The Road to 9/11
The distorting lens of the Cold War blinded the United States to the rise of political Islam—and we still aren’t seeing it clearly today.
There are two questions Americans must ask themselves on the occasion of the retreat from Kabul and the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks: How did we get there, and where are we going now? Our answers to these two questions will help us answer a third: Have we learned anything?
To listen to our last three Presidents, the answer to that third question is simple: we’ve learned that we have no business intruding into the politics of the greater Middle East. Pick a justification: reaction against America’s colonialism or its racism, neoconservative hubris, the rise of the nationalist Right. Whatever caused it, there is now an entrenched consensus that we should get out and stay out of Afghanistan. We may be bitterly divided on most every other issue, but, on this one at least, there is solid bipartisan agreement. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to imagine circumstances that would upset this consensus (the shameful events of the Afghanistan withdrawal seem unlikely to do so), for it stems less from an analysis of the situation in the region than from national self-doubt—a loss of belief in the exercise of American power and the purposes for which it might be used.
There is also a kind of poetic symmetry in the fact that the official retreat from Afghanistan falls on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, although the Taliban is upsetting the scansion. A month after the 9/11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the White House Treaty Room, declaring that “the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it,” in which mission the United States “will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail.” For Barack Obama, Afghanistan was the “good war,” a wise and just effort that had been sidetracked by Bush’s “stupid” war in Iraq. But a month ago, President Joe Biden, long convinced that securing Afghanistan was not worth the price, affirmed his commitment to withdrawing the last troops, saying, “I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
Many critics today would locate the origins of this winding road in the Truman Administration’s decision after World War II to assume the mantle of global power and a “militarized” foreign policy, as expressed in the top-secret national security memorandum of 1950, NSC 68. Or perhaps in the February 1945 meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz bin Saud, creator of the modern Saudi state, securing American access to Saudi oil and creating a long-running, if uncomfortable, strategic partnership. Yet for the first decades of the Cold War, the Middle East was a secondary theater, and U.S. objectives there often centered on winding down French and British colonial rule, shepherding Arab nationalist regimes into power, and limiting Soviet influence. This economy-of-effort approach continued for three decades, only to collapse catastrophically in 1979, when four revolutionary events blew apart the postcolonial states of the Middle East and opened the road to 9/11. Twenty years on from that day, these four events are still shaping the geopolitical landscape.
The Iranian Revolution
The 1979 earthquakes across the Middle East came as a surprise to Americans. Jimmy Carter’s presidency had begun with the end of the oil price and supply shocks of the early 1970s. At OPEC’s December 1976 meeting in Qatar, Saudi Arabia broke ranks, refusing the additional price hikes pushed by Iran and flooding the market with cheap crude. There was progress, too, in ending the repeated Arab-Israeli wars. In November 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat traveled to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli Knesset: “I come to you today on solid ground, to shape a new life, to establish peace.” Carter wished to broker that peace, quickly arranging a trip to the region. On New Year’s Eve he was in Iran, toasting Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for his “great leadership” and creating “an island of stability in one of the most troubled parts of the world.” The high point of the Carter presidency was the Camp David Accords of fall 1978, which created a “framework” for a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel. Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize that year.
In fact, Sadat’s dramatic gestures, so pleasing to the American President and Western publics, marked the beginning of the collapse of the halting modernization efforts of the regional regimes. Indeed, the Carter team had focused on pressuring the Shah to liberalize the regime in Tehran and in particular to curb the brutal practices of his secret police. But by the summer of 1978, the Shah’s “island of stability” was awash in protests. In November, on the Shi‘a holy day of Ashura, millions of Iranians marched in protest, calling for the Shah to abdicate or be overthrown. Within two months, the Shah, ailing with cancer, had fled Tehran. Carter, who wrote in his diary that he “was concerned about the Shah’s courage and forcefulness,” nevertheless concluded there could be a silver lining: “A genuinely non-aligned Iran need not be viewed as a U.S. setback,” he told policy advisers, and the administration advised the Shah to leave the country.
