If body count or media coverage are the yardsticks, 2001 was a banner year for terrorists.
The World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings were an unthinkable masterstroke, producing a media spectacle that rocked the world. It would be hard to come up with a better symbolic bloody nose to the Great Satan than the collapsed Twin Towers and soldiers scrambling to pull bodies from the burning wreckage of their own headquarters. Worse yet, a handful of poorly trained men armed only with box cutters were able to pull this off; no guns, car bombs, or plastique necessary.
But substitute a different set of measures–namely, effectiveness in advancing a political cause–and this year begins to look more and more like a cautionary tale for future would-be terrorists of how not to proceed.
Osama bin Laden's three objections to America, and the stated basis for his 1998 fatwa, are as follow: 1) U.S. troops are garrisoned in Saudi Arabia; 2) the U.S. enforces sanctions on Iraq; and 3) America supports Israel over and against the PLO. Given the state of pre-September 11 politics, at least two of these three were reversible.
President Bush had run on the promise of a "more humble" foreign policy, willing to withdraw troops and accommodate foreign countries. A pull back from Kosovo wasn't far off and it would have been in keeping with that tendency for the administration to bend to the will of its Saudi Arabian "allies" and remove the troops from the Gulf peninsula as well.
Colin Powell, an attitudinal dove, had been installed as secretary of state. He made it clear that he would like to remove, or at least loosen, the sanctions on Iraq. And while the U.S. was in no danger of joining the anti-Israel chorus in the U.N. that recently dominated its conference on racism, the administration signaled that it wanted a more "hands off" approach to the peace process. Earlier in the year, Powell chastised Israel for the "disproportionality" of responding to suicide attacks by shelling PLO military targets.
In this climate, the best thing to do to accomplish bin Laden's stated objectives would have been… nothing. Or at least nothing as large and nasty as September 11. Guerilla warfare in Saudi Arabia and pressure on some of the surrounding Arab states to boost the surreptitious trade with Iraq would have worked wonders. Either way, U.S. policy was moving in a direction of which bin Laden and company should have approved. Indeed, the Bush administration's post-September 11 announcement that it supports–or at least supported–a Palestinian state struck many as cynical in its timing, but it's in keeping with all of the president's pre-attack foreign policy signals.
It wasn't to be. Sleeper agents were activated and the largest act of war on America since Pearl Harbor was inaugurated. The intent was either to break decadent America or to unite the Muslim world in a concerted attack on America, Israel, and the West. Neither has occurred.
Instead, the Islamic extremists found that they roused a giant. The previously humble Bush declared war on "all terrorists organizations of global reach," warned that those who do not side with the U.S. are considered to be "with them," and privately began to confess to friends and advisors that he may finally have found his raison d'etre. The dogs of war were unleashed and, by the beginning of December, the Taliban lay in ruins, dug in to its few remaining strongholds in Afghanistan. The long-dormant American war machine, to switch metaphors rather abruptly, has been geared up to the extent that the only question is which regime is next: Iraq or a target yet to be named?
If Bin Laden and Al Qaeda's desire was the withdrawal of America from the Muslim world, then the failure is total and complete. Worse still, Muslim or Arabic solidarity has not been forthcoming, if for no other reason than that the various states fear what the U.S. will do to them. An alternative explanation, one that takes into account the frenzy of consumer activity that followed the liberation of Kabul, is perhaps even more damning: Muslims, especially relatively poor ones, desperately want more contact with both the governments and the products of the secular, commercial West. Either way, history will likely record September 11 as the beginning of the end of radical Islam.
And so we come to the events of December 1. At close to midnight, in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, two suicide bombers detonated themselves, killing at least 10 and injuring upwards of 180 people. Bush said that he was "horrified" at what occurred. Powell used language that paralleled Bush's following the September attacks, calling the suicide bombers "cowardly" and demanding that Arafat put a stop to such atrocities at once.
Again, the best thing that these terrorists could have done was nothing. The polity was already ebbing in their direction. Instead, they have blown up far more than they bargained for.