The trigger point for the war between America and al Qaeda was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. George Bush Sr. believed that his decision to intervene in this conflict would be received by all Muslims as an act of American solidarity to save an islamic state from aggression. The Saudi ruling family, on the other hand, felt that inviting Western troops into the land of Mecca and Medina would be perceived as a fundamental violation of islamic law. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Saudis chose the route of political survival and brought in the Americans to stop Hussein.
In the past such “abominations” against Islam would have been greeted with impotent rage. But the war in Afghanistan made it different this time. Those Afghan veterans who were allowed to return to Saudi Arabia did not feel vulnerable and weak the way the Saudi leaders did. They were ready to defend the Kingdom against all comers if need be. They felt no dependance on the United States for the “protection” of the holy places. They saw that the governments in the Arab countries were corrupt and secular and could not possibly lead this fight. So international, militant, anti-American Islam was born in the wake of the Gulf War, an unintended consequence of what Americans had thought of as a noble action.
Here we see the great philosophical divide between the islamic world and the West. To the West the militant warriors of resurgent Islam are merely “terrorists,” lawless bandits who have no respect for human life and civilized values. They hate everyone, including most fellow Muslims, and everything that does not agree with their hateful rantings. But to many in the Muslim world these agents of terror are true patriots, freedom fighters willing to give their lives in the cause of God. They are the only thing standing between the islamic world and the horrific moral assaults of Hollywood, gay pride and American cruise missiles.
Osama bin Laden’s war against America was fueled by five factors. 1) The general decline of Islam over the previous centuries. In a Western-dominated world Muslims seemed to be humiliated on every side, by the Israelis, the Serbs, the Russians, the Indians, and now the United States. In addition, the West has “imposed” Western law codes on Muslim states, enforced Western economic ideas, including the charging of interest (contrary to Islamic law), and exported alcohol, drugs, pornography and crime. It is frustrating to a jihadist to believe that the Islamic culture is superior, yet to acknowledge that America has vastly superior power and wealth.
2) The Israeli-Palestinian Situation. While securing a homeland for Jews made a lot of sense in the West after the Holocaust, the original partition of Palestine came at the expense of Arabs whose ancestors had been in the land for centuries. That move broke many promises that the British and the Americans had made during the two world wars. To Arab eyes the expansion of Israel looks suspiciously like a revival of the Crusades, with Israel at the forefront and America guiding behind the scenes. Jewish desperation after the Holocaust was real and for many Jews the homeland in the Middle East was the only spark of hope at the time. But the desperation of the Palestinian refugee camps remains to this day. From the Muslim perspective this is a serious injustice that is ongoing and has never been addressed. For bin Laden the injustice was criminal.
3) Secular corruption in the Middle East. A further major grievance of Osama bin Laden had to do with the corrupt and secular governments ruling over most Muslim countries. Governments of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were seen as unelected, oppressive, pandering to the West and soft on Islam. While the United States did not set up these governments directly, in the minds of the jihadists they would not stand without American support. For Muslim fundamentalists what really holds Islam back is the corruption and inefficiency in the political and economic realm of the Middle East. It is against these that the decisive battle must be fought.
4) Betrayal in Afghanistan. While the first three grievances were real, they were of long standing and by themselves would not have created the jihadist movement. As mentioned above, it was the betrayal in Afghanistan and the western militaries in Saudi Arabia that lit the fuse of Osama bin Laden’s anger. The first of these was the American betrayal in Afghanistan. When the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, the Americans immediately lost interest and abandoned bin Laden and his mujahedin to their own devices.
5) Western militaries in Saudi Arabia. The final trigger point, as we have seen, was the physical presence of the American military in Saudi Arabia during and after the Gulf War. In the 1980s bin Laden was not hostile to America, in spite of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. There is even evidence he may have been on the CIA payroll for a time. But the alcoholism, materialism, immorality and relative nudity exhibited by Western troops in Saudi Arabia seemed sacrilegious to even moderate Muslims. To bin Laden it bordered on blasphemy.
But why respond to these grievances with suicide bombers piloting commercial planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? What did that have to do with overthrowing corrupt governments in the Middle East?