From a young age, Americans — like citizens of other nations — are indoctrinated with nationalism, the belief that the United States is the “good guy” in world affairs, even if sometimes making mistakes in the pursuit of its noble aims. We are taught the U.S. uses its military might to protect the freedom of Americans and foreigners, expand democracy and peace, or in simple self-defense.
While sometimes this is true, the actual history of American foreign policy is far darker and more complex. The view of our moral superiority, however, serves an important function for the State. With the glorification of one’s country inherent in nationalism and patriotism comes the belief that the lives of foreigners are less valuable than your own countrymen. So because the U.S. is in the right, it really doesn’t matter how many innocent people perish in the pursuit of its goals.
The History of Violence series takes a less nationalistic and more honest look at the reasons the U.S. uses violence and the kinds of violence it deems acceptable. The series raises a key question: Would Americans deem it permissible for other powers to do to us what we did to them, for identical purposes and using identical violence? That is, if Vietnam bombed millions of Americans to prevent us from electing a Communist government, if Mexico conquered half the U.S. for more land and resources, if Guatemala helped overthrow our democracy in the interest of its corporations, and so on.
Despite the more rosy picture of U.S. benevolence, throughout its history the American government used military force to protect its economic interests and global power at the expense of weaker (often defenseless) nations. Presidents of both political parties authorized hundreds of military interventions into foreign nations, particularly in Latin America.
The boldest tactics included invasion and occupation, aerial bombings, terror attacks and assassinations, forcing open markets, and enacting trade blockades using naval and air power. Other methods included secretly arming and training rebel and terrorist groups, organizing and supporting coups, rigging ballots, and arming and funding brutal dictators. Usual targets included popular socialistic and communistic groups or governments pushing for land reform to help peasants or seizing national resources from foreign corporations, usually American.
These actions killed millions, and led to civil war, totalitarianism, genocide, and dire poverty in many countries.
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On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush told perhaps the greatest lie in American history, during a speech to a joint session of Congress and a national audience. Explaining the motives of Al-Qaeda terrorists, Bush said:
Americans are asking, “Why do they hate us?”
They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other… These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life.
While it is true that ultraconservative Islamists have no interest in democracy or individual liberties, but rather religious repression and domination, the idea that the September 11 attacks were motivated by an intense hatred of “our freedoms” was absurd on its face. Would the system of government and civil rights of a nation on the other side of the globe, 7,000 miles away, really inspire men to kill themselves while massacring innocent people? If so, why not attack Switzerland on 9/11? With its direct democracy, it is more democratic than the U.S. Why not bomb Australia? Or Hong Kong, Canada, or Norway? There are many democratic countries with just as many individual freedoms as the U.S., some with more. Even America’s conservative Cato Institute knows 30 nations have greater personal freedoms than the United States. One of the most free nations on earth, Denmark, is much closer to the Middle East — why bother crossing the Atlantic?
We can put aside such thoughtless, juvenile ideas. There are more sensible explanations, provided by Osama bin Laden himself. He explained in detail why he declared war on and attacked the United States.
In short, U.S. military interventions into the Middle East enraged him and many other Arabs and Muslims — enough to plot revenge.
Our relationship with bin Laden began as a friendly one. In the 1980s, the U.S. gave weapons and money to Islamic rebel groups in Afghanistan to help push out the Soviet Union—one group, which became Al-Qaeda, was led by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Islamic fundamentalist from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden “developed a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency and received American funds to help build his mountain bases” (Foner, Give Me Liberty!).
Not only did Afghanis want their independence from a foreign occupier, some Muslims throughout the Middle East saw it as their duty to wage holy war against the atheistic Communists, to defend Islam. When the conflict was over, violent groups turned their attention to American intervention in other Arab countries, what they perceived to be a new front in the war against Islamic nations, based on U.S. atrocities in Lebanon and Somalia, the Gulf War of 1991, the sanctions that directly killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, U.S. support for Israel, etc. You read about these sorts of American actions in Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression.
To establish the Muslim caliphate across the Middle East that Al-Qaeda envisioned, the U.S. would have to be dealt with in the same way as the Russians. Al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center, a symbol of American global power, in 1993, killing six people. They did the same to the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 200, mostly Africans. In 1999, they bombed the U.S.S. Cole in a port in Yemen, killing seventeen.
