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September 11, 2001: reflections on a somewhat unusual act of war

On the fifth anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on New York and Washington,
we reflect on this act of war and try to place it in its true political and moral

  As an act of war, the al-Qaeda attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre was somewhat unusual,though not unprecedented, in three respects.First, the method used was non-standard.Standard military practice is to blow things and people up by dropping bombs or firing shells and missiles on them. But flying planes right into the target has been done before. Japanese kamikaze pilots used the technique against US warships in the Pacific during World War Two.

 Second, al-Qaeda is a non-state actor.Such actors rarely have the capacity to carry through such a complex and costly operation.Therefore al-Qaeda must have hadfinancial backing from wealthy sponsors - Osama bin Laden himself comes from an extremely wealthy family - and the support,or at least complicity, of one or more powerful states. In general, arranging wars is a pastime for members of the capitalist class, though they get hirelings to do the dirty work for them. Working people don't command the necessary resources.

 Finally, it is a little unusual for the US to be on the receiving end of a military assault from abroad. For a comparable attack on the continental United States, you have to go back to 1814, when the British army entered Washington and burned down theWhite House and the Capitol.

 In other ways the attack was not unusual in the least. As an atrocity it was par for the course. The death toll, initially estimated at 6,500, was later revised downward to about 2,800. Atrocities on a similar or larger scale are committed routinely by the US in other countries.

To take just one example, 3-4,000 civilians were killed in the invasion of Panama in December 1989. Even if we start the reckoning with September 11,we find that the US was quick to even the score. According to an independent study, 3,767 Afghan civilians (hardly any of them connected with al-Qaeda) had been killed inbombing raids by 6 December, 2001. This figure does not include the far more numerous indirect casualties resulting from the creation of refugees and the disruption of food and other supplies.


The attack should not have been a total surprise, a bolt out of the blue. After all, it was merely the next step in a war that Osama bin Laden had formally declared on the UnitedStates in August 1996. He had built up a farflung network of front companies, banks,"charities," and NGOs (e.g., the World Union of Moslem Youth) to raise funds and recruit young fighters for the war. He had already attacked American assets abroad, notably the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, and there was ample intelligence warning that a major attack on US soil was in the offing. So the parallel with Pearl Harbor is pretty weak.

 And yet September 11 clearly did come as a shock to Bush. That was because the attack came from forces that the US, its sidekicks Britain and Israel, and the Bush family in particular had long regarded as friends, allies and partners. This explains why Bush ignored the warnings - just as Stalin ignored warnings of impending attack by Nazi Germany in 1941 and felt "betrayed" by Hitler when the attack cameAmerican, British, and Israeli ruling circles saw the main threats to their economic and strategic interests in the Moslem world as coming from "communists" and secular nationalists backed by the Soviet Union (e.g. Nasser in Egypt, Ghaddafi in Libya, the PLO). When Khomeini's theocracy took power, Iran was added to the list of enemies, together with associated Shi'ite Islamist movements in other countries. Sunni Islamist movements, however, were encouraged - largely on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," although also because they seemed more interested in imposing ritual conformity on their own communities and in fighting "communism" than in challenging the substantive interests of the "infidel" powers.

 The Islamists were also beneficiaries of the "neo-liberal" economic policies of Western institutions. In Pakistan, for example,the secular state schools collapsed in the1980s as a result of IMF-mandated public spending cuts. This left the Saudi-financed religious schools (madrassas) as the only educational option available to boys who were not from wealthy families. (Girls, needless to say, didn't even have that option.) It was from these madrassas that the Taliban drew its recruits.

 Moreover, relations with the leading Sunni Islamist power, Saudi Arabia, were and still are vital to Britain and the US in economic terms. The Saudi capitalist class, led by the royal family and influential families like the bin Ladens, not only sells these countries' oil but uses much of the proceeds to buy arms from them and invest in their economies.

 There are close and long-established personal and business ties between wealthy Saudis and British and American capitalists and politicians, including the father of the current US president and several members of his administration.

 The Saudi-US alliance also entailed close military cooperation, above all in the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden went to Pakistan in 1979 as an official of the Saudi intelligence service to finance, organize, and control the anti- Soviet Afghan resistance in collaboration with the CIA. It was here that Osama, who had trained as an engineer and economist with a view to taking part in the family business,
acquired his taste for war. Osama fell out with the Saudi royal family in 1991 when they allowed the US to set up military bases on the "holy" soil of Arabia following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

 But even in exile Osama received frequent visits from relatives, who provided a channel of communication between him and the royal family. An understanding appears to have been reached. Osama would abstain from attacking targets inside Saudi Arabia and in return no action would be taken against his Saudi supporters, who included various members of his own and of other wealthy families (such as Khalid bin Mahfouz, the "banker of terror") and even certain royal princes. And the Saudi authorities did protect these people, refusing to provide US intelligence agencies with any information that might compromise them. So September 11 originated in a "betrayal" by the Saudi capitalist class of their American friends, allies and partners.

