On 1 May 2011, eighty U.S. Special Forces commandos executed Osama bin Laden in his hideaway in Pakistan. There were demonstrations of joy in New York when Barack Obama announced the terrorist’s death. “Justice has been done,” said the President on the airwaves. Yet some of those responsible for the tragedy of September 11 remain at large.
Go-getting managers pirouette jauntily on their way to work. A happy family carries a rolled up carpet through a quiet and leafy suburb, while a kid on a bicycle delivers newspapers with gusto. Elsewhere, a young couple pledges their troth while their myopic grandmother looks on tenderly. And under a blazing sun, people from all walks of life, buoyed up by patriotic fervour, hoist the Stars and Stripes, the flag of this nation where everyone can be a winner. "It’s morning again in America."
After the turmoil of the 70s, the oil crisis, the economic crisis, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a cheesy slogan and an equally schmaltzy campaign ad were a must if the candidate Ronald Reagan was to reassure USA citizens.
Thirty years later, unemployed workers are crowding the entrances of unemployment offices. The shimmering suburbs have given way to a vague wasteland peopled by dispossessed subprime victims, the sort of slum area where kids on bicycles no longer venture to deliver their newspapers.
Yet now the death of Osama bin Laden has been announced, it seems that it is indeed morning again in America. The crowds gathered around Ground Zero seem blessed by the same ecstatic euphoria as the walking clichés in the Reagan ad. The Axis of Good has triumphed over evil incarnate — Public Enemy number one is dead and immersed.
But at the risk of being a killjoy, it is worth pointing out that the saga of the war against terrorism cannot end here with the death of the wicked one. Indeed, for some of those responsible for this modern tragedy, justice is far from being done. Worse, they are quietly going on with their killing spree in the White House and Pentagon.
The various lives of bin Laden
Let us not discuss here whether the 9/11 attacks were part of some operation mounted by the CIA. Certainly, the official version contains more than a few suspicious grey areas. However, as Jean Bricmont notes elsewhere on our site, to mount such an attack under false pretenses would have involved too many people at various levels of U.S. institutions for it to be kept a secret.
It is therefore as difficult to shed light on the mysteries of September 11 as it is on those hovering around the death of bin Laden. According to a Pakistani newspaper, the famous terrorist allegedly died of pulmonary complications in December 2001. Six years later, Benazir Bhutto, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, stated in an interview that the notorious terrorist was dead. And today, Barack Obama announces his execution but there is no corpse therefore no crime. We are asked merely to take the U.S. President on trust — not an easy thing to do.
But ultimately, the question of whether bin Laden is alive or not is not the most important. Nor is knowing what role was played by the Bush administration in the attacks of September 11. Certainly, if conspiracy there was, it would be helpful if the truth came to light. But even if we had irrefutable evidence that the attacks on the World Trade Centre were committed by Al Qaeda and al Qaeda only, what would those behind 9/11 have done subsequently? Would they have succumbed to Bush’s war campaign? Would they have applauded the invasion of Afghanistan?
In the end, we can either subscribe to conspiracy theories in which the role of the U.S. is clearly one of infamy, or we stick to the official version, the one reported by political leaders, hammered home by the mass media and widespread among the general public. Now in this second scenario, the responsibility of the Government of the United States in the attacks of September 11 takes on a different form but remains an issue. But for this we need to demystify the diatribes about the so-called clash of civilisations, put events in their historical context and analyse issues of relevance both to the bombings and to the war on terror.
Once upon a time, the clash of civilisations
For ten years now, political leaders, storytelling professionals and other media griots have been recounting the story of this religious fanatic gone to war against the progressive values for which the United States stands.
On the evening of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was already laying the foundations of the official line: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. (…) America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.” The president continued in a religious vein: “Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered (…). And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.”
On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush popularised the concept of the clash of civilisations over the world’s airwaves: “This is not however a struggle America must undertake alone. What is at stake is not just America’s freedom. It is a global battle. It is a battle for civilisation. It is the struggle of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.”
Almost ten years later, on May 1, 2011, Barack Obama concluded the epic story in the same vein, commenting on the summary execution of bin Laden saying: "Let us remember that we can accomplish these things not only for reasons wealth or power, but because of what we are: one nation blessed by God, indivisible, and dedicated to freedom and justice for all."
To our left, therefore, the beacon of opportunity, free America, the civilised world reciting Psalms for shattered children. And to our right? Osama bin Laden, the champion of obscurantism, the fanatic barbarian, the Darth Vader of Islam that hates the West because the West is the West.
The problem is that this version of events we are being fed does not correspond to reality. Was Osama bin Laden a terrorist guilty of heinous acts? Of course. Did he do this because the American Way of Life was unbearable? Certainly not.
Public Enemy Number One
Osama bin Laden comes from one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia. In the early 80s, with indirect support from the CIA and Saudi intelligence services, he participated in the recruitment of mujahedeen to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The operation was a success: the U.S. wanted to offer the USSR its own Vietnam, and after ten years of fruitless and expensive fighting, Moscow withdrew its troops from the Afghan quagmire.
