The New Terrorism

How the Cold War and Its Aftermath Fueled Islamic Militancy

Looking back, the Nazi trail from Kristallnacht to Auschwitz is crystal clear.

So, too, the path of radical, militant Islamic fundamentalism to the World Trade Center attack.

Terrorism experts saw it coming. In Afghanistan, women are prisoners, ancient Buddha statues are destroyed, and Hindus are forced to wear yellow, the way Jews under Hitler were forced to wear a yellow Star of David. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, a TWA flight mysteriously crashed in 1996, two U.S. embassies were bombed in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole was attacked last year.

The World Trade Center attack: no demands, just destruction
Photograph by Daniel Rodriguez-Musri
The World Trade Center attack: no demands, just destruction

U.S. think-tank reports published before September 11 outlined how susceptible the U.S. was to terror attacks and how unprepared the country is for acts of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, cyber-, and conventional terrorism.

The new terrorism has its roots in Cold War intrigue. It spread like a lethal weed during the era of post-Communist ethnic conflict that rose from the rubble of the Soviet empire. Just as in World War II, the world has awakened late. It is already cliché to say that after the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks—which turned peaceful civilian planes into weapons of mass destruction—nothing will ever be the same again. But the promise of post-Cold War peace ended long ago.

During the Cold War, Americans and Soviets trained and funded various military groups to fight proxy wars around the world. Such wars were generally self-contained. They were not a threat to world stability because the countries, from Afghanistan to Angola, were seen as pawns in a greater game. Although the Soviet Union trained terrorists and funded rogue states, Moscow had the power to hold rogue states in check. Similarly, CIA-supported death squads—a permanent stain on America's conscience—tended to operate within defined borders. All that has changed.

In 1989, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, their 10-year version of Vietnam, and civilians danced on the Berlin Wall. In January 1991, the U.S. launched the six-week Persian Gulf War. That December, the Soviet Union dissolved, and the U.S. won the Cold War. It was the dawn of a new era, a unipolar world with the U.S. as leader. That alone was bound to piss some people off. Instead of increasing its vigilance, Washington pulled out of many old Cold War haunts and abandoned its allies, from Kurds who fought Saddam Hussein to Afghans who battled the Soviets.

The dawn was supposed to be peaceful, with guns melting to butter as military-industrial complexes in the East and West began partial conversion to civilian use. Military budgets were to be slashed and social welfare programs expanded.

It was not to be.

"In an odd way, instead of establishing universal order, the end of the Cold War promoted the spread of anarchy and chaos where terrorist organizations could flourish—and did so," said Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The proxy warriors kept their guns. A surplus of Cold War weapons flooded the black market. As the U.S. turned inward, enjoying record prosperity, ethnic wars broke out—in a fault line from Yugoslavia through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan and Kashmir, and to other regions as well.

"We slayed the dragon of Soviet Communism, but we're left with 100 snakes," said Maurice Sonnenberg, vice chair of the U.S.'s National Commission on Terrorism. "We let down our guard and took the view that everything was fine and dandy."

After the fall of Soviet Communism, Russia unofficially funded and trained ethnic soldiers to stir up trouble in neighboring ex-Soviet republics, in the hope of ousting post-Communist nationalists and reasserting Russian dominance in the region. In Georgia, for example, Russians unofficially backed Muslim Abkhaz separatists in a civil war against Eastern Orthodox Georgians, who were unofficially backed by the United States. One of the military leaders in Abkhazia, Shamil Basayev, went on to fight against the Russians in Chechnya. He became increasingly radicalized as the decade wore on.

During the 1990s, "many clients united and turned on the superpowers who trained them," said Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations. Washington didn't want to know.

AK-47s were cheap, and the mujahideen—militant Islamic fundamentalists from across the Muslim world, united by Washington to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan—got stronger. Although they fought among themselves in Afghanistan's civil war, they banded together to fight in various post-Communist wars, from Chechnya to Bosnia and Kosovo. With each year of devastation, their numbers grew, and a new type of terrorism developed.

Fascism and Communism gave way to militant Islamic fundamentalism—a 21st-century form of rigid authoritarianism that is based on religion. As President Bush said last Thursday night in his televised speech, this is a fringe, perverted form of Islam that is far from the peace-loving mainstream. Still, the radicals have a potential and potent base of 1 billion Muslims from around the world to recruit from.

In the old days, terrorists, like those in the IRA and the Red Brigade, had political goals and specific demands. They used violence to publicize their demands—for money and the release of prisoners—and as a tool to negotiate. The new terrorists have no demands, and they don't want to negotiate.

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