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The 9/11 attacks have been described as a "global symbolic event"[1]

The September 11th attacks were an organized political act carried out by 19 hijackers, and organized by numerous members of al-Qaeda. Reasons for the attacks were stated before and after the attacks in several sources, including the Fatawā of Osama bin Laden, the videos of Ayman al-Zawahiri, videos of Osama bin Laden, and interviews of Osama bin Laden. The motivations identified for the attacks include the support of Israel by the United States, presence of the U. S. military in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the US enforcement of sanctions against Iraq.


Before the attacks, Al-Qaeda issued proclamations that provide insight into the motivations for the attacks: one was the fatwā of August 1996,[2] and a second was a shorter fatwa in February 1998.[3] Both documents appeared initially in the Arabic-language London newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi and they specifically mentioned support of Israel by the U.S. and the presence of the U.S. in Saudi Arabia.[2][3] After the attacks, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have published dozens of video tapes and audio tapes, many describing the motivations for the attacks. Two particularly important publications were bin Laden's 2002 "Letter to America"[4], and a 2004 video tape by bin Laden.[5] In addition to direct pronouncements by bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, numerous political analysts have postulated motivations for the attacks.

Stated motives[]

Sanctions imposed against Iraq[]

On 6 August 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 661 which imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, providing for a full trade embargo, excluding medical supplies, food and other items of humanitarian necessity, these to be determined by the Security Council sanctions committee. After the end of the Gulf War and after the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the sanctions were linked to removal of weapons of mass destruction by Resolution 687.[6] From 1991 until 2003 the effects of government policy and sanctions regime led to hyperinflation, widespread poverty and malnutrition.

In the 1998 fatwa, Al Qaeda identified the Iraq sanctions as a reason to kill Americans: "despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million... despite all this, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation....On that basis, and in compliance with Allah's order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims:The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim..."[7]

In the 2004 Osama bin Laden video, Osama calls this "the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known"[8]

In Ward Churchill's 2001 essay Some People Push Back, in respect to America's actions in Iraq, 9/11 was "chickens coming home to roost":

All told, Iraq has a population of about 18 million. The 500,000 kids lost to date[citation needed] thus represent something on the order of 25 percent of their age group. ... In effect, an entire generation has been obliterated.[9]

During the latter part of the 1990s the UN considered relaxing the sanctions imposed because of the hardships suffered by ordinary Iraqis. According to UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy,

if the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole during the eight year period 1991 to 1998. As a partial explanation, she pointed to a March statement of the Security Council Panel on Humanitarian Issues which states: "Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war.[10]

The United States used its veto in the UN Security Council to block the proposal to lift the sanctions because of the continued failure of Iraq to verify disarmament.[citation needed] However, an oil for food program was established in 1996 to ease the effects of sanctions.[citation needed]

In 1998, Denis Halliday resigned as the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator as protest of the sanctions imposed on Iraq, characterizing them as genocide.[11][12][13] Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck, subsequently also resigned in protest, calling the effects of the sanctions a "true human tragedy".[14]

Presence of U. S. military in Saudi Arabia[]

After the 1991 Gulf war, the US maintained a presence of 5,000 troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.[15] One of the responsibilities of that force was Operation Southern Watch Wikipedia.png, which enforced the no-fly zones over southern Iraq set up after 1991, and the country's oil exports through the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf are protected by the US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain.

Since Saudi Arabia houses the holiest sites in Islam (Mecca and Medina) — many Muslims were upset at the permanent military presence. The continued presence of US troops after the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia was one of the stated motivations behind the September 11th terrorist attacks,[15] the Khobar Towers bombing, as well, the date chosen for the 1998 United States embassy bombings (August 7), was eight years to the day that American troops were sent to Saudi Arabia.[16] Bin Laden interpreted the Prophet Muhammad as banning the "permanent presence of infidels in Arabia".[17] In 1996, Bin Laden issued a fatwa, calling for American troops to get out of Saudi Arabia.

In the 1998 fatwa, Al-Qaeda wrote " for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."[7] In the December 1999 interview with Rahimullah Yusufzai, bin Laden said he felt that Americans were "too near to Mecca" and considered this a provocation to the entire Muslim world.[18]

Support of Israel by United States[]

In his November 2002 "Letter to America", Bin Laden described the United States' support of Israel as a motivation: "The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals. And of course there is no need to explain and prove the degree of American support for Israel. The creation of Israel is a crime which must be erased. Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime must pay its price, and pay for it heavily."[19] In 2004 and 2010, Bin Laden again repeated the connection between the September 11 attacks and the support of Israel by the United States.[20][21]

Support of Israel was also mentioned before the attack in the 1998 Al-Qaeda fatwa: "[T]he aim [of the United States] is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula."[3]

Several analysts, including Mearsheimer and Walt, also assert that a motivation for the attacks was the support of Israel by the United States.[22][23][24][25][26][27][18]

Inferred motives[]

Some motives for the attacks - such as globalization and a desire to provoke the United States - have been inferred by political analysts, although these motives are not explicitly stated by Al-Qaeda.


Bernard Lewis is the best-known exponent of the idea of the "humiliation" of the Islamic world through globalisation. In the 2004 book The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, he argues animosity toward the west is best understood with the decline of the once powerful Ottoman empire, compounded by the import of western ideas— Arab socialism, Arab liberalism and Arab secularism.