Bin Laden returned, Kalashnikov in hand, to Saudi Arabia, where the tension was palpable. In fact, Saddam Hussein, crippled with debt following the war against Iran, had invaded Kuwait. The small oil emirate was one of Iraq’s largest creditors. Saddam’s other major funder was Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden then proposed to Saudi leaders that he raise an army to fight the Iraqi soldiers threatening the kingdom’s borders. But the Saudis refused to allow the U.S. military to be stationed in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm. In reality, the risk of an Iraqi attack was very low. By contrast, by recovering Kuwait (which the British colonialists had confiscated), Iraq would have become the world’s largest oil producer. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States could accept this.
The presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil raised a wave of protests in the Kingdom: the population was deeply averse to the march of infidel boots through the holy lands of Islam. Neither did many citizens understand why the regime was unable to defend itself given its limitless use of petrodollars on the purchase of military equipment. For his part, bin Laden was furious, denouncing the regime's corruption and the sanctions imposed on Iraq, which caused thousands of casualties.
As highlighted in Mohamed Hassan’s Understanding the Muslim World, a book of interviews published in September 2011 by Investig'Action, bin Laden was a devout man who used religion to mobilise the masses and confront the royal family. He asked, for example, why the country has no constitution, given that the prophet Muhammad in Medina had established such a system instituting equal rights for Muslims, Christians and Jews. As opposed to the royal family, totally dependent on the support of the United States, the wealthy bin Laden in fact represented a trend within the Saudi national bourgeoisie which advocated political reform and more independence for the country.
In the 90s, the former mujahedeen recruiter had committed terrorist acts against Saudi leaders before turning to directly attack the power that supported them: in 1996, Osama bin Laden called for attacks on U.S. interests around the world.
It is interesting to note that beyond their religious aspect, bin Laden’s actions have a political dimension. He denounced United States hegemony in the Muslim world, criticised U.S. support for tyrannical regimes and condemned the pressure to keep oil prices low. Bin Laden thus struck a chord with a section of the masses in certain Muslim countries, who viewed the billionaire terrorist as a kind of Robin Hood. This was noted in several works by Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer assigned to the bin Laden case for nearly a decade and who handed in his notice in 2004, signalling his disagreement with the methods employed by the Bush administration in the fight against terrorism.
Scheuer says bin Laden is not a terrorist blinded by religious fanaticism attacking the United States because Western values are contrary to those of Islam. The CIA specialist says rather that bin Laden is conducting a defensive jihad in response to the war policy being waged in the Muslim world by Washington. This is not the viewpoint of an Islamist radical, or a militant anti-American, much less a radical critic of "Yankee" imperialism. Just someone who knows his subject well.
Neither can we accuse Scheuer of succumbing to an unhealthy admiration for the man he tracked for so many years; the CIA officer regrets rather that President Clinton did not eliminate bin Laden in the 90s, when it was possible.
Fighting terrorism with terrorism?
Clearly however, Michael Scheuer’rsquo;s analysis had little impact on the decisions of the Bush administration. On the evening of September 11, the President of the United States could have addressed the nation in these terms:
Our men have rapidly identified the bombers who struck our country today: an Islamist organisation led by a Saudi named Osama bin Laden. I have spoken to an official within our intelligence services, who has been monitoring the actions of this dangerous terrorist for years. He is our foremost expert on the subject, the kind of guy who, while drinking his morning coffee, stares intently at the criminal’s photo trying to understand how he works. Well, it turns out that these terrorists are motivated by a deep resentment towards our political domination of the Middle East. It is time for America to build more respectful relationships with the rest of the planet. We cannot impose our leadership by force without making enemies. We have paid the price today but that is going to change. Furthermore, we will make every effort to apprehend and prosecute the criminals who attacked us. I am in contact with authorities in Afghanistan where bin Laden is hiding. The Afghan government expects us to provide evidence of bin Laden’s guilt to bring him to justice. We will provide such evidence as quickly as possible. God bless America.
George W. Bush clearly delivered no such speech. He spoke of light rather and of the battle of good and evil. In October 2001, he urged U.S. and NATO forces into a war against Afghanistan. In fact the Taliban had expressed a willingness to negotiate the handing over of bin Laden. And the reasons which had [allegedly] prompted Al Qaeda to commit the terrorist attacks were precisely related to the war policy being pursued by the United States in Muslim countries. Instead of attacking the problem at its root, George W. Bush then threw oil on the fire. As if that was not enough, in March 2003, the President of the United States launched a fresh attack against Iraq, citing Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties with Al Qaeda.
