Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America (Pagrave/McMillan 2005).Future Jihad made the Foreign Affairs Top 12 list books on International Affairs in 2006 and was on the summer reading lists of the US House of Representatives and the UK House of Commons in 2007. Dr Phares authorized its publication with Family Security Matters at the 7th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks
When the September 11 Commission invited dozens of officials and experts to its hearings in 2004, it was starting from scratch in the discovery of what really happened. The commissioners, very bright and learned personalities, were doing their homework as assigned by the U.S. Congress, and by extension, for the American people. The commission, created in response to a call for answers by the relatives of the victims, marked the first time that an official body of government was examining the jihad war conducted against the United States.[i]
At the time of the attacks, and in the years that proceeded the hearings, neither the relatives of the victims nor average Americans knew what kind of Pandora's box they were about to open. Most Americans, and perhaps many other people around the world, were shocked by the strikes; it was almost as if the nation had been targeted by some evil coming from outer space. It looked like a horror movie turned real; this was how unprepared the public was for a threat that, as documented in previous chapters, had in fact been growing ever since the 1920s and even before. The commission would help to reveal that there are predictors and signs to such massive and catastrophic events.
The day after September 11, I gathered with my graduate students for our weekly seminar and reflected on the apocalyptic images coming out of Manhattan and Washington. Most of my students were desperately searching for answers. So, I assume, were most other students and youth in the country. For in their textbooks, lectures, and on their TV channels they were living on a different planet from the one in which the jihad was launched. This was a world defined in the 1990s by Francis Fukuyama as "the ... end of history."[ii] They were unprepared for this reality. And so were their elders. Their teachers were busy with tenure and grants, their families with Social Security, their political parties with Florida elections. Their weekends to some degree resembled MTV movies, and their international concerns, if any, revolved around the debate about globalization, which they knew a bit about, but not enough to understand completely. What had happened to the world they knew?
THE CREATION OF OSAMA BIN LADEN
Tens of thousands of miles away, on the plateau of Afghanistan, a man had set his sights on their country. "Sa nudammer Amreeka," he told his men assembled a few days before the attacks: "We will destroy America." He lashed out against the "greatest infidel power in the history of mankind" and said: "You'll see the sign soon." That sign was the one murder he ordered in preparation for the Mohammed Atta mission, the suicide attack on Massoud Shah, the popular leader of the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, forty-eight hours before the U.S. holocaust. When I read about the assassination during the weekend preceding September 11, I knew that there must be a very important reason for the Taliban (I assumed it was they) to send a suicide team to eliminate Massoud. The stalemate between their militia and the northerners was pretty rigid. I asked myself: Why would the Taliban kill their opponents' leader with an al Qaeda technique? The Northern Alliance would just appoint a new leader. Instincts told me that it made sense only as a preemptive strike; they killed him because they expected he would react to something they wanted to do.
In the weeks preceding September 11, all over the world there were signs that the jihadists were lip to something unusual. A month before, I was observing the proceedings of the Durban conference on racism and imperialism. The speeches of the jihadists demonized the West much more than usual in the less advanced chat rooms of the time – which now are discussed as evidence of possible terrorist attacks – the Salafists had been announcing a great strike to come. I remember reading "America, we're coming, the Ghazwa is ready." I realized later that al Qaeda indeed called the attack "Ghazwa," a word, equivalent to raid, used by Arab historians to describe the fatah. This and other bits made me feel that something had snapped in the minds of the jihadists. Since I was swimming in jihad research at that time, I could not sleep during the last few nights before the attacks and have not slept easily on many nights since. Although it was hard to predict what might happen, at the same time it was easy to predict that something would.
