Thoughts from Blog-ingham

Why did the September 11th al-Qaeda attacks happen?

Posted in Current Affairs, International Relations, Politics, Uncategorized by adamellis1985 on September 8, 2009

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001 became synonymous with two simple numbers and from then on the attacks were simply known as 9/11. But why did Al-Qaeda choose the United States of America? Why didn’t they choose the United Kingdom, France, Brazil or China for their most devastating attack ever? The subject of this blog post will explore the reasons why 9/11 happened. They are not excuses for an inexcusable, unfathomable series of events that took place 8 years ago this week. They are objective explanations seeking clarity around the chain of events spreading back twenty-five years, which culminated in America being subject to the attack. By looking to the past we can learn why things happened and maybe even take lessons from that to stop the cycle happening all over again in the future. Adding to this the fact that American policy in Afghanistan is currently yielding fairly disastrous results and regular casualties for all the coalition forces, this is an appropriate time to question why the 9/11 attacks happened and whether American can take any lessons for the future from how we got to 9/11?

The World Trade Towers, September 11 2001

The World Trade Towers, September 11 2001

How was Cold War policy linked to the 9/11 attacks?

The term blowback has been associated with this idea that the costs and consequences of U.S interventionist foreign policies and military overextension have made life more dangerous for them. In a 1998 fatwa, issued by bin Laden, he announced that the American actions in the Middle East were a, “clear declaration of war on God, his messenger and Muslims.” It is important to understand the contextual importance of U.S foreign policy in the Middle East in this era. Richard Clarke, a disillusioned member of the Bush administration, argued that to understand why the Islamic movement has chosen America as its target, it is necessary to analyse events form the last twenty-five years and particularly, American actions influenced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the impact of the Iranian Revolution.

A proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviets: ISI given too much control rather than CIA?

Much has been made of the funding doled out by the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency of Pakistan and whether the U.S should have maintained stricter role in the supervision of that funding. The CIA and ISI cooperated very closely during the Regan years and over the conflict in Afghanistan and it is important to note that all CIA funding was channelled through the ISI. CIA personnel were not allowed to enter Afghanistan. There are three criticisms of the U.S policy, which can be linked to the 9/11 attacks here. Firstly, the U.S was not forward thinking enough in allowing the ISI to recruit anyone from anywhere in the world to fight against the Soviet’s. Secondly, the ISI had too much control and used the funding to arm the most extreme and radical of the Mujahideen groups. Thirdly, the United States did not consider what the proxy army of Arab fighters they had helped create would do after the conflict.

Mujahideen fighters in the Soviet-Afgan War

Mujahideen fighters in the Soviet-Afgan War

The CIA and ISI were willing to recruit Islamic extremists to a cause that was not theirs, although they adopted it. Funding to the ISI in 1982 was only $35 million and by 1987 it had reached between $600 and $700 million. Involvement of the Saudi’s was seen as a prudent move by Regan to reduce the financial cost of the conflict, as the Saudi’s matched U.S aid equally. However, as I have noted, it had consequences in leading to the 9/11 attacks. The ISI was given the role of helping the U.S to win its proxy war and defeat the Soviet’s. The U.S engaged in drafting in a proxy army. Fighters were engaged from all over the world including Saudis, Egyptians and other Arab states. America helped seek the importation into Afghanistan and Pakistan of an army of Arab fighters

There was no monitoring or regulation of who was in Afghanistan fighting on behalf of the Americans. During the jihad, anyone was welcomed with open arms. There was negligence on the part of the U.S in turning a blind eye to the recipients of the aid and the background of the fighters who were recruited. The CIA and ISI effectively privatized the recruitment of Islamic extremists through Islamic charities and religious bodies. The U.S were responsible for allowing particular sights in the U.S, including the al-kifah refugee centre in New York to be turned into a key centre for, “recruiting and fund raising for the Afghanistan jihad.” Among the lead recruiters were Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and Sheik Abdullah Azzam. Azzam went on to found Hamas.

Furthermore, the CIA was too dependent on the ISI and they had too much control over allocation of resources. Saudi and U.S assistance was funnelled through the ISI who helped distribute arms and train the fighters. Considering the financial backing the U.S and the Saudis were providing, they should have had more of a say over where the funds went. Beyond the ISI connection to Wahabbism, like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan had a fear of Pashtun-driven Afghan nationalism and wanted social order in Afghanistan and wanted a strong Islamic state.  The autonomy the U.S gave the ISI over funding meant that they could aid their causes while also trying to help the U.S win the war. It was a case of coincidental causes.

