May 15, 2005


The email you sent me at the end of 2003 has been at the back of my mind for most of the last 18 months. I’ve started working on my reply on about twenty different occasions, and I’ve never been happy with the results. However, if I wait to send a perfect response, I’ll never send you anything, so I’m sending you what I have, imperfect as it is. My suggestion is to use this as an experimental hypothesis; watch future events, and study the past in order to test it. I won’t be upset if I’m proven wrong.

All the best,


Defining the enemy…

I doubt if I was the only person who was stunned, horrified and exhilarated all at the same time on the morning of September 11th, 2001. As I listened to the radio, and later as I watched the video of the World Trade Center’s twin towers burning and collapsing, it felt like I had been personally attacked in my own home. This visceral response is very difficult to justify on intellectual grounds. I am not American, I live about 3000 miles from New York City, and I have not lost a single relative, friend or acquaintance in a terrorist attack. Nonetheless, I still clearly remember how certain I was that something vitally important, something that would define our generation, was occurring that morning. Now, more than three years later, I think it is time to re-evaluate my emotional response and accept that I might have been over-reacting. It is up to you to decide if you want to perform the same self-examination.

What you are reading here is a personal effort to put this global war on terrorism into perspective; mainly for my own piece of mind (and perhaps for yours as well). It is not an academic exercise, you won’t find any footnotes here, and I’m relying entirely on my own memory of what I’ve read, heard and watched from the comfort of my own home. Errors of fact are inevitable; my errors in interpretation can’t possibly be any worse than those committed by all the professional analysts and pundits out there. If I could find anyone out there who has a complete grasp of current events, truly understands the meaning of those events, and can communicate their profound analysis to me, I would have directed you towards their wisdom instead of writing this half-assed essay for you.

Part 1. What was the motivation for the September 11th attacks?

Al Qaeda’s Objectives:

My advice is to start with the obvious first. Look at the four targets and what those targets represent. I’m going to assume that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was headed for the White House. Al Qaeda only sent one plane to each target (the World Trade Centre got only one plane per tower), so I don’t give much weight to arguments that the fourth plane was going to reinforce the one that hit the Pentagon, or that the plane that hit the Pentagon was supposed to go somewhere else. There was no backup plan, no redundancy in case something went wrong. The plan was to inflict the maximum amount of damage to the American economy, the President of the United States and the U.S. military, all at the same time, Allah willing.

You might wonder how blowing up these four targets would accomplish that, but you shouldn’t give Al Qaeda too much credit for understanding how American society works. In a centralized, autocratic nation with limited military capacity, and a completely undiversified economy, you could create utter chaos by blowing up the king’s palace, the military headquarters, and the two most prominent office buildings, all on the same day. That is the mindset that produced the plans for the September 11th attacks.

Another objective of most terrorist attacks is to provoke the target into a massive retaliation that can’t be sustained, in the hope of ultimately weakening the target far more than what the terrorists could do on their own. Previous attacks by Al Qaeda against the U.S. had produced the opposite result. Al Qaeda attacks on American targets abroad had only provoked a limited response from the U.S. government, a bit of a show for domestic consumption, but no major, sustained retaliation. One reason for attacking Americans on American soil was to finally prod the U.S. government into retaliating in a big way. Events in Afghanistan after September 11th may not have turned out as hoped for by Osama bin Laden, but there is no doubt in my mind that he wanted a serious and expensive response from President Bush. We can argue for a long time whether bin Laden’s plans were logical or had a reasonable chance of success, but for at least one day, Osama had to be happy. One of the videotapes of him from Afghanistan has words to the effect that “the collapse of the two towers was even better than we had hoped.” It was, in fact, the most spectacular terrorist act of all time, an incredibly dramatic and audacious attack against the most powerful nation in human history.

Why do they hate us?

Knowing what Al Qaeda’s objectives were doesn’t tell us what the underlying motivation was. Immediately following September 11th, we heard a lot of discussion along the lines of “why do they hate us?” After a while, that question was being asked less and less, partly because the answer is not all that important in the short term (self-defense is much more important), and partly because no one had a really good answer (or no one wanted to listen to or accept the really good answers). Once Americans discovered that they were strong enough to not only withstand the blows inflicted on September 11th, without their society collapsing in fear; but as a nation they were stronger because of the attacks; a swift and powerful retaliation was inevitable, regardless of the reasons Al Qaeda hates the United States. Today, the short term is over (it’s been three and a half years), and it might be worth asking again, “why do they hate us?”

