The terror attacks on September 11, 2001 killed a total of 2,997 people in New York City, Washington DC and an area just outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania (CNN, 2015). Out of the total number of victims, 2,753 were in the south and north towers of the World Trade Centre in New York when the planes impacted and subsequently brought the towers down. Out of this number 343 were New York City Firefighters, 23 Police Officers (and one Police dog), and 37 Port Authority Officers (CNN, 2015).

As Superintendent Jason Byrnes states in his article on the 9/11 emergency responders, the men and women of these emergency services “died doing their jobs – rescuing and evacuating thousands of people from the WTC” (Byrnes, J. 2012). Another example of a similarly motivated terror attack took place in 2005 when the Sari Nightclub was bombed in Kuta, Indonesia. All up, 202 people from 22 countries were killed. 88 of the victims were Australians, 38 were Indonesians while the rest were a mixture of tourists from Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia along with 2 New Zealanders and 2 South Africans (Park, A. 2012).

Terror attacks carried out by groups of similar motivation have taken place in London, Madrid, Paris, and Mumbai to name a few. By and large these attacks are deliberately carried out on civilians with seemingly little to no effort to distinguish any particular target. It seems, as far as the terrorists are concerned, all victims were apparently legitimate targets.

Due to the seemingly random victim selection of these attacks, questions are raised as to the motivations of the attackers and a wide array of explanations given.

But one thing remains abundantly clear: There is a symbolic message in the killings being put to a wider audience, with the intent of bending others to the will of the terrorists. In all cases, at least as far as the attackers know, the victims are innocent of any crime. They are all merely present at the time deemed appropriate by the attackers to make their brutal statement.

While answering the specific question of whether the west is always an innocent victim of terror attacks requires a detailed analysis, it must be noted from the outset that due to the number of innocent lives lost in terror attacks it is extremely difficult to argue that all who perished were guilty of some kind of crime against the attackers. Given this crucial factor, the West as a whole most certainly cannot be guilty of any wrong doing which warrants an attack on innocent civilians. To answer this question more thoroughly however, it is important to clearly define who the ‘West’ is and why such attacks are carried out against it, and from there examine what constitutes a legitimate response.

The West

For ease of explanation, the ‘West’ shall be defined by Liberal-Democratic states in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific which have developed industry, economy and advanced infrastructure. Countries which are often referred to as: ‘the first world’. This will include Scandinavian countries in Europe, and Australia and New Zealand in the Asia-Pacific.  For the most part when commentators and journalists criticise or generally mention ‘the West’ they are referring to the United States and its allies.

In August 1996, Osama Bin Laden made it very clear in his declaration of war that his main adversary was the United States and its allies.

At this time he made specific mention of the “Americans occupying the country of two sacred places”, upon whom he placed his Jihad (Coll, S. 2004, p. 10). He was referring to over 5,000 US military personnel posted to his home nation of Saudi Arabia (Coll, S. 2004, p.10).  The definition of the West used by terrorists is important because they proclaim that the West is guilty of a great many injustices, which are used to justify their attacks. From their definition we can begin to understand how they view the West as being a deserving victim of terrorist attacks.

Over the decades following the Second World War, the West has come under a great deal of scrutiny for the way in which it pursues its interests, namely its involvement in foreign affairs and conflicts. The overall goal of the West in such campaigns is to implement Global or regional stability. Even prior to World War 2 the West has taken upon itself the task of eradicating fascism, holding back the tide of Communism and now, as Ramesh Thakur notes: “The twenty-first century has opened with a new kind of war: mass terror across borders”, which even before 9/11 the West has felt obliged to combat (Thakur, R. 2002). The events on September 11 were, in the minds of many critics and analysts, a response to the massive impact the West has left while pursuing its interests around the world, more specifically the impact made when the West pursues its interests militarily.

