More than five years after 9/11, the crucial question of why the Islamic radicals decided to strike America remains unanswered. Recall that for at least two decades prior to 9/11, radical Muslims were focused on fighting in their own countries. They were trying to overthrow their local governments and to establish Islamic states under sharia law. America was not their target.
Then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, two of the leading Muslim radicals, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden, decided on a new strategy. They abandoned the tactic of fighting the “near enemy” and decided to take the battle to the “far enemy,” specifically the United States. If Zawahiri and Bin Laden had not changed course, 9/11 would not have happened.
Why, then, did they do so? In his book the Far Enemy, political scientist Fawaz Gerges argues that the radical Muslims’ strategy of fighting the near enemy proved unsuccessful, and so they decided to try something else. “When jihadis met their Waterloo on home-front battles,” Gerges writes, they “turned their guns against the West in an effort to stop the revolutionary ship from sinking.” This may be correct as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Gerges fails to explain why Muslim radicals like Zawahiri and Bin Laden, who apparently could not defeat their local governments, came to the conclusion that they could defeat the vastly more formidable United States.
Bin Laden himself supplies the answer to this question. He says he developed the suspicion that despite its outward show of power and affluence, the far enemy was weaker and more vulnerable than the near enemy. Bin Laden had witnessed a united force of Muslim fighters, the so-called Arab Afghans, drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. The Arab Afghans, Bin Laden notes, “managed to crush the greatest empire known to mankind. The so-called superpower vanished into thin air.”
Even though the demise of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world’s only superpower, Bin Laden determined that “America is very much weaker than Russia.” Bin Laden based his opinion on America’s military conduct in previous years. He saw that when America found itself in a drawn-out guerilla war in Vietnam, it accepted defeat and withdrew. Americans, Bin Laden concluded, love life so much that they are not willing to risk it. In short, they are cowards. When only 18 American troops were killed in Somalia in 1993, Bin Laden said, “America fled in the dark as fast as it could.”