THE "RINGS" FIND THE "LORD"
I have studied every video and audiotape aired on TV by bin Laden since September 11 and have been able to review his interviews since 1998 with al Jazeera. I have also reviewed other evidence, primarily in Arabic, that has enabled me to understand how al Qaeda thought. But more important by my own standards, I spent long hours before the tragedy interacting with Salafi activists and also Internet chatting with those whom I believe were linked to the organization or at least knew it extremely well. Al Qaeda's strategic thinking did not surprise me at all. Already, some twenty years ago, I had several exchanges in open media with persons Iwould now call intellectual precursors of al Qaeda's thinking process. From these combined sources of knowledge and all the material I have reviewed in the last few years, my assessment is simple: Osama bin Laden did not create al Qaeda. It created him.[iii] By this Ido not mean that bin Laden did not inspire his followers or was not charismatic: Not at all. But I believe that when historians look back and have access to a wider scope of information and testimonies, they will conclude that it was the "rings" that found the "lord," not the other way around. It may be too early to put the story together completely, but one can easily see that not only was Osama naturally inclined to lead a radical movement for jihad, but a Salafi environment in Arabia[iv] readied him for the mission. A deep jihadi culture sculpted his personal wish to see the days of the caliphate return. Added to this was his life experience and drama. But first, he had to be immersed in Wahabi Salafi culture. Only in light of that does his contribution make sense.[v]
BIN LADEN'S CAUSES: BEIRUT, KABUL, BAGHDAD
Osama bin Laden, as a carrier of the Salafi ideology, resented three "infidel" onslaughts against Islam, as he saw it. According to his own accounts on TV, he was bewildered by the Israeli Air Force's pounding of the tall buildings of Beirut during the summer of 1982. I can see his reaction and understand how a jihadi would feel about "infidel" high-technology firing missiles against what he considered a Muslim city under siege (and it was). But Osama did not pay attention to the fact that the Soviet-supported Syrian troops had ravaged the other side of the city for six years before. His mind is trained to see through the lens of dar el harb and dar el Islam only. East Beirut did not belong to his dar – his house – hence he could not avenge its ruins, although he personally enjoyed the sight of the city from the hills of Broumana before the war. The idea of bringing down the towers of New York in retaliation to the bombed towers of Beirut may have been born there.
The second outrage that triggered bin Laden's fury was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Although Moscow was a main supplier to the Arabs in their war with Israel, the communist invasion of yet another Muslim land – in addition to its invasions of the Muslim republics of the USSR – mobilized the Salafis in the region.
The third trigger of bin Laden's war against America was – as he often charged – the deployment of American forces on Muslim lands, and particularly in 1990 in Saudi Arabia, which he labeled as holy land Interestingly enough, the actual area forbidden to non-Muslims is only the rectangle of the Hijaz area, covering Mecca and Medina. Non-Muslims, including Americans and others, in fact have been present on the peninsula for decades in great numbers. The British maintained forces in Oman for ages. But in the Salafi vision of the world, the insult is more about infidel forces crushing an Arab Muslim force: the Iraqi army. Salafi chats and websites blamed both Saddam and the Saudis for allowing the Americans to crush one of the largest and most powerful armed forces in the Arab world. This ideological vision of international relations is at the root of the Salafi anger that triggered attacks against the United States.[vi] Strangely enough, the Wahabis, the state Salafists, have made the case for not engaging the Americans as long as they are (or were) supporting Muslim causes, such as defending the kingdom during the Gulf War and defeating the "Christian" Serbs in the 1990s. On both accounts the radical Salafis responded that "America is an infidel power that cannot be trusted." In the jihadi view, Americans came to help the royal family against Saddam and control oil. And in Bosnia, they allowed the Serbs to massacre the Muslims first, before they came to their rescue. There was no argument to convince Osama and his men that America was not the enemy. It was an ideological decision that transformed the ally of the past on the plateau of Afghanistan into the next target.[vii]
THE FIRST WAVE, 1993 TO 1998
If we want to categorize the 1990s jihads against the United States and the West, we have to look at the global map of jihadi terrorism. Jihad warfare around the world can be divided into two prongs of attack: local terror and international terror.
Local Jihad Terror
Beginning in 1990, Salafi violence erupted in Algeria, Kashmir, Chechnya, Israel, and elsewhere. In each of these battlefields, local conflicts were different: political, ethnic, religious. But, in addition, they were all fueled by one international brand of ideology: Wahabism and Ikhwan doctrine. The Salafists moved inside these conflicts and made them into Islamist instead of nationalist ones. For example, Hezbollah in Lebanon asserted itself among Shiites (as opposed to Sunni Salafis) and transformed the secular struggle against Israel into a fundamentalist one. In a sense, these local jihads married the nationalist conflicts but drove them in one global direction, jihadism, connecting them to the mother ship of al Qaeda (with the exception of Shiite Hezbollah).
International Jihad Terror
As local fires erupted in several countries, the central force of jihad, particularly after the Khartoum gathering in 1992, targeted the United States head-on, both overseas and at home. By this point al Qaeda was in charge of the world conflict with America. The "princes" (or emirs) were assigned the various battlefields, but the "Lord" assumed the task of destroying the "greater Satan," America.