In 1996, bin Laden published in a London newspaper his “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which refers to his home country of Saudi Arabia, which has Islam’s holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina (Saudi Arabia, a brutal Islamic fundamentalist regime, is a close U.S. ally and oil partner). He saw the foreign policy of the U.S., Israel, and their allies (the “Zionist-Crusaders alliance”) in the Middle East as a war against Islam:
It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims blood became the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies. Their blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon are still fresh in our memory. Massacres in Tajakestan, Burma, Cashmere, Assam, Philippine, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Erithria, Chechnia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina took place, massacres that send shivers in the body and shake the conscience…. The people of Islam awakened and realised that they are the main target for the aggression of the Zionist-Crusaders alliance.
While bin Laden laments the “occupation” of Jerusalem by the hated Israelis, he said the “greatest of these aggressions” was the “American Crusaders” in Saudi Arabia, “the foundation of the house of Islam, the place of the revelation, the source of the message and the place of the noble Ka’ba….” He was enraged at his Saudi Arabian government for allying with the U.S.: “The King said that: ‘the issue is simple, the American and the alliance forces will leave the area in few months’. Today it is seven years since their arrival and the regime is not able to move them out of the country. The regime made no confession about its inability and carried on lying to the people claiming that the American will leave.”
Nearly all the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi Arabians.
He condemned Saudi economic ties to the U.S., mentioning the “oil industry where production is restricted or expanded and prices are fixed to suit the American economy ignoring the economy of the country.” He called for a boycott of American goods, saying:
It is incredible that our country is the world largest buyer of arms from the USA and the area biggest commercial partners of the Americans who are assisting their Zionist brothers in occupying Palestine and in evicting and killing the Muslims there, by providing arms, men and financial supports. To deny these occupiers from the enormous revenues of their trading with our country is a very important help for our Jihad against them.
Bin Laden called on all Muslims to begin “destroying, fighting and killing the enemy.” There was no mention of American freedoms or democracy. In 2002, bin Laden offered his justifications for the 9/11 attacks in a “Letter to America”:
Why are we fighting and opposing you? …Because you attacked us and continue to attack us…you attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon…you have starved the Muslims of Iraq, where children die every day…your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the World Trade Center attack, wrote something similar in 2015: the “U.S. reaped what it sowed on 9/11.” He condemned the U.S. building “military bases in the Arabian Peninsula in Tabuk, Dhahran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and U.A.E – which is prohibited by Sharia laws – to secure a non-stop flood of oil to [the U.S.] at the cheapest price” and U.S. support for “dictatorial rule of monarchial families and oppressive, corrupt, dynastic regimes” around the world, including “the Indonesian dictator Suharto when his army-led massacres slaughtered hundreds of thousands of landless farmers” and the “Shah of Iran and Safak, the brutal Iranian intelligence agency, for 40 years.”
He mentions the sanctions against Iraq and Madeleine Albright’s approving comment, U.S. support for Saddam Hussein “even when he was using poison mustard gas against the Kurds,” and how we “protect repeated Israeli crimes” at the U.N. “You can keep your military bases in Japan, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, but Muslim land will never accept infidels army bases in their land.” He concludes, “If your government and public won’t tolerate 9/11, then how can you ask Muslims to tolerate your 60 years of crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, the Arabian Peninsula and the whole Muslim World?”
A study of 52 instances of terrorists targeting the U.S. found that their motives included “boiling” anger at U.S. foreign policy, such as “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” and our “country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict.”
The War on Terror, as it increased U.S. involvement in the region, increased terrorism (by 2015, over 1 million Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistanis were dead due to Bush and Obama’s war, providing plenty of fuel for anti-American hatred and radicalization).
After 9/11, the CIA and international intelligence officials warned the Bush Administration that war would breed more enemies and new terror attacks. A Pentagon advisory panel, referring to the quote from George W. Bush, advised, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects).
During the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East was severely destabilized and hatred of the American government spread. American military incursion served bin Laden, in that it further validated his claims about American aggression and encouraged more people to join terrorist networks; for this reason, a CIA official in charge of tracking bin Laden called the U.S. “bin Laden’s only indispensable ally” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects). Abu Musab Al-Suri, an Al-Qaeda strategist, believed that “the war in Iraq almost single-handedly rescued the jihadi movement.” The Charlie Hebdo, Boston, and Orlando terrorists cited U.S. invasions, drone bombings, and torture as motives for their attacks.
