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Bin Laden

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Afghanistan: Seventeen Years Too Late

“The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US official in charge of Afghanistan peace talks, on Tuesday. So why didn’t the United States have this discussion with the Taliban seventeen years ago, in October 2001?

The American representative has just spent six days negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar, and he has their promise that they will never let terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State use Afghanistan as a base. The Taliban are Islamists and nationalists (despite the incompatibility of these two principles), but they were never international terrorists.

The next steps are setting dates for the final American withdrawal from Afghanistan (in around 18 months) and opening direct talks between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban. There is still much to do, but this could work.
So congratulations to Donald Trump – and shame on the Washington analysts and experts who could never bring themselves to recommend just ending America’s longest-ever war. Some of them are the same people who didn’t realise seventeen years ago that these talks should have happened then.

The US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was always about 9/11 and nothing else. The country was targeted because the Taliban, who had come to power five years before, had allowed Osama bin Laden and his band of Islamist extremists to set up a base in Afghanistan, and they were assumed to be implicated in the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington.

That assumption was almost certainly wrong. The Taliban had come to power in 1996 after a ten-year war against the Soviet invaders and the seven-year civil war that followed. They had been a long time out in the hills, and they were really enjoying power.

What the Taliban did in power was both ridiculous and atrocious. They drove women from public life and closed girls’ schools. They made men grow beards and women wear burqas. They banned music, movies and television.

They mutilated people for small offences and executed them for slightly bigger ones (most of which were not offences at all in other Muslim countries). And they took absolutely no interest in the rest of the world. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan really didn’t have a foreign policy at all.

But the leader of the regime, Mullah Omar, was a personal friend of Osama bin Laden, whom he had met in Pakistan in the 1980s. (Both men were then involved in the war against the Soviet occupation.)

So when bin Laden was forced out of his refuge in Sudan by the Clinton administration in 1996, Omar let him set up camp in southern Afghanistan – and told him not to carry out political activities on Afghan soil. Bin Laden abused that hospitality, and approved the 9/11 attacks from there. (The actual planning was mostly done in Germany.)

Did Mullah Omar have anything to do with the attacks? Did he even know about them in advance? Try to imagine the telephone conversation. (Bin Laden didn’t speak Pashto, but Omar did speak Arabic.)

“Omar, habibi, it’s Osama. How are the wives and children?”

“Not bad, thanks. Yours?”

“Listen, Omar, I’m giving you a heads-up. Next week my guys are going to attack the United States and kill a few thousand Americans, and I’m afraid they’re going to blame you too. So you’ll get invaded and overthrown, and your Taliban guys will have to spend another ten years in the hills being hunted by gunships. But it’s in a good cause. I hope you’re OK with that.”

“Sure, Osama. Good luck with it.”

I’m pretty sure that conversation never happened. Why would Osama bin Laden tell Mullah Omar about the attack in advance, and run the risk that he wasn’t OK with it? Most of the Taliban would certainly have been outraged by the mortal danger bin Laden was exposing them to.

Could the US have persuaded the Taliban to hand bin Laden over in order not to be invaded and driven from power? Maybe you couldn’t have persuaded Mullah Omar, but many of the younger leaders were really not looking forward to being bombed out of the cities and chased back into the hills.

And if they don’t listen right away, spread some money around. You can’t buy religious fanatics, but you can sometimes rent them if you find the right words to go with the money.

Why wasn’t it at least tried? Probably because there was a strong need to ‘kick ass’ in the United States. Such a horrible crime couldn’t be answered with mere diplomacy and legal proceedings. What was needed was bloody vengeance and catharsis. So Afghanistan got invaded, and several hundred thousand people died in the next seventeen years.

And since it has always been very easy to invade Afghanistan (though almost impossible to stay there), one invasion didn’t provide enough catharsis. Thirty months later George W. Bush also invaded Iraq, although there were no terrorists there (and no ‘weapons of mass destruction’), and hundreds of thousands more died.

