Made in the USA?
As some of the individuals behind the attacks on America emerge as wealthy and Western-educated, perhaps we should aim our questions closer to home.
As the USA and its allies go chasing off around the world in search of those responsible for the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the story unfolding in the Western media is beginning to point closer to home.
Commentators and political leaders are finding particularly uncomfortable the indication that the hijackers and the networks suspected to be behind them could have been created by the West as much as by events in the Middle East.
Attempts to blame the Middle East for the hijackings is complicated in the first place by the fact that there seems to be no identifiable state or movement behind them. No Islamic group has taken responsibility for the attacks, and Islamic states such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran have all condemned them.
Even if the attacks could be pinned on Osama bin Laden, the role played by the West in the creation of his movement has been well-documented. America financed and helped to supervise the Mujahideen as resistance fighters against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, after Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in 1979; Islamic fighters were trained by the SAS and are reported to have received £2billion worth of aid in munitions (1). American officials estimate that between 1985 and 1992, 12,500 foreigners were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps that the CIA helped to set up (2).
Ex-SAS man Tom Carew, who fought alongside the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army, explained that: ‘My task was to teach them modern guerrilla tactics’, including the art of ‘shoot and scoot’; ‘they would lay a little ambush, let rip and disappear’. He added that ‘The Afghans are a formidable enemy. I should know. We in the West pointed them in the right direction and with a little bit of training, they went a long way’ (3). Indeed, bin Laden’s Office of Services, set up to recruit overseas for the war, received some US money (4).
When the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989, the Mujahideen ceased to be so useful to America. According to James Buchan, writing in the UK Observer, bin Laden was one of the thousands of Arabs left stranded in Afghanistan ‘with a taste for fighting but no cause’ (5). Witnessing Americans moving into his native Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, bin Laden ‘found a new cause’ by turning against his erstwhile allies. Defence analyst Paul Cornish from the Cambridge Center of International Studies said: ‘He was used by the CIA during the Cold War and got cross with the US during the Gulf War. He’s been cross ever since.’ (6)
Even US diplomats admit their role in creating Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. ‘We did spawn a monster in Afghanistan’, says Richard Murphy, former US president Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of state (7). Another American official said: ‘We created a whole cadre of trained and motivated people who turned against us.’ (8)
But the relationship between the hijackers and the conflicts of the Middle East is far from clear. The hijackers simply don’t fit the profile of the Islamic suicide bomber: as one New York Times article put it, ‘The prototype for Muslim suicide bombers is young, single, caught up in religious fervour and, often, desperate’. Yet ‘what we see here is an entirely new pattern’, said Israeli terrorism expert Ehud Sprinzak (9). ‘We have published a book on suicide bombing, but now we’ll have to rewrite the book.’
Far from eking out their childhood in the Gaza strip or in the mountains of Afghanistan, many of these hijackers were from wealthy families in the Middle East. One was the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman working in the USA (10). They were generally well educated, often in the West – three of them studied in Hamburg, Germany (11), where it is believed that the plot was first hatched. It has been reported that at least five of them had lived in Britain (12). Their flying skills were honed, not in the armies of the Middle East, but over a period of years at flying schools on the east coast of the USA. While one study found the average age of suicide bombers in Lebanon and Israel to be 22, one of the hijackers was 41 (13).
These were not victims of Western oppression with nothing to lose, but beneficiaries of the West, with stable and professional lives.
It appears that many of the hijackers were not even devout Muslims. Some of them reportedly liked drinking alcohol and one had a girlfriend in Germany – hardly the lifestyle of model followers of Islam. Were these men really motivated by the belief that there were 70 virgins awaiting them in paradise, as so many newspapers have reported?
The poverty, repression or religion of the Middle East alone cannot explain the motivations for the hijackings. Attempts to view the attacks upon the World Trade Centre and Pentagon as retribution for the Gulf War, as the revenge of the world’s oppressed, or the actions of fundamentalists in the grip of bin Laden, over-simplify what is proving to be a more complicated and confusing situation.
In the UK Guardian the day after the attacks, Labour MP George Galloway – who is known for his sympathies with the Arab world – described his visit to the 30,000-strong Chicago convention of the Islamic Society of North America in early September. He noted that there was a ‘second generation of US citizens who, but for their Islamic garb, were indistinguishable from other young people in the American patchwork quilt. Drinking Coke, driving Chevvies, chewing gum. And nursing their wrath’ (14).
In attempting to understand what was behind the attacks on 11 September, we should perhaps begin to look beyond the unhelpful profiles of the ‘typical’ Islamic fundamentalist terrorist and ask some questions about the culture and politics of contemporary Western society. The political certainties of the Cold War past have gone, leaving a void gradually filled with disparate elements of disaffection – from a generalised fear and feelings of alienation to the rise of separatist identity politics and the expression of incoherent outbursts against the status quo. This provides fertile ground for a depoliticised nihilistic zealotry.
Amid all of this confusion, it may be impossible to isolate one clear explanation for the zealotry of last week’s suicide bombers. But whatever drove them to this terrible act could well have been made in the USA.
Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
(1) Sunday Express, 16 September 2001; Observer, 16 September 2001
(2) Frankenstein the CIA created, Observer, 17 January, 1999
(3) In the death zone, Guardian, 19 September 2001
(4) Frankenstein the CIA created, Observer, 17 January, 1999
(5) Observer, 16 September 2001
(6) Sunday Express, 16 September 2001
(7) Sunday Express, 16 September 2001
(8) Frankenstein the CIA created, Observer, 17 January, 1999
(9) New York Times, 15 September 2001
(10) Sun, 17 September 2001
(11) Independent on Sunday, 16 September 2001
(12) Daily Mail, 18 September 2001
(13) New York Times, 15 September 2001
(14) Guardian, 12 September 2001