First, let’s define who “us” is. While it is true that most (if not all) of the Western world faces some manner of terrorism threat, and much of the developing world is no better off, the motivation for terrorists changes according to the target. Somehow, common tactics have been confused with a common motive, and that is simply wrong. Even Islamic terrorists have different reasons to target France than they do the United States. This may sound trite, but then why are so many suggesting that the United States and Russia need to have a common front against terrorism, for instance? For the September 11th attacks, “us” was only the United States. Other countries, including Canada, may have been added to bin Laden’s hit list at a later date, but for these attacks on that day, Americans were top of mind. If bin Laden actually realized that the World Trade Centre was a stock brokers’ United Nations, he may have considered it to be a free bonus; but the other two targets were exclusively American, so I highly doubt if he was targeting other nationalities on that particular day.

Second, I’m hardly qualified to do a Freudian psychoanalysis of terrorists, but I have extreme difficulty in believing that terrorists are motivated by centuries old injustices, or the outcome of a battle that took place 700 years ago. I refuse to accept any theory that requires us to travel back more than one generation from the current crop of terrorists. Ideally, the terrorist needs to be motivated by something that happened in his or her lifetime; maybe you can still motivate that terrorist with something that happened to his or her parents, prior to the terrorism recruit’s earliest memories, but beyond that, forget it. If bin Laden talks about the Moors being chased out of Spain, he is looking for an excuse to identify today’s Spaniards with something that happened in the last fifty years; not re-fight a war from 600 years ago. History (real or fabricated) is a good excuse for hiding the real reasons why we kill each other.

Deprivation is the great motivator for terrorists. A motivated terrorist has had something taken away from him or her: material belongings, personal security or self-esteem. I’ll try to explain myself.

1.   To make a poor person (or even someone who isn’t really poor) feel deprived, you have to show that person what material goods he or she is missing out on. We tend to feel entitled to the same basic standard of living as our neighbor, so if our neighbor is much wealthier than we are, we tend to feel as if someone (probably our neighbor) has stolen the material things we never had.

2.   I would consider the killing of a family member as taking away one’s own personal security, especially if you have to rely on your family, instead of your government, for personal protection. Arresting and torturing people at random is another good method to deprive them of a sense of personal security.

3.   Finally, a person with low self-esteem really can’t blame themselves for their own predicament; if we didn’t feel the need to find a scapegoat, we wouldn’t have such a self-esteem problem. Your religion can deprive you of self-esteem. If you equate sin with a low personal value, then you either have to be very good at lying to yourself, to convince yourself of your righteousness (and high personal value), or else every time you fall short of the holy standard, you have a self-esteem problem. Martyrdom can be seen as the only means to obtain redemption, especially with the right religious instructor.

I hope you noticed that I haven’t mentioned political beliefs once. If you think political beliefs are that important, go ask your local Republican or Democrat, or Conservative or Liberal to go blow himself up to make a point.

There is one more thing I want to mention about the motivation of terrorists in general. You might remember the environmental slogan “think globally, act locally.” The idea was that you could make the world a better place overall, by cleaning up your own backyard. However, globalization does the opposite; we cause global effects, by acting on local interests. We end up affecting the whole world when we have a conflict in our own community. In the global village, we can put a bomb on a plane in Vancouver to retaliate for the storming of a Sikh temple in India. We can do business with drug barons in Columbia to blow up a pub in Belfast.

This is all a long preface for my answer to a short question. There are four reasons why Al Qaeda hates the United States. One, the United States is supporting hated Arab political leaders, in particular in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Two, the United States is not paying enough for Middle Eastern oil, and depriving Arabs of the wealth they deserve by birthright. Three, the United States is preventing Arabs from driving Israelis into the sea. Four, American culture is corrupting the morals of Muslims, especially female Muslims. This doesn’t fully explain why Australians were targeted in Bali, or Spaniards killed by Moroccan terrorists, but as I stated above, not everyone is fighting the same War On Terror. Both sides are entering into marriages of convenience from time to time, and at some point we’ll end up sharing at least one partner.