What has been the outcome of this war against terrorism? In Afghanistan, thousands of civilians have been killed, ethnic divisions exacerbated and the country plunged into chaos, the economy and much of the infrastructure has been destroyed but the opium trade has rebounded strongly with the help of the CIA (over 60% of the heroin sold worldwide comes from Afghanistan, as against 0% during the time of the Taliban). Finally, Washington has installed Hamid Karzai at the head the country. This President has no social base in Afghanistan but managed to get re-elected in an atmosphere of silence and evasion in 2009.
In Iraq meanwhile, based on a study by the medical journal The Lancet, it is estimated that over one million lives have been lost, not counting the victims of the first Gulf War and the murderous sanctions that lasted for a dozen years. Like Afghanistan, Iraq is in chaos. The occupation policy of the United States has renewed sectarian tensions. In 2010, the Brussels Tribunal’s Dirk Adriaensens drew up a balance sheet of the invasion of Iraq and came up with these figures:
Since 1990 — the start of the sanctions regime imposed by the UN — the infant mortality rate has increased by 150% in Iraq. (…) In 2007, official government statistics counted 5 million orphans in Iraq. Over 2 million Iraqis are refugees outside the country and nearly 3 million are refugees (or displaced) inside the country. 70% of Iraqis have no access to drinking water. The number of unemployed (without compensation) has officially reached 50%, (unofficially 70%). (…) 4 million Iraqis are malnourished and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. 80% of Iraqis no longer have access to sanitation.
The issue behind of the war against terrorism: reshaping the Middle East
Was the Bush administration really blissfully unaware of all this when it committed to this war against terrorism? Why compound the problem rather than trying to solve it? This is difficult to answer if we stick to the ideological discourse of U.S. authorities. The truth lies beyond the speeches, in the objective interests of the hawks in Washington to intervene militarily in Central Asia and the Middle East.
After the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1991, the United States saw their biggest competitor collapse and assumed world leadership. To maintain this lead meant strengthening its position and preventing other competitors from catching up. It was in order to meet this objective that neoconservatives in the Bush administration developed the concept of the Greater Middle East: a remodeling of the space extending from the Maghreb to Pakistan via the Arabian Peninsula. Officially, the aim was to promote democracy and help developing countries integrate into the global economy. In reality, this project had already been drafted well ahead of the 9/11 attacks. The goal? To rein in the recalcitrant regimes in the region in order to control this vast area rich in strategic commodities, including oil and gas. Indeed, through the control of energy resources, Washington would thus be able to control the development of its economic competitors: China, India, Brazil, etc.
Moreover, if the United States had not met such resistance in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran would probably have been the next target. It is interesting to note here that the military campaigns have been a fiasco for the neocons. The Greater Middle East is proving to be a geopolitical mess from which the United States has been unable to draw real benefit. Instead, the war against terrorism has destroyed the U.S. economy — a victory rather for Al Qaeda. In fact, Michael Scheuer points out in Imperial Hubris that the terrorist organisation’s policy had been to attack the enemy's centre of gravity: the economy.
Does the Government of the United States care about the safety of its citizens?
The war against terrorism was a mere pretext to meet strategic and economic objectives. Obviously the public had to be presented with a good reason for going to war and sending hoards of young soldiers to their deaths. The al-Qaeda attacks offered the perfect motive. Regardless of whether the invasion of Afghanistan was necessary to capture bin Laden. Regardless of whether Saddam Hussein had any relations with Al Qaeda. Tempers were white-hot and ready to engage in the crusade of good against evil.
However, the citizens who shouted for joy when Barack Obama announced the death of bin Laden should today be asking some questions. The leader of Al Qaeda may well be dead, but the U.S. government has shown no sign of challenging this devastating policy that has served as a breeding ground for radical Islamism: coups, military aggression, violations of international law, use of white phosphorus bombs and depleted uranium, the financing of terrorist organisations and dictatorships, the plundering of riches … The U.S. rulers have continued their crimes with impunity.
The alleged terrorist acts of bin Laden can in no way be justified. We can however can attempt to understand their rationale in order to prevent tragedies like the 9/11 attacks from happening again. This leads us inevitably to the foreign policy pursued by the United States. Not only have U.S. leaders not tried to curb the phenomenon, they have happily stoked it by initiating new wars.
The citizens of the United States must understand that their government cares very little for their safety. The terrorists within the White House are responding to economic interests contrary to those of the people.
The leader of al-Qaeda is dead but maybe the next bin Laden will be one of those 5 million orphans now roaming around Iraq, or an Afghan who saw his parents killed by a U.S. Army drone. He could come from Indonesia where the repression of US-backed dictator Suharto led to 1.2 million deaths. Or perhaps from Somalia or Chile. The United States has kept the former in a state of chaos for a decade. And they overthrew the democratically elected president of the latter in 1973, installing the bloody dictatorship of General Pinochet.
In short, bin Laden-types could emerge around the world, wherever the United States have sown desolation. Corporate interests are not conducive to world peace or the safety of citizens, whether in New York, Baghdad, or Santiago. These terrorists should also be brought to justice — that of the courts.
Translated from the French by morristraduction.