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Five years later: The lessons of 9/11

September 11, 2006

It has been five years since Al Qaeda planned and carried out a series of commercial airliner attacks that shocked the United States and most of the world. The attack brought down the World Trade Center, destroyed a portion of the Pentagon and – but for the heroism of passengers on board – aimed a third plane at our nation’s capital. 

Just prior to the time of the attacks on the U.S., Arizona State University faculty associate Elaine Jordan, an expert in terrorism, was developing a global terrorism program for the West campus. An ASU graduate, Jordan holds a Ph.D., M.A. and B.S. in political science. In a recent interview, she discusses Sept. 11, Al Qaeda and what may lie ahead.

Q         How long has the term terrorism been used?


A         The term is based on the French word terrorisme, which comes from the Latin “cause to tremble. I believe it was first associated with the French Revolution.


Q         What is a terrorist?


A         Simply put, one who engages in acts of terror. However, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. For example, the Turkish Kurdish leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Abdullah Ocalan, was regarded, in the West, as a terrorist as he and his organization bombed selected targets in Turkey, a member of NATO. Had he been across the border in Iraq, bombing selected targets there, he would have been a freedom fighter. Sometimes the designation is a matter of which side of a border the acts take place.


            Before looking at who or what a terrorist is, we need to identify “What is terrorism?” The following is a simplified definition, but it does address the essential components of “terrorism.” To begin, terrorism is not an ideology, is not a philosophy, is not a religion. Terrorism is a tactic, a method.  As such,


1.       It is an act, or a significant threat of violence.

2.       It has a political motive

3.       It is committed against civilians

4.       It is intended to affect a larger population than those immediately impacted.

5.       It is usually committed by the weak against the strong.


Q         What is the basic tenet of Al Qaeda?


A         To digress a bit, Al Qaeda means “the base.” Followers draw upon this base for inspiration, guidance, funding and training. The basic belief of Al Qaeda is that of a world in crisis, with a battle waged simultaneously on earth and in heaven, and that humans have the ability to encourage and hasten divine intervention through their acts. The attacks are raids on the path of God, and according to bin Laden, rectifying the moral order is a human task.


Q         What is the message Al Qaeda is attempting to send?


A         The message of 9/11 was that the group could strike the most powerful country on earth in its three bastions of power. Economic (World Trade Center), military (Pentagon), and political (the U.S. Capitol). The message to governments and people everywhere is: “You, the government are unable to stop us,” and to the people, “Your government is unable to protect you.”  


Q         What drives Al Qaeda?


A         Their interpretation or belief of the moral order. On a more specific path, bin Laden has long regarded the Saudi regime as corrupt and immoral. Bin Laden’s aim was to overthrow that regime. Further, the regime had aligned with Christians and foreign military and civilian personnel to intrude on the sacred lands of Arabia. Because the United States strongly supports the House of Saud, by extension the United States is culpable. One immediate goal is for the United States to leave the area.


The world view goes back to the time of ibn Taymiyya, in the 13th century, and the invasion of Muslim lands by the Mongols, and the Baghdad-based Abbasid Empire. Removal of the infidels from Muslim lands, and the restoration of the Caliph, became a rallying cry. In the 1950s a member of The Brotherhood in Egypt, Sayyid Qutb, wrote extensively and fused the core elements of modern Islamism and the teachings of ibn Taymiyya with the political activism of Hassam al-Banna, among others, into an intellectual framework and philosophy that bin Laden found morally and intellectually fulfilling and also compelling prompts to carry out his goals.


Q         How long has Al Qaeda existed?


A         During the time of the 20-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1970 and 80s, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a Brotherhood member who founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad,  joined forces. This linkage is probably the single most significant event in the creation of Al Qaeda. It joined bin Laden’s fortune with al-Zawahiri’s considerable intellect.


Q         What is Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban?


A         Al Qaeda sought and received refuge in Afghanistan, and was sheltered by the Taliban. This was at least partially in keeping with Afghani ideas of hospitality.  In return the Taliban received funding and support. The Taliban was and is interested in governing a country. I think al Qaeda has more world-wide objectives.   


Q         What is the significance of reports that Pakistan will allow safe haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban in return for their agreement to lead “a peaceful life?”


A         Bear in mind that both al Qaeda and the Taliban have a great deal of support in Pakistan. President Musharraf of Pakistan is presiding over a weak government, albeit one with nukes. If Musharraf is to stay in power he needs the support of many of the factions that support al Qaeda and the Taliban. Will other countries follow this lead? I would look to the Horn of Africa for that possibility. Bin Laden had received shelter in Sudan for quite some time, and hard-liners who seem to have some links to the organization have become members of the government of Somalia.


Q         Did the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center surprise you?


A         No, it was a natural target. It was so big and easy to hit.  It was symbol of the United States’ and Western economies.  Al Qaeda had practiced there once before (the 1993 underground bombing).  Al Qaeda changed their tactics when bombing from underneath didn’t have the dramatic impact or effect they had hoped for.


Q         What did you, as an expert in the study of Al Qaeda, learn from the 9/11 attack?


A         I was surprised at the simultaneous attacks. The first attack on the World Trade Center (1993) was a practice run, and I would speculate that once the logistics for the second attack were worked out, it was only a matter of using more planes. I don’t believe the third plane was headed for the White House, I believe it was headed for the Capitol Building – the White house is surrounded by trees and hard to see from the air, while the Capitol Dome is just so bright and visible from the air.  Much easier to hit and remember, this was a low-cost, low-tech operation.  All they needed was some airplanes and someone who could steer them for a short while. I was surprised that there was not another attack in a different part of the country while the United States was reeling from the three attacks of 9/11.     


Q         Do you believe another such attack will take place?


A         I would say yes. Terrorism is not a new phenomena; it has been going on for thousands of years and I see no reason that it will stop any time soon. The conflicts in the Middle East are recruiting banners and stations for like-minded individuals and groups. Until there are political solutions there, the recruiting will continue.


Q         Do you see any strategy changes in Al Qaeda’s

terrorist tactics?


A         Al Qaeda has de-centralized into smaller, more autonomous groups located all around the world. Some of the groups have no formal connection with al Qaeda, but share a common ideology and objective. The smaller groups appear to select their own targets and act within the restrictions and dictates of the local settings.


Q         If Osama Bin Laden is killed or captured, will Al Qaeda still exercise such a powerful pull?


A         Bin Laden’s death at this time would be unimportant. Al Qaeda has morphed into al Qaedism, an ideology and a philosophy, which has a powerful draw. Until the intellectuals of the day present a compelling argument against this philosophy to those who follow it, al Qaedism will continue.