Out of Nowhere?

By Professor Lawrence Freedman
Many felt that the events of September 11 came out of the blue. Security expert Professor Lawrence Freedman, however, considers there was a slow but certain build-up to the day. Here he examines the shape of US involvement in international affairs from the early 1980s.
President Bush by the damaged Pentagon building in Washington after the attacks 

Before September 11

The events of September 11 are the latest, and most far-reaching, of a long series of painful encounters between the United States and the forces of terrorism. In the build-up to those events, and in the history of America's subjection to terrorism, the date of 23 October 1983 is also a highly important one.

'Witnesses recollect the driver grinning as he broke through barriers and steered between two sentry boxes...'

Just before 6:30 am on that day, as US marines slept in their compound at Beirut airport, a Mercedes truck turned into the airport car park, circled the area twice, and then accelerated to drive directly at the headquarters building. Witnesses recollect the driver grinning as he broke through barriers and steered between two sentry boxes, before the truck crashed into the building, detonating tons of explosives. This caused 241 marines and other US personnel to lose their lives as the structure collapsed upon them. At the same time, also in Beirut, another suicide bomber attacked the French barracks, where 58 people were killed.


'Instead of improving the situation, the US military became caught themselves in Lebanon's intensifying civil war...'

The October attacks were not the first - there had already been one major attack against US interests in the previous April, when 63 people were killed in a bombing of the US embassy in West Beirut. The US troops had initially gone in to Beirut, capital city of Lebanon, to bring some calm to the region - following the massacre, in September 1982, of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian militiamen. Instead of improving the situation, the US military became caught themselves in Lebanon's intensifying civil war, and were exposed to the growing anger of Lebanese Muslims with America's support for their Christian dominated government, and with American efforts to persuade the Lebanese government to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel.

A Palestinian woman brandishes helmets during a memorial service in Beirut
A Palestinian woman at a memorial service in Beirut
Not long before the October attacks US warships had fired rounds into Muslim positions, in support of the Christians. The marine commander in the airport compound understood full well the significance of this, realising that his men were in an exposed position and that Muslim retaliation would be against them rather than the warships safely out at sea - and this indeed turned out to be the case.

The attacks did not themselves immediately trigger the withdrawal of the American peace-keeping force from Beirut. Troops stayed in the city until February 1984, with President Reagan insisting that they still had an important job to do. Nonetheless, the attacks undermined the conviction behind Reagan's policy, and weakened political support in the United States. In addition, Shi'ite Muslim terrorists resorted to the murder and kidnapping of American citizens in Lebanon. Eventually one of these kidnappings proved to be the last straw, and led to Reagan reversing his position and pulling American troops out of Beirut.


'...the United States should only take on wars that could sustain popular support and not those that threatened to be indecisive.'

The withdrawal was important, because it gave the impression that America was vulnerable to terrorism and that if casualties were high enough they could be coerced into abandoning hazardous overseas commitments. It prompted Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defence, to state that the United States should only take on wars that could sustain popular support and not those that threatened to be indecisive. This had already been taken by many to be the 'lesson' of Vietnam, when the US was seen to have retired exhausted from an apparently futile conflict, even though they had not been defeated in battle.

American soldier in Somalia
American soldier in Somalia
The lesson was further reinforced almost exactly a decade later in Somalia, on 3 October 1993. In an operation that forms the basis for the movie Black Hawk Down, members of the elite US Army Rangers and Delta Force entered a hostile part of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in search of the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. The troops had only been in the country for a few weeks, having been sent to reinforce a faltering UN effort to ease humanitarian distress. They had then moved on to attempt to disarm warlords who were perpetuating the civil war, and to rebuild the shattered Somali nation. Aidid had resisted these efforts, and in June his men had killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The killings led to a call from the UN Security Council for the arrest of those responsible, and the Rangers were sent to achieve this. When they went to find Aidid at the Olympic Hotel in Mogadishu, they got ambushed instead by Somalis (including women and children) armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Some of the most vicious fighting occurred during the attempt to save a US helicopter, Black Hawk, brought down in the city's back streets.

The battle lasted for 17 hours and left 18 US soldiers killed and 84 wounded, with many Somalis also dead (some estimates put the number as high as 1,000). Almost immediately after the battle, President Clinton decided to abandon the hunt for Aidid and set a date for the US withdrawal from Somalia.

