Mirror images of terror
Al Qa’eda wanted to provoke, the US neocons wanted to be provoked. The result has been a whole series of failed states, writes Eddie Ford
To understand 9/11, it is necessary to understand al Qa’eda. As an organisation al Qa’eda began in 1988 as an integral part of the Saudi Arabian, Pakistani and - most importantly of all - United States-backed counterrevolutionary war against the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan government in Kabul. A US attempt to get revenge for Vietnam and inflict a body blow upon the visibly malfunctioning Soviet Union.
As a name al Qa’eda has no religious connotations - it essentially means ‘the Base’ or ‘the Foundation’. It was a group formed from amongst the foreign fighters, often called the Arab Afghanis, recruited in order to provide an international brigade for the Mujahedin forces that the US funded to the tune of about $600 million. Al Qa’eda was marked out by its determination to fight as a separate unit and by its religious convictions. As it happens, al Qa’eda did not play a significant role in the fighting and as a body never amounted to a force of more than 3,000-5,000 people (though some 24,000 volunteers passed through its ranks). Despite that, al Qa’eda credited itself with forcing the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and even the collapse of the Soviet system two years later.
What about its founder, its emir, its first leader, Osama bin Laden? He came from a very wealthy Saudi family - very few of us have not seen the photo of Osama with other young members of the bin Laden family from 1971 in Sweden. There he is wearing flares and sitting on a flashy, pink, American-made car. But, despite having lived a playboy lifestyle, he answered the call to volunteer to fight the ‘evil Soviet empire’ in Afghanistan. He went as a religious zealot with a strict, literal interpretation of the Koran and a correspondingly strict lifestyle. But what were the reasons that made bin Laden turn against the United States?
Doubtless, the American-led counter-invasion of Kuwait played a role. We still do not know why Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Was he given a nod and a wink from the US ambassador? Was it his own initiative? Whatever the case, he easily took over the country. Saddam Hussein was also, of course, the leader of the Iraqi branch of the pan-Arab Ba’ath Party and therefore could be seen as having even grander ambitions. At the time there were all sorts of stories about ‘First stop: Kuwait; next stop: Saudi Arabia’.
Under these circumstances, bin Laden contacted the Saudi royal family and basically offered to relocate his fighters from Afghanistan in order to defend the two great holy cities of Mecca and Medina. To his shock, however, he got turned down. The Saudi king put his trust in the presence of US armed forces rather than bin Laden’s rag-tag-and-bobtail outfit. Given bin Laden’s religious beliefs, having infidel troops in Saudi Arabia was an abomination. After staging unsuccessful protests, he opted for exile in Sudan.
Then we have his second turning point: Saudi acceptance in 1993 of the Oslo Accord. Signed by both the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government, it was essentially an agreement to keep Israel as currently constituted, with a reservation for the Palestinians in the West Bank and a giant open prison in Gaza. The Saudi king accepted a deal considered sacrilegious by many Muslims because it legitimised Israel and the occupation of Jerusalem - the third holy city, which, of course, contains the al-Aqsa mosque.
From the perspective of bin Laden the Oslo Accord was a treacherous sellout to US power. From this point, the Sudanese-based al Qa’eda started organising attacks upon American targets. There were, for example, the near simultaneous truck bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Nairobi in Kenya in August 1998. Over 200 died - overwhelmingly Africans, of course.
After that, it seems bin Laden’s family cut off his not ungenerous annual allowance of $7 million. There were also plenty of plausible, albeit disputed, stories that the Sudanese government had offered to arrest and hand him over to the Americans - who did not appear to welcome such a move, for whatever reason. With the situation becoming precarious, bin Laden went back to Afghanistan where he was tolerated. Clearly, the Taliban were not the same as the Mujahedin, but he was viewed as part of the same thought-universe. A fellow Muslim, and thus someone you have a duty towards.
Now, we have to try to think like Osama bin Laden. The main target is not the Soviet Union any more, which has gone, but the US and its insidious international control. What is the strategy that led to devastating attacks against US embassies and then the horrors of 9/11? The central idea is to provoke America to attack a Muslim country and get the US bogged down in a protracted struggle, with the role of al Qa’eda being to use that as an opportunity to rouse resistance and generalise that uprising.
Whether that is a five-point or seven-point plan depends on which journalist was interviewing bin Laden, but suffice to say that the end point is a universal or global caliphate. Interestingly, one date he gave for the completion of the caliphate was 2020 - behind schedule. This is reminiscent in some respects of Nikita Khrushchev’s schedule for overtaking the US and then the realisation of ‘communism’. According to the 1961 programme of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the USSR would catch up by 1970 and start to achieve communism by 1980 - even more behind schedule!
If we look at the al Qa’eda plan, it is far from mad, however. Indeed, it actually succeeds initially: within two months of 9/11, the US and its Nato allies invade Afghanistan - aligning with the Northern Alliance and other warlords. Yes, the US clears out the Taliban government incredibly quickly. But 20 years later the Taliban is back in Kabul after the US was bogged down in a war that it ultimately lost - as envisaged by bin Laden.
In fact, the US and al Qa’eda formed a mirror image of each other - though very unequal in terms of their respective power, of course. Al Qa’eda wanted to provoke the US, but George W Bush and the neocons, organised around the Project for a New American Century, wanted to be provoked. Their literature proclaimed that, after the Soviet Union, the next task as the only remaining superpower was to project American power into the 21st century, beginning with refashioning the Middle East in an American image.
Of course, the aim was never to start off with Afghanistan - which they never gave a damn about, obviously. Rather, it represented a very first test of the new US military doctrine. Go in with very few troops and rely on immense technological superiority. But the real target was always Iraq - though god only knows how you are avenging yourself upon al Qa’eda by attacking the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. But they managed it regardless, with ludicrous talk about Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘45 minutes to destruction’, ‘dodgy dossiers’, etc. In that way, incredibly, Bush managed to incorporate Iraq as part of the ‘axis of evil’ - as if Saddam Hussein was in some way responsible for 9/11. But if you can fool enough people enough of the time …
What was the result of the US invasion? Of course, they get a lightening victory, toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein, and so on. But what happens is precisely a vindication of the bin Laden/al Qa’eda strategy of fermenting an opposition - which morphs into Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and in turn conquers huge swathes of Iraq and Syria.
The neocons’ strategy, on the other hand, turns to dust - bogged down in what Joe Biden called “endless wars”, with the US eventually scuttling from first Iraq and now Afghanistan. What the Vulcans did succeed in doing was creating failed states, which goes back to at least Jimmy Carter and American interventions in Nicaragua, Mozambique and Angola.
Of course, watching the coverage of 9/11, one can only be moved by the traumatic memories of people who survived the atrocity. Yes, 9/11 was an appalling event, when almost 3,000 died, but, if we go back to the beginnings of the pushback against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, for every one American who died 20 years ago on that day, there are hundreds of deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, etc. Why don’t their stories get told? We live in a world where some lives are clearly more valuable than others. Some are human lives deserving of a story, their names read out one after the other, while others are just statistics - Afghan statistics, Iraqi statistics, Syrian statistics, etc.
True, the US and UK are officially anti-racist. But within that there is a complete disjuncture in terms of their worldview, when it comes to the actual value of a human life. In America or Britain it is worth something, but out there in the Middle East it is nothing but ‘collateral damage’.