“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”
- George Orwell
The proof that a different Islam thrives in the lush sultry jungles of Southeast Asia than in the Middle East is perhaps best described through the eyes of American soldiers who’ve been stationed there. While in Yemen “women were walking sacks and after a few weeks you found yourself staring at ankles,” in Southeast Asia “the main tourist attraction squirms up and down on your lap.
“It’s as if the women are kids at a toy store, and we’re the last Cabbage Patch dolls on the shelf.”1
This aspect of Southeast Asian social life is only one of the reasons being stationed in Southeast Asia isn’t much of a hardship post for the thousands of American troops who’ve rotated through. It’s a post that’s been part of the informal American military empire since the turn of 1900s when Commodore George Dewey and his nine ships staged a nighttime raid on an inky Manila Bay, using the cover of darkness to sink the Spanish flotilla occupying the harbor.
Following that easy victory came a series of events that uncannily echoes the events which have followed what is only our second attempt in a hundred years to conquer and occupy a large overseas territory – the Second Gulf War. After seizing control of Manila Bay the American military used the help of Filipino insurgents to displace despotic Spanish rule from the archipelago, in the eyes of the Americans “freeing” the natives. However, as is the case in Iraq today, freedom “was understood in different ways” and then as now America “pursued the quest of empire in the name of freedom to civilize the world.”2
Just as in Iraq, as soon as the despotic power was removed from the lives of the natives, tensions began to increase between them and their liberators turned occupiers. As the new national Philippine government began to lose control of its faction-ridden armed forces, the troubles worsened. And in a specter that would occur again a hundred years later and an ocean away “anarchy and misplaced American idealism ignited into a full-scale war between American troops and a host of indigenous guerrilla armies.”3
In what’s now known as the Philippine War over 200,000 people lost their lives. And as is usually the case in guerrilla conflicts, the majority of the deaths were civilian. Unlike the war that’s been wracking Iraq with spasms of worsening violence for over seven years, the Philippine War lasted only three years. America’s success there was likely due to “paying attention to the rudiments of counterinsurgency strategy,” which included “cutting of the guerrillas from civilian assistance and garrisoning the countryside.”4 It was in the Philippines that the American army first practiced the tactics of counterinsurgency en masse, successfully rooting out and quelling a native guerrilla insurgency.
The Philippines are located entirely within what geographers call the Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that traces across the globe wherever tectonic plates collide, spurting up volcanoes and shivering with earthquakes. And so the mountainous islands of the Philippines are what remains above water from the ancient volcanic eruptions and tremors that shot land above the waves thousands of years ago.
This mountainous nature forced the American soldiers stationed there to become well acquainted with the mutinous peoples whose violence they were attempting to suppress – they were cut off from the rest of the world. And so they became very familiar with the culture, language, and in short time the women of their temporary mountain homes. These soldiers were unaware that a century later their brothers-in-arms would be returning to these sharp isles to do battle against men motivated by a different take on a different tradition.
One particular word of the Filipino language has made its way into the modern American vernacular.
The word in Tagalog for “mountains” is bundoks, which has been Americanizied into any a word that’s used for any remote area of land on which an often backward people make their home: the boondocks. And although it’s a word that has a rather homey, buck-toothed connotation for your average American, the boondocks of the Philippines would serve as a crucial side-stage for the most destructive act of terrorism ever performed on American soil.
It is here that we return back to the start of our story, so that some of the background behind how we got to that start can be more fully understood and so that some of the loose-ends that’ve emerged can be tied-off.
And so it was not even a year after his casual departure from the scene of the 1993 World Trade Center van-bombing that Ramzi Yousef made his way to the Philippines. He went to meet with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, affectionately referred to as KSM by CIA spooks and State Department wonks, at the corner of a busy intersection. They didn’t choose a busy intersection for it’s spy-movie anonymity, but because it was where they were waiting to meet two young women who’d just been rehearsing for jobs in Japan as “cultural dancers.”
The quotation marks here are as much for citation as they are for pointing out the titular euphemism of their job. Yousef was lucky in that his uncle, who went by “Sheikh Mohammad” at the time, had already laid much of the groundwork for snagging some supple Filipino companionship. He’d already finagled one girl into opening a bank account and buying a cell phone for him in exchange for paying for her food, transportation, some free clothes, and a round-trip ticket across the country.
Not only was KSM throwing money at the young women he was wooing into helping him establish a logistical presence, but he made sure to stay in the poshest hotels to further his projected image of wealth. Despite catching a few meals at a less than high-class restaurant – a local Wendy’s – the girls all seemed to buy into the front. Once Yousef met up with KSM they upped their pimping to the next level, at one point going so far as to rent a helicopter so they could fly over the dental office one of their girls was working in, call her up, and have her come out and wave to them as they soared overhead.
The Archbishop Don “Magic” Juan didn’t have shit on Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
But all of this game-kicking had a much bigger purpose than merely attempting to cash-in early on the seventy-two virgins that were promised them in martyrdom. By enlisting the assistance of local females both men were able to use the girls’ identities instead of their own, and so leave as small a law-enforcement footprint as possible.
