The New Terrorism

How the Cold War and Its Aftermath Fueled Islamic Militancy

"They'd rather blow up the negotiating table," said Sonnenberg of the National Commission on Terrorism.

The new terrorism is used for one purpose: to destabilize the West.

The new terrorism has Cold War roots, but what crystallized the movement was the prominence of U.S. troops in the Saudi Arabian sands during 1991's Gulf War. Since the Cold War's demise, the new terrorists had been freed from the old system of checks and balances. Now, no longer monitored as closely by the West, they flourished in caves and Internet chat rooms. Osama bin Laden is said to have trained thousands of followers from more than a dozen countries.

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

As anti-globalization protesters seized on the growing gap between rich and poor, the new terrorists benefited from globalization like no one else. They traveled around the United States and the world for training and education. Thanks to the Internet, they can easily communicate with distant lands—recruiting, fundraising, and money-laundering, confident that their electronic footsteps are difficult to follow.

The new terrorists are also different from their predecessors because they have no leader, no central command. Osama bin Laden, a former CIA asset and son of a Saudi construction billionaire, may operate like the CEO of a giant multinational company, but small cells around the world operate independently, from the top down and the bottom up—and most likely with the sponsorship of rogue states like Iraq. They also receive funding from businessmen in Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and police state that U.S. critics believe could have better control of its financiers. Sleeper terrorists—operatives who sometimes wait years for their orders—may have been in place around the world, in cities like Hamburg and New York, for much of the past decade.

The new terrorists also have a different goal, which is to avenge a 900-year-old grievance. It is a return to the Crusades—in reverse. The new terrorists want to replace Arab monarchies and secular Arab states with Islamic regimes, which would give them control of the oil and destabilize the West.

"If they set up a fundamentalist empire and control all the oil, they'll have the world by the neck," said Sonnenberg.

To achieve their goal, they are prepared to launch mass attacks on civilians as never before. "Incidents of lethality are now horrendous in scale," Sonnenberg added.

Yet such a goal also broadens America's base of allies. The U.S., Russia, Israel, and even China are all threatened by Islamic fundamentalism. Russia has been at war in Chechnya for much of the past six years. India and Pakistan are at war in Kashmir. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are fighting Islamic fundamentalists in the Fergana Valley, a hotbed for arms and narcotics trafficking. And China has battled Muslim Uygurs in its northwest Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Secular Arab leaders are also in danger of being overthrown by fundamentalists, such as those who assassinated Anwar Sadat. But publicly allying with the United States could also fan the fundamentalist flame.

"If we play our cards right, some good news may come from this," said Mead. "The U.S., Russia, China, India, and even Iran may unite to fight the terrorists."

But even those alliances won't be simple. For example, Konstantin Borovoi, founder of Russia's first stock exchange, said in a telephone interview from Moscow that some forces with links to the old KGB may covertly support the new terrorists because they, too, want to destabilize the U.S., in order to give Russia time to rebuild and reestablish a bipolar world. Russian hard-liners also fear the possibility of U.S. troops in ex-Soviet republics that border Afghanistan.

The new terrorists needed special training, Borovoi said, which they could only have received with the help of organized state support from countries like Iraq, which, in turn, received military training from the Kremlin.

Still, most analysts believe that Russian president Vladimir Putin is sincere in his public declarations to join Bush in the fight against the new terrorism, which directly threatens Russia's borders.

"A lot of Russians believe the attack on the World Trade Center is a tragedy for the world—not just America," said Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister of Russia. "We must join actions against terrorists and kill them immediately."

So far, one thing is certain. The terror attacks unified New York, and the country, in a way that hasn't been seen in decades. The civilized world, to borrow Bush's phrase, may also now band together.

Like Nazis, militant Islamic fundamentalists—a small but powerful minority—have a plan, and it does not involve peaceful coexistence with the West. Like Nazis, they want to "purify" their territory and conquer new land—this time not for one government or dictator but in the name of religion. They are the new face of totalitarianism.

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