have been known to those involved.

This network of conservative Sunni Muslim activists and militants -- who became known as "the Afghans" in the Middle East due to their participation in Afghanistan -- also served another purpose for the US and its allies in the region. Not only were they anti-communist due to their rejection of its atheism, they were also opposed to the brand of Islamic radicalism promoted by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and its leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Influenced by the socially reactionary Wahhabi school of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and the conservative Pakistani Islamist Party, Jamaat-i Islami, their narrow brand of Islam is antagonistic to the social justice content of Khomeiniism and also anti-Shiite, which is the main doctrine of Islam practiced in Iran. The revolution had toppled a close ally of the US, the
Shah of Iran, who played a major role as a pillar of US hegemony in the oil rich Persian Gulf. It was threatening key US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other oil rich states. Therefore, the clear aim of US foreign policy therefore was to kill two birds with one stone: turn back the Soviet Union and create a counter-weight to radical Iranian inspired
threats to US interests, particularly US-backed regimes who controlled the massive oil resources.

The failure of US policy in the Middle East

But this policy has now turned into a nightmare for the US and it is certainly one factor that has likely led to the recent attacks against the US in New York and Washington DC. After the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan in 1989 the "Afghan" network became largely expendable to the US who no longer needed their services. In fact, these militants actively turned against the US when a number of them returned home and moved into the violent opposition against US allied regimes and opposed the US war against Iraq in 1991. They were particularly opposed to the unprecedented positioning of US ground troops in Saudi Arabia on the land of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Many observers believe that this event was the likely trigger that led militants like bin Laden, a Saudi national, to believe that the US was using the Gulf War to extend its military forces into the Arabian Peninsula in order to prop up its allies against their growing Islamic opposition, which included many of the returnees from Afghanistan.

These militants now believe that the Saudi regime is fundamentally corrupt and is little more than a client of the United States, who backs what they see as anti-Islamic states in Egypt, Algeria, Israel, Turkey, and elsewhere. Because America is the primary protective force of the Saudi regime, the US must be driven out of the region so that the true Islamic activists can overthrow the corrupt Saudi regime and establish what they see as an authentic Islamic state closer to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. These views led them to organize the networks who subsequently engaged in an escalating series of attacks on US military and diplomatic facilities in the 1990s, including the August 2, 1998 attack on US embassies in Africa, the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War buildup.

More broadly, other militants have been recruited into these shadowy networks largely in response to their perception that the West, led by the United States, is now waging war against Muslims around the world and that they have to defend themselves by any means necessary, including violence and terrorism. They point to a number of cases where Muslims have born the brunt of violence as evidence of this war: the attempted genocide against Bosnian Muslims, the Russian war in Chechnya, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and the UN sanctions against Iraq. They claim the US either supported the violence or failed to prevent it in all of these cases. One can certainly argue with these claims, but the important point is that it is these beliefs enable them to justify not only targeting US military facilities but also its civilians as a case of just war or "jihad" in defense of Islam, a view not shared by most Muslims around the world.

It should be clear that this network is only a very radical fringe of militants who have decided that they must use armed tactics to get their message out to the US and others. Further, Osama bin Laden is not the mastermind of these attacks as is often claimed in the media; he just facilitates these groups and sentiments with logistics and finances, as do others. He is simply a very visible symbol of this loose network and the US obsession with him most likely works to increase his standing as an icon of resistance to the US. The network with which he is linked has no geographical location or fixed center; it appears to be a kaleidoscopic overlay of cells and interlinkages that span the globe from camps on the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands to immigrant communities in Europe and the US.

This small, violent, and socially reactionary network differs in important ways with the wider current of Islamic activism in the Arab world and globally which has a wider social justice agenda on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, is more involved in party building and mass mobilization, and largely rejects the simplistic Islamic doctrines promoted by this network. Moreover, they are disconnected from these movements in that they do not locate their struggle in a national context, but rather in a global war on behalf of Muslims. They are anti-Iranian, so they have few links with Iranian inspired groups. They are now anti-Saudi, which means they have severed their connections with a number of Saudi funded groups in different Middle Eastern states. As a result, their actions have even been condemned on occasion by Muslim activist organizations ranging from the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt to the FIS in Algeria and HAMAS in Palestine.