The attention they paid the girls didn’t arouse too much suspicion as Arab men have a well-known reputation for being a bit unreputable when it comes to foreign gender relations. To anyone watching, Yousef and KSM were just two of many wealthy Arabs throwing money at pliable young Filipinas.
With the logistical network put in place in the Philippines thanks to the unwitting aid of the young local women, planning and plotting began to pick up momentum. Yousef made forays to KSM’s apartment in Karachi where he instructed the high school classmate who would ultimately prove to be his undoing, Abdul Murad, in the art of bomb-making and placement. An expert in the field, Yousef used his laptop to explain in detail how to mix which chemicals in what proportions. Some chemicals were to be avoided since they’d be picked up by X-ray machines at the airport because of their high density. In addition to this potential snag, he went over other strategies for passing through airport security, which likely included using an unwitting mule to carry any incriminating paraphernalia in the same way as Yousef used Ahmed Mohammad Ajaj in the 1993 WTC van-bombing.
And this ultimately foiled plot is just one of many that can be traced back to the historical roots of Islamic fundamentalist extremism, roots which have always found strength in the pools of blood spilled by vengeance.
Had you been the Caliph of Baghdad circa 1257 and the unstoppable oriental waves of Mongol hoards just swallowed up your city’s defenses like so much dim sum, you’d probably have considered yourself relatively lucky to just be sewn up inside a felt bag like an over-sized wonton.
After all, your citizens, the other Muslims of Baghdad, had been killed in an unimaginable orgy of aggression that lasted for over two weeks and took nearly a hundred-thousand lives. The violence was christened with the blood of the Muslims who’d willingly surrendered to the Mongol hoards. These citizens were gathered outside the breached city walls and summarily executed, a task so massive that the Muslims of Baghdad had to be allotted out to different wings of the Mongol army to ensure the executions happened in a timely matter and the Golden Horde could move on to its next conquest as quickly as possible.
And compared to the manner in which the mayor of a small rather inconsequential city in northern Syria had died – he was force-fed freshly toasted bits of his own flesh before finally succumbing to choking on his own skin and blood-loss – the darkness of a felt bag wouldn’t have been so bad.
Until the cavalry arrived.
Baghdad’s last Caliph was executed beneath waves of Mongol horsemen, who trampled him under the hooves of the same cavalry that would go on to conquer and subjugate the entirety of the Muslim world east of the Jordan River in the coming years. His death under their hooves while sewed inside a felt bag was meant to occur bloodlessly, an off-color mark of respect from the leader of the Golden Mongol Horde, Hulagu Khan.
Allied with Hulagu Khan were Nestorian Christians who chose siding with the Mongols over meeting the same fate as Muslims and so, starting in Baghdad and continuing with each city conquered by the Mongol hoards, Christian citizens were spared the fate of their Muslim counterparts. Muslims are, understandably, a little bitter about the Christian alliance with the Mongol hoards – a bitterness that built upon the enmity that’d already accumulated from the wanton death and destruction wrought by the Crusades upon Muslim populations.
From this bitterness one man would distill an ideology of defiance and hatred and pride that has remained as an undercurrent in Islam for over a millennium, and which would eventually grow strong enough to pull down the Twin Towers in what was only an eddy of an ever-building tide.
The first formalized call to militant jihad and the birth of the fundamentalist salfi movement both came from one man, Ibn Taymiya, a Syrian scholar and historian who saw a return to the original Islam as the only way to stop the dismemberment of the Muslim world – which was perhaps embodied best in that gruesome death of Baghdad’s last Caliph under Mongol hooves. In what would become a recurring theme for Islam, when its power in the world was in decline movements that argued for a return to its original and purest precepts would begin to stir inside the Muslim world and find sustenance.
For the Muslim fundamentalists who earn the label salfi, it refers to the original companions of the Prophet. The closest direct translation of someone described as salfi into English would be something along the lines of “Godfather” – which makes sense since they think they’re attempting to return to the original and traditional tenets of the faith. And, just like Don Corlione, they aren’t afraid to use violence to do it. It is a word with an overwhelmingly positive connotation, as salfi is used in place of “virgin” when describing the highest-quality olive oil, since the best and purest olive oil is always from the first pressing. But its importance in the militant world vastly trumps it’s place in the culinary one.
It’s a concept that requires a fundamentalist view of Islam, a type of view that “in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it, and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control.”5
But to understand exactly what salfi means in terms of today’s Muslim fundamentalism requires leaving the trampled corpse of Baghdad’s last Caliph, and examining a ship cruising across the soft waves of the Atlantic, where Ibn Taymiya’s message would find its next great disciple.
Answering a soft unexpected knock at the door of your cabin on a transatlantic steamer in the middle of the night to find tall drop-dead gorgeous woman, her scantily-clad body sensuous and inviting, asking you if she could be your guest, chances are you’d say to yourself, “Hey look – it’s a hooker!” And then, being a devout Muslim, after apologetically turning her away from your door and then watching her fall flat on her face in the ship’s plush hallway you’d probably think to yourself “Hey look – it’s a drunk hooker!”
