|Addressing The Sources Of Middle Eastern Violence Against The
Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)
By Steve Niva
In the wake of the immense tragedy of the recent attacks on
American soil it is difficult to get beyond the horror and shock of
what has just happened and engage in serious 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 find ways
to prevent such attacks in the future.
What we will see in the next few days and weeks will be further
investigations, arrests of individuals and intense speculation
about which groups or states did this and how the United States
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. Instead the usual
array of retired generals and military analysts will be trotted out
to explain the tactical elements of their favored military
We now have seen substantial evidence 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.
As we are inexorably led down the road to military confrontation in
the Middle East, it is necessary 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 will 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. Any American
response that does not address this truth is doomed to further the
cycle of violence.
WHO IS BEHIND THE ATTACKS?
The recent attacks on U.S. soil are most likely related to an
escalating series of attacks and bombings on U.S. targets over the
past 10 years. In order, these attacks include: the recent bombing
of the USS Cole in October, 2000 that claimed 17 lives; the 1998
bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which hundreds
were killed; the 1996 car-bomb attack on a U.S. barracks in
Dharahan, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans; the 1995 car-bomb
attack on an American National Guard Training center in Riyadh,
Saudi Arabia that took 4 lives and, of course, the 1993 World Trade
Center truck-bombing that killed 6 people and injured over a
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. led by
Osama bin Laden have generated a steady stream of cliche'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 and 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 enemy.
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. Although accounts vary regarding his actual
participation in the war, he played an important role in helping
these groups recruit volunteers and build extensive networks of
bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan after 1984.
This network of conservative Sunni Muslim militants, who became
known as "the Afghans" in the Middle East, also served another
purpose for the U.S. and its allies in the region. Not only were
they anti-Communist due to their rejection of its atheism, they
were also opposed to the brand of Islamic radicalism promoted by
the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and its leader Ayatollah
Khomeini largely because it was based on Shiite rather than Sunni
Islamic doctrine, a major doctrinal cleavage within Islam. The
revolution had had toppled a major ally of the U.S., the Shah of
Iran, who played a major role as a pillar of U.S. hegemony in the
oil rich Persian Gulf and was threatening key U.S. allies such as
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other oil rich states. Therefore, the
clear aim of U.S. foreign policy therefore 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 the "Afghan"
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 moved into the violent opposition against U.S. allied regimes
and opposed the U.S. war against Iraq in 1991.
They were particularly opposed to the unprecedented positioning of
U.S. ground troops in Saudi Arabia on the land of the Islamic holy
sites of Mecca and Medina. As a result, 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. Moreover, the CIA has sent snatch squads to abduct wanted
militants form Muslim countries and return them to their countries
to face almost certain death and 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 Serbian and Croation genocide against Bosnian Muslims, the
Russian war in Chechnya, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the
Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the UN sanctions against
Iraq and the U.S. backing of 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 is
these beliefs that enable them to justify not only targeting U.S.
military facilities but also its civilians.
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 differ in
important ways with 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 corruption in many of the pro-Western
countries in the region. They are anti-Iranian. They are now
Their actions have sometimes even been condemned by militant Muslim
organizations ranging from the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt to the
FIS in Algeria to HAMAS in Palestine. They are somewhat
disconnected from these movements in that they do not locate their
struggle in a national context, but rather in a global war on
behalf of Muslims. Nevertheless, they certainly share many common
sentiments with this wider current of Islamic activism.
There is no question that the one-sided U.S. support for Israel,
the U.S. sponsorship of sanctions against Iraq as well as U.S.
support for dictatorships across the region have created a fertile
ground for some 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 logistics and finances, as do others. He is simply
a very visible symbol of this loose 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 network with which he is linked has no geographical location or
fixed center; it appears to be a kaleidoscopic overlay of cells and
inter-linkages that span the globe from camps on the
Afghan-Pakistan borderlands to immigrant communities in Europe and
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.
Moreover, 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, for starters, a more balanced approach to the
Israeli/Palestinian conflict, ending the sanctions on Iraq, moving
U.S. military bases out of Saudi Arabia, and supporting the
legitimate aspirations of regional peoples for democracy and human
HOW TO TRULY DEFEAT TERRORISM
Many of us accept the premise that terrorism is a phenomenon that
can be defeated only by amelioration of the conditions that inspire
it. Terrorism's best asset, in the final analysis, is the anger and
desperation that leads people to see no alternative to violence.
While only a fringe element has seized upon violence as their
solution, 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
That anger cannot be extinguished by Tomahawk missiles or military
operations. The present U.S. strategy for ending the threat of
terrorism through the use of military force will only exacerbate
this anger and desperation. When innocent U.S. citizens are killed
and harmed by blasts at US embassies or bases, or used as cannon
fodder for suicide hijackings, 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. Even if Osama bin
Laden 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 There is no
justification for the horrendous attacks on innocent American
civilians in New York or Washington. These attacks have served no
cause; they have likely set back efforts to build popular movements
and international solidarity that, in the final analysis, are the
best chance of achieving social justice and change in the Middle
East and elsewhere. Yet, at this difficult time, Americans should
critically examine policies with which Arabs, Muslims and many
others have legitimate grievances. Instead our leaders refuse to
admit the flaws in their policies and find it easier to demonize
those in the Arab world who oppose them as a way of diverting
attention from their own mistakes.
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.
Steve Niva writes regularly for Middle East Report (www.merip.org)
and is an associate at the Middle East Research and Information
Project (MERIP) in Washington DC. He also teaches International
politics and Middle East Studies at the Evergreen State College.
© 2001 Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).