On February 1, 1979, the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran and urged the Iranian people to “cut off the hands of all evil foreigners and all their helpers.” Revolutionary mobs chanting anti-American slogans held summary executions across the country. By the end of March, a referendum installed the revolutionary Islamic Republic, shortly followed by the organization of the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard. The Carter Administration was slow to grasp the implications. “We should be careful not to overgeneralize the Iranian case,” National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski told Carter on Khomeini’s return. He continued, echoing the conclusions of the intelligence community, “Islamic revivalist movements are not sweeping the Middle East and are not likely to be the wave of the future.” UN Ambassador Andrew Young predicted that Khomeini would be considered “somewhat of a saint when we get over the panic.”
Hopes to build bridges to the new regime flew in the face of developments in Iran. Mehdi Bazargan, a respected scholar and “moderate,” was formally Iran’s prime minister, but he had no real power to speak of. Over the summer months, Khomeini and the revolutionaries continued to consolidate their power in Tehran and across the country. They swiftly and savagely repressed uprisings in the Kurdish region of Iran and in oil-rich Khuzestan, which borders Iraq and has a substantial Arab population. Yet uncertainty about Iran again disrupted the barely stabilized oil markets. The United States again suffered gasoline shortages. On the first Sunday of the summer of 1979, 70 percent of gas stations were out of fuel. Though the Saudis again increased production somewhat, Carter’s approval ratings fell to a low of 25 percent.
The situation in Tehran went from bad to catastrophic on October 22, when Carter, on the urging of banker David Rockefeller and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, agreed to admit the dying Shah, then in Mexico, to the United States. The reaction from Tehran was quick and violent. On November 4 there was a massive, all-night demonstration outside the U.S. embassy during which the mob broke into the compound. Though Khomeini did not give prior approval to the November takeover, he blessed it immediately after, along with the keeping of more than 50 hostages for what would ultimately be 444 days.
Carter’s initial reaction was weak. “Our opponents dare not act against us,” the Ayatollah trumpeted. “America can’t do a thing.” The Iranians, Carter groused, “have us by the balls.” After the failure of the U.S. hostage rescue mission in April 1980, thanks to a fiery crash that resulted in the death of eight American service members, Khomeini’s observation seemed all too true.
The Khomeini revolution was an indication that the postcolonial monarchies and autocracies in the Middle East rested on unstable foundations. Oil—which was extracted, refined, exported, and consumed largely by Western and other modern economies—had made many rich, but it had also exposed the contradictions between modernity and Islamic tradition. The Islamic Republic has survived several near-death experiences and prospered as a model not just of Shi‘a power but of a powerful Islamic ideology with appeal throughout the Muslim world. The United States has yet to find a consistent or coherent approach to what the first revolution of 1979 wrought, oscillating between engagement, containment, and occasional episodes of “rollback.”
The Saddam Purge
The Iranian Revolution was not just a shock to the United States but also a powerful blow against the postcolonial dream of secular, socialist, pan-Arab unity. This ideal had animated a 1958 confederation between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Syria and had led to the foundation of the Ba‘ath party, which had branches in Syria and Iraq. Pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism didn’t mix, and both were a threat to the notion of autonomous states. The Iraqi Ba‘ath had seized power in the “Ramadan Revolution” of February 1963. A month later, the Syrian branch followed suit. Yet another Syrian coup, in 1966, resulted in the fragmentation of the movement into two separate—and increasingly antagonistic—national parties in Baghdad and Damascus. In Syria the party became the vehicle for strongman Hafez al-Assad. Meanwhile, overcoming opposition by the Iraqi military, the Ba‘ath secured their position in Iraq in 1968, though infighting continued until 1979.
