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Why did Al-Qaeda attack the United States? The connection with Israel and one of Saddam Hussein’s wars

911
©EPA/BETH A. KEISER / POOL  |   A file picture dated 13 September 2001 shows a US flag posted in the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York, USA.

September 11, 2001 was the bloodiest landmark in the global jihad proclaimed by Osama bin Laden and his allies against the United States. Terrorists launched the attack in the name of liberating the holy sites which they claimed had been occupied by “crusaders” and “Zionists.” 9/11 convinced the Americans they had to hunt down jihadis all over the world. After 20 years and several wars, spanning from Central Asia and the Middle East to Africa, the global jihad continues.

Why did Al-Qaeda attack the United States?

Muslim extremists were hostile against the West in general and the United States in particular for what they perceived to be an assault on the Muslim world. The assault was carried out at cultural (through music, film, morals, fashion, etc.) and political levels, given that the governments of various states with a Muslim majority population tried to impose modern legislation and organizational systems, instead of resorting to the Muslim law, the sharia, and to the models of statehood of the Golden Age of Islam. The assault also translated in military terms in Palestine, Iraq, Tajikistan, Myanmar, Kashmir, the Philippines, Eritrea, Bosnia Herzegovina, etc., namely in those countries that were at war with foreign powers or internal, non-Muslim groups.

What was even more serious about this assault for Bin Laden was what he considered to be the occupation of the holy sites of Islam: the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, “handed over to Zionists”, and the Arab Peninsula, the Hijaz region in particular, which is home to the most important cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.

Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in particular, is the third-most important holy site in Islam, linked directly to the prophet Muhammad, who initially asked Muslims to turn their face to Jerusalem when praying. Subsequently, the qibla, the direction of prayer, switched to Mecca, but Jerusalem continued to remain an important site, afterwards being referred to as “prima qibla”. Standing on the same plateau with the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Temple Mound) is the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham, one of the founding fathers of Islam as well, wanted to sacrifice his son for God. The religious importance of Jerusalem mobilizes Muslim extremists, who by extension oppose the State of Israel as a whole, claiming it should be destroyed for having occupied Muslim territories. One of the key reasons why extremists hate the United States has to do with the support this country has provided to Israel over the years, which is also what motivated Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, commonly seen as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

As regards the Arab Peninsula, Bin Laden regarded the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia as an occupying force. US troops had been deployed to protect the country when Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. At the time, Bin Laden offered to send “Afghan Arabs” to fight against the Iraqi, combatants who had volunteered in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Obviously, his offer was rejected, but the Americans’ arrival and their decision to maintain a number of military units after the war further radicalized him. To him, this was a religious offense: anyone who wasn’t Muslim had no business being anywhere near holy places, all the more so as the Prophet said Arabia must not have two religions, and Omar, the second caliph, had driven away the Christians and Jews from Hijaz.

In 1996, when Bin Laden launched his first declaration of war against the Americans, he mentioned their presence in the Arab Peninsula as one of the main arguments. Officially, the holy war the Al Qaeda leader wanted did not target civilians as well, only the military. Such “qualms” were however abandoned only two years later, when Bin Laden and a number of other Jihadist leaders made it clear in a  fatwa – a religious decree–calling a war on the United States that civilians were also a target:  

“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 […] We - with Allah's help - call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find I […] to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them.”

How did Bin Laden justify the killing of civilians?

The 9/11 attacks also generated hostility towards Islam and Muslims, and in response efforts were made to differentiate between religion and its interpretation by a few extremists, as well as between these extremists and the Muslim population in general. In this context, many quoted an excerpt from the Quran, saying that “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption done in the land, it is as if he had slain mankind entirely, and whoever saves one it is as if he had saved mankind entirely” (Quran, 5:32). The killing of “innocents” is also discouraged by the Hadith or Traditions of the Prophet, a collection of acts and sayings of the Prophet, also outlining the doctrine of Jihad, as it was first established in the Middle Ages. The Hadith specifically provides for the existence of certain categories of people who are “protected”, women, children, the elderly, even non-combatant men. Similarly, it discourages the destruction of homes and cities or the burning of fields. Discourage doesn’t mean fully ban. The Quran also contains passages where the killing of the unfaithful is justified, such as verse 5 in Sura 9, “slay the idolaters wherever you find them”, while the Hadith also mentions the killing of civilians even under orders from the Prophet himself. When required, the Muslim armies of the Middle Ages destroyed everything in their path.

