In a keynote address delivered this morning at the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations in Washington DC, Ambassador Chas W. Freeman Jr. (USFS, ret.) said:
The fanatics who carried out the atrocities of 9/11 went out of their way to describe their motivations and outlined their objectives to anyone who would listen. America turned off its hearing aid. It’s still off. The grievances that catalyzed 9/11 remain not simply unaddressed but ignored or denied by Americans.
Al Qaeda saw 9/11 as a counterattack against American policies that had directly or indirectly killed and maimed large numbers of Muslims. Some of those enraged by our policies were prepared to die to achieve revenge. Still, there were few in the Muslim world in 2001 who sympathized with al Qaeda’s attack on us. There are many more now. It is not our values that they hate. It’s what we have done and continue to do. We won’t stop terrorists by trying to impose our narrative on them while ignoring theirs, however politically expedient it may be to do so. We can’t fight anti-American extremists effectively or otherwise fend off the menace they present if we refuse to consider why they attacked us and why they still want to do so.
The chief planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath that a primary purpose of al Qaeda’s criminal assault on the United States was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people . . . .” In so-called “fatwas” in 1996 and 1998, Osama Bin Ladin justified al Qaeda’s declaration of war against the United States by reference to the same issue, while levying other charges against America. Specifically, he accused Americans of directly murdering one million Muslims, including 400,000 children, through the U.S. siege and sanctions against Iraq, while “occupying” the Muslim heartland of Saudi Arabia.
Al Qaeda members have described the war strategy they ultimately adopted as having five stages. Through these, they projected, the Islamic world could rid itself of all forms of aggression against it.
In stage one, al Qaeda would produce massive American civilian casualties with a spectacular attack on U.S. soil in order to provoke American retaliation in the form of the invasion of one or more Muslim countries. In stage two, al Qaeda would use the American reaction to its attack to incite, energize, and organize expanding resistance to the American and Western presence in Muslim lands. In stage three, the U.S. and its allies would be drawn into a long war of attrition as conflict spread throughout the Muslim world.
By stage four, the struggle would transform itself into a self-sustaining ideology and set of operating principles that could inspire continuing, spontaneously organized attacks against the U.S. and its allies, impose ever-expanding demands on the U.S. military, and divide America’s allies from it. In the final stage, the U.S. economy would, like that of the Soviet Union before it, collapse under the strain of unsustainable military spending, taking the dollar-dominated global economy down with it. In the ensuing disorder, al Qaeda thought, an Islamic Caliphate could seize control of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East.
This fantastic, perverted vision reflected al Qaeda’s belief that if, against all the odds, faith-based struggle could bring down the Soviet Union, it could also break the power of the United States, its Western allies, and Israel. This strategy seemed ridiculous when al Qaeda first proclaimed it. It is still implausible but, frankly, has come to sound a bit less preposterous than it once did.
The immediate objective of the 9/11 attacks was explicitly to provoke the United States into military overreactions that would enrage and arouse the world’s Muslims, estrange Americans from Arabs, stimulate a war of religion between Islam and the West, undermine the close ties between Washington and Riyadh, curtail the commanding influence of the United States in the Middle East, and overthrow the Saudi monarchy. The aftershocks of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist operation against the United States have so far failed to shake the Saudi monarchy but – to one degree or another – it has realized all its other immediate goals. Among other things, it has burdened future generations of Americans with about $5 trillion in debt from the Afghan and Iraq wars, helping to thrust the United States into fiscal crisis.
Mao Zedong observed that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” His point was that, when conditions arise that can be exploited to favor a cause, it can spread with frightening speed and ferocity. The U.S. response to 9/11 has inflamed Islamist anti-Americanism in a widening swath of the Muslim world. By the time he died, Osama Bin Ladin surely felt entitled to pronounce the first stages of his mission accomplished. Islamist terrorism did not die with him. It lives on. One cannot decapitate a network. Nor can one shrivel an ideology by military means alone.