In the shadow of revolutionary events across the northern Persian Gulf, Iraq’s newly installed leader, Saddam Hussein, moved to purge the Iraqi Ba‘ath Party and consolidate his grip on power, ousting his cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. At a cataclysmic June 22, 1979, conference, the general secretary of the party Command Council, Muhyi Adbel Hussein, showing signs of having been tortured, confessed to being involved in a Syrian plot against the regime and accused many more present in the room of being co-conspirators. Fifty names were read aloud, and guards escorted the accused from the room. At least twenty-two of them were killed.
At first, Saddam extended an olive branch to the Iranian revolutionaries, praising them in a July speech and calling for friendly ties across the Shatt al-Arab. Khomeini didn’t buy it, however, and responded with a call to spread the Islamic revolution to Iraq. About 60 percent of Iraq’s population was Shi‘a, who had long been repressed by the minority Sunni political elites. Ironically, Iraq had hosted Ayatollah Khomeini from the mid-1960s; Saddam used him to foment revolution against the Shah but expelled him in late 1978, just prior to his return to Iran.
Saddam now believed that his former agent had become a mortal threat; he reached out to the Shah’s ex-generals for help in dealing with this revolutionary danger but found this insufficient. In September 1980 Saddam concluded that he should remove the Iranian threat while the new government appeared disorganized. He sent his army to invade Iran, embarking on an eight-year war that produced half a million dead, perhaps another million casualties, and trillions in damage. Saddam began a reign of terror while militarizing Iraqi society and building an army he could not afford to keep in peacetime. As Bruce Riedel has written, this “set in motion the march of folly that led to three more wars. It all began with Saddam’s mistakes in 1978 and 1979.”
Seizure of the Grand Mosque
The third and in retrospect most violent shock to the Middle East came in late November 1979, while most were focused on Iran and the fate of its American hostages. Juhayman al-Utebi, a forty-three-year-old preacher, and several hundred of his followers seized and held control of the Majid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque of Mecca, for two weeks.
Juhayman had become increasingly disaffected with the Saudi regime and, more broadly, with what he saw as the illegitimacy of modern Muslim states and especially the Shi‘a of Iran. “This country calls itself the state of One God!”, he said, according to Yaroslav Trofimov’s authoritative account, The Siege of Mecca (2008). “But then … it accepts the Shiites to be called Muslims.” Juhayman came from Bedouin origins and had served in the Saudi National Guard. Like many of his generation, Juhayman’s experience of Middle Eastern modernity had turned him toward the Wahhabist version of Islam officially supported by the Saudi state, but he had also begun to question the devotion of leading Saudi clerics, including his onetime mentor, Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, who was originally a critic of Saudi Arabia’s modernization but had turned toward the regime en route to becoming the country’s grand mufti.
Trofimov describes Juhayman as a man who had “magnetic black eyes, sensual lips, and shoulder-length hair that seamlessly blended into a black curly beard,” and who “conveyed a sense of immediate authority.” He was also a competent tactician, building a substantial armory for his followers and training them to disperse quickly throughout the Grand Mosque compound and position heavy machine guns atop the mosque’s seven minarets. He also proved adept at information warfare, utilizing the mosque’s powerful sound system to alert the city that “an ancient prophecy had been fulfilled at last and that the hour of final reckoning was being struck” against the unfaithful. Although the Saudis quickly cut the power to the compound and cut off communications both inside and outside the country, their bungled response made matters much worse. Trofimov’s summary is succinct and unsparing:
[T]he Saudi government showed sickening arrogance, cruel incompetence, and bewildering disregard for the truth.… Many Muslims in Saudi Arabia and beyond, including the young Osama bin Laden, were so repulsed by the carnage in Mecca that … they drifted toward open opposition to the House of Saud and its American backers. The fiery ideology that inspired Juhayman’s men … mutated with time into increasingly more vicious strains, culminating in al Qaeda’s death cult.