During the past three centuries, the Islamic world has lost its dominance and its leadership, and has fallen behind both the modern West and the rapidly modernizing Orient. This widening gap poses increasingly acute problems, both practical and emotional, for which the rulers, thinkers, and rebels of Islam have not yet found effective answers.[28]

In an essay titled 'The spirit of terrorism', Jean Baudrillard described 9/11 as the first global event that "questions the very process of globalization".[1]

Provoke war with the United States[]

Some middle-east scholars like Michael Scott Doran and Peter Bergen have argued that 9/11 was a strategic way to provoke America into a war that incites a pan-Islamist revolution.

Michael Scott Doran argued that the attacks are best understood as being part of a religious conflict within the Muslim world. In an essay, Doran argued that Bin Laden's followers: "consider themselves an island of true believers surrounded by a sea of iniquity".[29] Doran further argued that bin Laden hoped U.S. retaliation would unite the faithful against the West, sparking revolutions in Arab nations and elsewhere; and that the Osama bin Laden videos were attempting to provoke a visceral reaction in the Middle East aimed at a violent reaction by Muslim citizens to increased U.S. involvement in their region.[30]

Correspondent Peter Bergen argued that the attacks were part of a plan to cause the United States to increase its military and cultural presence in the Middle East, thereby forcing Muslims to confront the idea of a non-Muslim government and establish conservative Islamic governments in the region.[31]

See also[]

Further reading[]

  • The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
  • Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11 - by Gerald Posner
  • The War Against the Terror Masters: Why It Happened. Where We Are Now. How We'll Win - by Michael A. Ledeen
  • Understanding September 11 - edited by Craig Calhoun, Paul Price and Ashley Timmer
  • Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror- by Mary Habeck
  • Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers, Who They Were, Why They Did It - by Terry McDermott


  1. 1.0 1.1 Baudrillard. "The spirit of terrorism". Retrieved 15 December 2009. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Text of the 1996 fatwa, translation by PBS
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Text of the 1998 fatwa translation by PBS
  4. Full transcript of bin Laden's "Letter to America"
  5. "So I shall talk to you about the story behind those events and shall tell you truthfully about the moments in which the decision was taken, for you to consider."[1] -2004 Osama bin Laden video
  7. 7.0 7.1 1998 Al Qaeda fatwa
  8. "Full transcript of bin Ladin's speech". aljazeera. Retrieved 29 November 2009. 
  9. Ward Churchill (September 2001). ""Some People Push Back": On the Justice of Roosting Chickens". Pockets of Resistance 20. 
  10. "Iraq surveys show 'humanitarian emergency'". Wednesday, 12 August 1999. Retrieved 29 November 2009. 
  11. Denis Halliday. Biographical information for Denis Halliday, December 199
  12. Former UN official says sanctions against Iraq amount to 'genocide', Cornell Chronicle, September 30, 1999.
  13. Jennifer Byrne Dennis Halliday - UN Iraq sanctions, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Broadcast in the Foreign Correspondent programme: 28 March 2000
  14. BBC News | MIDDLE EAST | UN sanctions rebel resigns
  15. 15.0 15.1 "US pulls out of Saudi Arabia". BBC News. 2003-04-29. Retrieved 29 November 2009. 
  16. Plotz, David (2001) What Does Osama Bin Laden Want?, Slate
  17. Bergen, Peter L. (2001). Holy War Inc.. Simon & Schuster. p. 3. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Face to face with Osama". London: The Guardian. September 26, 2001. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  19. Full text of Bin Laden's "Letter to America"
  20. Bin Laden's 2004 taped broadcast on the attacks, in which he explains the motives for the attacks and says "The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that. This bombardment began and many were killed and injured and others were terrorised and displaced. " (Quoted from Al Jazeera online here)
  21. Bin Laden's taped broadcast from January 2010, where he said "Our attacks against you [the United States] will continue as long as U.S. support for Israel continues.... The message sent to you with the attempt by the hero Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is a confirmation of our previous message conveyed by the heroes of Sept. 11". (Quoted from "Bin Laden: Attacks on U.S. to go on as long as it supports Israel", in, online here).
  22. Mearsheimer, John J. (2007). The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Macmillan. p. 67. 
  23. Kushner, Harvey (2003). Encyclopedia of terrorism. SAGE. p. 389. 
  24. Murdico, Suzanne (2003). Osama Bin Laden. Rosen Publishing Group. p. 64. 
  25. Kelley, Christopher (2006). Executing the Constitution. SUNY Press. p. 207. 
  26. Ibrahim, Raymond (2007). The Al Qaeda reader. Random House. p. 276. 
  27. Berner, Brad (2007). The World According to Al Qaeda. Peacock. p. 80. 
  28. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. Bernard Lewis. 2004
  29. "somebody-elses-civil-war". foreignaffairs. Retrieved 5 December 2009. 
  30. Doran, Michael Scott (2005). Understanding the War on Terror. New York: Norton. pp. 72–75. ISBN Wikipedia.png 0-87609-347-0. 
  31. Bergen, Peter (2006). The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader. New York: Free Press. p. 229. ISBN Wikipedia.png 0-7432-7891-7. 

Template:War on Terrorism