Terra incognita: The 9/11 generation

Jabhat Al-Nusra militants (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jabhat Al-Nusra militants
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jefferson Commons was the name of a private housing complex specifically designed for students attending University of Arizona. While I was studying at the university one of my fraternity brothers was from Pakistan. Sometimes over a game of tennis under the lights at Jefferson Commons he would tell me stories about the war in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has great influence in Afghanistan through the intelligence service, the ISI, but the one thing that stands in the way is the Northern Alliance,” he once told me.
The Northern Alliance was a collection of fighters loyal to Ahmed Shah Masoud who was fighting the Taliban. On September 9, 2011, he was murdered by a suicide bomber sent by Osama bin-Laden. The murder of Masoud, the role of Pakistan, the Taliban and 9/11 are all intertwined. Of course, it took some time for those of us who came of age on 9/11 to understand that.
It’s extraordinary to think back now on those days before September 11. I was taking an advanced Middle East studies class with a professor named Charles Smith. My classmates waxed poetic about their trips to Syria to study Arabic. The Middle East was romantic, and if only the Israel-Palestinian conflict could be solved, it would all be wonderful.
Beginning in March of 2001 the Taliban began to systematically destroy the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
They used machine guns, artillery, rockets; as if they had to wage a war against history.
In those days all the Middle East Studies students had excuses for it. “It’s not Islamic, it’s about colonialism, we shouldn’t judge them, that would impose our values upon them.” All the evils of the Taliban, such as public executions of women, had an excuse. We must “understand” it.
The Taliban’s destruction of history, like Islamic State’s (IS) systematic destruction of Palmyra today, didn’t emerge from a vacuum. The Taliban were carefully supported by Pakistan, against minority Tajik, Uzbek and Shia groups in Afghanistan; all of which had not imbibed the nihilist Islamism of the monstrous Taliban. After the Taliban settled in, they encouraged those like bin-Laden and his mostly Arab followers to set up camp.
On September 12, it all became clear.
How could we not have known the group responsible for the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, for the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, for attacks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 1996, would not do what it promised it would: strike America in America.
Looking back on the war waged against al-Qaida by the US also presents an extraordinary contrast. Teams of agents tracked the 1993 bombers of the World Trade Center to far-flung places like the Philippines and Pakistan, in contrast to today’s drone war against IS. It’s worth watching some of the movies that cover all these events, such as Zero Dark 30, The Path to 9/11, Charlie Wilson’s War and HBO’s Manhunt: The search for Bin Laden to get an idea of the way the US grappled with the terrorist menace. It was very much a personal war – catch or kill a few terror leaders and the problem ends.
Since the early 1990s the US and its allies have exhibited naiveté and the inability of the victims of terrorism to come to grips with their adversaries. “Why do they hate us” is the constant refrain of a civilization that has gotten used to self-critique. Why don’t we hate them is never asked.
There are ample reasons to hate Islamist extremists: The London 7/7 2005 bombings; Madrid (2014); Westgate (2013); Mumbai (2008); Mumbai again (2011); Manila Ferry bombing (2004); Bali (2002, 2005); Kenya (1998); 9/11; the Pakistan school massacre (2014); the Breslan siege (2004); the Moscow theater siege (2002); the beach massacre in Tunisia (2015); Buenas Aires (1992, 1994); Beirut (1983); Sidi Mousa (1997); Djerba (2002) – the list of mass killing is endless, and despite the numerous commonalities, the inability to confront it, either militarily, ideologically or culturally, is brutally obvious. There will be more and more in the future.
At the tip of the iceberg is the constant collaboration with those countries that were the fountainhead of terrorist ideology.
In God’s terrorists, Charles Allen sketched the roots of Wahhabi jihadism all the way from what is now Saudi Arabia to India and what is now Pakistan. The US has been closely allied with both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and in the 1990s worked with them to foster the Mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. However the US and its Western allies consistently ignored the role of these countries in nurturing extremism.
Once al-Qaida and its Saudi-born leader launched its war on America following the Gulf War it was clear Pakistan and Saudi Arabia fueled the growth of the terror network. Almost all 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan gave shelter to the bin-Laden network and many other extremists such as the Haqqani terrorists and Lashkar e-Taiba. When he was killed in Abbotabad, bin-Laden was in Pakistan, and yet no one was ever willing to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Pakistan actively worked against the West; with one hand it fought terrorism, with the other its security agencies supported groups like the Taliban. A similar naiveté now underscores US policy on Iran and the West’s ignoring Turkey’s role in allowing IS recruits to transfer through its territory.