But even this acid reckoning omits what is perhaps the most important aspect of Salafist movements: their strictly political aims. Their goals were to drive the Americans and the West more broadly from the region, remove their puppet monarchies and military dictatorships, and create a new regional order based on the severest interpretation of Islamic law. This was a near-facsimile of the Iranian model translated into a Sunni context—a supra-national caliphate. Khomeini had cast the United States in the role of the “Great Satan,” and Muslims of many different sects agreed. Indeed, Iranian propaganda claimed that the Grand Mosque attack was the work of the United States.
The day after Juhayman’s attack, a mob gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Chanting “Death to the American dogs!” and “Avenge the sacrilege in Mecca!”, the demonstrators bashed down the embassy gate, shot one of its six Marine guards, and began to burn vehicles and hurl Molotov cocktails into the main building. In the embassy vault, 137 U.S. diplomats, Pakistani staff, and others huddled amidst stifling heat and smoke. Altogether, two U.S. servicemen and two Pakistani staff died. Pakistan’s president, General Zia ul-Haq, who had ridden a wave of religious fervor to power, pointedly refused to act or even to take Carter’s calls. With this de facto green light from the government, demonstrations erupted across the country and the world. Copycat attacks followed in Turkey, Bangladesh, Kuwait, and Libya. Even the Muslim world’s most ruthless autocrats trembled in the face of Salafist “people power.” The U.S. government reeled, wondering what had happened to the status quo they had imagined they knew so well.
U.S. officials did not, however, seriously question their prior assumptions. “In retrospect,” the CIA concluded in a report on “The Mecca Incident in Perspective,” the Juhayman “attack appears to have been the isolated act of a small group of religious fanatics,” and “most Saudis appear to be outraged by the desecration of the mosque” rather than by the Saudi government’s heavy-handed response.
The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
The final seismic event of 1979 occurred on Christmas Day, when the Soviet Union launched a well-coordinated invasion of Afghanistan. In Kabul, KGB agents executed President Hafizullah Amin—head of the collapsing puppet Communist government installed the year before—and replaced him with Babrak Karmal, another Communist but also one savvy enough to portray himself as a pious Muslim. Reinforcing the commandos in Kabul were paratroopers and two armored columns, one of which drove directly across the Amu Darya River toward Kabul and a second that swept through Herat and Kandahar to the west.
The Soviet invasion, at least, was a development that fit neatly into traditional understandings of state-based balance of power and statecraft. It made sense in the context not just of the Cold War but also of the Russian desire for warm-water ports. In a memo the day after the invasion, Brzezinski warned President Carter, “If the Soviets succeed in Afghanistan, and if Pakistan acquiesces, the age-long dream of Moscow to have direct access to the Indian Ocean will have been fulfilled.” A British “Great Game” strategist of the 19th century couldn’t have framed it better. Yet the Soviet invasion also seemed to pose a direct threat to America’s Muslim allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and to the energy resources of the Gulf. “It could produce Soviet presence right down on the edge of the Arabian and Oman Gulfs,” Brzezinski warned.
The invasion of Afghanistan not only diverted attention from the political Islam reflected in the seizure of the Grand Mosque; it also seemed to offer an opportunity to channel all that revolutionary fervor toward the Soviets. Here was a potentially Greater Satan than America, at least in Sunni minds. “World public opinion may be outraged at the Soviet intervention,” wrote Brzezinski in a memo to Carter on “compensating factors” of the Russians’ bold move. “Certainly Muslim countries will be concerned, and we might be in a position to exploit this.” A National Security Council staffer suggested “stressing the anti-Islamic element” of the Soviet invasion and that the United States should strive to “isolate [the] Soviets within [the] Muslim world.” To the Saudis and Egyptians, the prospect of an anti-Russian jihad might divert Salafist attention in a safer direction. The increasingly compliant Saudi cleric bin Baz produced a fatwa declaring it the duty of every good Muslim to support the Afghan mujaheddin. One of the first to volunteer to journey to the front lines was a rich twenty-two year old named Osama bin Laden.