This is where the question of the West’s innocence is called into question and why it is important to examine the driving forces on the attacks on the West. As Noam Chomsky notes: “If you’re serious about preventing further atrocities, you try to find out where the roots are” (Chomsky, N. 2002 p.15). A further assertion made by Chomsky is that even in street crime “there’s usually something behind it that has elements of legitimacy, and you have to consider these elements”( Chomsky, N. 2002 p15) .

Chomsky believes that these ‘legitimate elements’ which contribute to acts committed by terrorists can be attributed to such things as “war crimes of an aggressive power” (Chomsky, N. 2002 p15) namely by NATO and other US allies. This is a particularly good point. There needs to be an understanding of what inspires terrorist activity but also the desired goals terrorism. Furthermore, such motivations and goals should be compared to what motivates the West to exude influence over the rest of the world and what its desired outcomes are.

Motivating Factors

In 1996, Osama Bin Laden was interviewed by al-Quds al Arabi, a London based Arabic-language newspaper where he explained one of his key motivating factors in declaring war on the West.  He stated: “…(W)e believe that the US government committed the biggest mistake when it entered a peninsula which no non-Muslim nation has ever entered for 14 centuries… [America’s] entry was arbitrary and a reckless action. They have entered into a confrontation with a nation whose population is one billion Muslims” (Maher, S. 2014).

For Bin Laden it did not matter that the US presence was specifically requested by King Fahd as a preventative measure against an invasion by Sadam Hussein’s forces. As Shiraz Maher notes: “Bin Laden was embittered by the experience after the House of Saud scuppered his hopes of using the mujahedin to repel Sadaam from Kuwait” (Maher, S. 2014). This was a main motivating factor for Bin Laden and the various other terrorist cells who seek to destroy Western civilization and create an Islamic caliphate.

For Bin Laden, the mujahedin were the rightful warriors to defend a land which he considered Holy, and moreover that radical Islam should be the dominant ideology in all facets of society. On this subject Maher also notes that Bin Laden’s “…main thesis on the failure of the Islamic project was that western interference in the Middle-East prevented the rise of Islamic governments. Weaken the West’s sphere of influence, he argued, and a caliphate would emerge” (Maher, S. 2014).

President Barack Obama echoed this in reference to the emergence of ISIL by conceding that the US had not done enough to recognize the threat early on and react to avoid the catastrophe which ensued. President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper ‘acknowledged that the US had “underestimated what had been taking place in Syria”’ (BBC, 2014).

There are 2 key factors of note here.

First, that Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s motivations were inspired by the core belief that their version of Islamic doctrine must overcome any western influences, at least in the Middle East. Secondly, such goals could not be achieved while western powers worked closely with the various powers in the Middle East and kept terror groups like al Qaeda in a weakened state. In reference to the first key factor it is important to acknowledge that Osama Bin Laden’s stated objectives were not the kind that could be widely regarded as beneficial for humanity.

In South Africa during apartheid, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist during his campaign against the South African government, yet the racial equality which he fought for is widely regarded as a basic human right, and his efforts were restricted to areas within the South African borders. The subordination of whole populations under a religious caliphate which Bin Laden strived for is not widely regarded as a moral equivalent.

In addition to these 2 points it is important to examine what exactly it is that the West seeks to do with its ongoing efforts to keep terrorist groups in a weakened state. In other words, the motivating factors of the West which are called into question by such scholars as Chomsky. To return to his earlier point of “war crimes of an aggressive power”, a crucial factor to note that such crimes are not the mission of western intervention, rather an ugly deviation (Chomsky, N 2002 p15). It can be argued that this is what infuriates terrorists to drive their violent campaign against the west.

Another crucial factor of note is that the western powers have a robust system in place to bring to justice any actions outside of the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC). This was seen in the life sentence handed down to a British Royal Marine who shot dead an injured Taliban fighter in Afghanistan in 2011 (BBC, 2013).

Brigadier Bill Dunham, deputy commander of the Royal Marines stated: “It was a truly shocking and appalling aberration. It should not have happened and it should never happen again” (BBC, 2013). Such measures and sentiments are not shared by terror groups who celebrate the ‘martyrs’, who die killing innocent victims, all the while urging others to follow their example.