And now they are finally negotiating the very same deal with the Taliban that could probably have been made in 2001. It would have saved a lot of time.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, 18 and 20. (“The American…terrorists”; “What…television”; “And if…money”; and “And…died”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Strategy of 9/11

4 September 2011

The Strategy of 9/11

By Gwynne Dyer

Writing recently in the Washington Post, Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser at the Rand Corporation think tank, claimed that the 9/11 attacks ten years ago were not a strategic success for al-Qaeda. He’s right. Osama bin Laden’s strategy did fail, in the end – but not for the reason that Jenkins thinks.

Jenkins argues that Osama bin Laden believed the US was a paper tiger because it had no stomach for casualties. Kill enough Americans, and the United States would pull out of the Middle East, leaving the field free for al-Qaeda’s project of overthrowing all the secular Arab regimes and imposing Islamist rule on everybody.

In bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa declaring war on America, Jenkins pointed out, he claimed that the US would flee the region if attacked seriously. Indeed, bin Laden gave the rapid US military withdrawal from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the equally rapid retreat of American forces from Somalia in 1993 after 18 US soldiers were killed in Mogadishu, as examples of American cowardice.

Other al-Qaeda commanders disagreed, Jenkins says, warning that the 9/11 attacks would enrage the United States and “focus its fury on the terrorist group and its allies, but bin Laden pushed ahead. When the United States did (invade Afghanistan), bin Laden switched gears, claiming that he had intended all along to provoke the United States into waging a war that would galvanise all of Islam against it.”

Jenkins is quite explicitly saying that bin Laden never realised that the United States would respond violently when his organisation murdered thousands of Americans. He would have been dismayed when the US invaded Afghanistan and destroyed his training camps. And therefore, the think-tank expert concludes, the United States did not fall into a trap that bin Laden had deliberately laid for it when it invaded Afghanistan.

Well, that’s one point of view. Here’s another. Bin Laden was fully aware that the United States would invade Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, and he wanted it to do so. He believed that the US would then get mired in a long and bloody guerilla war in Afghanistan, a replay of the war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s in which bin Laden himself had first risen to prominence.

Military commanders are always planning to re-fight the last war; terrorist commanders are no different. Bin Laden hoped that a protracted guerilla war in Afghanistan, with American troops killing lots of Muslims, would indeed “galvanise all of Islam” against the United States.

So why didn’t he say that beforehand? Why did he claim that the United States would flee screaming at the first atrocity, if he really expected it to invade Afghanistan? Because revolutionaries who resort to terrorism always talk freely about their goals, but they NEVER publicly discuss their strategy for achieving them. They can’t, because the strategy is so profoundly callous and cynical.

Terrorists generally have rational political goals – usually a revolution of some kind. In bin Laden’s case, he wanted Islamist revolutions across the Muslim world, but he had been notably unsuccessful in whipping up popular support for such revolutions. So how could he build that support? Well, how about luring the United States into invading a Muslim country?

Revolutionary groups often resort to terrorism if they think they lack popular support. Their aim is to trick their much more powerful opponent (usually a government) into doing terrible things that will alienate the population and drive it into their arms: it’s the political equivalent of jiu-jitsu.

They are trying to bring horror and death down on the population by triggering a government crack-down or a foreign occupation, in the hope that it will radicalise people and turn them into supporters of the terrorists’ political project. But the people they seek to manipulate must believe that it was the oppressors or the foreign occupiers, not the terrorists, who pulled the trigger. That’s why bin Laden lied about his strategy.

He probably didn’t even warn his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan that he was planning 9/11, because they would not have welcomed the prospect of being driven from power and having to fight another ten-year guerilla war against another invading superpower.

Bin Laden’s strategy was not original with him: he had been fighting as a guerilla and a terrorist leader for fifteen years by the time of 9/11, and people of this sort have ALWAYS read all the standard texts on their chosen trade. The notion of using the opponent’s strength against him absolutely permeates the “how to” books on guerilla war and terrorism, from Mao to Marighella.

So bin Laden dug a trap, and the United States fell into it. In that sense his strategy succeeded, and the guerilla war that ensued in Afghanistan did much to turn Arab and Muslim popular opinion against America. (The invasion of Iraq did even more damage to America’s reputation, but that really wasn’t about terrorism at all.)

