Rethinking the origins of 9/11

As 2013 came to an end ‘9/11’ continued to cast a violent shadow in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the US response betrayed a failure to understand its origin.

Robert G Patman
30 December 2013


Image: 9/11 Photos. Creative Commons

The initial response of the George W Bush administration was to frame ‘9/11’ as a transformative event that changed everything. Such a stance assumed that 9/11 came out of a clear blue sky. While this diagnosis helped rally a shell-shocked American people, it had significant consequences for US policy in the post-9/11 era. The Bush leadership felt free to declare ‘war on terror’ and emphasise the notion of US primacy in this transnational struggle. Bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ensued and these conflicts cost billions of dollars and were financed largely from borrowing, which, in turn, contributed to the global financial crisis of 2008-9.

But there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. 9/11 was always a symptom rather than a cause of a new global security environment. In fact, the security environment had been radically changing since the end of the Cold War. At first, the US appeared optimistic about forging a new post-Cold War strategy. The crushing military victory of the US-led coalition over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf War of 1990-91 seemed to affirm a co-operative security approach. President George H W Bush’s ‘new world order’ declaration in 1991 and President Bill Clinton’s initial support for ‘assertive multilateralism’ pointed to this trend.

But the new world envisaged by both the Bush (senior) and Clinton administrations did not turn out to be quite the order they expected. In many ways, the disastrous US-UN humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1992-93 was the defining moment for US post-Cold War security policy and the beginning of a road that ultimately led to 9/11. The catalyst was a savage battle in Mogadishu on October 3 1993 between US forces and armed supporters of the warlord General Aideed, which killed 18 US servicemen and more than 1,000 Somalis.

Somalia Syndrome

Although it was not apparent to Washington at the time, the stiff resistance of General Aideed’s militia was linked, in part, to military assistance provided by al Qaeda, and the involvement of some of Osama bin Laden’s fighters in the fighting on the ground. The Clinton administration responded by withdrawing all US troops in March 1994, a decision which effectively ended the US-UN operation in Somalia. The loss of American lives in Mogadishu was a deeply shocking event for Washington and, like Vietnam, Somalia generated a new foreign policy disposition or syndrome. The Somalia Syndrome encapsulated a deep scepticism of multilateral intervention in civil conflict situations and led to Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 25 in May 1994, which said the US would only participate in UN peace operations if they were in the national interest.

Convinced that most failed or failing states were not vital to American national security interests, the Clinton administration had retreated towards a selective engagement strategy that highlighted a more traditional state-centric approach to international security. For the al Qaeda leadership, however, the central lesson of Somalia was that ‘the Americans will leave if they are attacked’.  More specifically, because some al Qaeda operatives were involved in the Mogadishu showdown in October 1993, the leadership of the bin Laden network believed it had actually helped created the Somalia Syndrome that made the US so cautious.

The international effects of the Somalia Syndrome were truly momentous. On the one hand, there was a fixation in Washington on not ‘crossing the Mogadishu line’ and allowing involvement in civil conflicts slide into situations that risked US deaths. This thinking shackled President Clinton’s decision-making in relation to the political crisis in Haiti in 1993, brutal genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s and continuing civil war in Somalia after 1994, and, to a lesser degree, constrained NATO’s intervention in Kosovo at the end of 1990s. Moreover, the new administration of George W Bush reinvigorated the selective engagement strategy in the months leading to 9/11 by firmly insisting that global security was still fundamentally determined by the military capabilities of sovereign states.

On the other hand, the al Qaeda leadership was emboldened to steadily escalate a campaign of terror against US interests. Washington’s semi-detached attitude toward the UN after Somalia and its clear reluctance to get involved in messy civil conflict situations registered with the bin Laden network. American policy gave bin Laden and his associates the time and the space in the 1990s to build and expand a multinational insurgent organisation with links to more than 60 countries. Between 1993 and 2000, American personnel or allies were on the receiving end of violent attacks from al Qaeda or its associates in places such as New York, Addis Ababa, Riyadh, Khobar, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Aden. Meanwhile, bin Laden repeatedly and publicly declared war against America during this period.

Dangerous gap

Thus, the Somalia Syndrome marked the emergence of a dangerous gap between America’s state-centred security outlook and the transformed security environment of the post-Cold War era, characterised by the rise of new transnational challengers like al Qaeda. To be sure, the second Clinton administration did come to recognise the looming al Qaeda danger, particularly after the bombing attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, but its increasingly desperate efforts to deal with bin Laden were largely covert in nature. Politically, President Clinton was unwilling to redefine US national security strategy to confront the al Qaeda threat and risk further provoking a hostile Republican Congress, which mainly regarded the threat of terrorism and the problems of failed states as a bit of a strategic sideshow. The fact that Clinton’s successor, George W Bush, failed to even recognise the al Qaeda threat, despite repeated high-level warnings, made 9/11 all but inevitable.

Ultimately, then, 9/11 was more about a failure of US policy than the limitations of America’s intelligence agencies or the laxity of its airport security. The roots of this policy failure lay in the advent of the Somalia Syndrome and the corresponding shift in 1994 to a selective US engagement strategy clearly at odds with a security environment transformed by globalisation. 

Reproduced with thanks from Political Insight

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