West’s war on terror does not try to explain what spawned it

2011-09-10 00:00

BOSTON — To arrive in the United States as I did a few days ago, a week before the 10th anniversary commemoration of the 9/11 terror attacks against the United States, is to reach a land that is remarkably little changed from what it was on that shocking September day when Al-Qaeda zealots attacked and killed thousands of civilians.

This classic act of terror had two dimensions, in two different spheres, all of which remain with us today as we try to understand the meaning of the act then and its consequences today.

In the first sphere of the human mind and its perceptions and reactions, the 9/11 attacks were about psychological terror and political assertion. In the second sphere of the dichotomy of people and values, the attacks were about us and them, good and evil, strength and vulnerability, Islam and the world, and America and the world.

Only by tackling the dimensions simultaneously does the terrible assault become comprehensible in its political and criminal ways, and do we have a more realistic hope reduce the chances of such acts recurring again, in this or any other country.

I was here in the Boston area on September 11, 2001. It seems to me that very little has changed in the world, and certainly almost nothing has changed in the worlds of the principal actors in this ongoing global drama that pits, in its most simple form, Al-Qaeda vs the United States government and military.

Basically, what happened on 9/11 was that a criminal gang of terrorists called Al-Qaeda attacked the United States in a successful endeavour to send a terrifying political message.

The zealots who followed Osama Bin Laden felt that their Islamic realm was sullied and blasphemed by un-Islamic leaderships and the American-led Western powers that supported those leaders across the Arab and Islamic world.

Attacking the heart of the United States, they thought, would send a clear message that Muslims would defend themselves and cleanse their polluted lands, perhaps leading the United States and others in the West to change their policies in the Arab-Asian region.

The two most important things to remember about the Islamic zealots of 9/11 are that they started their careers in this business by attacking the Russians in Afghanistan a decade earlier, and that the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims rejected their tactic of attacking civilians in the West.

These two central points about Al-Qaeda and the terror attacks it inflicted on the United States seem largely to have been ignored in the mainstream of American public analysis and discussion in the last decade.

The emphasis instead seems to be on the awesome human spirit of sacrifice, courage and generosity among the many who responded to the 9/11 attacks, and a continuing, strange combination of perplexity and perseverance in going after Al-Qaeda and other such terrorists, using both military and political means.

The perplexity reflects the fact that much time is spent in the American public realm discussing Islam, Muslims, extremism and terrorism, but rarely is the discussion taken to the depth of nuance and specificity needed to really come to terms with why, for example, an Egyptian medical doctor like Ayman el-Zawahiri, now the leader of Al-Qaeda, would become a militant and join Al-Qaeda in the first place.

The perseverance reflects the fact that the United States and its allies have spent trillions of dollars in the past decade waging wars against the violent and aggressive phenomenon that Al-Qaeda personifies, but without conclusive successes other than preventing new attacks against the United States — while terror in the Arab-Asian region and parts of Europe is more prevalent and destructive than it was a decade ago.

In need of further discussion are the specific and largely problematic outcomes of the past decade’s American-led “global war on terror” and the equally dismal trends in the Arab-Asian region that is the heartland of Al-Qaeda and its assorted allies.

On both counts the world is poorer and more dangerous now than it was then. This is due to two main reasons: analytically, the world has largely failed to consider the 9/11 terror acts in the larger context of the world that spawned them, and thus continues to suffer the consequences of the birth of new generations of militants and terrorists, because the underlying forces that breed them persist in our world.

Politically, the actions that have been taken by the American-led West and by most of the governments in the Arab-Asian region have emphasised military activities that have dealt some blows to terror groups here and there, but have also accelerated the underlying sense of vulnerability and injustice that drives many young men to join Al-Qaeda in the first place.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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