Here is how I explain the four reasons:

(Please note: I am trying to analyze this from the viewpoint of terrorists, not justify or accept their reasons for doing what they do)

Reason One:

Many Middle Eastern countries have problems with unequal distribution of wealth, and a lack of personal security that seems inevitable in countries without democratic checks and balances. I’m not saying that Western democracies can’t have the same problems, but let me just say that economic inequality and lack of human rights is not as severe in our world as it is in the world of terrorist recruits. If you publicly oppose the policies of Hosni Mubarak, or the five thousand princes of the House of Saud, you risk some form of serious deprivation. You might wonder how fellow Arabs could treat you so poorly, until you notice the hand of the United States propping up those corrupt and unjust regimes.

Reason Two:

In the Western world, we often make the assumption that the United States is more concerned than anyone else about the world running out of oil. I’m not sure that’s true. If you were to ask a group of young Saudi professionals if they worried about their wells running dry, you might be surprised by the answer. Even if they aren’t in the majority, a significant number of citizens of oil producing countries in the Middle East are very concerned that their country isn’t maximizing the monetary returns of their oilfields. The United States (and other oil consumers) might just find a replacement for oil one day, and where does that leave a country that depends on oil exports for about 99% of its GDP? It is a small leap to make the connection between American support for corrupt and unjust regimes and the desire for low oil prices by Americans. It is also very difficult to give up the Mercedes and a London apartment, and go back to the nomadic life of tents and camels; so the day the wells run dry is a day to be feared.

I have trouble coming up with examples of self-esteem deprivation, but what else explains a terrorist who comes from a wealthy (and relatively secure) background? I would like to believe that the self-esteem of Arabs is not so tightly linked to work and material goods as it is with Americans, but what if I’m mistaken? I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if every nation in the Middle East was economically secure and self-sufficient, and almost all the men of working age were busy working 40 hours a week to support their families, deservedly taking pride in how they were making the world a better place with the sweat of their brows. This may sound like a fantasy (or nightmare), but earning your keep and getting to keep what you earn does wonders for self-esteem.

Reason Three:

I’ve noticed that the only thing (other than religion) that unites Muslims all over the world is their reluctance to accommodate the state of Israel. And the United States has a reputation for supporting Israel. One of the reasons Egyptian and Jordanian governments have stifled public dissent is because many of their citizens are quite upset that their governments would make a peace treaty with Israel. Is it just coincidence that those corrupt and unjust regimes that have the temerity to talk to the Israeli government are also recipients of American aid?

To hate the United States because it supports Israel, terrorists must feel deprived by Israel somehow. This is not the place to rehash the Arab-Israeli Wars, but those wars have produced certain results, all within the lifetime of terrorist leaders in the Middle East.

One result was the creation of Palestinian refugee camps, a temporary measure to house Palestinian Arabs who couldn’t or didn’t want to live in Israel. Somehow those camps became permanent settlements and some of them ended up being inside Israeli territory (if you have troops, policemen and settlers on the ground, it’s your territory until you or someone else removes them). You end up with millions of Palestinians living in poverty, with high unemployment, crime, corruption and no future; while the Israelis are building a relatively secure, prosperous and self-sufficient society all around you. Then you have all your Arab “brothers” encouraging you to fight back against Israel, but they can’t seem to find homes or work for you in their countries, unless you are willing to drive taxi or clean houses. Your education system stinks, your leader steals millions for his foreign bank accounts, the Israelis treat you like an enemy (and a dog), and all the political support in the world isn’t giving you a decent home to live in. Until every last male born in those refugee camps is either dead or working nine to five to support his family, and has the hope that his kids will get the education and opportunity he was deprived of himself, I fear that the Palestinian problem is not going to go away.

Another result of the Arab-Israeli Wars was a 0-4 record for the Arabs. Probably the most galling defeat was in 1967. You had Nasser firing up the Arab League, you had all the advanced Soviet weaponry you could buy, and before you could pull the trigger, the Israelis strike first and more than double their territory in a week. Could the Israelis have done all that if they didn’t have American weapons? Then after the 1973 war, Anwar Sadat, who was supposed to be a righteous Muslim, signs a peace treaty with Israel, all arranged by the United States. Today, conventional warfare against Israel is futile; since Israel got the atomic bomb, an Arab victory would mean the death of millions of Arabs at home. The opportunity to chase the Jews out of Palestine through force of arms has been lost. Terrorism is the only way to continue the battle.

Reason Four:

Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda do not represent all of Islamic society. I wish I could call that a trite remark, but unfortunately many of us prefer to view the world in solid, contrasting colours. It is an understandable reaction, maybe, but you must remember that the other side is doing exactly the same thing. If the terrorists can completely misjudge how Americans would react to an attack on their own soil, Americans can completely misjudge how the Islamic world thinks.