When interviewed on the suicide bombing of Sbarro restaurant in Israel, Hamas leader Ahmad Nimir Abu Ara praised the bomber, Izz Al-Din al Masri, by stating: “All flee death except the Martyrdom-seeker, who pursues the Angel of Death. I salute Ahlam Tamimi (the orchestrator of the bombing) who brought Izz Al-Din to his battlefield” (Al-aqsa TV, 2014 cited in, 2014).

War crimes committed by any power are a heinous act which should not go unpunished. In the west there are clearly visible efforts made to correct such wrong-doings. The motivating factors and methods of the west have been rightly called into question, but they stand in stark contrast against the motivating factors and methods of the opposing terror groups.

In short, the ultimate goal of groups like al Qaeda is the totalitarian conquest of vast swathes of land and peoples while the West seeks to maintain stability. An unavoidable factor in what the West considers stable seems, for the most part, materially beneficial for western interests. This however does not change the fact that one side of this conflict seeks totalitarianism under a brutal and radical doctrine while another seeks democratic freedoms albeit to its own behest. We see here that Chomsky’s earlier suggestion that there may be some legitimacy in terror attacks is not such a robust argument and that while the West is certainly well deserving of criticism, being a deserving target for terrorism is a separate thing entirely.

The Response

In 1996, from the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden made his declaration which came to be known as a “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders” (Lewis, B. 1998). He made it clear that: “To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible, until the Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Harem Mosque [in Mecca] are freed from their grip and until their armies, shattered and broken-winged, depart from all the lands of Islam, incapable of threatening any Muslim” (Lewis, B. 1998).

From this point he began to step up attacks on the West in accordance with his declaration. This new type of war was unique in that it was now global and did not restrict itself to strictly military targets. Bin Laden took it upon himself to legitimise all western targets and symbols for attack to be carried out by (what he considered) all true believers of Islam. After 9/11 it became all too clear that a response would need to adopt new strategies. As President George W. Bush stated: “The only way to treat them is [as] what they are – international killers”… And the only way to find them is to be patient, and steadfast, and hunt them down. And the United States is doing just that” (Scahill, J. 2013 p76).

This new borderless war has made things slightly more complex for all stakeholders. It seems that Bin Laden and al Qaeda altered international norms of waging war and the US response was to alter their strategic outlook to contain the threat posed. Within this new framework new issues arise, namely what exactly constitutes a legitimate response. Amnesty International has on several occasions raised concerns over what could be considered “extra-judicial executions” carried out in non-declared war zones (Scahill. J. 2013 p77).

This is where further questions can be raised in regards to the West being an innocent victim of terrorism. One of Chomsky’s notable statements in regards to this issue is: “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: Stop participating in it” (Chomsky. N. 2002 p. 20.). Chomsky believes that the West is responding to terrorism with more terrorism. However, this assertion alone does not adequately serve as a robust understanding of what the Western powers seek to do in its fight against global terrorism.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 in the US, in 2002 in Bali and the many others that have taken place around the world have shown that Terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Laden are very serious about their desired targets with no regard for any collateral damage. The killing of huge numbers of civilians is not a deviation from their set goals. On the contrary, it is perfectly in accordance with methods that have been laid out by the various leaders such as Bin Laden. While the West has sought to degrade and disrupt terrorist operations the end state is always in the interests of a long term stability which has the minimum impact on any non-combatants.

This objective has become increasingly difficult and the West has justifiably come under tremendous amounts of scrutiny over such operations. There can be no doubt that the West is not without sin in all of its many global ventures, the fight against global terrorism being the most recent. But in light of the end state of terrorists and the means by which they seek to achieve this end state, the West cannot be held as a legitimate target of terror attacks. There are simply too many civilian casualties deliberately targeted by terror groups to allow them any legitimacy or moral high ground. As a result, the West and all other populations targeted by terror attacks, whether in the Middle-East, North-Africa or Latin America, are always innocent victims.


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