Bringing it all home

What can we expect from America's new war?

September 24, 2001

By Finn Sivert Nielsen

Note - 18 months after the event
Though the fears expressed below have not (yet) been literally fulfilled, the described scenario is not less probable today.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have affected countless people all over the world deeply, and the call for a global war on terrorism may appear both reasonable and just. Decision-makers must exercise extreme caution, however, in dealing with an unknown adversary, whose capabilities may include weapons of mass destruction.

Last month, my wife and I had some Russian friends staying with us, and the 20-year-old daughter started leafing through a copy of Life Magazine from 1942. She was amazed at the sumptuous advertisements, at the wealth and peace that Americans enjoyed - while the Russian countryside was brutally torn apart and tens of millions were slaughtered. Americans, she seemed to say, could have no idea what war meant.

Now, Americans may be about to learn. After the suicide attacks on New York and Washington, America has declared herself to be at war. But wars come in many sizes and shapes. Americans tend to think of war as something similar to the Gulf War, Viet Nam or (at worst) the Second World War. But these events, though terrible for the participants, took place overseas and did not affect the daily lives of Americans at home deeply.

This time, there is a real chance that war may come home to America, a war that may kill millions of Americans, in chemical, biological or even nuclear strikes. Before letting this happen, Americans should consider very carefully if there are other ways of dealing with terrorism than declaring war on it.

The attacker

All commentators seem to agree that the operation that destroyed the Twin Towers was meticulously planned and organized on a global scale. Recent suggestions of links between the American part of the operation and the assassination by a suicide bomber of Ahmed Shah Masood, the leader of the anti-Taleban resistance movement in Northern Afghanistan, merely strengthen this conclusion.

But the operation is sophisticated in another sense as well. The attack on the Twin Towers was perfectly choreographed. The attacker carefully selected two of the most symbolic buildings in the United States - two shining beacons of wealth, success and splendour, of the American Dream triumphant; and attacked them with the prime symbol of modern American freedom and mobility - jumbo jets laden with fuel and passengers.

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Now what does this tell us about the attacker? The attacker, it seems, is bent, not only on harming, but on humbling America. The attack is a deliberate slap in the face of the nation's pride.

But why? Why does the attacker taunt the global superpower? He is intelligent, he is not self-destructive, and he is not simply venting his spite. We should look for a purpose behind his acts. He is a patient strategist who inspires intense loyalty among his followers; he is well-funded and well-connected. He can afford to bide his time - and yet he chose to strike in a way that he knew would provoke all-out retaliation.

We can only conclude that the attacks were intended to provoke a US counterattack on Afghanistan. Why else eliminate the leader of the Northern opposition? Why else attack so viciously? The attack is designed to lure the superpower to pounce.

This raises the obvious question: Should the superpower pounce? If Afghanistan is a bait, should America rise to it?

That, in turn, depends on the intentions behind the bait. How has the attacker (a chess-player, who thinks many moves ahead) planned to respond to an attack on Afghanistan? He is no fool. He must be prepared.

The bait

And indeed, he is. Afghanistan is a hellish battlefield: a poverty-stricken, mountainous wilderness, peopled by fiercely independent tribes that had barely emerged from the Middle Ages when civil war erupted. Exacerbated by Soviet intervention and US financial support, the war has now dragged on for twenty-one years. Moreover, the resulting civic chaos has provided cover for many large-scale illegal operations, such as opium-production, arms-dealing and radical islamic fundamentalism. The situation was further exacerbated by the collapse of Communism, and as social control in the former Soviet republics weakened, bonds were forged between powerful networks of organized crime and religious fanaticism on both sides of the Soviet-Afghan border.

The fate of the vast military stockpiles that the new states had inherited from the Soviet Union is not always known. We do know that conventional Soviet weaponry has been marketed internationally by the mafia. The Russian government has given repeated assurances that it retained control of its weapons of mass destruction throughout the transition years. Nevertheless, according to Scientific American (January 1996) "there is growing evidence that some Russian criminal groups are diversifying into trade in radioactives". Meanwhile, illicit trade in biological and chemical weapons may pose an even more serious threat.

There can be little doubt that the attacker, whose perseverance, wealth and intelligence we have pointed out, has tried to make use of this situation to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Whether he has succeeded, we cannot know - though he claims to possess a nuclear device.

It is therefore quite possible that the attacker will regard US retaliation in Afghanistan as a signal to procede to Part Two of his plan, of which we have hitherto only seen the beginning. And Part Two is designed to truly humble the West. Nor will tightened security save us. Nuclear, chemical or biological devices may be in place, right now, in American and European cities, waiting to be triggered by well-hidden operatives. Even top intelligence officers tell us that it is impossible to completely secure the nation against all attacks. And it only takes one bomb to smear Manhattan.

Are we prepared for this when we declare war - for the radioactive ruins, the columns of refugees winding through dusty landscapes, the millions of deaths, right here, at home? The tragedy in New York is unspeakable. How many more, and worse, attacks are we willing to sustain?

On the other hand, war may be avoidable. There may be other ways of appeasing the attacker. In fact, it might turn out that his conditions are fairly modest.


Osama bin Laden, the man who is thought to be responsible for the attacks, seems to have had a rather straightforward goal when he started his anti-American crusade. He wanted the United States to remove its troops from Saudi Arabia. This was important, to him and many other Muslims, because they regarded Saudi Arabia as Muhammed's country, as holy ground that should not be occupied by non-Muslims. The Americans had unwittingly done the equivalent of defiling a church.

Other grievances were added to this, in particular the continued bombing of Iraq (where 1.2 million people have now died) and the US stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it would seem that the United States would be in a position to fulfil all three of these conditions at no great cost. The bombing of Iraq cannot continue much longer anyway; relocating US troops from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait and Oman would seem a minor matter; and peace in the Palestine once again seems within reach, now that America is laying sufficient pressure on both warring parties.

It may seem a mockery of the victims of terror to suggest that we might agree with any or all of the attacker's conditions. But as many commentators in the United States and elsewhere have stressed, last week's events represent an altogether new a type of violence and a new type of perpetrator of violence. These demand altogether new types of violence resolution. Decision-makers must therefore not act precipituously, but consider all aspects of the situation with great care. They are moving into unknown territory, and the consequences of making the wrong move may be to plunge us into a war at home, a war that my young Russian friend would recognize as such.

Finn Sivert Nielsen is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He has studied Russian and American public culture for many years.