The ISI favoured arming the extremist group, Hizb-I-Islami, the group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. That group was the primary beneficent of the ISI’s system of allocation of aid and was a vehemently anti-American group. I think this was short sighted of the Americans to help aid extremist Islamic groups. In the same way the U.S forged a World war II alliance with Stalin but was still wary of his actions, and sought to contain him after the end of the war, the U.S should have realised how pragmatic their approach was an been more aware of the consequences. Hartman explained that the nature of the U.S Cold War alliances ensured that the, “U.S money and weapons programmes would solidify the growing pan-Islam movement, more commonly referred to as Islamism.” I agree with state department Afghanistan specialist Eliza Van Hollen, who argued that the CIA should have held firm against the ISI and not allowed it to direct its weapons to favoured groups.

However, some commentators including Jason Burke have defended the U.S role in using the ISI for its proxy war. Jason Burke claims that American funding went exclusively to the Afghan Mujahideen groups and not to the Arab volunteers. On top of this, as little as 25% of the money for the Afghan jihad was actually supplied directly by states. Money was supplied from sheiks emirs, princes and devout businessmen throughout the Gulf. It is difficult to analyse this defence, as there is little published information on the pattern, scope and method of the CIA’s international recruitment and allocation of resources to the jihad. Form my reading, I concluded that the ISI funded Arabs fighter in part as well as the Afghan resistance. However, even if the U.S did not fund the Arab part of the resistance, they were still willing to allow and encourage their recruitment and participation in the war, which damages Burke’s defence.

Thirdly, the American Cold War policy of being overly transfixed on the Soviet threat left the United States expose to even greater dangers in the future. There was little consideration to what would happen to this huge army of recruited Arabs once the fighting was over. The United States did nothing to help with post-war assimilation back into society. Many of the fighters had come from countries thousands of miles away and had no homes to return to. The United States should have foreseen they would need a new role and a new cause. The United States should not have allowed and helped the ISI to recruit anyone willing to fight the Soviets from anywhere in the world, as it left an assembled group of ideologically charged Islamic extremists. Now moving on, I will analyse the role of bin-Laden.

Recruitment of bin-Laden

Another highly documented element of the U.S role in the Afghanistan-Soviet conflict is the link between bin-Laden being supported by the U.S and later striking in the 9/11 attacks. Unsurprisingly, the 9/11 Commission Report discounts this line of thinking. “Bin-Laden and his comrades had their own sources of support and training, and they received little or no assistance from the U.S.”  However, Mamdani argues that bin-Laden was recruited by Saudi intelligence to lead the jihad and this was done with the approval of the CIA.  It is widely agreed that Bin Laden was predominantly a financier and a logistics expert during the conflict. Between 1979-1984, bin-Laden spent his time split between Saudi Arabia and Peshawar, focusing on fundraising and raising the profile of the jihad. From the mid-1980’s onwards he began spending more time in Afghanistan.

Osama Bin-Laden in 1998

Osama Bin-Laden in 1998

However, bin-Laden was not funded by the CIA. This was not possible give the structure of the funding that General Zia Ul-Haq had in place in Pakistan. What is possible though is that due to the CIA using the ISI as it a proxy service for allocation of funding is that bin-Laden received support despite what the 9/11 report states.  Hartman argues that bin-Laden, as a prominent Saudi, was heavily patronised by the ISI and was involved in recruitment, transportation and raining of Arab national who volunteered to fight. Therefore, if American’s only defense is that they did not directly fund bin-Laden then this is a weak argument and it can be possible to see even greater link to 9/11. However, having said this, it is important to question whether bin-Laden and other Arab fighters really contributed that much in the conflict?

Afghan and Arab fighters

There is an important separation to be made between the Afghan resistance fighters and the Arab fighters, a point that Burke was trying to make in defence of allocation resources. A line of argument that some would make would claim that the Arab Mujahideen fighters had gained legitimacy and prestige from defeating a superpower in Afghanistan and they had the confidence and ability to turn its attention the America. The Arab fighters gained a lot from the war and I believe some of these factors helps explain the 9/11 attacks but to argue that they won the Afghan-Soviet conflict and therefore moved on from there is a weak argument and is incorrect, as it discounts the major role of the Afghan resistance.