Carter’s Doctrine, Reagan’s Corollary
With his political fortunes at low ebb both domestically and internationally, Carter needed to project a position of American strength. Even before the Soviet invasion, Brzezinski had warned that events “point in the direction of transforming the [Middle East] conflict into a wider assault on ‘corrupt and incompetent’ America.” He recommended a substantial and lasting build-up of U.S. military forces in the region, based in Oman. He also pushed for a “public statement—a ‘Carter Doctrine’—explicitly committing U.S. power to the defense of countries in the region that are of vital importance to us.” In a January 2, 1980, memo, Brzezinski returned to this idea, drawing a parallel to the 1947 Truman Doctrine, emphasizing the centrality of the Soviet threat and placing the earthquakes of 1979 squarely in a Cold War framework. “The Soviet intervention in the present case is both more blatant and more brutal than in 1947,” he argued, “and the Gulf is unquestionably more vital to Western interests today than were Greece and Turkey 30 years ago.”
At the end of the month, in his State of the Union Address to Congress, Carter formally declared his doctrine: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force,” said Carter. To give the new policy some teeth, in March 1980 the administration created the “Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force.” Three years later, this would become U.S. Central Command, which over the past three to four decades has been the U.S. military’s largest and busiest combatant command.
In 1981, as it became clear that the Iran-Iraq War would likely continue for some time (the first shots in the “Tanker War” targeting oil exports had been fired), new President Ronald Reagan added a “corollary” to the Carter Doctrine. The United States would protect the West’s energy lifeline not only from outside powers but also from regional actors; it would also bolster the stability of strategic partners like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, which were to receive advanced weaponry. (One can see the corollary at work not only in America’s support for Saddam Hussein as Iran gained the upper hand in that war, but also in its rolling back of Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.) But like the Carter Doctrine, the Reagan policy was state-centric, and considered revolutionary Islam almost exclusively in its Iranian guise. In adapting to the crack-up of 1979, the United States had downplayed—on the advice of the Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, and other regional allies—what would prove to be the most dangerous development. Indeed, in trying to turn Salafism into a weapon to use against the Russians in Afghanistan, it helped pave the road to 9/11.
The Rise of al-Qaeda
The story of the radicalization of Osama bin Laden and the creation of al-Qaeda as the flagship Salafist organization has been often and well chronicled, as has the tale of willful ignorance and bureaucratic infighting that handicapped America’s response to the growing threat. Yet several aspects deserve renewed focus, particularly in light of the U.S. retreat from Kabul.
To begin with, bin Laden’s experience in Afghanistan was critical. He was an “Afghan Arab,” one of perhaps thirty thousand non-Afghan Muslims drawn to the anti-Soviet jihad. Those from Saudi Arabia were often either mere battlefield tourists or fundraisers rather than fighters; they were in awe of the toughness of the Afghan mujaheddin and often ashamed of their own weakness. “Fear of bodily participation” kept bin Laden away from the front in the early years of the war, according to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (2007). Even his later exploits produced better propaganda than tactical results, but they nevertheless made him something of a hero within the orbit of Afghan Arabs and allowed him to raise tens of millions in donations. In short, bin Laden learned how to organize a revolution and gained a degree of fame.
The war also elevated Afghanistan far higher than it had ever been in the political imagination of young Muslims. The valor of the Afghan militias contrasted vividly with the weakness and corruption bin Laden found once he returned to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, bin Laden proposed to Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi defense minister and later crown prince, that he would raise a corps of Saudi mujaheddin to defeat the Iraqis. “I am ready to prepare one hundred thousand fighters with good combat capability within three months,” Osama declared. “You don’t need Americans.” The royal family disagreed. And when, after Operation Desert Storm, U.S. forces remained to conduct “no-fly-zone” operations to keep an eye on Saddam, bin Laden formally declared his opposition to the Saudi regime in terms echoing Juhayman al-Utebi’s manifesto. Juhayman’s former mentor, bin Baz, once revered for his Islamic rigor, was now reviled by bin Laden as “weak and soft.” Bin Laden left Arabia for Africa; Hasan al-Turabi, a Quranic scholar and clever politician who had masterminded a coup in Sudan, had offered bin Laden a chance to help in the creation of an Islamist state.