Nevertheless, they certainly share some common sentiments with this wider current of Islamic activism. There is no question that the one-sided US support for Israel, the US sponsorship of sanctions against Iraq as well as US support for some dictatorships across the region who are embroiled in vicious civil wars with their Islamic opposition groups and prevent their participation in political processes, have created a fertile ground for some sympathy with such militancy.

The rise of this militant network and their adoption of violence against the United States, as Oliver Roy has claimed in a number of his writings, represents a clear failure of US strategy in the region, especially the US/Saudi/Pakistani model of an alliance between conservative Sunni Islamic activism and the West that emerged in the 1980s. The problem is that US has no alternative political strategy because it has increasingly seen all Islamic activists as its enemy, or at least it has not promoted a policy of clearly distinguishing between violent extremism and Islamic activism oriented more toward social and cultural change within states. Moreover, the US appears to have no long-term strategy to address the grievances that the radical groups share with vast majority of Muslim activists who abhor using violent methods.

Fight the Roots of Terrorism

A military strike on militant camps in Afghanistan may kill or capture bin Laden and a number of his associates but it will not likely incapacitate the far-flung networks of militants that may have produced the recent attacks on American soil. They will remain in place, with new reasons to carry out more terror. Moreover, a massive display of American military that might be brought to bear on a Muslim nation -- especially one that kills innocent civilians in the process -- is precisely the type of action these militants hope will create the conditions for unifying greater numbers of Muslims against the United States. It would confirm their view that the US is an arrogant superpower that cares little about Muslim lives.

A more effective alternative to a military response must combine a massive international law enforcement effort with a political strategy designed to isolate and undermine these militant networks. The deliberate and murderous attacks on innocent American civilians should be characterized and prosecuted as a crime not a war. The United States must use all its resources to compel international cooperation to ensure that the perpetrators have no place to hide. Identifying bin Laden and his network as mass murderers who have violated international law will make it extremely difficult for countries -- especially those who fear being allied with an American-led war -- to refuse more discrete and effective assistance to the US. Also, given the disperse nature of the networks, only international cooperation will work to root them out. American declarations of war inhibit rather than promote this cooperation.

This approach must be bolstered by a political strategy that deepens the isolation of these fringe networks from the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, many of whom hold deep and legitimate grievances with US policies but who do not support violence. In words and deeds, the US must go further than clearly making a distinction between Islam as a religion and violent extremism, although that is a first step. The US must also critically reexamine its policies in the Middle East.

The US should condemn the serious human rights abuses committed by its allies with the same force as it condemns other regimes in the region and condition its aid on progress in opening up closed political systems, even if this means greater participation by Islamic movements. It should curtail the massive arms transfers to the region and reduce its military presence, especially in Saudi Arabia, which have done little to promote democracy or stability. The US must also recognize the failure of the devastating sanctions regime on Iraq which have cost the lives of 5,000 children, under age five, every month, according to UNICEF. Over one million Iraqis have died as a direct result of over a decade of sanctions. Even if one accepts the debatable claim that Saddam Hussein is solely responsible, the US has clearly helped him enforce his brutal rule by giving him the tool of starvation to use as a policy. In addition, the US pro-Israel policy unfairly puts higher demands on Palestinians to renounce violence than on Israelis to halt new settlements and adhere to UN resolutions calling for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands. It should clearly support legitimate Palestinian aspirations for an independent state alongside a secure Israel.

Such an approach is not a concession to terrorism but a more realistic and effective response that is closer to the values that the United States claims to uphold. There is absolutely no justification for the horrendous attacks on innocent American civilians in New York or Washington. These attacks have served no cause; they have likely set back efforts to build popular movements and international solidarity that, in the final analysis, are the best chance of achieving social justice and change in the Middle East and elsewhere. Those behind the attacks have no ideology worthy of any support, they are reactionary, cruel, and inhumane.

Yet, at this difficult time, in addition to pursuing the criminals who carried out these attacks, Americans should critically examine policies with which Arabs, Muslims, and many others have legitimate grievances. Military solutions to the problems in the Middle East and the terrorism that has resulted from these problems is not a policy but a recipe for more violence and bombings.



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