Why al-Qaeda attacked the US

The broadcasting of audio and video tapes by Osama bin Laden on Arab TV channels has been a regular event since 9/11.  The US State Department used to condemn the channel responsible for broadcasting a message from a terrorist, and US channels were requested not to re-broadcast it, lest it contain a coded “wakeup” call for al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the US. 


The US authorities are no longer so paranoid.  But one feature remains the same – little or no attention is paid to what bin Laden says on these tapes, or in his other statements in the past 10 years or so, beginning with his fatwa against the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia, published in August 1996.


Bush continuously tells Americans that the US is under threat at home and abroad from terrorists, because they hate the freedom and democracy that America enjoys.  But it is clear from bin Laden’s messages that he is not at all concerned with freedom and democracy in America or with any other aspect of the American way of life.  He is concerned with American foreign policy towards, and American actions in, the Muslim world – with US support for Israel in its ongoing theft of Arab land; US support for corrupt and repressive regimes in the Muslim world (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states); and so on.  Post 9/11, the US has added to an already long list of Muslim grievances by occupying Afghanistan and Iraq.


With considerable justification, bin Laden believes the Muslim world to be under attack from the US and its allies, and regards 9/11, and the other actions he has inspired, to be part of defensive jihad, designed to end US aggression towards the Muslim world.


Bin Laden has said this many times, and he did so again in his most recent video, broadcast on al-Jezeera on 30 October 2004 (transcript here). This video is addressed to the American people, and explains why America was attacked on 9/11 and what Americans must do in order to avoid another attack.


He begins by refuting Bush’s claim that the attack was motivated by hatred of freedom, asking that the president explain why the US was chosen as the target, rather than Sweden, if hatred of freedom was the motivation.  He goes on:


“No, we fight because we are free men, who don’t sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation; just as you lay waste to our nation, so shall we lay waste to yours. No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure.”


And he mocks Americans for failing to seek out the causes of the attack as “thinking people” should do, and for still being in ignorance more than three years later.  He accuses Bush of  “hiding … the real causes” from the American public (which may be unfair to Bush, since it assumes that Bush knows “the real causes”).  In any event, clearly, “the reasons are still there for a repeat of what occurred”.


His final words to the American people were:


“In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida.  No. Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn't play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security.”


This video was broadcast a few days before the US presidential election, and there was much speculation in the US about whether it would damage Bush, by reminding the American electorate that the author of 9/11 was still at large.  Yet again, there was no discussion of bin Laden’s central message that America would be safe if it ceased its aggression towards the Muslim world.


Bin Laden made no distinction between Bush and Kerry, understandably so, since neither of them proposed to change US policy towards the Muslim world.  Kerry supports Israel’s rapacious behaviour in Palestine, even more wholeheartedly than Bush.  And he didn’t propose to withdraw from Iraq, merely to plead with other states to provide troops for service in Iraq, in order lessen the burden on the US military


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In a previous video addressed to the American people, broadcast on al-Jezeera on 18 October 2003 (transcript here), bin Laden mocked earlier pleading by Bush to other states to provide troops:


“To Bush I say, you are begging the world to come to your aid, begging mercenaries from every corner of the world, even from small states. This begging has destroyed your pride and revealed how trivial and weak you are after claiming to defend the whole world.”


Of Bush invading Iraq, he said:


“He is still following the mentality of his ancestors who killed the Native Americans to take their land and wealth. He thought that this time it would be an easy task and a lie that would not be exposed.


But God sent him to Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate, the homeland of people who prefer death to honey. So they (the Iraqis) turned his profits into losses, his joy into sadness and now he is merely looking for a way back home.”


To American soldiers in Iraq, he said:


“… now that all the lies have been exposed and the greatest liar has been revealed, your stay on Iraq’s land is compounding the oppression and is a great folly.  It shows you are selling your lives for the lives of others. And you are spilling your blood to swell the bank accounts of the White House gang and their fellow arms dealers and the proprietors of great companies. And the greatest folly in life is to sell your life for the lives of others.”

He ended with the threat that the war would continue until the US abandons its aggression:

“In conclusion, I say to the American people we will continue to fight you and continue to conduct martyrdom operations inside and outside the United States until you depart from your oppressive course and abandon your follies and rein in your fools.”