Bin Laden’s sojourn in Khartoum lasted from 1991 until 1996, but his relationship with al-Turabi proved to be sourly transactional. The wily Sudanese leader had bilked bin Laden out of much of his fortune. Al-Turabi also lost a power struggle within Sudan, falling out with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the general who had led the coup. Bashir’s principal concern was with consolidating his grip on power and repressing the animists and Christians of southern Sudan. He was a pragmatist and so was willing to sacrifice the relationship with bin Laden—who now made his way to Afghanistan—in exchange for sanctions relief.
From his new base in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan, bin Laden threw himself into building al-Qaeda as a global network. He first established a partnership with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, and with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which had nearly assassinated Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak but was then heavily suppressed by Cairo. In August 1996 bin Laden issued his seminal “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”—that is, Saudi Arabia—and set about creating the capability to strike whenever and wherever the opportunity arose.
Two years later, al-Qaeda made good its word with near-simultaneous suicide bombings outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks revealed bin Laden’s desire for showy strikes: multiple, complex, attention-grabbing operations designed more for propaganda purposes than lethal effect. The bombs killed just a handful of Americans but took the lives of hundreds of innocent Africans caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Clinton Administration’s response—cruise missile strikes on a Khartoum pharmaceutical plant suspected of chemical weapons production and on several al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan—played into bin Laden’s narrative of American weakness. Al-Qaeda and bin Laden were becoming household names and heroes for a generation of disaffected young Muslim men. With the Taliban’s encouragement and help, bin Laden established a large training facility at Tarnak Farms just south of Kandahar, the Taliban’s “capital.”
The last stop on the road to 9/11 came on October 12, 2000. At 11:15 a.m. local time, a fiberglass fishing boat pulled alongside the destroyer USS Cole, which was taking in fuel at the Red Sea port of Aden. The two men in the boat smiled and waved to the crew on deck, then stood at attention as the explosives onboard ripped through the Cole’s side, close to where her sailors were lining up for lunch. Seventeen were killed and another thirty-nine wounded. The sophisticated destroyer “represented the capital of the West,” said bin Laden, “and the small boat represented Mohammed.” Again, there was no American response; the Clinton Administration, still reeling from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was focused on salvaging its legacy with an effort to advance the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” The talks were falling apart, but the administration believed it was essential to cultivate Arab government support. Bin Laden and the Ayatollah apparently had come to the same conclusion: America couldn’t do a thing.
Al-Qaeda had shredded America’s strategy in the Middle East. Even after 9/11—and after Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—America still regards the group as a fringe, fanatic movement, and “terrorism” as a condition rather than a tactic. We remain blind to the politics of Salafism and its strength. Conversely and inconsistently, we want to believe that the Taliban are rational actors who might, as they return to rule in Afghanistan, seek “international legitimacy,” as White House spokesperson Jen Psaki put it.
Most important, we have not learned the largest lesson of 1979. The postcolonial state system in the Middle East is fractured. The turmoil of the last forty years is not a sign of its durability—though the old autocrats have hung on like grim death—but of its fragility in the face of revolutionary Islam, be it Shi‘a or Salafi. The Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary were both reasonable guides to American strategy (at least until Donald Trump and now Joe Biden abandoned them). But for all they got right, they merely tried to fix crumbling regimes rather than reform them. We have returned to where we began in 1979, older and weaker, but not wiser.
Giselle Donnelly, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by Hamid Mir, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36716340
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