Less than three hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US media and security apparatus began to level accusations at Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, holding him responsible for the greatest terrorist operation in American history. In a matter of days, the accusation had crystallised into a semi-official pronouncement, with President Bush declaring to the public that Bin Laden is the principal suspect.
And in no time at all the American administration decided to wage a large-scale war on those it describes as terrorists: Bin Laden and the extremist Islamist organisations that surround him or share his beliefs.
Nobody knows precisely how far this war will extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan, whose government shelters Bin Laden along with many Islamists of various nationalities, most of whom, however, are “Arab Afghans.”
In fact the accusation is ill founded on a number of counts. Some of the doubts concerning Bin Laden’s alleged role in the operation relate to the nature of violent Islamist organisations, including Bin Laden’s own Al-Qa’ida (The Base), and their actual capabilities. Other doubts relate to the circumstances and details of the attacks themselves.
Regarding the first set of doubts, the most obvious defect in America’s reasoning concerns its perspective on such operations, which are viewed as either purely lawless phenomena that may be subjected to criminal investigation and analysis, or as manifestations of political terrorism, no different from those occurring in the framework of a left-wing, right-wing, anarchist or other ideology. The truth is that even though Islamist, religiously inspired terrorism shares aspects of both criminal and political violence, it has its own distinct characteristics, and their consideration is necessary to a proper analysis and interpretation of its proponents’ actions.
The US perspective is also confused as to the different kinds of Islamist groups, which are seen as a single, undifferentiated mass when in fact there are significant differences among them. America’s understanding of the workings of Islamism, indeed, is glaringly imprecise.
The Islamists’ most prominent characteristic is that the violence they promote revolves around a number of central religious claims, foremost among which is the concept of Jihad. Jihad is not a synonym for holy war, although it is usually translated as such. Rather, Jihad carries, according to the interpretation of such groups and organisations, a complex set of creed-related and operational connotations.
The concept can be divided into two sub-categories: defensive and offensive. The former is a religious duty for any Muslim, necessary for defending Islam’s domains against non-Muslim attacks. The latter is a duty not on the individual but on the Muslim state, its intention being the conversion of non-Muslim peoples to Islam and their incorporation into the umma: the process is seen as a movement out of Dar Al-Harb (the land of war) and into Dar Al-Islam (the land of Islam).
Jihad in both defensive and offensive modes incorporates a crucial precept: for an individual or a group to abandon their defensive duty endangers the validity of their religious conviction; for the Islamic state to shirk its responsibility toward the rest of the world likewise throws the validity of its constitution into doubt. And even though Jihad originally operated outside the borders of the Islamic nation, and was directed at the enemies of Islam in other regions, many groups and organisations have modified the notion to suit their agendas, placing their own governments and states in the “land of war.” This tendency reflects the Islamists’ view of their governments as apostates and enemies of Islam; and the incorporation of the concept of Jihad into their battles with these regimes allows them to benefit from the powerful emotional connotations it has carried throughout Muslim history.
Islamist groups and organisations can be divided into two distinct categories. The first adheres to the concept of internal Jihad, and works toward the creation of Islamic states in the countries where it operates (this category includes most organisations, such as Algeria’s armed Islamist groups and the Gama’a Al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad in Egypt); the second adopts the concept of external Jihad and concentrates on defending Islam against its distant enemies, foremost among them the US and Israel.
The most prominent representative of the second kind of organisation is Bin Laden and the groups associated with him (smaller groups with similar tendencies are scattered around the world).
Defensive Jihad has been associated with Bin Laden since the start of his Islamist activities, and has become essential to his political make-up. In 1979, aged 22, he went to Afghanistan, engaging there in his first Islamist activities. He had virtually no experience of Islamist activism, whether inside or outside his country. The decade-long international war against the Soviet occupation provided him with the pivotal experience of his life: he found himself among thousands of Mujahidin come from dozens of Islamic countries to defend the land of Islam; the concept of defensive, external Jihad thus became Bin Laden’s only idea of Jihad, upon which the validity of his creed came to depend.
Only two years after his return to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf War broke out, one result of which was the consistent deployment of American military forces in the land of the (Muslim) message: to him, this meant increased aggression against Islam, which in turn required resistance. Thus, once his Jihad against the Soviet Union had ended with Afghanistan’s liberation and the invader’s ultimate collapse, his enmity toward the United States began to take shape.
Bin Laden was thus born of the Afghan War, while the Gulf War perpetuated his role as an international Islamist fighter protecting the interests of Muslims everywhere. Bin Laden was never an internal mujahid, working to uproot a specific regime and replace it with an Islamic state. He became the Trotsky of Islamism, insisting that the Islamic revolution should be perpetual and transnational.
Once Bin Laden’s political orientation is understood, it is safe to assert that, had he been responsible for the greatest attacks on the enemies of Islam to date, he would have acknowledged that responsibility and expressed pride in his actions: combating the enemies of Islam is what he lives for, after all. Had he been responsible, he would not have denied it three times.
