Steve Niva is a professor of Middleastern Politics at Evergreen State
College in Tacoma, Washington
Understanding Middle Eastern Sources of Violence Against the United
Steve Niva, The Evergreen State College
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
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
cliché'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 form 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
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.
Steve Niva teaches International politics and Middle East Studies at the
Evergreen State College.
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