As inconsequential as that tale seems, in 1948 that scenario kicked-off a journey that would forever change Sayid Qutb’s perception of America and began to form a perception of American values and worth that continues to dominate the opinions of all too many in the Middle East today. The entreaties of a drunken nautical hooker knocking at Sayid Qutb’s door may well have indelibly altered the course of interactions between Middle East and West.
It isn’t all that hard to imagine the trepidation and uncertainty which would’ve been shivering through Sayid Qutb, a young untraveled thirty-six year-old Egyptian schoolteacher steaming across the vast, unknown Atlantic on his way to a very foreign land. Especially since Qutb was leaving a country he knew to be developing and fighting for prominence in the world and was on the way to a nation that’d just won the greatest conflict humanity had ever seen. He knew well that the reason he was leaving his native country was because America was where he could be best-equipped to return home to Egypt and bring modernity with him. Which was why the Egyptian Ministry of Education had begun sending their best and brightest to American shores.
Back in 1949, when Samuel Huntington was still arguing the Third Wave of Democratization, Qutb wrote that the final showdown would not be between world superpowers of the Cold War but between “Islam, on the one hand, and the Western and Eastern blocs, on the other. Since today those two blocs have merged into one West, Qutb’s prediction that “the real struggle in the future… will be between materialism throughout the world and Islam”6 is eerily uncanny.
In 1954 Sayid Qutb would be imprisoned for his role in an assassination attempt against Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. The same crime which led the Blind Sheikh to seek exile and eventually settle in New York City, where Ramzi Yousef sought his guidance and permission before carrying-out the 1993 WTC van-bombing. A dozen years later, in 1966, he was executed by the State of Egypt after refusing to plead for his own life. But the journey which led Sayid Qutb to these writings and to his end in Egypt’s state prison is more unusual than most, and bears retelling.
After traveling on the transatlantic steamer to the United States, where he was propositioned by the drunk hooker, Qutb studied in Washington DC and Stanford. But instead of trying to absorb as much of the modernity as he could so that he could bring it home to Egypt, he instead found himself “repelled by the obsessive materialism” and what he perceived as the spiritual barbarity of ‘the American man.’”7 Qutb had already been turned against the actions of the American government by President Truman, who’d given his support for the creation of the Israeli state – an act Qutb saw, as many after him have, as inimical to the Muslims who lived on and near that land.
Although Qutb marveled that “imagination and dreams glimmer in this world of illusion and wonder” and admired that “the hearts of men fall upon it from every walk of life, and every sect and creed,” what troubled Qutb is not, in fact, our material wealth and our “bounty and prosperity” which “evoke dreams of the Promised Land.”8
Salfists aren’t jealous of America’s material wealth nor does our freedom incite their anger. They admire many of the things we as Americans admire about ourselves, and the criticisms they level have often come out of our own mouths – often the very same mouths which claim that we’re hated because of our wealth and success. What caused Qutb to ultimately view America as “rotten and ill” to the core was that he viewed Americans and Western culture as worshipping “power and freedom, not religion and God.” We were out of touch with our own humanity, had turned our back on God, and sought only to further our material wealth.
For Qutb “the engine of Western progress had become so all-consuming that it destroyed everything in its path, annihilating the very terms of intimacy that define what it means to be human.” In his essays, which “colored the perceptions of America for generations of Islamists,” Qutb wrote that “the wheel of life will have turned and the book of time will have closed and America will have added nothing, or next to nothing, to the account of morals that distinguishes man from object” because in America “immoral teachings and poisonous intentions are rampant.”9
Qutb saw a disconnect between our seeming greatness as a nation of the world, and what he saw as a lack of morality. America for him was “an alluring but ultimately vapid landscape.” It is no coincidence that those who echo this argument, that America has fallen away from God, also echo another indictment of American life and culture. Well, one very specific facet of life and relations in America.
“She knows seductiveness lies in round breast, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she knows all this and does not hide it.” And then “as soon as she gets closer to you, you feel her over-powering sexual drive devoid of any innocence.” In Qutb’s experience, the American girl, specifically the American California Girl, was a temptress who lured with “expressive eyes and thirsty lips.” And she sought to “awaken primal sensations” with “the fetching laugh, the naked looks, and the bold moves.” The sexual charge felt by Sayid Qutb, an Arab raised in a traditional Arab society, was also felt by the three 9/11 hijackers who made a rather discordant movie rental from their hotel on their last night alive.
Of all the movies to rent before surrendering your life to Allah in a sanctified Holy War against the West, those three men chose to order a porno. If there’s any question as to why a porno was chosen or what was going on while it played, then it’s worth mentioning that the average hotel-ordered porno movie is turned off after just six minutes have elapsed.
Qutb, as a Fundamentalist Muslim, makes arguments that dovetail nicely with the Fundamentalist Christians of today who argue that Americans have become detached from God and must return to Him or else our society will disintegrate.