The US response

It is not known whether members of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation were involved in the firefight in Mogadishu but his people were certainly in Somalia at the time. Bin Laden later remarked to CNN's Peter Arnett how they had been surprised by the 'low spiritual morale' of the Americans. He noted how 'the largest power on earth' left 'after some resistance from powerless, poor, unarmed people.'

'...the idea that casualty intolerance is the greatest political vulnerability of the US... became a commonplace of international politics.'

This lesson - that the American aversion to casualties would encourage them to keep clear of hostile places - was apparently confirmed by the cautious approached adopted by the Clinton Administration thereafter, whenever the question of intervention in overseas wars came up. Either they stayed away - as in Rwanda in 1994 - or they confined their involvement to air power - as in Kosovo in 1999. Even when US embassies in East Africa were attacked by the al-Qaeda organisation in August 1998 the American response was merely to launch cruise missiles against Bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.

The effect of these events was to reinforce the idea that casualty intolerance is the greatest political vulnerability of the US, to the point where it became a commonplace of international politics. There was obviously no way that the US could be defeated in a straight fight on a conventional battlefield, as the Gulf War of 1991 had emphatically demonstrated. If their adversaries wanted to persuade the Americans to back off from any undesirable stance on an issue, they had to find some way of killing them on a significant scale. Since, largely as a result of Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia, the American armed forces were wary of getting drawn into guerrilla campaigns, then a logical objective would be to hurt any Americans, wherever they could be found.

Bin Laden's grievances

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden
It may be that this was the thinking of Osama Bin Laden throughout the 1990s, as he developed a strategy for defeating America's foreign policy aims in the lead up to September 11. If we take al-Qaeda's leader at his word, his major grievance was with the US presence in his homeland of Saudi Arabia, following a decision by the Saudi government to permit American forces to enter the Kingdom in August 1990, in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bin Laden saw this as a desecration of Islam's holiest sites.

'The withdrawal of the US from his country was the starting point for his demands, but was not all that he wanted.'

The withdrawal of the US from his country was the starting point for his demands, but was not all that he wanted. In the 1997 Arnett interview he explained that his objective was not only to drive the United States out of 'the Arabian peninsula' but also to force it to 'desist from aggressive intervention against Muslims in the whole world.'

These demands led Osama Bin Laden to develop an ambitious strategy. By causing mass casualties on a regular basis he could hope to persuade the Americans to keep clear of overseas conflicts. There was also a retributive element to the strategy - the militants of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups clearly wanted to punish the Americans for a whole range of policies, particularly for those it pursued in the Middle East, as well as for what they saw as its irreligious decadence.

Creating mass casualties

The first evidence of Bin Laden's approach came in February 1993, in an attack involving a yellow Ford rental van, which was driven into the basement of New York's World Trade Center. A 1,500-pound urea-nitrate bomb was detonated, causing a massive crater, seven stories deep in the garage of the building. Six people were killed with over 1,000 injured. The intention had been to kill many more by toppling one of the twin towers of the building on top of the other, but this part of the plan failed.

'Then came an attack aimed at ending the US military presence in Saudi Arabia...'

Then came an attack aimed at ending the US military presence in Saudi Arabia - targeted on the US Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in June 1996. A truck bomb killed 19 Americans and wounded more than 370 Americans and Saudis. No definite link has been shown, however, to al-Qaeda, and in June 2001, a Lebanese and 13 Saudi members of Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed group responsible for the October 1983 Beirut bombing, were indicted by the US for the attack.

Other foreigners have also been targeted in Saudi Arabia, although no systematic campaign has ever been developed. Despite this relative lack of terrorist activity, enough trouble has been caused to make both the American and Saudi authorities acutely aware of the political sensitivity of the US bases in the region, and this has led to progressive restrictions on their use.

Manhattan skyline after the attack
Manhattan skyline after the attack
On 11 September 2001 came the second attempt on the World Trade Center, with the responsibility for it claimed by al-Qaeda, and this time it succeeded. If the aim was simply to hurt the United States then the attack will have succeeded beyond Bin Laden's expectation. If, however, the aim was to persuade the United States that it should disengage from the rest of the world, it has failed mightily. Almost at once President Bush declared a war on terror, and soon Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation was being driven out of its sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Find out more


Superterrorism edited by Lawrence Freedman (Blackwell, 2002)

Two Hours That Shook The World: September the 11th, 2001, Causes and Consequences by Fred Halliday (Saqi Books, 2001)

Worlds In Collision edited by Ken Booth and Tim Dunne (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

The Day that Shook the World by the BBC News Team (BBC Books, 2001)

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Published on BBC History: 2002-08-22
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