9/11 from Arab Shores

Ten years after the World Trade Center attacks, is 9/11 still a seminal moment or a historical footnote for the Middle East?

BEIRUT – The 9/11 attacks 10 years ago and the subsequent response led by the United States made deep, far-reaching changes to the Middle East, defining the contours of a conflict between Muslims and the West that continues to shape public perceptions in both parts of the globe.

And yet many in the Arab world describe the attacks themselves as a mere historical footnote, eclipsed by democratic-leaning revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East as well as the more ominous conflict between Shiite and Sunni sects playing out from the Indus River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Ask an ordinary person smoking a water pipe at a cafe or riding a minibus about 9/11, and you're far more likely to be told with absolute conviction that it was carried out by Israeli spies or was the work of isolated madmen rather than symptomatic of a broader malaise in the Arab world and among Muslims in general. A 2008 poll by World Public Opinion found that only 4 percent of Pakistanis and 11 percent of Jordanians believed al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks, and 23 percent of Pakistanis and 48 percent of Jordanians blamed the United States or Israel for the attack. (Most people surveyed in the poll simply said they didn't know who was behind it.)

But 10 years on, it's apparent that the 9/11 attackers partially succeeded in their goal of pitting Islam against the West. Because the West began seeing Muslims as one audience, so too did Muslims -- from the bleak suburbs of Paris to the alleyways of Cairo to the high-rises of Jakarta -- begin viewing themselves as one, battling Western powers that were inclined to reject, stereotype, and, on occasion, bomb them. It's not that 9/11 caused Muslim countries to band together. Major tensions continue to divide countries, governments, and sects. But since the attacks, a sort of global Muslim identity has arisen, with Muslims tuned into similar issues such as the donning of the hijab, adherence to Islamic banking principles, and discrimination by Westerners.

"Sept. 11 turned the notion of a clash of civilizations into a self-fulfilling prophecy," argues Joost Hiltermann, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "There wasn't a clash, but, hey, you could create one by taking all the wrong steps. I think it was an unmitigated disaster for the United States and the Arab world because of the number of polarizations it created. Trust is gone. It's very dangerous."

Immediately after 9/11, most Arabs and Muslims decried the attack, with even leaders of countries at odds with the United States joining in a chorus of sympathy for Americans. A few Arabs and Muslims in scattered places cheered the attack. For once, they said, America was getting a taste of its own medicine.

But as President George W. Bush's administration pursued unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden became a folk hero. His portraits appeared on T-shirts; his voice on crinkly audiotapes would cause people to stop and listen. Meanwhile, the sympathy for the United States dissipated amid angry denunciations of U.S. foreign policy and burning flags.

Hiltermann likens the U.S. reaction to the 9/11 attacks to a "blinded Cyclops throwing rocks left and right," giving al Qaeda's rhetoric a boost. "You are helping al Qaeda create this Muslim sense of community where they're all under attack," he says.

Much of that is gone now, in part because the uprisings sweeping the Arab world have changed the region's political and cultural dynamics.

None but a few misguided extremists view the 9/11 attacks as some kind of great victory. Thanks to the Arab revolutions, new ideas are percolating in the region, even among the followers of the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam that inspired bin Laden and his deputies.

"The ground on which that sort of movement fed has been changed," says Ilter Turan, a social scientist at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "The terrorist part of the Salafist movement has not brought any benefit, it hasn't solved problems, and it hasn't advanced their agenda. It has, in fact, generated more hardship and authoritarian responses and deprivation."

It's not that violent Islamic extremism has disappeared from the Middle East and South Asia. Explosions by presumed al Qaeda extremists regularly rock Iraq and Pakistan while the Egyptian Army mounts fresh offensives against suspected Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula, where al Qaeda branches are seeking to establish themselves. In Algeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out a dozen major attacks since 2002; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen and Saudi Arabia over the last decade, attempts ambitious attacks on the West.

"The Arab world is still an ongoing war," cautions Riad Kahwaji, a security analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a think tank with offices in Dubai and Beirut. "They're reminded day in and day out of al Qaeda and terrorism. Sept. 11 happened 10 years ago. Since that day we didn't have a single successful terrorist operation in the U.S. Meanwhile, in the Arab world every other week we have a major successful al Qaeda attack."

The tensions that were dragged into the open by the 9/11 attacks also still persist, especially those regarding Washington's staunch support for Israel and its perceived double standards on issues such as nuclear weapons, selective support for democratic movements, and its indulgence of tyrants who oversee regimes characterized by terrible educational systems, torture in prisons, and rampant corruption.

"Factors that caused 9/11 are still glaringly present today," warns Nadim Zaazaa, a political analyst and instructor at the American University of Beirut. "The lack of stability and democracy in the Arab world coupled with American support of autocratic regimes are just some examples. Arabs still feel a sense of injustice."

For at least some in the intelligentsia of the Arab world, 9/11 served as a wake-up call, a vivid illustration of how dangerous one tiny violent strain of a religion could tarnish an entire people.

Several analysts suggested that shame was the reason many in the Muslim world dismiss the 9/11 attacks as a conspiracy or the work of a few rogues.

