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.”
During the mid to late 1990s, the radical Muslims tested America’s resolve by launching a series of attacks on American targets. These were massive attacks, unprecedented in the damage they inflicted. There was the Khobar Towers attack on American facilities in Saudi Arabia, the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa, the suicide assault on the American warship the U.S.S. Cole.
Yet in every case the Clinton administration reacted either by doing nothing, or with desultory counterattacks like a missile strike against largely unoccupied Afghan tents and the bombing of what was reported to be a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. Clearly these responses inflicted little harm to Al Qaeda and actually made America look ridiculous in the eyes of the Muslim world. Consequently, Bin Laden became convinced that his theory of American irresolution and weakness was substantially correct. By his own account he became emboldened to conceive of a grander and more devastating strike on American shores, the strike that occurred on 9/11.
Even so, this strike could have been prevented had the Clinton administration acted on intelligence leads and struck back at Bin Laden, when it had the chance. Former CIA agent Michael Scheuer estimates that during the second term of the Clinton administration America had approximately 10 opportunities to kill Bin Laden, and took none of them. Even Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terrorism adviser and a Clinton apologist, admits he is mystified why the American government did not go after and eliminate Bin Laden. After all Bin Laden had already declared war on America and made war on American targets abroad.
President Clinton has repeatedly said he made every effort to “get” Bin Laden. But between 1996 (the year Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan) until early 2000 Bin Laden was not exactly in deep hiding. He lived near Kandahar in a house provided by Mullah Omar. He preached in the local mosque. He gave interviews over a period of three years to Peter Arnett of CNN, John Miller of ABC News, a journalist for Time magazine, the British journalist Robert Fisk, the Pakistani editor Abdel Bari Atwan, the folks at Al Jazeera, and others. How come all these people could find Bin Laden but not the Clinton administration?
I’m not suggesting that Clinton did not want to protect America from Bin Laden. I am suggesting that this was not a top priority for his administration. Their top priority was to save Clinton from impeachment and to discredit special prosecutor Ken Starr. Clinton wanted to “get” Starr, and he did. But somehow Bin Laden slipped through the net.
The conclusion seems unavoidable. The Islamic radicals made the decision to attack America on 9/11 because they decided that America was cowardly and weak. They came to this conclusion largely as a result of the actions—and inaction—of the Clinton administration and its allies on the left. What could have been done to get rid of Bin Laden and avert 9/11 was not done. In this sense liberal foreign policy gave radical Muslims the confidence and the opportunity to strike, and they did.