Monday marks the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that claimed 2,977 lives.
What’s changed since 9/11? How has our view of Islamist terrorists been transformed since that dreadful day? Have more recent attacks by ISIS changed the face of terrorism once again?
As we remember the tragedy that struck America 16 years ago, have we been truly cognizant of the grievances that might have led al-Qaida to commit such a horrific attack?
On Sept. 11, 2001, the American people encountered up close the fury of radical Islamist violence.
But the U.S. government had long been familiar with groups like al-Qaida and the Taliban. The Reagan administration had backed William Casey and the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert operations against Soviets in Afghanistan by funding Pakistan’s ISI as well as the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Communist regime.
The U.S. therefore indirectly facilitated the emergence of the Taliban, because the group is an offshoot of the U.S. funded and supported mujahedeen.
Al-Qaida and the Taliban had, for the most part, been in the business of fighting their “close enemy,” the apostate rulers who governed in Muslim lands. At that point, radical Islamist groups were not much of a threat to the Americans. They were more concerned with maintaining the balance of power through its allies and ensuring its economic and strategic presence in the Middle East.
U.S. embassies bombed
But then al-Qaida decided to target the “far enemy” and bombed American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, murdering 224 people and injuring more than 5,000. As well, they attacked the USS Cole in 2000. What prompted Osama bin Laden to turn his attention to the “far enemy” was the continued military presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia since 1990.
For the now-deceased bin Laden, it was scandalous that Saudis tolerated the presence of a non-Muslim foreign military in the land which was home to the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. At first, bin Laden refrained from perpetrating attacks on Saudi soil. Violence would have brought criticism from Saudis who might have shared some of al-Qaida’s concerns but did not want their country to be under siege. Instead, he concentrated his attacks on U.S. targets.
The Clinton administration and the CIA were now worried that the head of the terrorist organization could perpetrate an attack on U.S. soil. They tried but failed to convince the Taliban to hand over the al-Qaida leader and they failed to eliminate him.
Then came 9/11.
Three years after the event, bin Laden mentioned the grievance that incited him to plan an attack on the twin towers:
“… the events that affected me directly were that of 1982 and the events that followed — when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the U.S. sixth fleet… As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way (and) to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and stop killing our children and women.”
For some extremist Islamists, bin Laden’s retaliation is justified and rooted in the Islamic principle of qiṣāṣ (retaliation in kind), a somewhat similar idea to “an eye for an eye” as expressed in the Hebrew Bible. However, according to some scholars, this is a misunderstanding of qiṣāṣ: Retaliatory action in Islamic law is more complex and prescribed to individual cases.
Grievances like bin Laden’s against the U.S. have been reprised by other groups such as ISIS, who also use qiṣāṣ as a means to legitimize their own actions in response to attacks by the international coalition on Muslims in Syria and Iraq.
Following 9/11, North Americans expressed an unprecedented interest in Islam and all things Muslim. Many non-Muslims were suspicious of Muslims and still feel threatened by Islam. Those fears have dramatically increased since the advent of ISIS, where decentralized and unpredictable terror attacks have now reached global proportions.
There are also now renewed concerns about al-Qaida with the steady rise to leadership of Hamza bin Laden, son of the organization’s founder.
This has unfortunately led people to establish false equivalencies between the beliefs of violent Islamist organizations and the majority of peaceful Muslims around the world. This profound misunderstanding is now evident in the rise of far-right groups fuelled by anti-Muslim sentiments and full-on Islamaphobia in many parts of the world.
It’s worth noting that terror attacks are also perpetrated by those who embrace far-right ideas as well.
Understanding what ignites the rage
As we reflect on the tragedy of 9/11 we should carefully consider and ponder the issues and causes that propelled al-Qaida forward in order to best guard ourselves from further violence.
Many of the grievances stem from the premise that the West is at war with Islam, as understood through the wars waged by western nations against Muslims in their own lands, and the discrimination they face in many non-Muslim countries.
Attempting to understand what is fuelling violent Islamist extremists does not mean anyone condones terror attacks. Instead, understanding their perspectives may help us counter their ideologies. When western governments regard all Muslims as suspicious and an entire religion as malevolent, they are falling in line with Islamic State propaganda.
Standing idle in the face of discrimination and anti-Muslim bigotry will only widen the chasm that already exists between people, engendering greater fear and suspicion, and leading to further isolation from each other — and, sadly, the risk of further violence, misery and despair.