In the long run, however, bin Laden’s strategy failed, simply because his project was unacceptable and implausible to most Muslims. And the most decisive rejection of his strategy is the fact that the oppressive old Arab regimes are now being overthrown, for the most part nonviolently, by revolutionaries who want democracy and freedom, not Islamist rule.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 12. (“Military…States”; and “They…superpower”)

After Bin Laden

2 May 2011

After Bin Laden

By Gwynne Dyer

Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Osama bin Laden, the author of the 9/11 atrocity in the United States and various lesser terrorist outrages elsewhere, has been killed by American troops in his hide-out in northern Pakistan. At last, the world can breathe more easily. But not many people were holding their breaths anyway.

President Barack Obama issued the usual warning when he announced that bin Laden had been killed by American troops in a compound in the city of Abbottabad: “The death of Bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.” But that wasn’t quite right either.

No doubt attacks will continue to be made in the Arab world in the name of al-Qaeda, but the original organisation created by bin Laden has been moribund for years. Outside the Arab world, there have been no major terrorist assaults for about five years now, and bin Laden’s death is unlikely to change that. The whole enterprise was never what it seemed.

Bin Laden was a revolutionary before he was a terrorist. His goal was to overthrow existing Arab governments and replace them with regimes that imposed an extreme form of the Salafist (Islamist) doctrine on the people instead.

Once all the Muslims had accepted that doctrine, bin Laden believed, they would benefit from God’s active support and triumph over the outside forces that held them back. Poverty would be vanquished, the humiliations would end, and the infidels (“the Zionist-Crusader alliance”) would be defeated. It was essentially a form of magical thinking, but his strategic thinking was severely rational.

Successful revolutions bringing Salafist regimes to power were the key to success, but for the revolutions to succeed they must win mass support among Arab and other Muslim populations. Unfortunately, only a very small proportion of Muslims accepted Salafist ideas, so some way must be found to win them over. That’s where the terrorism came in.

Terrorism is a classic technique for revolutionaries trying to build popular support. The objective is to trick the enemy government, local or foreign, into behaving so badly that it alienates the population and drives people into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then, with mass popular support, the revolutionaries overthrow the government and take power.

This kind of terrorism has been used so often, and the strategy behind it is so transparently obvious, that no 21st-century government should ever fall for it. But if the terrorist attacks kill enough people, it is very hard for the government being attacked not to over-react, even if that plays into the terrorists’ hands. The pressure at home for the government to “do something” is almost irresistible.

The Bush administration duly over-reacted to 9/11 and invaded two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, on a futile quest to “stamp out terrorism” – which was, of course, exactly what bin Laden and his colleagues wanted the United States to do.

However, almost ten years after 9/11, it is clear that bin Laden’s strategy has failed even though the United States fell into the trap he had set for it. Muslims everywhere were appalled by the suffering inflicted on Afghans and Iraqis, and many condemned the United States for its actions, but they didn’t turn to the Salafists instead.

When popular revolutions finally did begin to happen in the Arab world five months ago, they were non-violent affairs seeking the same democracy that secular countries in the West and elsewhere already enjoy. The Salafists have become virtually irrelevant.

Which is not to say that there will never be another terrorist attack on the United States. Bin Laden had not been in operational control of al-Qaeda for many years, because regular communication with the outside world would have allowed US forces to track him down long ago: the compound in Abbottabad had neither telephone nor internet connections. The real planners and actors are still out there somewhere.

The question is: what can the Salafists possibly do now that would put their project back on track? And the answer – the only answer – is to goad the United States into further violence against Muslims, in retaliation for some new terrorist atrocity against Americans.

There have been no major attempts by al-Qaeda to attack the United States in the past ten years because it was already doing what the terrorists wanted. Why risk discrediting President George W. Bush by carrying out another successful terrorist attack, even if they had the resources to do so?

But the probability of a serious Salafist attempt to hit the US again has been rising ever since American troops began to pull out of Iraq, and President Obama’s obvious desire to get out of Afghanistan raises it even further. Bin Laden’s strategy has not delivered the goods for the Salafists, but they have no alternative strategy.