They both spout messages of Us versus Them. Fundamentalist Muslims don’t really hate Americans any more than our own Fundamentalist Christians hate us. Disdain is something different from hate. It is rooted in a feeling of superiority over another, that somehow you are deeply more prepared for life with a richer and fuller understanding of the Why of it all. However, in the end, disdain often breeds the same ends as hate and can be used for the dehumanization that so often predicates violence.
All this is not to fall into the cliché that terrorists are always sexually frustrated males who seek to vent their thwarted desire by blowing shit up. But to illustrate just how uncomfortable someone raised in a traditional Arab society, Egypt being more traditional than most in the 1950s, would feel in modern America and how easy it would be for him to criticize our society.
Although in Lebanon, which has one of the highest concentrations of non-Muslims in the Arab world, and in some other Arab cities you do find some women, though always a minority, who you wouldn’t be able to distinguish from a European in terms of dress – in much of the Arab world, and for the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula, T&A refers to “Toes and Ankles.”
Qutb’s message has not at all become outdated, in fact today he has more followers than he ever did during his lifetime.10 In militant Islamic ideology as in hip-hop, being killed often elevates your work to heights it might never otherwise have reached and your greatest success often comes after your violent end, your martyrdom. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was just one among thousands of Muslims who read Qutb’s writings and agreed with his impressions of America. During KSM’s time studying in America he shunned any sign of Western decadence – from drinking to women to pork. Although, like a third-grader afraid of cooties, later in life he’d come around about women.
The legacy Qutb left for modern Islamic extremists, salfists as they usually like to think of themselves, is manifold. The most obvious and pervasive elements of it are framing the ideologies of disdain for the West and jihad in the name of true Islam with a panache and erudition that in all probability will never be outdone. Qutb didn’t seek to incite a violent hatred of America, our values, or our way of life. But he provided a vivid rationalization for violence against the West, a society he recorded as bereft of values or morals – a society whose inhabitants were explicitly at odds with those of his world. And he first framed the idea that the world of Islam would inevitably and violently clash with the West.
Sayid Qutb is very much the Godfather of modern Islamic extremism both in terms of framing the decadence of the West and inspiring the ideal of violent Islamic militancy. A generation later bin Ladin would take Qutb’s message and reinterpret it, modernize it, and make it his own. Little of bin Ladin’s accomplishments have much to do with originality, all he really did was simply repackage old appeals in a charismatic and modernized sales pitch.
Less obvious than Qutb’s travels around in America but perhaps more crucial to his legacy and message is his time in prison where, like so many men who have a great effect on the story of mankind and the story of America, Qutb spent some of the most formative years of his life. It was this time in prison that is responsible for crystallizing his radical views and inspiring his most popular writings. Or perhaps, in the end, you could just blame that hooker for not being able to close the deal since she was drinking on the job.
Bin Ladin’s genius laid not in originality but in flexibility. The appeal he makes for returning to a basic and pure Islam is one that has been made throughout the history of Islam: from Ibn Taymiya in the 13th century, to Sayid Qutb in the mid-20th century, on through to today.
It is a message that reflects on the internal dissonance inherent within a religion that lacks a bureaucratized hierarchy of authority, and is in many ways an inevitable product of Islam’s communal and highly personal nature. Its various manifestations have been embodied by Muslims known first as Salfists, then Wahabis and now most often in the West as fundamentalists – all of which connotate the same concept: a return to the original Islam and the fundamental tenets of the Arabian peninsula.
Salfi in particular is used in most academic texts to describe the Islamic fundamentalists, mostly because it is the word most often used by fundamentalists – outside of Saudi Arabia whose wahabis are technically a distinct sect – to define themselves. One of the first modern groups to successfully embrace Sayid Qutb’s modern salfi ideal and mold it into a tool to be used for shaping a group and violently altering society was the Abu Sayyaf.
The Filipino Abu Sayyaf group was named by its founder, Abdurajak Janjalani, after a hero of the Afghani jihad against the Soviets: the Pushtun warlord and legendary founder of the Afghan Islamic movement, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – or Abu Sayyaf for short. Abu Sayyaf the man served in a way as the godfather for bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda. It was his base of operations and training camps in Afghanistan that provided both the logistical support and the functional prototype for al-Qaeda.
Bin Ladin met Sayyaf soon after leaving college in Saudi Arabi and heading to Afghanistan to fight against Soviet occupation alongside his fellow Muslims. The Afghanistan of the 1980s that bin Ladin found himself in was not so much a cohesive state as an ugly and violent conglomeration of independent State Shells, each constantly struggling against the other for followers and financial resources. Because the Afghani government had almost no power outside the capitol of Kabul, the country at large was full of the gaps State Shells seek to fill. With the government supplying next to nothing in the way of nation-wide education, health-care, or security, Afghanistan found itself covered in a lethal puzzle of independent State Shells all shouldering against each other to provide these services and gain support.