Overall, there are very few exceptions, only referring to specific cases over a thousand of years old. It’s rather hard to prove that, by attacking civilian objectives in the 21st century, you are fulfilling the will of Allah, and jihadis consider themselves first and foremost pious people: everything they do pays heed to religion and to God. The September 11 attacks were carried out on such scale, that they horrified Islamic leaders themselves, including those extremists who were engaged in a jihad of their own and who, in theory, did not oppose suicide attacks. Forty-six such leaders, including the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan and the founder of Hamas, Ahmad Yassin, condemned the 9/11 attacks in a public letter. Osama bin Laden responded in a long message whereby he tried to justify the attacks with references to the Quran and the Hadith. The terrorist leader primarily used analogies, a tactic frequently used in Islamic jurisprudence: one generally looks for similarities in a given context and an episode from the Prophet’s life, and a decision is taken to reflect the Prophet’s. The twin towers were compared to a fortress because they played host to the offices of companies operating in security. The planes were compared to projectiles – as Muhammad himself had ordered a catapult barrage on Taif Fortress, which his forces conquered in 630 (of course, the scale of destruction is incomparable). Those who are protected can be killed, Bin Laden argues, when used as human shields of mixed with the military, as projectiles cannot differentiate between the two categories. Yet the most sinister of Bin Laden’s explanations (7 in total) claims that civilians who supported the fight against Muslims “whether in deed, word, mind or any other form of assistance”, are legitimate targets. Here too, Bin Laden makes a poor analogy to an old man who, although he was protected, he was killed by the Muslims because he had provided counsel to his adversaries: to Bin Laden’s mind, the killing the thousands of civilians was the same thing.

Basically, the argument that anyone who supports the war effort in deed, word or mind can be killed meant that every American – or every Western or Israeli – was a target. All it took was for them to live in a democratic society, for instance, and exercise their right to vote or express an opinion, or simply like the country they lived in. To Bin Laden, all that was an offence against Muslims. On September 11, Al-Qaeda targeted objectives that were tied to the United States’ armed forces (the security companies operating in World Trade Center, the Pentagon), but the targets of their subsequent major attacks – Madrid, London, Bali – were strictly civilian.

What were the consequences of the 9/11 attacks?

The Islamists’ suicide attacks had been relatively rare prior to 9/11. 19 extremists chose to die on that day, killing some 3,000 people. Ever since, suicide attack tactics spread everywhere, adopted by groups that had never used it until then (take the Taliban, for instance). Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of jihadis, chose what they believed to be martyrdom. Targets also diversified: from strictly military targets, terrorists started eying civilian targets in the West, then Muslim civilian targets, although the killing of other Muslims is strictly forbidden in Islam.They did it nonetheless, all in the name of a jihad that has been waged for forty years, during which time its warriors have grown increasingly radicalized.

The first boost to the Islamic holy war was the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Thousand of volunteers from all over the Muslim war joined the Afghan mujahideen – the term literally means “doers of jihad” and is used including by extremists whom we call “jihadis” – in the name of religious obligations. It was also then that whole networks for bankrolling the war effort surfaced, including informal means of transferring money from doners from all over the Muslim world to the combatants, transfers which were virtually impossible to trace since they bypassed the banking system. And also around this time the Maktab al Khidamat (MAK) came into being, founded by a Palestinian jihad ideologist, Abdullah Azzam, who later mentored Osama bin Laden. Following Azzam’s assassination, Bin Laden took over MAK, renaming it Al-Qaeda. After the war, many of these fanatic Afghan Arabs decided to continue their jihad, some against their own governments, others against the West (and in several cases, against both). The attacks on New York and Washington marked zero hour.

The second major boost came a few years after 9/11. In response to terrorist attacks, the United States and their allies unleashed the Global War on Terror. Their first large-scale operation was the invasion of Afghanistan, where Bin Laden had sought shelter with the Taliban regime. Al-Qaeda bases were destroyed, its militants killed or driven off, the Taliban regime deposed. Few still wanted to join Al-Qaeda in late 2001 and early 2002. Even the more radical Muslims knew that America’s reaction was normal and just. The situation would change with the invasion of Iraq, also as part of the Global War on Terror. Bush administration hardliners insisted that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction which he could pass on to Al-Qaeda, an organization it was connected with. False. Saddam Hussein had eliminated his WMD arsenal, and his link with Al-Qaeda was fabricated, particularly as the Ba'athist secular regime was ideologically incompatible with Islamists, who fought against it. Although Saddam was unpopular with Islamists, Iraq was still a Muslim territory, so when the country was invaded, numerous religious leaders declared a jihad, encouraging fanatics from the Arab world to come to Iraq’s aid, just as they had done in Afghanistan. Many of these foreign combatants joined the group led by Jordanian Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who had pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and had officially associated himself with the Al-Qaeda network, although his actions remained separate. Al-Qaeda’s brutality in Iraq was taken to such extremes, that even the leadership of the terrorist organization felt the need to steer clear of Zarqawi, and Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri (the current leader of Al-Qaeda), criticized him in a letter.

