Last week, the White House issued a new National Strategy for Homeland Security. This new Strategy is supposed to reflect "our increased understanding of the terrorist threats confronting the United States today." Indeed, one of the key components of strategy is to know your enemy a phrase often attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher-strategist Sun Tzu, but this is the actual passage from his 2,300-year old treatise The Art of War:
"Knowing the other and knowing oneself,
In one hundred battles no danger.
Not knowing the other and knowing oneself,
One victory for one loss.
Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself,
In every battle certain defeat."
Yet the new National Strategy for Homeland Security demonstrates that more than six years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks the Bush administration is guilty of not knowing the other. The letter from President Bush that accompanies the Strategy states, "We remain at war with adversaries who are committed to destroying our people, our freedom, and our way of life." In other words, the president continues to cling to the notion that "they" (al-Qaeda and radical Islamists) hate us for who we are.
That trap is easy to fall into. For example, an al-Qaeda computer purchased by journalist Alan Cullison in December 2001 contained an essay entitled "The Truth About the New Crusade: A Ruling on the Killing of Women and Children of the Non-Believers" by Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who worked with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in planning the 9/11 attacks. Shibh wrote, "In killing Americans who are ordinarily off limits, Muslims should not exceed four million noncombatants, or render more than ten million of them homeless." In June 2002, al-Qaeda spokesperson Suleiman Abu Gheith claimed, "We have the right to kill 4 million Americans 2 million of them children and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands." But like the famous Gary Larson The Far Side cartoon about what dogs hear, we hear the part about killing Americans but tend not to listen to the reasons why.
In his August 1996 fatwa "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places," bin Laden asserts that "the occupying American enemy is the principle and the main cause of the situation. Therefore efforts should be concentrated on destroying, fighting, and killing the enemy until, by the Grace of Allah, it is completely defeated." And in a February 1998 fatwa declaring jihad against the West and Israel, bin Laden wrote that "to kill the Americans and their allies civilians and military is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."
In other words, bin Laden’s calls for killing Americans are based on the affront to Muslims of U.S. military occupation of Muslim countries (previously Saudi Arabia, now Iraq and Afghanistan). According to University of Chicago professor Robert Pape (author of Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism, which is based on data from 315 suicide terrorism campaigns around the world from 1980 through 2003 and 462 individual suicide terrorists),
"The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign over 95 percent of all the incidents has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw."
Pape’s conclusions about why America has become a target for terrorism are inescapable:
"Since 1990, the United States has stationed tens of thousands of ground troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and that is the main mobilization appeal of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. People who make the argument that it is a good thing to have them attacking us over there are missing that suicide terrorism is not a supply-limited phenomenon where there are just a few hundred around the world willing to do it because they are religious fanatics. It is a demand-driven phenomenon. That is, it is driven by the presence of foreign forces on the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. The operation in Iraq has stimulated suicide terrorism and has given suicide terrorism a new lease on life."
Finally, Pape makes this simple yet very important observation: "Absent the presence of foreign troops, Osama bin Laden could make his arguments, but there wouldn’t be much reality behind them. The reason that it is so difficult for us to dispute those arguments is because we really do have tens of thousands of combat soldiers sitting on the Arabian Peninsula." This is an inconvenient truth that policymakers and leading presidential hopefuls refuse to recognize.
Ultimately, if we are to understand our enemy as a prerequisite to formulating a successful strategy we must be willing to acknowledge the reality that al-Qaeda’s ideology is not simply driven by a desire to destroy America because they hate us, our freedom, and our way of life. Indeed, in an October 2004 video, Osama bin Laden said to the American people: "This is contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. Let him tell us why we did not strike Sweden." To paraphrase James Carville, it’s not us, our freedom, and our way of life; it’s our policies, stupid.
Perhaps the most confounding sentence in the new National Strategy for Homeland Security is on page 9: "Al-Qaeda likely will continue to enhance its ability to attack America through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda in Iraq currently the group’s most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack us here." While al-Qaeda in Iraq may have expressed a desire to attack the United States, there is little (if any) evidence to indicate that they have any capability to do so (much like Saddam’s anti-U.S. rhetoric did not match his capabilities, which was one of the reasons he was never the threat military or terrorist portrayed by the administration). In fact, the evidence is that al-Qaeda in Iraq is clearly a threat within Iraq. According to Pape, "Since our invasion, suicide terrorism has been escalating rapidly with 20 attacks in 2003, 48 in 2004, and over 50 in just the first five months of 2005. Every year that the United States has stationed 150,000 combat troops in Iraq, suicide terrorism has doubled." The reality is that the potential terrorist threat is not from al-Qaeda in Iraq per se, but from the continued U.S. military occupation: "The central motive for anti-American terrorism, suicide terrorism, and catastrophic terrorism is response to foreign occupation, the presence of our troops. The longer our forces stay on the ground in the Arabian Peninsula, the greater the risk of the next 9/11."