To Bush’s allies, he said:


“We reserve the right to retaliate at the appropriate time and place against all countries involved, especially the UK, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy, not to exclude those Muslim states that took part, especially the Gulf states, and in particular Kuwait, which has become a launch pad for the crusading forces.”


After this statement was made, 19 Italian Carabinieri were killed in Nasiriyah, British interests were attacked in Istanbul, in November 2003, and nearly 200 people were killed in the Madrid train bombings, in March 2004.  Later, in a tape broadcast on al-Jezeera on 15 April 2004 (see here), bin Laden said that the latter had been carried out in “retaliation for Spain's role in Iraq [and] Afghanistan” and he offered a truce to US allies beginning “with the withdrawal of the last soldier from our land”.


The message for allies of the US is clear: there is a simple way of keeping your citizens safe, and it doesn’t require draconian laws or internment, or concrete bollards outside every public building; it is to cease standing shoulder to shoulder with America in its aggression towards the Muslim world.


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No significant political figure in Washington is as yet prepared to say that America is under attack because of its policies towards the Muslim world, let alone suggest that America could be made safe by changing these policies.  However, there are signs that the truth is getting around.


Recently, a remarkable book was published entitled “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is losing the War on Terror”.  It was written anonymously by a senior CIA official, with the permission of the CIA.  His name has subsequently been revealed as Michael Scheuer (and he has resigned from the CIA, because of a disagreement with its new director).   His message is:


“… the greatest danger for Americans confronting the radical Islamist threat is to believe – at the urging of US leaders – that Muslims attack us for what we are and what we think rather than for what we do.  Rhetorical political blustering ‘informs’ the public that Islamists are offended by the Western world’s democratic freedoms, civil liberties, intermingling of genders, and separation of church and state.  However, although aspects of the modern world may offend conservative Muslims, no Islamist leader has, for example, fomented jihad in order to destroy participatory democracy, the national association of credit unions, or coed universities. 


“Al-Qaeda’s public statements condemn America’s protection of corrupt Muslim regimes, unqualified support for Israel, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a further litany of real-world grievances.  Bin Laden’s supporters thus identify their problem and believe its solution lies in war.  [Scheuer] contends they will go to any length, not to destroy our secular, democratic way of life, but to deter what they view as specific attacks on their lands, their communities and their religion.  Unless US leaders recognize this fact and adjust their policies abroad accordingly, even moderate Muslims will be radicalized into supporting bin Laden’s anti-Western offensive.”


That may be viewed as the raving of an eccentric, but he cannot be entirely dismissed, since he worked for the CIA for 22 years and was the head of its bin Laden “desk” for two years.


Remarkably, the same analysis has appeared in a report (dated September 2004) from the Defense Science Board, which exists to provide independent advice to the US Secretary of Defense.  In this instance, its advice was sought by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz.


The report is on Strategic Communications, that is, the means whereby the US gets its message to the world.  It concludes bluntly that communicating with the Muslim world is impossible at the present time:


Thus the critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim World is not one of ‘dissemination of information’, or even one of crafting and delivering the ‘right’ message. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none – the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam.”  (page 41)


And, according to the report, the US is not believed because of its policy towards the Muslim world, and the problem has got much worse since the US invasion of Iraq:


“American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.


“Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’, but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.


“Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.


“Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.


“Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack — to broad public support.


“What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of ‘terrorist’ groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.” (pages 40-41)


This should make interesting reading for Paul Wolfowitz, and his boss Donald Rumsfeld.


*  *  *  *


On 29 November 2004, a video tape by Ayman al-Zawahiri was broadcast on al-Jezeera.  For the first time, to the best of my knowledge, an al-Qaeda tape was widely reported as stating that the issue at stake was US policy towards the Muslim world.  It was widely reported in this way because the Associated Press report on it began:


“In a video tape aired Monday, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant vowed to continue fighting the United States until Washington changed its policies.”


It was prepared before the US presidential elections, of which it said:


“The results of the elections do not matter for us.  Vote whoever you want, Bush, Kerry or the devil himself. This does not concern us. What concerns us is to purge our land from the aggressors.”


It concluded:


“Either you choose to treat us with respect and based on an exchange of interests ... or we will continue to fight you until you change your policies.”



Labour & Trade Union Review

January 2005