In the same way that the Israeli invasion weakened what little coercive powers the Lebanese government did have in the 1970s and helped create a power-vacuum that Hezbollah and other groups were quick to fill, the Soviet invasion only ripened Afghanistan for the formation and growth of State Shells. This same pattern has again recently been seen again in Lebanon, where Israeli bombardment of Lebanese infrastructure in the summer of 2006 weakened the formal state and created more gaps for Hezbollah to fill and by filling them gain power. And in Iraq, where the American invasion destroyed both state security and civil services and so created gaps militia-based State Shells have filled.
In Afghanistan, Sayyaf used foreign funding to establish an army, a newspaper, a political party, and a school – a model State Shell. Bin Ladin took this pattern and ran with it as he sought to establish al-Qaeda as the world’s premier terrorist group. Before the group that would become al-Qaeda bloomed as an international ideology – what Ferris Bueller would’ve called an “Ism” – that fed on the fear and attention created by the ruins of the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, it was first a State Shell.
Its name was mentioned on the materials carried by Ramzi Yousef’s unwitting pizza delivery-man mule detained by LaGuardia airport security, the “Office of Services.” At this time, in the 1980s, bin Ladin was not even its leader – although he acted as a chief financier and a capable recruiter he was not in charge at first. And so what would eventually become al-Qaeda was only one of many State Shells all fighting against the Soviets but also against each other for foreign support and local prestige.
Bin Ladin rose to power following the mysterious death of the man who had helped convince him that joining the fighting in Afghanistan would be a holy Islamic jihad. Abdul Azzam was mysteriously killed by a bomb planted in his car in 1989. Some claim bin Ladin himself was responsible for the bomb while others allege that it was the vengeful act of a rival resistance group, but regardless, bin Ladin did rise to take his place at the helm of the State Shell he would shape into al-Qaeda. This, however, took time.
It’s difficult to give the group al-Qaeda a precise birth-date, several notable events could all be argued to mark that event. But the day al-Qaeda was reborn as a global “-Ism” was September 11th. After that day al-Qaeda transcended any one place or group of people, its origins as a State Shell, and became an ideology. And it’s both ironic and telling that following 9/11 the American government responded by attacking al-Qaeda as a State Shell, going after infrastructure and resources, when this was in fact pointless.
The philosophical pigeon had already flown its corporeal coop. But just why this is so and how it happened will have to wait.
The group named after Abu Sayyaf would become al-Qaeda’s adopted Filipino kid brother as it relied heavily on funding and training from bin Ladin and his associates. And al-Qaeda wasn’t afraid to rely on the support of the Abu Sayyaf, as two al-Qaeda members would seek refugee in one of their camps a day after the attacks of 9/11.
But as many adopted children do, Abu Sayyaf quickly began to make sure it stuck out and found its own identity – in only four-years growing to over 4,000 members and committing over 100 terrorist crimes in the Philippines.11 Many of these crimes were hostage-takings, which soon turned into a highly lucrative industry for the Abu Sayyaf. By rooting it in the Southeast Asian boondocks the Abu Sayyaf’s founder, Janjalani, showed the universality of bin Ladin’s appeal when it fell on hungry and hopeless ears. It was a message first championed by an Arab while in Afghan lands, and was now carried to an entirely different culture in the Philippines. But although the ethnic culture was different, the socio-economic one was the same.
The Abu Sayyaf won the majority of its members at mosques in the two poorest provinces in the Philippines, Basilan and Sulu, known as “the Wild West of the Philippines.” Here, much like jihad-era Afghanistan, “the government and military are often ineffective, unable to enforce the rule of law” and there were “no jobs, no justice, and little prospects for hope.”12 The message borrowed by Janjalani from bin Ladin was one of a return to a fundamental, pure, and strict form of Islam – the salfi one. An Islam that has its rawest origins in freeing the economically enslaved and downtrodden from the rule of an oppressive monopolistic tribe, the Quraysh. But then calling it “bin Ladin’s message” gives him much more credit than he’s due.
Throughout Islam’s seventeen-century history there’s been a continuum of men who’ve championed this fundamentalist ideal of returning to early Islam, snowballing into it each generation’s bitter experiences of oppression and defeat. Bin Ladin picked up where it’s most recent proponent, Sayyed Qutb, had left off. Intrinsic in the call for a return to pure Islam has always been a contrast between it and a corrupt and degenerate Other.
An Other once embodied by marauding Mongols but also by the West in Crusader form, first medieval Crusaders proud and aware of their name and later modern ones who carried it as an accidental moniker. Ultimately it was this divisive element of the message – the idea of standing together as Muslims against the vast foreign forces arrayed against them – that appealed to our overachieving Philippines playboy, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, and brought him under bin Ladin’s aegis. Although, when it came down to it, for KSM it might not have been that he agreed wholeheartedly with Qutb and bin Ladin about the virulent potential of the West’s seductive pull into the grasp of immorality and damnation.
It might just have that he was pissed about his shoes.
