September 18, 2001 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Making Sense of "Senseless Violence"

They're called "madmen," and their attacks are labeled "senseless." But those who carried out the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon weren't madmen, and their attacks made a lot of sense -- at least to them and their leaders.

Early, credible leads link the terrorists to Osama bin Laden, an Islamic militant and exiled Saudi multimillionaire who seeks to lead a jihad (holy war) to expel American and Western influence and launch a global revolution to overthrow governments throughout the Muslim world.

He has attacked American targets repeatedly because the United States backs moderate and secular governments in Muslim countries as well as in Israel, which he wants to destroy. The United States also symbolizes secular, democratic and humanistic values that threaten his notion of Islamic purity.

Bin Laden opposed the U.S. role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He denounced the Saudi government as an American puppet because it allowed non-Muslim U.S. troops to defend Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. He seeks to overthrow Middle East governments aligned with the West and lead a global effort to establish radical Islamic regimes in their place.

Bin Laden motivates his followers to commit mass murder against innocent civilians (and kill themselves in the process) in two ways. He convinces them that heaven awaits those who sacrifice themselves in the service of his radical Islamic ideology. And he characterizes America as not just the embodiment of evil and the pre-eminent threat to the Muslim way of life, but as the villainous successor of the European colonial empires that dominated the Muslim world until after World War II.

Bin Laden was radicalized by his participation in the jihad against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He provided financial and logistical support to the Afghan resistance and helped organize the thousands of Muslim volunteers who flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. After the Soviets were defeated, he sought to export the jihad from Afghanistan throughout the Muslim world. He helped finance the ultra-radical Taliban regime that seized power in Afghanistan in 1996 and granted him sanctuary.

Bin Laden was linked to the terrorists responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993, and he probably wanted to finish the job. He also has been linked to an Algerian terrorist group -- the Armed Islamic Group, led by veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets -- that sought to crash a hijacked passenger jet into Paris on Christmas Day, 1994, but were foiled by French commandos.

But few Americans knew of bin Laden and his network until his associates bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, killing 224 people (including 12 Americans) and wounding more than 5,000.

Bin Laden likely orchestrated the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks to shock and demoralize Americans by simultaneously striking the nation's economic, military and political nerve centers. In less than an hour, the suicide bombers closed down America's biggest city, its financial markets, its federal government and -- for the first time ever -- its entire air transportation system.

The goal, in part, was to undermine our confidence in ourselves and to weaken the confidence of the world in us. The attacks against America's national symbols served not only to highlight American vulnerability, but perhaps to incite others disaffected with the United States and resentful of its political, economic and cultural influence to launch similar attacks.

The Sept. 11 attacks were the latest in a long series of wake-up calls alerting the civilized world to the deadly menace of terrorism. The United States can't afford to hit the snooze button, as it did after the first bombing of the World Trade Center. The New York and Washington attacks shouldn't be treated purely as a criminal issue for law enforcement authorities to handle. These were indeed "acts of war" -- and they demand an appropriately tough response.

James Phillips is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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