Understanding Middle Eastern Sources of Violence
Against the United States
by Steve Niva

In the wake of the immense and sickening tragedy of the recent attacks it is difficult to get beyond the horror and shock of what has just happened and engage in some reflection on the sources of violence against the United States. This is understandable given the almost unbelievable nature of this attack. Yet it is more necessary than ever if one is to cope with the tragedy and try to find ways to make sure it will never happen again.

What we will see in the next few days and weeks will be investigations, arrests of individuals and intense speculation about which groups or states did this and how the United States should respond. Unfortunately, if the pattern of past responses to such attacks is repeated, we will probably not learn a great deal about the reasons behind why this attack happened, or the broader sources of violence against the United States over the past decade.

We are hearing substantial reports of a Middle Eastern connection to this attack and media coverage has frequently mentioned the name of Osama bin Laden as the number one terrorist suspect and mastermind of this operation. If this evidence is verified, it is extremely important to gain clarity about the specific actors and their motivations before one can even think about how to respond. For Americans who like their hero's and villains portrayed in simple dichotomies of good and evil, the result of this kind of clarity could be disturbing because the United States has created many enemies through its policies in the Middle East over the past century and bears a significant amount of responsibility for creating a fertile soil for anti-American hatred.

Who is behind the attacks?

The recent attacks are most likely related to an escalating series of attacks and bombings on U.S. targets over the past 10 years, including the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which hundreds were killed. This attack followed a 1996 car-bomb attack on a U.S. barracks in Dharahan, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans and a 1995 car-bomb attack on an American National Guard Training center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the 1993 World Trade Center truck-bombing. All of these attacks have been attributed to Islamic radicals based in the Middle East and Central Asia under the rubric of a very hazy notion of "Islamic fundamentalism." Indeed a number of people from these regions with links to certain militant Islamic groups have been arrested and charged in some of these actions. Breathless reports of a shadowy Islamic conspiracy against the U.S. have generated a steady stream of clichi's about this new enemy and its hatred of the U.S., but unfortunately precious little light has been shed on understanding why this is happening and what exactly these people believe. Their enmity towards the U.S. is explained as little more than the product of a fanatical and inherently anti-Western and anti-American world view. Stephen Emerson, a so-called terrorism expert who frequently appears in the media, claims that "the hatred of the US by militant Islamic fundamentalists is not tied to any particular act or event. Rather, fundamentalists equate the mere existence of the West-its economic, political and cultural systems-as an intrinsic attack on Islam."

Any explanation of Middle Eastern violence that relies upon the notion that Islam is an inherently violent or inherently anti-Western religion is false and misleading. First, Islam is one of the world's largest and most diverse religions and like Christianity or Judaism there are thousands of views within Islam about the religion and also about violence and the West. Secondly, there are major differences even among explicitly Muslim militants and activists regarding these issues-some insist upon non-violent struggle and others regard violence as a legitimate tool. There is no way one can generalize about Islam or any religion for that matter.

So who are the perpetrators and what drove them to carry this horrendous act? The most likely perpetrators of these attacks are related to an extremely small and fringe network of militants whose motivations do not derive from Islam so much as from a common set of experiences and beliefs that resulted from their participation in the U.S. backed war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980's. These militants were recruited by the CIA, the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani intelligence services to fight against the Soviet Union during the 1980's. They came largely from the poor and unemployed classes or militant opposition groups from around the Middle East, including Algeria, Egypt, Palestine and elsewhere in order to wage war on behalf of the Muslim people of Afghanistan against the communist led invasion.

Among the many coordinators and financiers of this effort was a rich young Saudi named Osama Bin Laden, who was the millionaire son of a wealthy Saudi businessman with close contacts to the Saudi royal family. He was considered to be a major CIA asset in the war against the Soviet Union. After 1984, these groups started building major bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan and fought against the Soviet Union.

This network of conservative Sunni Muslim militants, who became known as "the Afghans", also served another purpose for the U.S. and its allies in the region. Not only were they anti-Communist they were also opposed to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran that had toppled a major ally of the U.S., the Shah of Iran, who had helped control the oil fields in the region under U.S. hegemony. They opposed the revolution because Iranian Islam is based on the Shiite branch of Islam that differs in important ways from the major Sunni branch of Islam. The clear aim of U.S. foreign policy was to kill two birds with one stone: turn back the Soviet Union and create a counter-weight to radical Iranian inspired threats to U.S. interests, particularly U.S. backed regimes who controlled the massive oil resources.

The failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East

But this policy has now turned into a nightmare for the U.S. and has likely led to the recent attacks against the U.S. in New York and Washington D.C. After the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan in 1989 this network became expendable to the U.S. who no longer needed their services. In fact, the U.S. actively turned against these groups after the Gulf War when a number of these militants returned home and opposed the U.S. war against Iraq and especially the U.S. ground troops placed in Saudi Arabia on the land of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Madina. In the past decade there has been a vicious war of intelligence services in the region between America and its allies and militant Muslim groups. Many Egyptian Islamists believe the U.S. trained Egyptian police torture techniques like they did the Shah and his brutal Savak security police. The CIA has sent snatch squads to abduct wanted militants from Muslim countries and return them to their countries to face almost certain death or imprisonment.

