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Al Qaida will also never be the same

The events of 9/11 have brought changes to America and are certain to bring changes to the Islamic militants in Al Qaida and its allies. The perpetrators of the aircraft attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an attempt on the Capitol, which resulted in a crash in Pennsylvania, are described as 'evil.' It is said they 'hate our freedoms.' The culture or ideology they come from 'hates modernity.' Using these words leaves the men who came from middle-class backgrounds in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and other Arab countries an enigma.

It is tempting to believe these men were driven by ordinary motives. U.S. foreign policy created and continues to support regimes in Arab countries that have been known to harm people, and maybe they were seeking revenge. We might be able to understand that. But thus far, no compelling evidence has emerged that supports this. It is possible none of them, nor their close relatives or friends, had been subjected to the torture and humiliation that pass for interrogation in their countries. They were, without doubt, aware of it, and some of Osama bin Laden's closest people had experienced it, but again there is little evidence this motivated them. If not revenge, what could have motivated them? Religion? Most of the men on the planes do not appear to have been markedly religious. They were certainly not obsessed with morals. Given this, how could they go about a plan that resulted in murders of about three thousand innocent people?

A way of understanding begins with the rise of militant Islam during the twentieth century. A milestone in that movement was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the establishment of an Islamic state there. Another event was the defeat of the Soviet Union in nearby Afghanistan and the establishment of a version of Islamic rule under the Taliban militia. These events convinced some Islamic militants that Islamic states were not only possible, but also highly desirable. They began to dream of a revival of the days when Islam was a world power expanding its teachings and culture over a vast area of the world. The western industrial powers, especially England and the United States, had humiliated the Islamic world by creating and supporting Israel and supporting unpopular and often brutal regimes, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. England and America were their enemies, but establishing Islamic states, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was the objective.

History has long produced stories of cultures which felt oppressed and humiliated and which yearned for a better future, often based on the glories of the past. Once they envision the world the way it ought to be, they become energized and sometimes fiercely enthusiastic, willing to expose themselves to great danger and giving themselves permission to do things, even unthinkable acts like genocide or mass murder, because the righteousness of their cause justifies any level of violence. Anthropologists call these 'revitalization movements.' Examples range from such non-western movements as the Ghost Dance of the Great Plains Indians late in the 19th century to the rise of Nazism in Germany. In these cases, people dream of reestablishing a time of glory. When they look to force as a way of establishing this, as did Germany, such a movement can be capable of great destruction.

A significant milestone was reached in the mostly imaginary holy war waged by ragtag political cells and would-be militants at the battle of Mogadishu, Somalia. From the American viewpoint, this was an uprising which served to protect a warlord, but from the perspective of a militant like bin Laden, the fact that such a militia could take on and drive away American forces was evidence the Americans could not withstand even small numbers of casualties. He became convinced that if the U.S. could be drawn into a ground war in Afghanistan, the same thing would happen that happened to the Russians. An American defeat in Afghanistan, he hoped, would lead to revolutions and Islamic states in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries. As he and other militant groups stepped up attacks on American facilities and a warship, his profile rose among the militants and he was accorded the kind of deference reserved for heroes. The American military force in Somalia was not defeated on the battlefield, but the subsequent withdrawal due to political forces in the United States gave the appearance, to the militants, of a lack of will, even cowardice. It was a seminal moment in the thinking of the leadership of Al Qaida.

Bin Laden then made a serious error. Since he could not take the Afghan fighters to the Americans, he must bring the Americans to them. He set out to provoke the United States in a series of bombing attacks, and did provoke retaliatory strikes against a pharmaceuticals factory in Sudan and a training camp in Afghanistan, but there was no invasion of Afghanistan with ground troops. The events of Sept. 11 were the latest effort to strike a blow against America sufficient to draw them into the trap that waited in the Tora Bora mountains. What happened instead is the American military thoroughly defeated the Taliban and routed Al Qaida and probably killed Mr. bin Laden.

Although human behavior is rarely predictable with absolute certainty, revitalization movements do exhibit patterns. When the charismatic leader's prophecies fail to materialize on schedule or are proven wrong, the faithful survivors make adjustments in strategy. Although the most dedicated militants are likely to continue to try to find ways to bring about their dream of an Islamic state, they have probably had time to reflect that provoking a massive military reaction by the United States is the wrong way to go. It is likely they will try to take advantage of the growing unpopularity of the United States caused by perceived attitudes of arrogance and mistreatment of Muslims to promote unrest and revolution in their home countries and will place much less emphasis on dramatic attacks on U.S. soil.