The first wave started in 1993 on two axes: One was in Somalia, where jihadists met U.S. Marines in Mogadishu in bloodshed. The United States withdrew. The same year, the blind sheikh Abdul Rahman and Ramzi Yusuf conspired to blow up the Twin Towers in New York.[viii] Washington sent in the FBI and treated it as a criminal case, not as a war on terror. This was another form of withdrawal, and bin Laden and his brigades got the message. The test was clear: The United States will not fight the jihadists as a global threat. Something inside America was "paralyzing" it from even considering jihad a threat. Ironically, the first ones to understand the message were the jihad terrorists. The events of 1993 were a benchmark in the decision that led to September 11th years later. Bin Laden said later that the successful suicide attacks by Hezbollah against the Marines in 1983 convinced rum that the United States would not retaliate against terror. The jihadists tested the United States twice ten years later, and twice they found the path open.[ix]
In 1994, a bomb destroyed a U.S. facility of Khubar in Saudi Arabia, killing American military personnel. The "tower" was blown up by jihadists, but the investigation was not able to determine which group. The Saudis did not crack down on their radicals and the U.S. administration absorbed the strike. This was a third test, well appreciated by the jihadists. Meanwhile, three "wars" erupted worldwide with Salafists either leading or participating.[x] In Algeria, the fundamentalists have been involved in tens of thousands of murders against secular, mostly Muslim civilians. The Algerian regime was responding harshly too. But the United States and France did not focus on Salafi ideology and organizations. his was a fourth test that America and the West failed In Chechnya, the Russians were fighting with the separatists whom the Wahabis infiltrated. Some among them would become part of al Qaeda. Washington addressed veiled criticism to Moscow but kept silent on the jihadist infiltration of the Chechens. This was the fifth test.
By the early 1990s, the Bosnian conflict had exploded with its bloody ethnic cleansing. The United States was first to call for intervention, while the Europeans hesitated. Washington stood by the besieged Muslims against Serbs and Croats and mounted a military expedition to help them maintain their government. The jihadists formed a brigade and fought the Serbs fiercely, expending efforts to recruit elements for a local jihad – and eventually ship them to other battlefields. Not only did the United States tolerate the jihadists on the ground, but it even allowed Wahabi fundraisers in America to support their networks in the Balkans: that was the sixth test.
In 1996 the Taliban, one of the most radical Islamist militias on Earth, took over in Kabul. The old anti-Soviet Afghan allies were pushed all the way north to a precarious position. The ideology of the Taliban did not seem to impress or worry the foreign policy decision makers in Washington. The group's ruthless treatment of women, minorities, and other religious groups went unchecked. Its hosting of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda was not dealt with either. Worse, businessmen were interested in contracts under the new "stable" regime, and some American scholars were impressed with the Taliban's "achievements." This was the seventh instance of American failure to take any significant stand against the jihadists anywhere on any issue. It became almost certain that some "power" inside the United States was mollifying America's response and blurring its vision. That year, 1996, bin Laden issued his first international fatwa against the infidels.[xi]
THE SECOND WAVE, 1998 TO 2001
Encouraged by the passivity of the U.S. executive branch toward the escalating jihadi assault worldwide and against American targets and interests, the "central computer" launched the second wave. This one was explicit, direct, and daring, targeting the infidel's diplomatic and military hardware.
On February 22, 1998, Osama bin Laden appeared on television for about twenty-seven minutes and issued a full-fledged declaration of war against the kuffar, America, the Crusaders, and the Jews. The text was impeccable, with all the needed religious references to validate a legitimate jihad. The declaration was based on a fatwa signed by a number of Salafi clerics.[xii] It was the most comprehensive Sunni Islamist edict of total war with the United States, and it was met with total dismissal by Washington. It evoked a few lines in the New York Times, no significant analysis on National Public Radio, and no debating on CSPAN. The Middle East Studies Association had no panels on it, and the leading experts who advised the government downplayed it. During the 9/11 Commission hearings, U.S. officials said they noted it and that plans were designed to deal with it. As one commissioner asked, "This was a declaration of war. Why did not the President or anyone declare war or take it to Congress?" I asked the same question repeatedly from 1998 until September 2001, but my audience was much smaller on my campus in Florida. We must be careful not to miss these messages again.
Here was the leader of international jihad serving the United States and the infidels with a formal declaration of war grounded in ideological texts with religious references: Why did no one answer him? "Expert advice" within the Beltway ruled against it. Obviously, the Wahabis on the inside did not want to awaken the sleepy nation. If the U.S. government were to question the basis of Osama's jihad it would soon recognize the presence of an "internal jihad." For this reason, the debate about the declaration had to be suppressed and with it the warning about its upcoming threat. AlQaeda must have been stunned. They openly declare war on the infidels, and rather than responding, the Americans are busy addressing political scandals instead. Osama must have thought: "Well, that's what the Byzantines did, when the sultan got to their walls centuries ago. They weren't mobilizing against the fatah, they were busy arguing about the sex of angels. This must be another sign from Allah that America is ripe. Let's hit them directly."