Estimations of how many Arab fighters participated in the conflict vary hugely. The official estimation from former CIA officials stationed in Pakistan at the time say it was, “a maximum of 25,000.”  This may have been slightly on the low side, explained by what some of the Arab volunteers went onto participate in during the future. Conservative estimations are in the region of 35,000 Muslim radicals. However, some have made much higher estimates of towards 100,000. Relating back to the lack of U.S intelligence on the Arab fighter’s this makes it difficult to predict numbers of Arab participants in the conflict. However, even if it was a high figure, it is important not to merge the effect of the Arab and Afghan resistance in defeating the Soviet’s. Cooley in particular is an advocate of the large role played by the Arab fighters. He seems intent on ignoring indigenous Afghan resistance when in fact most of the resistance against the Soviets was carried out by Afghans who received nothing for their efforts. Whatever role the Arab volunteers played in the conflict, I see a link to the 9/11 attacks, as the war created an opportunity for a number of ideologically charged Muslim fighters to come together and discuss future causes

The creation of jihad

The U.S Cold War policy of proxy action in Afghanistan had a huge effect on creating a jihad that would lead to the 9/11 attacks. One of the most subversive effects of the privatized jihad was on the madrassahs, many of which were turned into politico-military training camps. Thousands came to study at the Saudi financed camps in Pakistan. These camps became a foundation for promoting pan-Islam fundamentalism and a place for forging tactical and ideological links. The international Muslim fundamentalist coalition that assembled provided a perfect recruiting ground for bin-Laden’s terrorist group that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The jihad produced an opportunity for a huge number of radical Muslims to come together and have legitimacy to be there in the U.S’s eyes. Therefore, they were not subject to intelligence reports and it led to the chance for bin-Laden to recruit them to al-Qaeda, which struck on 9/11. Although the Arab fighters, in my opinion cannot be credited with winning the war alone, they certainly did end the war having gained experience and the Afghan jihad had given them as Mandami put it; “organization, numbers, skills, confidence and coherent objectives.”  The jihad continued after the U.S withdrawal and fighters went to Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya and some eventually took part in the terrorist atrocity on 9/11. The United States helped to create the jihad for a contemporary political objective; however, it backfired and led to the creation of an infrastructure of terror.

An infrastructure of terror

Cold War American policy does help to explain the 9/11 attacks. The actions of the U.S helped create a jihad that would later terrorise the U.S and the west all over the world, form New York to Madrid, from Bali to Istanbul and London to Riyadh. What makes American policy help explain the 9/11 attacks is the infrastructure the war put in place for the future terrorists. A Los Angeles Times team carried out an investigation into the Afghan war and found that the key leaders of every major terrorist attack, including 9/11, veritably turned out to have been veterans of the Afghan war.  Mandami thinks that the real damage the CIA did was not in providing arms for the resistance but “the privatization of information about how to produce and spread violence – the formation of private militias capable of creating terror”.

The U.S helped provide and ideological infrastructure by allowing like-minded radicals to meet and rub shoulders and discuss the jihadist movement. They also helped with an actual material infrastructure, from which bin-Laden would later conduct his operations.  Construction of bases was part of the ISI program in Afghanistan, under the direction of the CIA. One of these bases was in a natural cave complex in the Tora Bora Mountains. It was reported that this is where bin-Laden was hiding when he planned the 9/11 attacks and where the U.S unsuccessfully attempted to find him in the Khost complex in October 2001.

The end of the Afghan conflict and the U.S withdrawal

The United States final Cold War policy that proved to have disastrous consequences was the rapid withdrawal of assets and resources from Afghanistan at the end of the conflict and this indicates culpability for 9/11. The United Sates largely abandoned the country to its own fate and following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989; the Afghan factions fought each other. The power vacuum left by the U.S meant that Afghanistan became a haven for fundamentalist Muslim radicals.

The birth of al-Qaeda and the rise of the Taliban

Pakistani intelligence used its power and influence to bring order out of the chaos and bring the Taliban to power.  The Saudi’s and Pakistanis sponsored the Taliban takeover in 1995/1996 on an agenda of promising peace and security. Bin-Laden was allowed to return to the country in May 1996 despite having been ally of the Taliban’s enemy Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.  Arab Afghan veterans and many North Africans, Asians, Saudis, Palestinians and Egyptians began to come to join bin-Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The U.S is definitely culpable here for withdrawing too quickly, despite war wariness towards the end of the Cold War, they should have had the foresight to analyse the role the Arab veterans may play in the future. Leaving such a power vacuum in Afghanistan meant the Taliban coming to power and giving refuge to a terrorist group who knew the country well, where they could plan strikes against the U.S from which culminated in the 9/11 attacks.

Taliban fighters around the Pakistan-Afghan border

Taliban fighters around the Pakistan-Afghan border

Conclusion and why this is not the full picture in explaining the 9/11 attacks

The 9/11 attacks were partly precipitated by America Cold War policy. However, it does not give us a holistic explanation. Other factors also help explain the 9/11 attacks. These include, the legacy left by colonialism, some would even go as far back as the crusades. Also weaknesses in U.S intelligence leading up to the attacks partly explain why it happened and a degree of explanation can never be defined as it was such a barbaric callous attack which went against the grain of human nature.


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