Of all the places for jihad to take root in America, rural North Carolina probably wouldn’t be among your first few guesses. But in 1984 Khalid Sheikh Mohammad left his comfortable home in Kuwait and made his way to Chowan College, just south of the Virginia state-line in North Carolina. He joined a sizable contingent of Middle Eastern students there who’d been attracted to Chowan College because word had spread back home that its admission board didn’t require the English proficiency exam generally demanded of international students by American colleges. However this tolerance on the part of admissions turned out to be no guarantee the all-male student body would welcome the influx of foreign students.
What irked KSM and his fellow Middle Eastern students wasn’t their required attendance at a weekly Baptist service. It was their treatment at the hands of the local students. Besides being given the derogative and ignorant moniker of “Abbie Dahbies,” which tried – as uneducated rural Southern wit so often does – to lump all the brown people together under one misappropriated name. This slur was derived from the one of the Emirates in the UAE, Abu Dhabi, where almost none of the Middle Eastern students hailed from. KSM and his fellow Arabs were also treated to other instances of less veiled hostility. In this case, the long-standing racism of the American South was magnified by the national predjudice against Middle Easterners that was stirred by the Iranian hostage crisis.
One example of hostility was the classic college prank of filling up a giant fifty-five gallon plastic trash can full of water, propping it against someone’s door, knocking and then running away. When the door opened, the fifty-five gallons of water would flood into the room and soak every thing and one inside. And water also played a role in what was probably the most offensive prank played by the local yokels.
Every week the Middle Eastern students would gather together for prayer and feasting whatever Arab soul food they could get their hands on, often rice and boiled chicken. Before entering the room used for worship, in accordance with Arab-Islamic tradition, they would remove their shoes and leave them in the hallway. This was a highly culturally-dependant act, it both represented the equality of all appearing barefoot before Allah and was done because shoes have a special place of uncleanliness in Arab culture. Something as simple as showing the soles of your shoes to an Arab, however accidentally, is considered an insult analogous to flipping him the bird.
Just how potent shoes are considered was first humorously embodied by an anonymous Iraqi grandmother who happened to be in full view of CNN’s cameras. On the day of the American takeover of Baghdad during the Second Gulf War an aged Iraqi woman found a portrait of Saddam that’d been torn down, took off one of her crusty sandals, got down on her hands and knees, and proceeded to enthusiastically beat the visage with her aged sandal like it owed her money. And then years later during Bush’s final Baghdad press conference, an impulsive reporter again captured the potency of footwear in the Arab world when he shot both of his at our lame duck President.
So leaving their shoes in the hallway not only represented a religious act but a cultural one as well, and had additional meaning in light of the Arab emphasis on hospitality.
Following the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, guests in Arab culture must be treated as family, better than family even. In that ancient tale, when the crowds of Sodom gather around Lot’s house and demand he release his two guests to them so that they can, presumably, perform the act their city is still known for. Lot not only refuses – he offers his two virginal daughters to the lusty rapacious masses instead. Hospitality, then, is sacred in Semitic culture.
To KSM and the other Middle Easterners they were not only guests in the room of their fellow Arab, they were guests of all the Americans in their school. Taking off their shoes was an act of worship and a sign of respect to each other. And so when a local student would steal by the room, grab as many shoes as he could, and then toss them into the campus lake the insult was as complex and deep as it was dickish. Not only was it an act of egregious inhospitality, but it was also a personal assault on their religion and culture.
Shortly after returning home to Kuwait, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad told his old high school teacher he now believed Americans hated Islam. Having his shoes tossed into the campus lake might not have been what ultimately caused this impression to form and sent Khalid Sheikh Mohammad down the path of violent jihad. However what we do know is that his experience with American culture meshed closely with the ideological founder of modern jihad, Sayid Qutb, on another crucial level.
Shoe-tossing was American foreign policy affecting Muslim lives writ small, an example of the American aim to subjugate and humiliate Muslims on the smallest scale. It is an act that is seemingly harmless, but in the minds of a modern fundamentalist salafi jihadist such as KSM it is a continuation of the Christian-sponsored destruction and slaughter at Baghdad. But there is yet another element of the argument modern salafi jihadists make to justify American deaths that can also be expanded from personal experiences in America to apply to society as a whole. In this case conjecture isn’t needed.
Sayid Qutb left behind in writing in what ways and why he was morally troubled by his experience in America. It is an experience that doesn’t fully answer the question Why Do They Hate Us?, mostly because that’s not the right question to ask. It’s not a matter of hate as much as it is a matter of other emotions. Emotions forged in a kiln that uses many of the same elements what, when melded together, create hatred.
But it is a kiln that has a unique character. All its own, and yet very much the same as ones we’ve all felt before.
The not-so-dynamic uncle-nephew duo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi Yousef apparently either didn’t share Qutb’s distaste for the female form, got over whatever distaste they once had as youths, or perhaps were simply willing to jump on that grenade in the name of the operational security that girlfriends supplying cell phones and addresses could provide for them.
