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Motivations for September 11


The attacks of September 11, 2001 were dramatic in a way that few things in American history have been. These events are burned into the minds of American citizens. In many ways, they have changed the way America sees itself in the world, and the attacks have been used time and again by politicians who have seen it as an opportunity to push their own agendas. While there has been significant focus on what has happened since the attacks, less attention has been given to the many years that led to the attacks. After all, Osama Bin Laden and his cohort did not simply wake up one day and decide to plot the terror attacks that changed the country that day. Rather, these attacks were the result of a long period and many different precursors. When trying to figure out why one would choose to send 19 hijackers to their death, or why one would choose to pilot an airplane into a building full of people, one cannot attempt to get too specific. Rather, one must attempt, if at all possible, to capture a wide range of potential motivations. The motivations for this attack could be grouped into two specific categories. Some are ideological, burned into individuals by their culture, their understanding of religion, and other environmental factors in their own lives. Other motivations have more to do with America and her role in the world. These two categories play off of one another, of course, with America’s global activities being perceived through the lens of individuals, and with America’s activities having an impact on the way some radical forces view the world. Specifically, American support of various groups fighting Muslim interests around the world helped to spark a deep distaste for America among radicals like Bin Laden, and deep-seeded issues within the psyche of individuals like him helped to turn ideas into harsh and ugly reality.

It would be going far too far to suggest that the United States brought the attacks of September 11th on herself. There are things that a country can do to bring about military attacks against herself, of course, but the civilian-heavy nature of the attacks took it to a different level. Still, America engaged in a long-term campaign in which its military supported a number of different efforts around the globe which might have been seen as hostile to the interests of certain Muslim factions.

American involvement in Iraq had long been a point of contention among Al Qaeda. Starting with the first Gulf War, the United States not only went in and wrecked the country, but it also imposed sanctions on Iraq. These economic sanctions were designed to weaken the country so that it could not take over Kuwait again or assert itself in getting the region’s oil reserves. However, in international relations, it is important to remember that one country’s perspective often does not match another country or another group’s perspective. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda believed that the sanctions, which were apparently levied because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the country, were dangerous for children and women in Iraq. Specifically, Bin Laden himself remarked in a fatwa to Muslim followers that Americans should be killed because what the United States had done had been a massacre of Muslim children within the region. By asserting itself in such a prolonged way in the region, the US made it seem as if it was going to stop at nothing to destroy Iraq’s hold, and by extension, the hold of the Baath Party in the country. This motivated Bin Laden not necessarily to conduct the attacks of September 11th, but rather, to have mass attacks against the US on his radar for the future.

Another point of contention had to do with the American presence in Saudi Arabia. Following a series of conflicts in the region, America maintained a strong force of military personnel in the country. Their purpose was to ensure that no-fly zones and other sanctions were respected. While these troops could certainly be regarded as “peace keeping” officers, this distinction was lost on Bin Laden and others of his ilk. Bin Laden took issue with the continued presence of American soldiers in the region because the region houses many of the most important sites in the Muslim faith. Mecca and Medina, for instance, have strong associations with Mohammad, and thus, they are considered the holy lands. By placing American troops there, the country brought on the ire of Bin Laden and others, and many extremist Muslim groups called for the removal of American troops as a result.

Perhaps at the heart of all of these issues, and tying them together, is the continued support of the United States of Israel. The US has long had a cushy relationship with Israel. Starting with the creation of the state itself, in which the United States played a major part in the wake of World War II, the US has helped Israel maintain a strong military and establish itself as a powerhouse in the region. Bin Laden and company see this as more than just an alliance between two countries that have similar interests. Rather, Bin Laden saw this as a direct threat to Islam. Because of the ongoing conflicts between Israel and Palestine, in which Israel has been extremely aggressive and in some respects displaced Palestinians, Israel is seen as being hostile to Islam and to Muslims. By supporting Israel, and by giving Israel the backing that it needs in order to do these things, the United States is perceived as being a threat to Islam. It is important to recognize that this was not an isolated event. Rather, Bin Laden and company believed that the American support of Islam was long-standing and sustained. They were right, of course. America has never waned in its unequivocal support of almost everything that Israel has done. Even if there have been some political nuances from administration to administration, these things have not been enough to alleviate the frustrations of radicals like Bin Laden.

In addition to these event-related factors, there are some ideological factors that sit at the center of these attacks. As Wright notes in The Looming Tower, one of the things that the Muslim world does is instill a since of dignity in its people. People can seek dignity not only in life, but also in death. Most have heard the stories about how some radical Muslims believe that their death, if not in vain, will lead to rewards in paradise. There is a flip side that Wright believes is even more important to understand. That is, the Muslim world, and many of her countries, do a poor job of instilling any hope in the future. The world is gray and hopeless, and it creates a situation where some feel like revolutionaries. The author notes, quite importantly, that when this combination of factors is present, there is often tremendous frustration among the people. While not all Muslim people respond to this kind of mental oppression with violence or radicalism, a small percentage do, and they are almost always looking for outlets for that frustration.

Wright notes that one of the deeply-rooted values within many of these “revolutionaries” is that they have a strong desire for what they believe is justice. These are people who sense the reality that the world is unfair and fallen. These things are pounded into their heads from an early age. However, they have little idea how to make things better. They cling to pure and unadultured Islam – as they perceive it – as a potential answer to these problems. They believe that if they could just spread their version of this religion with the world, and if they could stop the wave of Western influence that rolls back their brand of Islam, they could help to bring justice to an unjust world. This strong desire to do something, combined with little knowledge of how to bring constructive solutions to the table, is a corrosive combination. It leads to personalities like Bin Laden – weak, sometimes off-kilter men who seek to take out their frustration through a ruthless dedication to a specific set of doctrines.

Ultimately, it is difficult to pin down one motivation for the attacks that occurred on September 11th, 2001. These were complex attacks that did not materialize overnight. Rather, they were the result of meticulous planning and even more meticulous motivation. Bin Laden and his ilk were extremely angry. Over time, they saw American involvement in various Middle Eastern spaces as a shot at Islam. With this in mind, they issued many warnings, and they made many smaller attacks in an attempt to get through to the US. Ultimately these radicals determined that the only way they could really get their message through to the American people was to do something very large. With that, the attacks were planned, and their execution was as complex as their motivation.