Arguing about the peaceful nature of the Koran, or whether or not suicide can still be martyrdom, is pointless. Islam is at least as diverse as Christianity, with an ever increasing number of permutations and interpretations. Suffice it to say that the version of Islam that Al Qaeda adopted is only peaceful when it has no enemies, it is not the least bit tolerant of “people of the book”, and it feels extremely threatened by the modern world. Even the modern Arab world is a threat to Muslims who support Al Qaeda. It is a cliché that “there has been more change in the Islamic world in the past 70 years than in the 700 years before,” but it is very close to the truth. Not only are traditional Islamic cultures unable to avoid the influence of the modern world, but the Middle East has had a huge baby boom, coming about 10 years later than the baby boom in the Western world. Oil money has taken nomadic people from camels to private jets, sometimes in one generation. Television is ubiquitous from Cairo slums to Qatar penthouses. Nearly every country in the Middle East has had a violent change of government in the past 70 years; some have had several such awkward changes of the guard.

Islam is at least as much a way of daily life as it is an eschatology; it is more difficult for a Muslim to reconcile his or her religion with other lifestyles or cultures, than say, a typical Western pro-multi-cultural agnostic; yet Islamic culture is churning over so fast conflicts are inevitable. A common reaction to rapid societal change is to retreat into the certainty and security of fundamentalism. A fundamentalist of any stripe looks for a manageable group of unambiguous tenets to follow, and follows those tenets without questioning or testing them. The fundamentalist holds those tenets like a badge of honour, to mark his membership in an exclusive club. Along with being unambiguous, fundamentalists look for beliefs that are traditional, to differentiate themselves from the confused, “modern” people around them. Traditional Arab society is very patriarchal, almost misogynistic, and Al Qaeda seems to have gravitated to Islamic groups that fit that description, such as the Wahabi sect and the Taliban.

In Western society we are somewhat sympathetic to religious beliefs that proscribe modern luxuries and temptations. Even if we would never give up those things ourselves, we have a bit of admiration for people with stronger convictions than our own. The one exception involves attitudes towards women. We might be willing to tolerate most of Islamic fundamentalism, but as soon as it treats women as a lower class of being, Western society suddenly finds some backbone. We claim we have no desire to push our way of life onto Muslims, but when it comes to the treatment of women, we have no qualms about telling Muslims what to do. With global communications and travel, women in Middle Eastern societies can see how their sex is treated in the West, and it is inevitable that we get a war of the sexes in Muslim households. At some level, the Al Qaeda recruit is worried that Western ideas are going to infect the local pool of available women, and he won’t be able to get a mate unless he gives up his beliefs, the beliefs that are so closely tied to his wounded sense of identity.

As a white male, ask yourself how you feel when you see an attractive blond woman with a black man. Did you ever think to yourself “why doesn’t he leave our women alone?” To make it worse for our Al Qaeda recruit, if he is exposed to Western culture, he will be confronted with the temptations (and inevitable frustrations) of overt sexuality in mass media and the internet. Horny young males of any religion are internally conflicted in such a situation.

There is a point to this; when bin Laden talked about the evils of American society, he was really talking about the role of women in Western society. The United States exports a lot of culture; some of which bin Laden had no problem with (like making home videos), but sexual roles in the wicked West are pure poison.

Summary (please!)

There has to be a psychological aspect to recruiting and motivating terrorists, especially suicide terrorists. We fear them more because we can’t understand their motivation than we fear the actual damage they are able to inflict. Terrorists are finding it more difficult to shock us in order to get our attention; where it used to be good enough to merely threaten to kill a captive, we now get beheadings posted on the internet. The main motivation for terrorism is always to make the enemy overextend itself, so you have to do whatever it takes to get the enemy’s full attention. I’ll let you decide if bin Laden has had any success at that. Besides, the actual success rate for terrorism may not be that high, but for the people who become terrorists, it still seems more effective than anything else. Understanding why the terrorist “hates us” isn’t going to change the terrorist’s behavior, but it might point us in a better direction to deal with terrorism. At this point, three and a half years after the September 11th attacks, the specifics of why Osama bin Laden decided to strike at the United States are still an important subject, because we can’t understand current threats from Islamic terrorists if we don’t have a clue why the September 11th attacks took place. Perhaps I’ll send you an email with my suggestions on how to fight terrorists in another 18 months or so.