Vol. 1, No. 3 September 20, 2001
After witnessing the September 11 terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many American analysts have been seeking to understand the source of the intense hatred against the United States that could have motivated an act of violence on such an unprecedented scale. In that context, a new canard is beginning to run through repeated news reports and features: that somehow America’s support for Israel is behind the fury of militant Islamic movements, like that of Osama Bin Laden, towards the United States.
Thus, Tony Karon of Time (September 14) wrote: “the motivation to launch a spectacular attack would have grown exponentially over the past year as anti-American feeling surged in the Arab streets in response [to] U.S. support for Israel” (September 14, Honest Reporting.com). On September 16, Caryl Murphy of the Washington Post states: “If we want to avoid creating more terrorists, we must end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly.” Gary Kamya, Salon magazine’s executive editor, adds similarly: “A sword will hang over the U.S. until we convince Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.”
Yet a careful examination of the ideology and organization of Bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network demonstrates that these increasingly ubiquitous assertions are seriously flawed. In fact, state-supported media in parts of the Arab world continually engage in incitement of the Arab civilian population against the United States, regardless of the Israeli factor. Unless the sources of anti-Americanism are correctly understood and addressed, policy makers are likely to fail to deal with true motivating factors behind the attack on the United States.
The Ideological Sources of the Anti-Americanism of Bin Laden
A 1998 Fatwa (religious ruling) issued by Bin Laden jointly with militant Islamic leaders from Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh provides an insight into the sources of his anti-Americanism (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Feb. 23, 1998, www.ict.org.il). The document calls “on every Muslim…to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.” The primary justification for doing so is that “for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, [and] terrorizing its neighbors.” Having helped to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s with other Arab volunteers, Bin Laden has now turned his attention to the remaining superpower, the United States. U.S. forces are specifically described as “crusader armies spreading…like locusts.”
A second Bin Laden grievance is “the continuing aggression against the Iraqi people.” The “guarantee of Israel’s survival” appears only as the third reason for criticizing U.S. policy. And here, Israel’s very existence is the issue — not the status of the peace process. It is not surprising that the planning and training for the September 11 attack is believed to have begun several years ago, well before the current Palestinian intifada and the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There simply is no correlation between the new terrorism facing the U.S. and the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The Organizational Priorities of the Bin Laden Network
An examination of Bin Laden’s organization network further reveals that the issue of Israel is not a top priority for his brand of militant Islam. The U.S. Department of State’s Patterns of Global Terrorism — 2000 identifies Sunni Islamic extremist groups that have been linked to Osama Bin Laden’s worldwide network: the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Egypt’s al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Harakat ul-Mujahidin, a Pakistan-based group operating against India in Kashmir. Additionally, Bin Laden’s network is known to reach Albania, the Philippines, Chechnya, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Yemen. Their common goals appear to be the overthrow of pro-American regimes in the Middle East and the assertion of Muslim independence in multi-ethnic states.
Reuven Paz of the Herzilya International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism has noted that the Bin Laden network has not connected with militant Islamic movements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite its mobilization of Palestinians from Lebanon and Jordan over the last decade (ICT, April 24, 2000). The U.S. Department of State noted only one case of a militant, Nabil Awkil, connected to both Hamas and Osama Bin Laden and very few other cases have been identified. This minimal involvement of Bin Laden’s network might be due to the fact that the main Palestinian figure who brought other Palestinians to participate in the struggle of militant Islam in Afghanistan, Dr. Abdallah Azam, was killed in 1989 in Pakistan. Other Palestinians might have been attracted to the Iranian model, adopted by Islamic Jihad.
Still, if the Palestinian issue were a high priority for Bin Laden, then efforts to mobilize Palestinian militants and establish a widespread presence in the territories would have been far more extensive. Instead, the Bin Laden network largely reflects the concerns of an Afghan-based organization with strong links to Pakistan; hence, its involvement in the Indian subcontinent, the former Muslim republics of the Soviet Union, and strategic points around the Arabian Peninsula, especially Yemen.
The Supportive Media Environment in Arab States
One of the surprising aspects of the September attack on the U.S. is the role of nationals who come from states that are thought to be friendly to the U.S.: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. However, Bin Laden’s anti-Americanism has considerable resonance in the government-controlled media of much of the Arab world. Even Egypt’s official media have contributed to this environment. Thus, a columnist in the state-controlled Al-Akhbar wrote in August 2001:
The conflict that we call the Arab-Israeli conflict is, in truth, an Arab conflict with Western, particularly American, colonialism….The U.S. treats the [Arabs] as it treated the slaves inside the American continent….The issue no longer concerns the Israeli-Arab conflict. The real issue is the Arab-American conflict. (MEMRI, Analysis No. 71).
Writing less than a month before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the columnist stated that “The Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, must be destroyed.” Unfortunately, this sort of anti-Americanism is not uncommon.
Placing Israel and the Palestinian issue in the spotlight of the current anti-Americanism motivating the militant Islamic groups connected with Osama Bin Laden is simply wrong. It can also lead to a misplaced emphasis in current U.S. policy options toward the Middle East. In order to address the hostile environment toward the U.S. in parts of the Arab world today, anti-American incitement in government-controlled media should be examined. Eliminating terrorism requires not only purely military measures, but also diplomatic moves aimed at making sure that there is no fertile ground for mobilizing more militant operations. While press-freedoms are to be respected, systematic anti-American incitement of whole populations must cease in order to create an environment that is not supportive of future attacks against the U.S. and its citizens.