Letter from Alleged 9/11 Mastermind Shows Our Own Foreign Policy Makes America Unsafe

A recently released letter from Khalid Shaikh Mohammad shines a disturbing light on what’s behind many terror attacks.

Branko Marcetic February 9, 2017

The Trump administration appears to have no intention of reversing course on the decades of failed foreign policy that have only served to inflame terrorism. (GAMAL NOMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Jacobin.

'The war crimes perpetrated in Palestine since 1948, and those taking place in Gaza today, are the clearest indication of why 9/11 happened, and why it may happen again in the future.'

What makes Amer­i­ca unsafe? Is it a wel­com­ing atti­tude towards ordi­nary law-abid­ing Mus­lims and oth­er dis­parate peo­ples scat­tered across the globe? Or is it the enact­ment of poli­cies that indis­crim­i­nate­ly and unfair­ly harm aver­age people?

If you’re Pres­i­dent Trump, it’s undoubt­ed­ly the for­mer. Trump has spent the last few days attack­ing the judge who stayed his Mus­lim ban, claim­ing it put our coun­try in such per­il” and that with­out the ban we can nev­er have the secu­ri­ty and safe­ty to which we are entitled.”

But a recent­ly released let­ter to Pres­i­dent Oba­ma writ­ten by alleged Sep­tem­ber 11 mas­ter­mind Khalid Shaikh Moham­mad sug­gests a dif­fer­ent conclusion.

The eigh­teen-page let­ter, dat­ed Jan­u­ary 8, 2015 and writ­ten while Moham­mad was serv­ing time in Guan­tanamo, was obtained by the Mia­mi Her­ald from Mohammad’s lawyers after a court-ordered thir­ty-day review peri­od to remove any sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion. The let­ter lays out Mohammad’s griev­ances against the Unit­ed States and makes clear what we have long known from oth­er ter­ror­ists’ tes­ti­monies: that it’s a decades-long, destruc­tive and large­ly bipar­ti­san Wash­ing­ton for­eign pol­i­cy that dri­ves such men to com­mit acts of ter­ror, not the sup­pos­ed­ly malev­o­lent influ­ence of a fun­da­men­tal­ist ver­sion of Islam.

Mohammad’s defense attor­ney, David Niv­en, told the Mia­mi Her­ald that Moham­mad began writ­ing the let­ter in 2014 dur­ing Israel’s 2014 Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge, which lev­elled whole neigh­bor­hoods in Gaza and killed more than two thou­sand Pales­tini­ans in fifty days, the vast major­i­ty of which were civil­ians and many of which were chil­dren. Indeed, just four sen­tences in, Moham­mad accus­es Oba­ma of hav­ing hands still wet with the blood of our broth­ers and sis­ters and chil­dren who were killed in Gaza,” cit­ing the hor­rif­ic sta­tis­tics com­ing out of the assault.

A large part of the let­ter is devot­ed to answer­ing the ques­tion, Why did 911 Hap­pen? And Why May it Hap­pen Again?” Cen­tral to the caus­es of such attacks, accord­ing to Moham­mad, is Israel’s near­ly sev­en­ty-year old occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine and its con­tin­ued apartheid poli­cies against the Pales­tin­ian people.

The war crimes per­pe­trat­ed in Pales­tine since 1948, and those tak­ing place in Gaza today, are the clear­est indi­ca­tion of why 911 hap­pened, and why it may hap­pen again in the future,” Moham­mad writes imme­di­ate­ly after pos­ing the question.

Indeed, resent­ment at Israel’s poli­cies, and con­tin­ued US sup­port for said poli­cies, is shot through the let­ter. Dozens of angry ref­er­ences to Israel, Gaza, and the plight of the Pales­tini­ans line its text, includ­ing Israel’s 1982 inva­sion of Lebanon, its slay­ing of four chil­dren on a Gaza beach in 2014, and its con­tin­ued dom­i­na­tion over Pales­tin­ian air­space, waters, and move­ment. Enclosed with the let­ter is a map of Pales­tin­ian loss of land between 1946 and 2010.

At one point, Moham­mad strikes a Trumpian note, argu­ing that the Unit­ed States’ sub­stan­tial finan­cial sup­port for Israel comes at the expense of its own domes­tic stability.