 How can we account for such strange ingratitude to those to whom they owe their vast riches? It probably has to do with the circumstances in which the Saudi capitalist class came into being. It did not make itself through independent entrepreneurial activity.
It was made when oil was discovered in Arabia (in 1938) and property rights in that oil were vested in the pre-existing royal house.It is a class of bedouin patriarchs turned rentiers who became capitalists by investing their revenue. As a result, it retains to some extent a pre-capitalist mentality that it expresses in religious terms, and has a deeply ambivalent attitude to the capitalist world in which it now operates.

The endless "war on terror"

Despite the shock effect, US ruling circles did not necessarily regard September 11 as an unalloyed evil. In his book The New Crusade, anti-war analyst Rahul Mahajan draws attention to a document entitled Rebuilding America's Defenses, issued in September 2000 by the Project for the New American Century, a neo-conservative think tank with links to the Bush administration. The authors call for increased military spending to preserve US "global pre-eminence," but add that such a programme will be politically impossible unless there is a "catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor".

 The purposes for which the fear generated by the al-Qaeda attack was exploited suggest that it filled this bill. The threat of "terrorism" has been used to push through military programs ranging from anti-missile defence to germ warfare. Thus, a vast lab is being built near Washington called the National Biodefence Analysis and Countermeasures Center, where in violation of the1972 biological and toxin weapons convention the most lethal bacteria and viruses are to be stockpiled (Guardian Weekly, 4-10 August, 2006). What a tempting target it will make for terrorist infiltration or attack!


The "war on terrorism" unleashed in the aftermath of September 11, against first Afghanistan and then Iraq, is not - so Mahajan argues - a war on terrorism, just as the "war on drugs" is not a war on drugs. Combating terrorism and drugs are both low priorities, and the "wars" against them are covers for the pursuit of higher-priority interests.

 In Afghanistan the US had turned against the Taliban (previously welcomed as a force for "stability"), mainly because they were unwilling to host oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia to Pakistan, and was looking for a pretext to overthrow them. Capturing Osama was that pretext, for it was obvious that the chaos of war would create ideal conditions for him to escape.

 Iraq was invaded to secure control over its oil and in the hope of establishing a new strategic beachhead in the Middle East. Saddam had no ties with Islamic terrorism, just as he had no nuclear weapons. To the likes of Osama he was not even a genuine Moslem. Bush demanded of his experts that they find ties between Iraq and terrorism; when they replied that there were none, he pretended not to hear and reiterated his demand. In October 2001 Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the war on terrorism"may never end -- at least, not in our lifetime"(Washington Post, 21 October, 2001). Am I alone in finding this suspicious? Ordinarily in a war it is considered important for morale to hold out some prospect of victory, however remote. Does Cheney want and need the "war" to go on forever?

The torture system

To sustain the facade of the "war on terror" it is necessary to arrest lots of people. As there is no real evidence against them, they are held without trial in secret facilities throughout the world, where - like the victims of Stalin's purges - they are tortured to extract the non-existent evidence. In her book The Language of Empire, Lila Rajiva describes for us the sickening tortures at Abu Ghraib, the prison complex outside Baghdad that the US occupation authorities took over from Saddam. The accounts and photos (some taken as exposés, others as souvenirs) are monotonous in their sameness.

 This is a clue: it strongly suggests that the torture is not a spontaneous practice of jailers and interrogators but a system designed by government experts and approved at the top.
The system goes by the code name R21 and is taught to British and American military intelligence personnel at the British Joint Services Interrogation Centre at Gilbertine Priory, Chicksands, near Bedford (Guardian, May 8, 2004). It is designed to shock Moslem cultural sensibilities. Victims are stripped naked and hooded, savaged by dogs, and forced under threat of beatings to masturbate and simulate sexual acts in front of sniggering female soldiers (another triumph for sexual equality). That's just for starters, of course; it gets worse. I leave it to the reader to ponder what this means for the relative merits of Western and Middle Eastern "civilization."

 And yet the people who authorize all these horrors know very well who is responsible for terrorism (the Islamist variety, that is) and where they are to be found. But no bombs have been dropped on the wealthy suburbs of Riyadh. No scions of the bin Ladens and bin Mahfouz, no princes of the House of Saud have been stripped naked, set upon by dogs or sexually humiliated. That's class justice for you! A few incidents, however regrettable, can't be allowed to spoil British and American relations with a vita
ally and business partner.