However, ironically the real arch of Islamist-inspired terrorism now makes bin-Laden’s activities look like child’s play.
In the old days before the rise of IS, law enforcement concentrated on names like Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Yousef and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Born between 1951 and 1971, these men all honed their ideology in the Afghan war, with formative experiences related to combating the Algerian and Egyptian governments, the US role in the Gulf War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These men gave interviews to the media, debated harming civilians and issued clear directives about their “right” to attack the US because of its presence in Saudi Arabia.
They matured over time into forms of what appeared to be at the time barbaric evil, but which now almost seem tame compared to what happened later in the Iraq insurgency and Syrian Civil War. When Daniel Pearl was murdered in 2002 by al-Qaida’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan that was considered exceptionally brutal. Now IS beheads hundreds, and it’s considered almost normal.
Initially the way in which this fraternity of Sunni jihadist extremism would transform into a sectarian war of annihilation in the Middle East was obscured by the relative absence of Shi’ite power. When the Sunni Taliban killed 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar e-Sharif in 1998 and massacred thousands of Shi’ite Hazara Afghans, the Iranian government mobilized 70,000 troops for war. But the promised sectarian conflict did not come, and everyone forgot that Iran had almost invaded Afghanistan to protect its brethren. That now seems like a dry run for Iran’s total involvement in Iraq’s civil war to support the Shi’ite militias.
In the “good old days” of the 2000s, from time to time terrorists might attack Christian, Jewish, Shi’ite, Buddhist or Ahmadi targets, but the real focus was on the US, or various regimes they considered un-Islamic; full-scale ethnic cleansing such as IS practices was never carried out. A 180- page manual by al-Qaida called “declaration of jihad against the country’s tyrants” claimed “Islamic governments have never been established through peaceful solutions...
they are established by pen and gun.”
The history of confronting this ideology in the West was always about nuance.
Commentators came to be greater experts on Islam than Muslims themselves, constantly lecturing Muslims about the “true Islam.” This was the case recently with David Cameron’s constant outbursts about IS being a “perversion of the religion of Islam.” In the 2012 book Talking to Terrorists: Concessions and the Renunciation of Violence, Caroline Goerzig informs readers that “in Islam it is forbidden to label somebody else an infidel.” She argues that “by pointing to the counterproductive effects of terrorism on the one hand and the much more constructive role of political engagement on the other, Islamists around the globe are tested in their credibility – and more importantly in the true nature of their ambitions.” She elaborates about how Gama’a Islamiya and jihadist groups in Egypt supposedly turned away from terrorism in contrast to al-Qaida, which did not.
We are supposed to pretend that these Islamist groups are a bunch of college academics and that if they can just be convinced to follow the “real” Islam, all will be well. It’s as ridiculous as pretending the Inquisition was merely carried out by priests who didn’t read the “real” teachings of Jesus enough.
Consider the real pathways of terrorism we grew up with. Gama’a Islamiya began its campaign of mass murder killing Coptic Christians and culminated in the slaughter of 58 tourists in 1997. Along the way they attempted to overthrow the Egyptian government, just as the Muslim Brotherhood had done decades before, and assassinated Anwar Sadat. Ironically Gama’a Islamiya had declared jihad on the government for “negotiating with the Jews”; just as al-Qaeda would later label Gama’a Islamiya traitors to Islam and agents of Zionism and the Americans in 2001 because it had in turn declared peace with Egypt. Whereas today’s jihadist in Boko Haram or IS completely eliminates minorities or enslaves them, in those days the concept was more narrow: just a jihad against the “Jews and Crusaders,” the title of a document put out in 1998 by bin-Laden, Zawahri, Abu Yasir Rifat, Ahmed Taha of the Egyptian Islamic Group, Sheikh Mir Hamzah of the Jamiat ul-Ulema of Pakistan and Fazlur Rahman of the Bangladeshi Jihad Movement. Since there were no “Crusaders or Jews” in Bangladesh, one can surmise that the group was primarily devoted to attacking the government and minority Hindus, all standins for “Jews and Crusaders.”
Along the way the Western “experts” consistently misunderstood how these movements were growing and changing. Instead of “moderating” – the Western myth that all extremism tends toward moderation – they were getting worse. After the USS Cole bombing in Aden, Yemen in 2000, the US ambassador argued that the US should make an effort to work closely with the Yemeni authorities, rather than simply roll in stomp. Ambassador Barbara Bodine wrote in 2008: “Yemen’s subsequent willingness to cooperate with us in the war on terrorism confirms the value of working with it – not seeing it as the enemy.”