The primary belief of this loose and militant network of veterans of the Afghanistan war is that the West, led by the United States, is now waging war against Muslims around the world and that they have to defend themselves by any means necessary, including violence and terrorism. They point to a number of cases where Muslims have born the brunt of violence as evidence of this war: the genocide against Bosnian Muslims, the Russian war against Chechnya, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the UN sanctions against Iraq or the US support of brutal dictatorships in Algeria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example. They claim that the US either supported the violence or failed to prevent it in all of these cases.

It should be clear that this network is only a very radical fringe of militants who have decided that they must use armed tactics to get their message out to the U.S. and others. They have been identified as the major players in the recent string of anti-U.S. bombings across the Middle East that culminated in the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and now, possibly, the attacks directly on American soil.

They are very different from the wider current of Islamic activism in Arab world and more globally which in addition to its Islamic orientation has an agenda about social justice and social change against the dictatorships and terrible economic conditions and extensive corruption in many of the pro-Western countries in the region. They are anti-Iranian. They are now anti-Saudi. And their actions have even been condemned by very militant Muslim organizations ranging from the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt to the FIS in Algeria to HAMAS in Palestine. They are disconnected from these movements in many ways although some sentiments are certainly shared. There is no question that the U.S. support for Israel and its support for the devastating sanctions on Iraq, as well as U.S. support for brutal dictatorships across the region, have created a fertile ground for sympathy with such militancy.

Osama bin Laden is not the mastermind of these attacks as is often claimed in the media; he just facilitates these groups and sentiments with his money and finances, as do others. He is simply a very visible symbol of this network and the U.S. obsession with him most likely works to increase his standing as an icon of resistance to the U.S.

The rise of this militant network and their adoption of violence against the United States represents a clear failure of U.S. strategy in the region, especially the U.S./Saudi/Pakistani model of alliance between conservative Sunni Islamic activism and the West. The problem is that US has no alternative political strategy because they see all Islamic activists as their enemy and refuse to address the root causes of anti-American sentiments in the region, especially support for dictatorships and rampant poverty among the majority of the region's masses of people. Just as important, the U.S appears to have no long-term strategy to address the sources of grievances that the radical groups share with vast majority of Muslim activists who abhor using violent methods that would include a more balanced approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, ending the sanctions on Iraq or moving U.S. military bases out of Saudi Arabia.

How to truly defeat terrorism

Many of us accept the premise that terrorism is a phenomenon that can be defeated only by better ideas, by persuasion and, most importantly, by amelioration of the conditions that inspire it. Terrorism's best asset, in the final analysis, is the fire in the bellies of its young men. That fire cannot be extinguished by Tomahawk missiles or military operations. If intelligent Americans can accept this premise as a reasonable basis for dealing with this threat, why is it so difficult for our leaders to speak and act accordingly?

The present U.S. strategy for ending the threat of terrorism through the use of military force will very likely exacerbate these problems. When innocent U.S. citizens are killed and harmed by blasts at US embassies or bases, the U.S. government expects expressions of outrage and grief over brutal terrorism. But when U.S. Cruise missiles kill and maim innocent Sudanese, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, the U.S. calls it collateral damage. Many of the world's 1.2 billion Muslim people are understandably aggrieved by double standards. The U.S. claims that it must impose economic sanctions on certain countries that violate human rights and/or harbor weapons of mass destruction. Yet the U.S. largely ignores Muslim victims of human rights violations in Palestine, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir and Chechnya. What's more, while the U.S. economy is propped up by weapon sales to countries around the globe and particularly in the Middle East, the U.S. insists on economic sanctions to prevent weapon development in Libya, Sudan, Iran and Iraq. In Iraq, the crippling economic sanctions cost the lives of 5,000 children, under age five, every month. Over one million Iraqis have died as a direct result of over a decade of sanctions. Finally, the U.S. pro-Israel policy unfairly puts higher demands on Palestinians to renounce violence than on Israelis to halt new settlements and adhere to U.N. resolutions calling for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands.

There is no justification for the horrendous attacks on innocent American civilians in New York or Washington. Yet, at this difficult time, Americans should critically examine policies with which Arabs, Muslims and many others have legitimate grievances. Why do we refuse to see the flaws in these policies? Is it easier to demonize those in the Arab world who oppose them as a way of diverting attention from our own mistakes?

President Bush and others have labeled all Islamic militants as members or "affiliates" of the "Osama bin Laden Network of Terrorism." This is, of course, the common mistake of demonizing one individual as the root of all evil. In fact, elevating bin Laden to that status only gives him a mantle of heroism now and, more ominously, will guarantee him martyrdom if he should die. Even if he is killed or captured, the fertile soil that creates such figures will still be there. Moreover, any attacks may simply serve to inflame passions and create hosts of new volunteers to their ranks. Military solutions to the problems in the Middle East and the terrorism that has resulted from these problems is not a policy but a recipe for more violence and bombings.

18 September 2001

Steve Niva teaches International politics and Middle East Studies at the Evergreen State College.

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