Most of the remembrances of 9/11 focus on the victims, rather than the perpetrators. But it always pays to know your enemy.
Los Angeles Times correspondent Terry McDermott has written an engrossing account of the group members who planned, abetted, and carried out the 9/11 attacks. Their stories are integrally connected with the spread of radical Islam.
McDermott describes several conditions in the Muslim world that created a surplus of young men with nothing to do and no hope for the future. Muslim countries, particularly Egypt, encouraged and subsidized professional degrees, but had nothing for graduates to do once they obtained them. Radical Muslim clerics were not only unhindered but encouraged in their efforts to turn the frustration and anger of these young men to targets outside of their own countries. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 showed believers that an Islamic republic was a real possibility. The proxy fights between the Soviet and American regimes (in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen) left the region “flooded with weapons, hatreds, and instability.” In particular the Afghan war created a large number of trained terrorists ready to fight but nowhere to go when the Soviets pulled out in February 1989.
Training for jihad in the Afghanistan camps was a popular and even accepted activity: it was exciting, and gave the participants a raison d’etre. In the camps they met other like-minded men, and heard daily exhortations on the obligation “to march out for jihad.” The enemies identified in their nightly lectures were the unfaithful; apostate Muslim regimes; and the U.S., which was “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula” and serving Israel and diverting attention from “its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims.” A special hatred was reserved for the Jews (not just Israelis) and was characteristically felt by the 9/11 group members as well.
The author provides us with as many fascinating details as he can about the planning and execution of the 9/11 plot. Part of the reason it took so long to put into effect was due to the ineptness of the plotters. Yet, ironically, “Al Qaeda was not a slick, professional outfit that didn’t get caught because it didn’t make mistakes. It made mistakes all the time. It didn’t get caught because the government with which it was dealing made more of them.”
“In the end,” McDermott writes, “this is a story about the power of belief to remake ordinary men; it is a story about the dangerous power of ideas wrongly wielded.” It is also the story of a country – the U.S., that could not generate good intelligence about the Muslim world, nor get its disparate government agencies coordinated to piece together the few clues it had. The author hopes, by telling this story, to increase awareness and understanding: “Until we do understand, we have no chance at all.”
Published by Harper, 2005