What would his motivation for denying it be? The magnitude and location of the attacks would have made them the crowning glory of Bin Laden’s career in Jihad. Moreover, it cannot be claimed sensibly that Bin Laden denies responsibility for fear of American reprisals, for given the number of people involved in the attacks, the American authorities would have found out about his involvement whether or not he denied it; why would he let his greatest contribution to the cause of Jihad go unannounced?
On the other hand, the accusation levelled at Bin Laden is based on a mistaken assumption that has been fixed in the minds of the American security apparatus for years: that there is a single network of Islamist terrorism, and that this network is led, masterminded and funded by Osama Bin Laden.
This assumption is unrealistic, for particularly since bombing the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Bin Laden has been subject to an effective security siege by America and its many allies. Following the bombings, many of his followers and allies were captured by the authorities in various parts of the world; the siege was tightened in the last four months, after the indictment of four of his followers in the United States — a time during which the American security apparatus was on high alert for fear of retaliation. American citizens everywhere received warnings about potential attacks and some US embassies were briefly shut down.
In this environment, it is hard to imagine how Bin Laden might have formed or led a single terrorist network whose members and activities extended to the West, especially the United States. Even if such a network existed, it is equally hard to imagine how it could have enjoyed such wide-ranging mobility in the United States, with 70 people planning the attacks over a period of six months, according to FBI estimates.
Analyses of the list of 19 suspects have yielded a number of important observations publicised by the FBI. All the suspects are aged between 20 and 33; none has a record of Islamist activity at home or in the West; none has been arrested or imprisoned for any reason; and they invariably come from well-off families, an advantage that allowed them to travel to the West to receive an expensive education, principally in science and technology. Such people are unlikely candidates for the mission under scrutiny. Their age, experience and social circumstances make their membership in Bin Laden’s supposed international network improbable; they are not the kinds of people who would suddenly turn into suicidal Islamist cadres.
The emergence of such cadres in Palestine, Egypt and Afghanistan took place under completely different conditions. There, the transformation required not only intellectual and emotional conviction, but circumstances cruel enough to drive the candidates in question to suicide: experience of imprisonment and torture, at the hands of the Israeli government for example, always preceded a suicide mission. The decision to undertake such missions also required systematic religious and practical training that Bin Laden’s supposed network could hardly have provided in Western societies, where the suspects lived for many years as secular-minded students who displayed no sympathy with extremist thought. Seventy candidates, moreover, are too numerous to conceive of in this context.
Even less convincing about the accusation levelled at Bin Laden is that the security, military and technology prowess implied by the attacks lie far beyond the means of his supposed network; they also differ radically, in conception and method, from Bin Laden’s previous operations. How, where and when might he have acquired such experience and skill?
In the 1960s and 1970s, the world was full of violent organisations — Japanese, German, Italian and French — which pooled knowledge and exchanged experience. Today, these organisations have disappeared, leaving behind only a few Islamist organisations which could not have carried out the attacks on Washington and New York.
The skills and capabilities required for organising and executing such attacks suggest the involvement of parties that enjoy a great deal of power within America’s main security and military institutions. Some Islamist elements, however, may have been employed to give the operation an Islamist twist and thus justify subsequent accusations.
This possibility jibes with the reality of Islamist organisations around the world, which, contrary to the single-network theory, exist in large numbers, in various shapes and sizes, and in many countries. Each of these small and powerless organisations has its own characteristics, depending on local circumstances. While for the most part unconnected to each other, they share an enmity towards the United States and Israel.
In certain circumstances — the Palestinian Intifada, the US attacks on Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, for example — they desperately seek opportunities to exercise their hostility toward the United States. The parties responsible for the attacks may well have given them that opportunity to ensure that Bin Laden’s non-existent network would be held responsible.
These points considered, the principal question remains. If we assume that powerful parties within America’s institutions really were involved, what would be their motivation or target?
An answer to this question would make the argument against Bin Laden’s involvement more viable, yet only the American authorities can provide that answer.
However an article by the American scholar Michael Klare, “The New Geography of Conflicts,” published in the May-June 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs journal, seems to suggest a starting point.
In October 1999, Klare writes, “in a rare alteration of U.S. military geography, the Department of Defense reassigned senior command authority over American forces in Central Asia from the Pacific Command to the Central Command. This decision produced no headlines or other signs of interest in the United States but nevertheless represented a significant shift in American strategic thinking. Central Asia had once been viewed as a peripheral concern, a remote edge of the Pacific Command’s main areas of responsibility (China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula). But the region, which stretches from the Ural Mountains to China’s western border, has now become a major strategic prize, because of the vast reserves of oil and natural gas thought to lie under and around the Caspian Sea. Since the Central Command already controls the U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, its assumption of control over Central Asia means that this area will now receive close attention from the people whose primary task is to protect the flow of oil to the United States and its allies.” To whose advantage, then, would an attack on Afghanistan be?
The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.