Bin Laden’s death would provide a useful justification for another attempt to hit the US, but it wouldn’t really be the reason for it – and it probably wouldn’t succeed, either. Bin Laden’s hopes died long before he did.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“This kind…irresistible”; and “Which…somewhere”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Thinking Like A Terrorist

30 October 2006

Thinking Like A Terrorist

By Gwynne Dyer

What are they thinking, those terrorists who hate America’s values, as the United States prepares to vote in the mid-term Congressional elections? Do they think that a terrorist bomb somewhere in the United States in the next few days would drive Americans back into President Bush’s arms, or discredit his strategies further? And which result would they prefer: do they want the Republicans to lose control of Congress or not?

To discuss these questions sensibly, you must first accept that terrorists are not just hate-filled crazies. They are people with political goals and rational (though vicious) strategies for achieving them. Military officers and intelligence experts know this — they even study the strategy and tactics of terrorism in the staff colleges — but it is not often recognised in the public debate. So lay your prejudices aside for a moment, and try to think like a terrorist.

Happily, a document has come into my hands that will help us to figure out their strategy. True, it reads like a script written for an amateur dramatic society, but it comes from one of the Western intelligence agencies that certified the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so there can be little doubt about its authenticity. I have taken the liberty of translating it into English.

A heavily guarded compound in Waziristan. Three bearded men in robes enter the courtyard.

Osama bin Laden (for it is he): So do we blow something up in America before the election this time, or not? We skipped 2002 and 2004. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to do something this time.

First Henchman: Well, I don’t know, boss. Not blowing more stuff up in America has worked for us so far. Bush got the credit for keeping the terrorists away, and that gave him the freedom to invade Iraq, and so the Americans never put enough troops into Afghanistan, and now they’re losing both wars. I say leave him alone. It’s coming along just fine.

Second Henchman: Besides, we don’t really have….

OBL (interrupting): I bought that argument in 2002, and I bought it again in 2004, but now it’s different. Bush will be in power until 2008 no matter how Americans vote, so the US soldiers will still be pinned down in Iraq until then anyway. He’s not going to pull them out. And he’s not going to send a lot more troops to Afghanistan, either, no matter who controls Congress, so our Taliban friends will be all right. We have nothing to lose. Let’s blow something up. It will humiliate the Americans and make us look good.

Second Henchman: That’s all very well, but…

First Henchman (interrupting): You know, I think the boss is right. It can’t hurt now. Activate the sleeper cells in America, and have them blow up a few car bombs.

Second Henchman: Will you stop talking and listen for a minute! We don’t have any sleeper cells in America. We never did. We had to bring the 9/11 guys in from abroad, and they’re all dead. This whole discussion is pointless, and furthermore… [At this point the transcript ends]

On second thought, I do wonder if this document is entirely genuine. There’s something about the style that doesn’t sound quite right. But the logic is exactly right: this is how terrorists think.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States were meant to provoke an American military response. The point was to lure Washington into invading Afghanistan (where Bin Laden’s bases were), so that they would become trapped in another long guerilla war like the one he and his colleagues had waged (with US support) against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The images from such a war, of high-tech American forces smashing Afghan villages and families, would reverberate across the Muslim world and radicalise so many people that the Islamist revolutions Bin Laden dreamed of would at last become possible.

George W. Bush dodged that bullet by overthrowing the Taliban regime without causing vast destruction in Afghanistan (it was done almost entirely by American special forces and their local allies), so there was no guerilla war there at first. Bin Laden’s gamble had failed. But then Bush invaded Iraq, providing Arab extremists with the guerilla war they wanted and images of horror in profusion. He even abandoned most of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan in order to concentrate on Iraq, so the Taliban got the chance to recover there too.

That’s were we are now, and Osama Bin Laden really has not the least incentive to try to discredit President Bush with the American electorate by carrying out further terrorist attacks. The project is on track, and the Americans will be largely gone from the Middle East in a few years anyway.

And besides, there are no sleeper cells in America. There never were.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2. (“To discuss…terrorist”)NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: At the end of para. 3, “…translating it into [French, Russian, etc.]”