Again showing the resourcefulness of the 1993 WTC van-bombing but this time deciding to be sure his blast would get the job done, Yousef’s next plot would involve more complexity than simply exploding one large bomb in the basement of a large building in hopes of demolishing it. Yousef now begin the plot that would end in his unraveling, and although we already know that Operation Bojinka didn’t end well for Yousef or his buddies, the meticulous and thorough planning that occurred in the weeks and months before its unraveling are worth a thorough examination.
Unlike the 1993 WTC van-bombing, this time Yousef didn’t take his kabooms for granted, as he tested the impact and yield of his explosives extensively before seeking to take down his targets. The planning stage of Operation Bojinka highlighted Yousef’s commando skills even more than the 1993 attack did, as he displayed both the “mind-numbing patience” required when “warriors embed themselves in a hostile city for months,” as well as the “explosive combination of ingenuity and economy” that are the hallmarks of a successful commando.12 Timing the explosions would be a modified Casio watch wired to a pair of nine-volt batteries, which were in turn wired to a lightbulb filament embedded in cotton wool that was soaked in nitroglycerin. Since the batteries were the only metallic component of the bomb that would be picked up by airport X-ray detectors Yousef puzzled over how to smuggle them onto the plane.
Why he didn’t just bring along a walkman, flashlight, electric razor, or other innocuous electronic device and then remove its batteries is unclear. Yousef eventually decided on smuggling them in the hollowed out heels of his shoes, a placement Richard Reid later used to smuggle aboard the entirety of the bomb he attempted to light aboard a transatlantic flight while his shoes were still attached to his feet.
To ensure that his bomb configuration was effective he tested it no less than four times, the first of which was in November of 1994 in the shopping mall of a nearby city. It worked to perfection.
Then on the first day of December one of Yousef’s cronies attached a bomb under the seat of a shopping mall movie theater late in the evening when the malls were usually packed with Christmas shoppers. Since movie theater seats somewhat mimic the proximity and density of airline seats this was a particularly ingenious place to test the yield of the bomb. In this case no one was killed, but several movie-goers were injured by the blast.
Now that Yousef had established his bombs were operational, next he went about testing whether he could in fact get their component parts onto an international flight. And so he flew out to Taipei while he had his uncle fly to Seoul. This is where Uncle KSM pitched in, as he carried thirteen bottles of contact lens solution that’d been emptied and refilled with an inexpensive liquid explosive without their seals being broken. Yousef carried one bottle, while KSM took a metal bolt and taped it to the arch of his foot to mimic the batteries, and both men festooned themselves with metal buttons and accessories to confuse the security scanner. And, to wrap up their ensembles, they placed loads of condoms in their carry-on bags to support their story they were heading to the Philippines to meet themselves some women.
Just as they’d expected, their metal accessories set off the metal detectors but KSM was not asked to remove his shoes and so managed to successfully smuggle the bolt taped to the arch of his foot on board. No one seems to know if the condoms elicited any questions. Yousef now knew that he’d easily be able to smuggle the component parts of his bombs onto international flights. At this point, it was time for a dry-run.
A little over a week after their test of the bomb’s component parts, Yousef booked a hotel room in a nearby Sheraton and used the travel agency there to book a one-way ticket that in two days would depart Manila and bounce from the small Filipino city of Cebu on its way to Tokyo.
Keeping with the theme of sound operational security, Yousef didn’t use his own name but instead selected, at random, the name of an Italian Member of Parliament from the handy Atlas Almanac program on his laptop. On December 11th Yousef boarded the one-way flight departing Manila, and destined for Tokyo via Cebu. In his shoes he’d hidden two of the nine-volt batteries he’d need to trigger his bomb and in his computer bag he carried the chemicals, disguised as contact solution, that would serve as the body of the bomb. His assigned seat was 35F, near the back of the Boeing 747 jetliner. But as the plane was still climbing he asked to switch to a seat closer to the front of the plane for reasons that will soon become apparent.
About halfway through the flight he got up from his new seat, and headed for the lavatory. Once inside the cramped quarters, he deftly constructed the bomb in a few minutes, set the timer, and returned to his seat. Showing what might’ve been an inordinate amount of trust in his timing abilities given the trouble he’d had leaving the scene of the 1993 WTC van-bombing, he placed the bomb under his own seat.
Yousef had planned not to take the scheduled connecting flight to Tokyo, which was why he’d switched from his assigned seat in the back of the plane. It would be empty since it was booked for him on Philippine Airlines flight 434 from Cebu to Tokyo, but he figured the seat he’d asked to switch to in the front of the plane would more likely have someone sitting in it.
Life for a young Japanese engineer, Haruki Ikegami, would’ve been much different had the flight been delayed before landing in Cebu and Yousef’s story would’ve had a much different and perhaps more fitting ending had the flight from Manila to Cebu gotten delayed and been forced to circle the airport for awhile. As it happened, the flight arrived in Cebu and departed for Tokyo on time, and it was Haruki who sat in the seat the bomb was rigged to. Roughly two hours into the flight, smoke rising from Haruki’s seat caught the attention of a stewardess. But, luckily for her, before she could investigate the source of the smoke the bomb attached beneath the seat detonated. The blast ripped into Haruki Ikegami, severing his body into a grotesque butterfly-fillet and shooting searing shrapnel into a half-dozen other passengers.
