All Writings
October 8, 2001

Terrorists’ Miscalculations

The fallout from the tragedy of September 11 indicates that those who masterminded the attack seriously miscalculated the reaction by the United States, the international community and the Arab and the Muslim world to the scope and the consequences of the attack. We must now fully exploit the perpetrators' miscalculations while remaining alert to their ruthlessness and insidious fatalism.


The first miscalculation was the effect of the attack on the Arab and Muslim world. It is possible that an individual like Osama bin-Laden can entertain the idea of a terrorist attack with the apocalyptic consequence of pitting the West against Islam in a war from which he and his followers believe they will somehow emerge victorious. This is not the end, however, that political scientist Samuel P. Huntington contemplates in his well-known 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, "The Clash of Civilization." It is true as he writes that the "revival of religion provides a basis for identity and commitment that transcend national boundaries and unites civilizations." The revival of Islamic fundamentalism, however, is not a goal shared universally by Arabs and Muslims. In fact, of the about 1.1 billion Muslims around the world, the overwhelming majority are not fundamentalists. Moreover, while Iran itself is struggling to maintain a balance between the reformist movement and Islamic orthodoxy, the two greatest legacies of Islamic fundamentalism that followed the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution were the establishment of the Islamic republics of the Sudan and Afghanistan. Both represent a tragic failure of governance; both, in the name of Islam, have been consumed by civil wars resulting in untold human loss and suffering. And both in the process have made a mockery of the values for which true Islam stands. For these reasons both are largely despised and rejected by the rest of the Arab and the Islamic world. Notwithstanding some legitimate grievances, most Muslims and Arab nations want to live in harmony with the West and seek greater cooperation with it. Without this cooperation many of them will fall by the wayside in the age of globalization. Only a fanatic pervert like bin-Laden and his army of madmen drunk on Koranic distortions can imagine these great civilizations clashing. Hence, the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam. It is Islam itself that is being terrorized and hijacked by the Osama bin-Ladens of the world and their like.

The second miscalculation relates to the nature of terrorism itself. Terrorism by definition is the use or attempted use of terror as a means of coercion, creating a state of fear and engendering panic based on the perception of present and future dangers. Publicizing and taking credit for acts of terror are political tools used to make a statement and entice new recruits. Ultimately, terrorist groups wish to frustrate and intimidate officials and pressure the public to require an end to the threat of terror through accommodation to their demands. For strategic reasons terrorist organizations try not to cross the threshold of violence by inflicting disproportionate damage precisely because they do not want to overly alienate the targeted public. The goal is to also keep potential counter-terrorism measures proportionate to their attacks. Even when the intent of the terrorists is to topple a government such as was the case in Nicaragua and El-Salvador during the 1980's, they have been careful not to cross such a threshold. The September 11 attack did not follow any of the traditional patterns of terrorists' behavior.

From 1980 to date we have suffered nearly two dozen terrorist attacks. The U. S. reaction has been generally muted with the exception of our bombing the encampment of Lybia's President Qadafi in the mid-eighties and firing a few missiles into the Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks on our embassies which caused minimal damage. Similarly, for decades Israel and Britain, especially in Northern Ireland, have endured constant terrorist attacks by Hamas and the IRA respectively, but none of these caused damage so unacceptable that it justified a massive retaliation with the intent to liquidate the terrorists. In Chechenya Russia suffered over the past decade many terrorist attacks by rebels, but acted decisively only after 300 lives were lost in a series of terrorist bombings by Chechenian rebels of apartment buildings in Moscow. These losses were deemed disproportionate and unacceptable, prompting President Putin to wage a war that ended in defeat of the rebels and restored, at least for the present, complete Russian control over Chechenya.

Here are what, I believe, were the unintended consequences of the September 11 attack is this: The terrorists showed a tremendous capacity for planning and executing a complicated plan over an extensive period of time down to the minutest details. Even allowing for human errors, the execution of this plan had the most deadly consequences. The perpetrators failed miserably, however, in gauging the reaction of the United States and the potential for the Arab and the Muslim world to ally itself with the West in waging the war on terrorism.

America traditionally takes a lot of beating before it wakes up. On September 11 we finally awoke. Now that we have declared war on terrorism and began the war in earnest, we must first realize that a war of liquidation against the terrorists, and with very little to lose, will force them to use any remaining means available to their disposal to strike back, including chemical and biological weapons. Second, we must make it abundantly clear to the Arab and Muslim states that this is their war as well and only if they shoulder it side-by-side with the United States, will they save Islam itself and many of their people from this insidious plague.