Al-Qaeda, originally operating primarily from Afghanistan, spread across the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia: into Algeria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, India, Indonesia, etc. In 2014, the organizations the U.S. had set out to destroy in 2001 were estimated to still be strong: the Taliban had 36,000-60,000 fighters, Al-Qaeda 3,700-19,000. Acting CIA Director Mike Morell said Al-Qaeda’s “great victory has been the spread of its ideology across a large geographic area.” Al-Qaeda increased its terrorism against religious, ethnic, and political enemies in many countries. ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Taliban in Afghanistan spread terror as well. In 2000, there were 3,361 global terror fatalities, but over 11,100 in 2012, nearly 18,000 in 2013. This means a fivefold increase in fatalities since 9/11.
Iraq and Pakistan were thrown into chaos. Iraq went from a nation with no recorded suicide attacks in 2003 to 1,892 by 2015, killing 20,000 people. Between 1978 and 9/11, Pakistan saw a single suicide attack; between 9/11 and 2015, 486 attacks, killing over 6,000.
Nations that joined the U.S. invasion became bombing targets, like Spain in 2004 (191 killed) and Britain in 2007 (52 killed). In 2013, terrorists set off a bomb in Boston that killed three Americans. After France took a leading role in bombing ISIS, the terror group killed 129 people in Paris in November 2015.
“This is an act of war,” French President François Hollande said, echoing Bush. “An act committed by a terrorist army, [ISIS], against France, our values, who we are, a free country that speaks to the entire planet.”
But what Louis Caprioli, former head of DST, France’s retired anti-terrorism unit, said of the attacks was more accurate: “This attack is linked to our engagement in Syria and Iraq, to our engagement in the Sahel [Africa],” as reported in a Bloomberg article titled “France Pays Price for Front-Line Role From Syria to West Africa.” Further,
This isn’t the first time France’s involvement abroad has led to terrorism at home. In 1995, Algerian Islamists set off eight bombing attacks that killed eight people and wounded 200 in Paris to punish France for supporting the government in that country’s civil war…
“For 20 years we have fought this Salafist doctrine,” Caprioli said.
France began bombing ISIS in September of 2014, launching over 200 airstrikes, mostly in Iraq. Even before this, France was supplying violent Islamic groups with weapons to fight Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In October 2015, France bombed Raqqa and other targets in Syria. 3,000 French troops were also active in Africa to counter Islamic militants with allegiances to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
This is in stark contrast to the French refusal to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, for which many Americans vilified them.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, leaving no question that French military intervention was its inspiration. It called France a “crusader nation,” echoing bin Laden.
Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign, as long as they dare to curse our Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), and as long as they boast about their war against Islam in France and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets, which were of no avail to them in the filthy streets and alleys of Paris. Indeed, this is just the beginning. It is also a warning for any who wish to take heed.
The ISIS statement also touched on the well-established fact that Islamic extremists view Western military intervention as part of a broader religious war, calling Paris “the lead carrier of the cross in Europe” and saying the attackers were “hoping to be killed for Allah’s sake, doing so in support of His religion, His prophet…”
As with the American experience after 9/11, only a few dissenting voices in France, drowned out in the screams for more war and revenge, pushed for a deeper understanding of why the Paris attacks occurred and warned that more war will only create more terrorism.
France’s NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) was one such voice. Its statement after the Paris attacks said:
This contemptible cruelty in central Paris responds to the equally blind and even more fatal violence of the bombings by French planes in Syria following the decisions of François Hollande and his government… Imperialist cruelty and Islamist cruelty feed each other.
The NPA called for “the withdrawal of French troops from all countries where they are present, in particular in Syria, in Iraq, in Africa.”
The U.S. has a similar relationship with ISIS, like Al-Qaeda before it.
The bloody sectarian wars in Iraq caused directly by the U.S. invasion birthed new terror groups like the Islamic State in Iraq, which grew out of AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) and later joined with rebel groups in Syria to become ISIS. Even during a “War on Terror,” the U.S. was not opposed to arming terror groups to meet short-term goals, only later watching former assets step out of line, as had occurred so often in the past, like with bin Laden.