Although the bomb had ripped a hole in the floor and severed some of the flaps that controlled the jetliner’s steering, the crew was able to manage an emergency landing in Okinawa and prevent any further lose of life. For the time being. Yousef had decided, again, that thousands of people were either undeserving of life and that a greater service to the world would be done by their destruction than by any contribution they could possibly make during their shallow, silly lives.
They were not like him.
They would die because they were different, because of what they were doing to his world, and because it was his purpose in life to kill them. They were different. And he’d found, he thought, a way to do it that was both effective and at low-risk to his own well-being. Yousef now knew that Operation Bojinka’s aim, taking down a dozen international jetliners over the course of forty-eight hours, was operationally feasible. All that remained to complete the Plot was recruiting a few more men, training them in concealing the component parts of the bomb then constructing and placing them on a plane once it was in flight, and mixing enough explosives to kill four-thousand people somewhere over the anonymous waters of the Pacific Ocean.
And so Ramzi Yousef once again got down to business and began the task of mixing explosives and planning to end thousands of lives. He figured he’d only need a few more weeks before Operation Bojinka would finish the job he’d started in New York City barely a year earlier.
Only one of the tales related over the previous pages has come even close to tapping into the potential destructive power of terrorism. And yet, using the simplest and most unfettered approach to terrorism – defining terrorism as any asymmetric attack that gets “carried out in a very dramatic way to attract attention and create an atmosphere of fear that goes far beyond the actual victims of the violence”13 they were all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.
Yousef’s bombing of the World Trade Center Towers in 1993 was the act of one man, not attached to any larger group, and lay within a framework that existed within his own mind and almost nowhere else. He saw every American as a target and America as a whole owing a debt for the innocent lives it had taken. In his own mind, Yousef was simply going to collect the bill. Yousef didn’t seek to draw retaliation for the attack, only to convince America to change its foreign policy. And so it can’t be considered an act of Political Terrorism. As much as the attack reeks of terrorism in that it sought to murder innocent civilians, it was more a commando assault – carried out by one inventive albeit short-sighted and often sloppy operative.
There what is most important is how ineffective and hobbled an attack can be if those who carry it out aren’t working together as a team, and aren’t comfortable operating within the society they’re assaulting. For all of the negative connotation the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the Marine barracks in Beiruit carries for Americans, from the coldest and most objective perspective it was a brilliant military assault. It was the action of a dynamic and well-integrated State Shell.
We usually associate terrorism with killing innocent civilians, here few if any civilians were killed. And although the Marines were sleeping – they were soldiers all the same. Attacking an unwary enemy isn’t sinister so much as rooted in martial logic going back as far as Gideon. That asymmetric attack’s most important contributions are in highlighting the importance of understanding the historical and still-hardy roots of conflict in the Middle East. The role of State Shells and displaced refugees, and in introducing the efficacy of the suicide bomber – a character who will play a crucial role over the upcoming pages.
Only in the story of the American Embassies in Africa has the most potent form of terrorism – Political Terrorism – been approached, and here it was only against the small target an Embassy presents and it didn’t destroy its targets or even manage to kill a dozen members of the target population. It was an act of Symbolic Terror, but a small one. And so it was an ideology’s cry for breath that was smothered in the crib. Al-Qaeda began to surface, but was pushed back under. However the embassy bombings capture the bleak economic and financial reality that has resulted from globalization for the world’s Muslims populations, and the potential that a call to terror has for rallying them together under the banner of terror disguised as authentic Islam. But this was not yet, Political Terrorism, terrorism at its awful finest.
Terrorism at its most potent, is the violent physical manifestation of an ideology. It finds seed in the death it sows. It melds the world to a reality only it can see, and it becomes its own lens to the world. Even more than embodying an ideology, terrorism becomes honed the most to bloodily shaping a society when it balances evenly between the Tactical and the Symbolic. When it gains an understanding of its victims, who stop being sure if the terror is seeking to destroy or to propagandize because it has found a way to do both at once.
Acts of Political Terrorism must be understood on two levels. First, as the decision of an individual to bring death and fear into the world, to see another group of people as unworthy of life and act decisively on that decision. And second, acts of Political Terrorism must been seen through the broader circumstances that lead someone down the path to terrorism, paths that are often highly divergent. The stories of no two lives are ever the same, but when they end in the same destination you can always find shared footsteps.
Steps, in the case of terrorism, which always find the best footing alongside the injustice and oppression that all of us claim to denounce. Terrorism isn’t at its most terrible when you fear you might loose your life because of it. But when, no matter to how small an extent, you start to wonder if maybe there might be something to what they’re trying to say. When you start to see the words in the blood they spill.
After all, if you know where to look – there are bodies buried everywhere.