Do you real­ize that Israel is a wealthy nation with a high­er per capi­ta income than Roma­nia, Spain, Egypt, South Korea, and Sau­di Ara­bia, while the US is an increas­ing­ly indebt­ed coun­try dam­ag­ing its own social pro­grams in favor of your spoiled, cod­dled, pam­pered baby, Israel?” he writes. (Moham­mad isn’t total­ly accu­rate: At least as of this year, accord­ing to World Bank fig­ures, South Korea’s per capi­ta is income is slight­ly high­er than Israel’s; Sau­di Arabia’s is sub­stan­tial­ly high­er. Still, the point stands.)

Moham­mad goes on to label Oba­ma the pres­i­dent of soup kitchens and food stamps” who cuts mon­ey from the bud­get for US edu­ca­tion and health pro­grams” while pro­vid­ing mon­ey to put the tools of killing and destruc­tion into the hands of Israel to be used against Pales­tin­ian and Lebanese Mus­lims.” (In his final year in office, Oba­ma signed off on the largest mil­i­tary aid pack­age to any coun­try in his­to­ry, which went to Israel).

Israel’s poli­cies aren’t the sole focus of Mohammad’s ire. Through­out the let­ter, he lists off a litany of US poli­cies that have enraged him, including:

  • The Rea­gan administration’s sup­port for Sad­dam Hus­sein dur­ing the Iran-Iraq War through­out the 1980s, includ­ing his use of chem­i­cal weapons against Ira­ni­ans and Kurds.
  • US sup­port for var­i­ous auto­crat­ic, klep­to­crat­ic regimes through­out the Mid­dle East, from the House of Saud to cur­rent Egypt­ian strong­man Abel Fat­tah El-Sisi.
  • Crip­pling UN sanc­tions on Iraq, pushed first by the George H. W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion and con­tin­ued and defend­ed by the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, which killed thou­sands of Iraqi chil­dren by the end of the 1990s. Clinton’s Sec­re­tary of State, Madeleine Albright, infa­mous­ly told 60 Min­utes that the price is worth it,” an inci­dent ref­er­enced specif­i­cal­ly in the letter.
  • The George W. Bush administration’s post‑9/​11 régime of tor­ture and indef­i­nite deten­tion, includ­ing of minors.
  • The dis­as­trous 2003 inva­sion of Iraq.
  • Bush and Obama’s use of drones, with spe­cif­ic ref­er­ence to the bomb­ing of an Afghan wed­ding par­ty in 2008 and the killing of inno­cent six­teen-year old US cit­i­zen Abdul­rah­man Al-Awla­ki in 2012.

Iron­i­cal­ly, despite his con­dem­na­tion of Israel’s col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment of Pales­tini­ans and his dis­ap­proval of sanc­tions — which he says are the most bru­tal form of war because they pun­ish an entire pop­u­la­tion” — Moham­mad has no prob­lem apply­ing the same warped log­ic to the Amer­i­can pub­lic, claim­ing they bear full respon­si­bil­i­ty for the crimes” of Israel and Mid­dle East­ern dictators.

It would be easy to write off the let­ter as disin­gen­u­ous grand­stand­ing. After all, he at one point dis­cuss­es Osama bin Laden’s sup­posed mer­cy and com­pas­sion” on the basis that 911 killed few chil­dren and didn’t tar­get res­i­den­tial homes — which, while true, is hard­ly enough for a moral excul­pa­tion of the heinous act of 911.

But this let­ter is hard­ly the first time the pub­lic has been explic­it­ly told by per­pe­tra­tors of ter­ror that West­ern gov­ern­ments’ for­eign poli­cies are respon­si­ble for the rage behind anti-West­ern ter­ror­ist attacks.

As Thomas Heg­gham­mer has point­ed out, bin Laden and al-Qae­da spent the years before and after 911 rail­ing against Israeli occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine, as well as oth­er Israeli actions. His ear­li­est pub­lic speech­es in the 1980s called for a boy­cott of US goods over its sup­port for Israel. In a 2008 speech, he said that the Pales­tin­ian cause has been the main fac­tor that, since my ear­ly child­hood, fueled my desire, and that of the 19 freemen [the Sep­tem­ber 11 bombers].”

