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The Why and When of Terrorism


How did a series of coordinated attacks take place on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon without any apparent warning on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001? What can be done to prevent their recurrence? To answer these vexing questions, the US Congress and the president created a national commission comprising ten members. The Commission, co-chaired by Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewed more than 1,200 individuals in 10 countries.

Its findings are distilled into a 567-page long treatise. The most important chapter of this report may well be Chapter 12, which lays out a global strategy for fighting “Islamist terrorism – especially the Al Qaeda network, its affiliates and its ideology.”

The Commission members were aware of the widely held misperception in American public o! pinion that equates Islam with terrorism. Thus, they state, “Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror. Nor does Islam teach terror.” However, this point may be too subtle to be grasped by the American public.

The report discusses how the attacks of 9/11 took place and goes into the nuts and bolts of how the attackers carried out the attacks in total secrecy and with a lethality that had never before been witnessed on US soil.

It discusses intelligence failures at the Central Intelligence Agency and how the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service failed to deny entry to the attackers. It also discusses the inability of the US military’s North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) to intercept and neutralize the hijacked aircraft, since they had prepared for a military attack from overseas.

The report contains vivid descriptions of communication between the flight attendants and air traffic control and des! cribes how F-16s circled ineffectively looking for planes that had already crashed into the World Trade Centre. While the accounting of these conversations could have come out of a Tom Clancy novel, there is very little that is new in this discussion. Most of the intelligence and military failures that allowed the surprise attacks to occur are well known by now to even the casual newspaper reader.

The report does not provide any proof about the people who are alleged to have carried out the attacks. While their Muslim identities have been accepted at face value in the US these identities are still the subject of much dispute in the Muslim world. Conclusive evidence on their identities would have helped to bridge the gap in understanding between the Muslim world and the US.

The report is remiss in not calling for any resignations or firing of senior public officials in the Bush administration. It says that its job was not to assign blame. But that begs the question,! if it was not the job of the 9/11 Commission to assign blame, then whose job is it?

Despite the volume of material that the Commission sifted through in preparing the report, a relatively shallow understanding of terrorism permeates the document. There is virtually no discussion of the influence of past US policies in promoting terrorism.

For example, the report does not discuss how the US support for the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war led to the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which may well be regarded as a “blowback” phenomenon. There is little discussion of how the US support of despotic regimes in the Muslim world has contributed to rising anti-Americanism there. The report does not comment on how much of the Muslim world views the US as being hypocritical in its support for democracy, when it has long supported dictators such as the Shah of Iran, Suharto and Saddam.

The report seems to subscribe to the neoconservative philosophy that there! is a finite pool of terrorists that can be attacked and killed. It does not recognize that the failure to restrain Israel from oppressing the Palestinians generates much anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Nor does it recognize that the continued pursuit of large-scale military action in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, with attendant civilian casualties and humiliation of entire nations, adds to the political cachet of the terrorists.

Pakistan figures prominently in Chapter 12, which talks about endemic poverty, rampant corruption and lack of education as sources of terrorist recruitment. It also briefly mentions the lack of progress in democracy as being an additional factor.

The report says almost all the 9/11 attackers travelled the north-south nexus of Kandahar-Quetta-Karachi. It says that Balochistan and Karachi remain centres of Islamist extremism and asserts, “Within Pakistan’s borders are 150 million Muslims, scores of Al Qaeda terrorists! , many Taliban fighters, and – perhaps – Osama bin Laden.” Unfortunately, many observers in the western media now think of Pakistan a nation of 150 million Muslim terrorists.

The report calls on the US to continue supporting the Musharraf government, since it is pursuing “enlightened moderation” despite the two attacks on General Musharraf’s life. It says that the Musharraf government “represents the best hope for stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan”, and the US should support it as “long as Pakistan’s leaders remain willing to make difficult choices of their own”.

The report fails to note that military leaders have regularly seized power through unconstitutional means in Pakistan, or to note that they have, in every instance, been successful in winning the support of the US. This has tarnished American credibility in the past. In the present, super-heated environment, it is being used by the terrorists to portray the military leaders as American stooges. Thus, A! merica is losing its support not only among the conservative elements in Pakistani society but also among its secular, liberal elements. While being an asset for the US in the short term by agreeing to fight the terrorists militarily, the military leaders remain a long-term liability by not being able to contain the cultural, social, and political forces that lead to terrorism.

AHMAD FARUQUI is an economist who writes frequently on Asian security issues. He can be reached at:

This article was originally published in Dawn.


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