A classified Pentagon report from August 2012 revealed the U.S. actively supported the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI as the extremist groups attempted to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad. The Pentagon predicted these groups would evolve into some sort of Islamic state, saying this could be helpful in “unifying the jihad” of the Sunnis against Assad and the other Shia power, Iran, but also noting it “will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of territory.” This came true. After arming rebels and welcoming a quasi-state of Sunni Islam extremists, the U.S. watched ISIS grow too powerful, launching a campaign of conquest, rape, and ethnic and religious cleansing. ISIS tortured, mutilated, and massacred Christians, Shia Muslims, Druze, and others. When the U.S. began bombing ISIS — after the group took over Syria and northern Iraq and was approaching Iraqi oil fields—ISIS publicly promised revenge. The use of the American military has left us in an endless cycle of destruction and death.
A group of Americans who lost family in the 9/11 attacks perhaps understood this. They condemned revenge and pleaded for peace, founding an organization, 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, to help eradicate Islamophobia and find nonviolent solutions to terrorism. Many wrote President Bush condemning violence, and some visited Afghanistan in 2002 to console the parents of U.S. bombing victims. A woman whose husband died at the Pentagon said:
I have heard angry rhetoric by some Americans, including many of our nation’s leaders, who advise a heavy dose of revenge and punishment. To those leaders, I would like to make clear that my family and I take no comfort in your words of rage. If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetuating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband. (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)
There are many other groups with similar aims, such as Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, which call for an end to war.
American officials will even condemn intervention, when referencing other nations. In October 2015, after Russia bombed anti-Assad forces in Syria, the U.S. declared the deaths of civilians “will only fuel more extremism and radicalization”! The Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, while insisting U.S. drones were far more accurate than Russia bombers and thus didn’t kill as many innocents, said, “We believe if you inadvertently kill innocent men, women and children, then there’s a backlash from that…. We might kill three and create 10 terrorists. It really goes back to the question of are we killing more than were making?” The day after the Russian airstrikes, the U.S. bombed a hospital in Afghanistan for nearly an hour, killing 22 people, including three children.
Yemeni journalist Farea Al-Muslimi, after his village was drone-bombed, explained how such things spread the anti-American hatred that radical Islamic terrorists long for: “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant” (Chomsky, Because We Say So).
Terror attacks being revenge attacks for U.S. military incursions and wars in the Middle East should not be surprising, nor controversial. Whether you think such assaults are morally justified, despite how many innocent people die and despite oftentimes dubious motives like straightforward corporate gain, that is the cause of anti-American hatred and terrorist violence.
Nor should it be remarkable if religious zealots see their cause through a religious lens, using religion to broaden support and justify killing oneself and others. Some are convinced Western nations are trying to destroy Islam itself, though there is no evidence this has ever been among America’s dubious motives. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist extremists earnestly believe their deity wants them to kill Americans — waging a war to protect “Muslim lands” and Islam from foreigners and get revenge for prior U.S. interventions and alliances — simply does not change the actual historical cause of the conflict. After all, in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were no Muslim military bases in the United States and neighboring nations; Muslims did not drop bombs on Denver and Charleston; Muslim armies did not land troops on the east coast; Muslim governments did not help Muslim corporations seize large portions of American natural resources like oil. But the U.S. did all these things in Muslim nations of the Middle East, for half a century (for example, U.S. oil companies were operating in the Middle East by the 1940s, protected by the British, who occupied much of the region after World War I).
This examination is not to justify bloody terror attacks, in the same way most of the bloody U.S. interventions discussed in Part I: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression cannot be justified by ethical people free from the blinders of patriotic indoctrination. But it does help us understand why 9/11 and other attacks occurred, and how a “War on Terror” cannot be won, how it is a cycle of U.S. invasions (drone bombings, too) and extremist revenge attacks, each feeding the other — it is endless war. The only way to stop the war is to withdraw — and never repeat our foreign policy mistakes.
These things make us consider how we might react if America was a weaker, poorer nation and subject to the kinds of blows we dealt to Middle East nations for decades. Some would surely take up our arms and plot revenge in the home nations of enemies, and like Muslims convinced deadly U.S. policies are part of an attack on Islam itself, some Americans would surely come to see Muslim invasions of Iowa and Illinois as motivated by something equally inaccurate and nonsensical — freedom, perhaps.