The events that affect­ed my soul in a direct way start­ed in 1982 when Amer­i­ca per­mit­ted the Israelis to invade Lebanon,” he said in a 2004 speech. As I looked at those demol­ished tow­ers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should pun­ish the oppres­sor in kind and that we should destroy tow­ers in America.”

In bin Laden’s 2002 let­ter to Amer­i­ca,” the word Pales­tine” appears thir­teen times, and con­di­tions in Pales­tine are the very first thing bin Laden dis­cuss­es — at length — in rela­tion to the ques­tion, Why are we fight­ing and oppos­ing you?” In the same let­ter, he also cites the suf­fer­ing caused by the Iraqi sanc­tions, albeit using the wild­ly inflat­ed num­ber of 1.5 mil­lion dead children.

This isn’t just true of bin Laden. The 2010 Times Square would-be bomber was rad­i­cal­ized over a peri­od of years thanks to his anger over the inva­sion of Iraq, the Guan­tanamo Bay prison, and drone bomb­ings, and com­plained about drone attacks on Pales­tine in his tri­al. The Fort Hood gun­man was fierce­ly opposed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One of the killers of British sol­dier Lee Rig­by said he was moti­vat­ed by his dis­gust” at the Iraq War. One of the Char­lie Heb­do shoot­ers was rad­i­cal­ized by the images of tor­ture at Abu Ghraib. The Orlan­do night­club gun­man, while almost cer­tain­ly part­ly influ­enced by his own con­flict­ed sex­u­al­i­ty, also told a 911 oper­a­tor he want­ed Amer­i­ca to stop bomb­ing” Afghanistan. The list goes on and on and on.

Despite this, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is con­tin­u­ing — or even esca­lat­ing — the for­eign pol­i­cy excess­es of the Bush and Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tions that have fuelled the rise of such ter­ror­ism. Under Oba­ma, the pop­u­la­tion of ille­gal Israeli set­tle­ments in the West Bank grew by 25 per­cent between 2009 and 2014; now, encour­aged by Trump’s win, Israel has expand­ed these set­tle­ments and retroac­tive­ly legal­ized near­ly 4,000 ille­gal homes in the West Bank.

Last month, Trump approved a com­man­do raid in Yemen that result­ed in the death of as many as thir­ty civil­ians, includ­ing the eight-year old sis­ter of the six­teen-year old Amer­i­can who was drone bombed by Oba­ma in 2012 and which saw its chief tar­get escape unharmed. (Accord­ing to The Inde­pen­dent, the raid was urged on by Gen­er­al James Mat­tis, who was meant to be a sta­bi­liz­ing and mod­er­at­ing force” on the new pres­i­dent). Experts are already warn­ing that ter­ror­ists will use the inci­dent to recruit the disaffected.

It’s not as if the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is obliv­i­ous to this. Michael Fly­nn, his Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er (and one of the men who report­ed­ly attend­ed the din­ner where Trump was briefed on the Yemen raid), has repeat­ed­ly stressed the inad­e­qua­cy and self-defeat­ing nature of a pure­ly mil­i­tary strat­e­gy to com­bat ter­ror­ism, and warned in a 2010 paper that mere­ly killing insur­gents usu­al­ly serves to mul­ti­ply ene­mies rather than sub­tract them.”

Yet despite this, the admin­is­tra­tion appears to have no inten­tion of revers­ing course on the decades of failed for­eign pol­i­cy which has only served to inflame ter­ror­ism. In fact, it’s dou­bling down on even more extreme mea­sures like its Mus­lim ban, which even Trump’s own appointees have warned will cre­ate blow­back. Con­firm­ing experts’ worst fears, ISIS sup­port­ers are already cel­e­brat­ing the exec­u­tive order as an invalu­able ser­vice” to the group, which bases its recruit­ment on a nar­ra­tive of indis­crim­i­nate West­ern war­fare on Mus­lims. Indeed Trump’s can­di­da­cy, with his Islam­o­pho­bic poli­cies and promis­es of war crimes to come, has already been used in ter­ror­ist recruit­ment videos.

Of course, such dis­crim­i­na­to­ry poli­cies will do noth­ing to pro­tect Amer­i­cans. As Khalid Shaikh Mohammad’s let­ter and the tes­ti­mo­ny of oth­er ter­ror­ists make clear, the fac­tors which make the Unit­ed States less safe are star­ing us in the face. But don’t expect any Amer­i­can lead­ers to listen.

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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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