Zarqawi was killed by the Americans in 2006, but the organization survived, years later turning into the Islamic State. Its conflict with Al-Qaeda eventually boiled down to a few exchanges whereby each side presented its own arguments. War eventually broke out between the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. The Islamic State took and carried over Zarqawi’s brutality, at the same time becoming the most successful Jihadist group to date. It marked the third-largest revival of global jihad, managing to create an army of tens of thousands of combatants, conquering significant parts of Syria and Iraq, where they instated the Caliphate, meaning they proclaimed themselves leaders of the whole Muslim world. Beyond Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State opened branches or “affiliates” in numerous countries, from Western Africa and Libya to Afghanistan. The latter, the Khorasan Islamic State (the name of the historical region extending from Persia to Transoxiana) organized a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, just as the Americans were pulling out. The list of victims includes not just American military, but Afghan civilians and Taliban fighters, Al-Qaeda’s old allies also being at war with the Islamic State.

It’s not just the Islamic State that opened branches in numerous Muslim countries, but Al-Qaeda as well. The connection strictly has to do with swearing allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri and becoming affiliated to the terrorist organization. Other than that, the groups keep their operations separate. Therefore, we are dealing with a number of scattered, non-centralized networks, with a far greater scope compared to Al-Qaeda in 2001. What they all lack, momentarily, is the sophistication the latter had achieved, as well as its capacity of staging attacks on a scale similar to 9/11, or even to the attacks in Madrid and London. That doesn’t mean they won’t try.

Will global jihad continue after the USA’s withdrawal from Afghanistan?

“By the Grace of Allah, a safe base is now available in the high Hindukush mountains in Khurasan where, by the Grace of Allah, the largest infidel military force of the world was destroyed […] in front of the Mujahideen cries of Allahu Akbar”.

The abovementioned text is part of Bin Laden’s 1996 call-to-arms, and “the largest infidel military force of the world” is a reference to the USSR. Still, the text could very well have been written today, after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. In fact, the Taliban started boasting about defeating the USA a few months back, when Washington and its allies still had a military presence in Afghanistan, and the government in Kabul had considerable forces at its disposal, which they thought could resist the insurgents’ attacks for years. The speed with which Afghanistan fell and the chaotic scenes in Kabul in the last few days have turned victory into triumph, inducing the idea that the withdrawal was a misdirection. This may very well be the fourth boost to global jihad, all the more so as new withdrawals have been announced: Joe Biden has decided to end military operations in Iraq as well, whereas France said it would cut back on its contributions to anti-terrorist operations in Sahel.

Whether the West wants it or not, the Global War on Terror will continue, at least for as long as Bin Laden’s legacy endures. 


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  • Muslim extremists were hostile against the West in general and the United States in particular for what they perceived to be an assault on the Muslim world. The assault was carried out at cultural (through music, film, morals, fashion, etc.) and political levels, given that the governments of various states with a Muslim majority population tried to impose modern legislation and organizational systems, instead of resorting to the Muslim law, the sharia, and to the models of statehood of the Golden Age of Islam. The assault also translated in military terms in Palestine, Iraq, Tajikistan, Myanmar, Kashmir, the Philippines, Eritrea, Bosnia Herzegovina, etc., namely in those countries that were at war with foreign powers or internal, non-Muslim groups. What was even more serious about this assault for Bin Laden was what he considered to be the occupation of the holy sites of Islam: the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, “handed over to Zionists”, and the Arab Peninsula, the Hijaz region in particular, which is home to the most important cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.
  • In 1996, when Bin Laden launched his first declaration of war against the Americans, he mentioned their presence in the Arab Peninsula as one of the main arguments. Officially, the holy war the Al Qaeda leader wanted did not target civilians as well, only the military. Such “qualms” were however abandoned only two years later, when Bin Laden and a number of other Jihadist leaders made it clear in a fatwa – a religious decree–calling a war on the United States that civilians were also a target.
  • The Islamists’ suicide attacks had been relatively rare prior to 9/11. 19 extremists chose to die on that day, killing some 3,000 people. Ever since, suicide attack tactics spread everywhere, adopted by groups that had never used it until then (take the Taliban, for instance). Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of jihadis, chose what they believed to be martyrdom. Targets also diversified: from strictly military targets, terrorists started eying civilian targets in the West, then Muslim civilian targets, although the killing of other Muslims is strictly forbidden in Islam.
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