The fact is Yemen did very little and subsequently became a heartland for al-Qaida and then a base for Iranian-backed Houthis. Now it has been invaded by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to prevent it being taken over by Iran, but it resembles Iraq and Syria today. Is it surprising that as recently as 2004 US students were still flocking there and to Syria to study Arabic? I knew people who studied in both places, these “moderate” Arab states, run by “friendly” governments. No one thought “see Palmyra before it’s gone.” No one is going to either country today.
The chaos of Yemen reminds us of another failed state: Libya, and another naïve mission, that led to the death of US ambassador J. Christopher Stephens in Benghazi on September 12, 2012, at the hands of Ansar al-Shariah, a group connected to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Not long before his murder, the US embassy in Cairo issued a statement condemning the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims...
we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right to free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” The statement was supposed to mollify angry crowds in Egypt who had been told to blame the US government for a homemade anti-Islamic movie. As usual the driving thought behind the statement was “why do they hate us.” And the answer? One guy made a movie in his basement. But that’s not of course why crowds of people can be so easily whipped into anger. Just like pogroms against Jews in Europe were not actually because Jews “offended Christians,” the widespread anger had more to do with local culture than the US. Stephens died because no one wanted to admit that radical Islamism was growing in Libya.
Libya was not becoming a “nascent democracy,” any more than Bodine’s Yemen would become one, any more than Somalia was becoming one in the 1990s.
Jihad as an international brand, like Nike or Coca-Cola, has transferred from al-Qaeda since the death of bin-Laden. Consider the case of Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization whose symbol is the hallmark black flag and that operates in the Philippines.
Its founder, Abdulrajik Janjalani, had fought in Afghanistan. It was one of the first to swear allegiance to IS, in June of 2014, along with groups from Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria. By May of 2015 more than 35 groups had pledged allegiance to IS, many of which had previously been inspired by al-Qaida. They spanned the globe from Africa to Asia, from the Sinai to Kashmir. The biggest coup was Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, the former jumping on the IS brand in March and Shabab allegedly in July.
The generation of 9/11 grew up under the shadow of all this but has not learned its lessons. The age of the individual terrorist is nearing its end. In January of 2015 Zulkifli Abdhir was killed in a gun battle in the Philippines in which 44 Phillipino special forces police died. Abdhir, who was born in Malaysia, was involved with a half-dozen terrorist organizations, including those in Philippines and Indonesia and many of those connected to the 2002 Bali bombings. He allegedly trained fighters who went to serve alongside IS. He’s like a later-day Ramzy Yousef, the famed engineer turned bomb maker who, like Abdhir, once plotted to kill the pope.
Now we live under the aegis of the IS generation. The Abdhirs and Yousefs are detained or dead. The numerous little Sunni jihadist groups are increasingly ineffectual.
Only those that hold territory, like Boko Haram or IS, have real affect, and theirs is primarily a scorched-earth policy of total destablilization and de-development.
The Taliban’s failed state was a test run just as the Bamiyan destruction was a prelude to Palmyra. The 9/11 generation was asked to explain “why they hate us,” whereas in recent years it is simply denied that “they” even exist. When Ramzy Yousef was sentenced in 1998, Judge Kevin Duffy told him: “You are not fit to uphold Islam.
Your God is death. Your God is not Allah.”
He could have saved his breath to describe IS.
Since 9/11 little has been learned. Erstwhile allies like the Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance or the Kurds in Iraq have been denied full support by a US that prefers chaotic local regimes that collaborate with extremists. Iran has been appeased from one strength to another. Since the 1980s the Saudis, Gulf States and Lebanese leaders have been warning about the power of Iran. But Iran has now destabilized four Arab states. Arab nationalism that promised an Arab world on the model of 1920s Europe has disappeared. Liberalism, democratization and various other concepts are withering in the Middle East.
“Our heroes are all dead,” an educated Arab woman recently told me. The Middle East is divided by twin polls of IS and Iran.
Since 9/11 the Middle East and the extremist networks that emanate from it have consistently baffled policymakers’ prescriptions and predictions. Before 9/11 people were convinced terrorists had “demands” and expected hijacked planes to be diverted to some tarmac for negotiations.
After 9/11 the concept was that if only bin-Laden’s theories could be academically deciphered, and some moderation and democracy sprinkled on them, something good would grow out of it. Now the theory is to try to work with Iran as a pillar of “regional stability” at the region’s least stable time in history. The future is extremely bleak in the Middle East and beyond. If there is one lesson from the surprise of 9/11 in the West it is to expect things to get worse, not better.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.