Published on Friday, September 21, 2001

Fight the Roots of Terrorism 
by Steve Niva
The current fight against terrorism poses an unprecedented challenge. To succeed, the US
must overcome the desire for massive military retaliation in response to the horrific attacks
on September 11. It should adopt a strategy based on a more accurate understanding of the
perpetrators of these attacks and the roots of anti-American sentiments in the Middle East. 

For starters, that means moving far beyond Osama bin Laden. The likely perpetrators of
these murderous attacks are the product of a fringe network of militants originally recruited
by the CIA and Pakistan from around the Arab and Muslim world in the 1980s during the
Soviet war with Afghanistan. After pulling its support once the Soviet Union left, the US
further angered these militants during the Gulf War when it stationed troops and bases in
the Arabian Peninsula near the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Consequently, anti-US
bombings began increasing from the 1995 and 1996 car-bombings at US military
installations in Saudi Arabia, to the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania and the recent attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. 

Osama bin Laden is not the sole mastermind of these attacks as is often claimed in the
media. He just facilitates these groups with logistics and finances. His network has no
geographical location or fixed center. It appears to be a kaleidoscopic overlay of cells and
links that span the globe from camps on the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands to immigrant
ghettoes in Europe and the U.S. 

What's more, this network is largely disconnected from most Islamic opposition groups in
the Middle East who are fighting national struggles to create Islamic states. What drives
their hatred of the US is not Islam but more political factors. They believe that Muslims have
received the brunt of international violence over the last decade. They point to the genocide
against Bosnian Muslims, the Russian war in Chechnya, the conflict between India and
Pakistan over Kashmir, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and the UN sanctions
against Iraq. In all of these cases, they view US policies either tacitly condoning the
violence or actively supporting it. 

Therefore, a military strike on militant camps in Afghanistan may kill or capture bin Laden
and a number of his associates but it will not likely incapacitate the far-flung networks of
militants that may have produced the recent attacks. They will remain in place, with new
reasons to carry out more terror. Moreover, a massive display of American military might
brought to bear on a Muslim nation, especially one that kills innocent civilians in the
process, is precisely the type of action that these militants hope will create the conditions
for unifying greater numbers of Muslims against the United States. It would confirm their
view that the US is an arrogant superpower that cares little about Muslim lives. 

A more effective alternative to a military response must combine a massive international law
enforcement effort with a political strategy designed to isolate and undermine these militant
networks. The deliberate and murderous attacks on innocent American civilians should be
characterized and prosecuted as a crime not a war. The United States must use all its
resources to compel international cooperation to ensure that the perpetrators have no place
to hide. Identifying bin Laden and his network as criminals who have violated international
law will make it extremely difficult for countries, especially those who fear being allied with
an American-led war, to refuse more discrete and effective assistance to the US. Also,
given the disperse nature of the networks, only international cooperation will work to root
them out. American declarations of war inhibit rather than promote this cooperation. 

This approach must be bolstered by a political strategy that deepens the isolation of these
fringe networks from the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, many of whom hold deep and
legitimate grievances with US policies but who do not support violence. In words and deeds,
the US must clearly make a distinction between Islam as a religion and violent extremism.
But the US must also critically reexamine its policies in the Middle East. 

The US should condemn the serious human rights abuses committed by its allies with the
same force as it condemns other regimes in the region and condition its aid on progress in
opening up closed political systems. It should curtail the massive arms transfers to the
region and reduce its military presence, which have done little to promote democracy or
stability. The US must also recognize the failure of the devastating sanctions regime on Iraq
and support legitimate Palestinian aspirations for an independent state alongside a secure

Such an approach is not a concession to terrorism but a more realistic and effective
response that is closer to the values that the United States claims to uphold. 

Steve Niva teaches International Politics and Middle East Studies at the Evergreen State
College. He writes regularly for Middle East Report ( and is an Associate at
the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) in Washington DC.