And indeed, in August 1998, Osama hit hard: two U.S. embassies, hundreds of victims, and massive humiliation. The retaliation? A missile was launched on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Bin Laden had already left the country two years before. A wave of tomahawk missiles dug up the dirt in Afghanistan. Right place, wrong policy. AlQaeda was indeed based in Afghanistan at the time, openly protected by the Taliban. According to counterterrorism officials and military experts, a plan was prepared to produce a regime change in Kabul. But again, the "holy whisper" in the U.S. capital advised against intervention. "It will create complicationsin international relations and will have a negative impact in the Muslim world."[xiii] Yet the following year, an all-out campaign by al Qaeda destroyed the Serbian army in Kosovo and led to a regime change in Serbia. There were no complications in international relations in that case. The non-response of the United States after a declaration of war and a massive attack against American diplomatic installations was not a mere signal anymore; it was an invitation to attack America.
In 1999, a plot was under way to blow up several targets worldwide. Reports circulated about an earlier plot in 1995 to down several airliners. Intense jihadi activity was going on; propaganda was spreading around the world. But in the United States, the elite dismissed any accusation against the Islamists. Worse, the "'inside jihadists"[xiv] had initiated a defamation campaign against the very few who were trying to warn the public and government. America was driven to the slaughterhouse, politically blindfolded, and intellectually drugged. The fine-tuning between the outside ninjas and the inside cells was peaking. In 2000, al Qaeda crossed the line to test the U.S. military itself. A fishing boat blew up, damaging the USS Cole in Yemen. Back in Afghanistan, bin Laden analyzed the reactions. He did not have much work to do: there was no U.S. reaction. The anti-American forces worldwide escalated their propaganda campaign. One cycle led to another, as the jihadists were emboldened on all battlefields. In Lebanon, Hezbollah overran the South Lebanon Army security zone after the Israelis abandoned the area in May 2000. In September of that year, Hamas and Islamic jihad escalated their suicide attacks. And as Americans were embroiled in counting the Florida votes after the disputed 2000 election, al Qaeda was scouting the East Coast of the United States. The path to Manhattan and Washington was wide open.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad.
[i] It took courageous citizens to ask for answers about the reasons behind the massacre that had obliterated the lives of their loved ones, fathers, mothers, family members, or children. They wanted closure, and who could blame them?
[ii] See Fukuyama, Francis, "No Democracy without Democrats," The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1993), p.131.
[iii] See The 9/11 Commission Report, op. cit.: "Bin Ladin's Appeal in the Islamic World," p. 48.
[iv] See Fouad, Ajami, "A Thwarted Civilization," Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2001.
[v] See Peroncel-Hugoz, jean•Pierre, The Raft of Mohammed: Social and Human Consequencess of the Return to Traditional Religion in the Arab World (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1998): "The Hidden Feathers," p. 163.
[vi] Emerson, "Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, and the Birth of al Qaeda," American Jihad, op. cit., p. 127.
[vii] See "Bin Ladin's Appeal in the Islamic World," in The 9/11 Commission Report, op. cit., p. 48.
[viii] See Emerson, Steve, "World Trade Center I," American Jihad, p. 43.
[ix] See Phares, Walid, "Attack against US Marines in Beirut led to 9/11," FrontPage Magazine, October 23, 2003.
[x] On the spread of Wahabis internationally, see Schwartz, "Sword of Dishonor: The Wahhabi International," The Two Faces of Islam, op. cit., p. 181.
[xi] Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places by Osama bin Laden, August 1, 1996: http://www.defenddemocracy.org/research_topics/research_topics_show.htm?doc_id=85673&attrib_id= 7580.
[xii] See The 9/11 Commission Report, op. cit.: "A Declaration of War," p. 47, and "Building an Organization, Declaring War on the United States," p. 59.
[xiii] Response by more than one official during the 9/11 hearings in 2004.
[xiv] See Stalinski, Steve, "CAIR Silences Its Critics," FrontPage Magazine, August 4, 2005; McCormick, Evan, "A Bad Day for CAIR," FrontPage Magazine, September 24, 2003; also Stalinsky, Steve, "CAIR Anti-Muslim Hysteria," FrontPage Magazine, November 5, 2004; and Spencer, Robert, "CAIR's Lynch Mob," FrontPage Magazine, July 23, 2003.