"It showed that there are elements out there, extreme evil elements, that are trying to distort Islam and use it as a pretext to support individual and narrow agendas, and that these people cannot be left on their own because they will harm large numbers of Muslims," says Kahwaji. "That the actions of one or two can have an impact on the livelihoods of 1.5 billion Muslims."

In part because of 9/11 and in part because of the coinciding rise of pan-Arab satellite news channels, a regional conversation began in the Arab world, one that may have carved out the intellectual space for the uprisings now under way. On Arab talk shows, even some that are the regional equivalent of Oprah Winfrey Show, guests began speaking about everything from child-rearing to religious extremism and began to compare themselves unfavorably not just to the West, but to rising Muslim powerhouses like Turkey and Malaysia.

"After 9/11 people began pointing out and showcasing the problems in Arab societies: terrible education, high unemployment, lack of democracy, the fact it didn't contribute to science and technology," says Issandr El Amrani, the Cairo-based author of the popular blog The Arabist. "What was tolerable in the 1990s became less tolerable."



Libya's Nightmare Factory

A visit to Qaddafi's scariest prison.

TRIPOLI, Libya — The cells are barely large enough for one person to lie down in. There is no water, no toilet. Light falls through a small hole in the ceiling. Most cells don't even have a mattress, just a strip of cloth on the floor, a cut-open plastic bottle, and the naked concrete walls, inscribed with memories of those once held here. It is dark -- claustrophobic -- in the narrow corridors of the cell wings. The entrance is scattered with clothes and medicine; the air thick with decay. Only days ago, the bodies were retrieved from here. After a few minutes the lingering stench grips you at the throat, gagging you.

This is Maktab al-Nasser, a dusty compound of a few buildings that stand deserted in the pale midday sun, only a few minutes away from the infamous Abu Salim prison. Many who ended up in Abu Salim would first be swallowed by this office of the internal security agency. Many never emerged. The grim cells of Maktab al-Nasser offer stark a contrast with the painted rooms at Abu Salim prison, with its kitchen facilities and bathrooms that mask the horrors that doubtlessly took place there. The pain and horror of Maktab al-Nasser seem to have penetrated its very walls and steel doors. It looks like a place one goes to die.

Abu Bashir al-Hajji, a 57-year-old laborer, spent 42 days in Maktab al-Nasser. His face strains with pain when he gets out of the chair. His ribs are broken in three places from the beatings he received. On Feb. 17, he had been out on the streets of Tripoli, demonstrating against Muammar al-Qaddafi and in support of the uprising in Benghazi. Like others, he went to what is now known as Martyrs' Square in Tripoli. He reached out to the rebels and started to ferry information back and forth between Benghazi and the capital. On March 24, the 18th Brigade broke down his door at 2 o'clock in the morning. They came with five cars. "They knew my family," Abu Bashir explains. "My brother, Jamal al-Hajji, was writing about Qaddafi even before the revolution started."

They threw him in a car, beat him, and pushed him into a tiny cell. "I did not know where I was," he says. "Only later when I was transferred to Abu Salim prison did I understand where I had been."

At Maktab al-Nasser, half the complex is burned out and much has collapsed into itself as a result of the NATO bombing. The outer shell of what looks like an American cruise missile rests outside. Old files are scattered in the office building: Interrogation reports date back as far as the early 1990s, chronicling the activities of individuals and their families over pages and pages amid accusations of espionage and terrorism.

"Many people died in Maktab al-Nasser," Abu Bashir says. "The guards would beat us in the lower abdomen and stomach. Something breaks inside and some people die."

Abu Bashir, now in charge of security in a central area in Tripoli, seems to be on the verge of breaking down as he recollects what happened to him in this place only a few months ago. His head sinks into his hands.

"It was Walid Diab," an internal security agent, says Abu Bashir. "He took me."

"Walid Diab brought me into a room and tied a cable that was hooked to the ceiling around my neck -- as if he would hang me. He forced me to stand on Coca-Cola cans. If I moved or even sneezed, I would fall and hang myself."

"He left me like this for 72 hours."

Abu Bashir was later transferred to Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison, where about 1,200 people died in a massacre in 1996. He was freed on Wednesday, Aug. 24, he says, when rebels took over the facility and liberated the inmates.

The man who freed him might have been Mr. Fajallah, who still stands guard at the prison, though its cells are now empty. His leg is bandaged, and a deep scratch traces his face from a ricochet bullet.

"I used the Kalashnikov to shoot the doors open," he explains.

The fighting had come close to Abu Salim, and the ruling family's Bab al-Aziziya complex had already fallen, when Fajallah and three others went to the prison to tell the remaining guards that the prisoners needed to be released.

"We told them to release the prisoners, but they said they cannot."

The small group went home to get weapons. When they returned, they found the guardrooms deserted; they had fled the prison.

"There were four or five thousand prisoners here. It took five or even six hours to release them all," says Fajallah.

The prison has become a local tourist destination as former prisoners now bring their family and friends to Abu Salim prison to explain what went on there. Small groups walk through the corridors and past the cells, recounting what happened to them. But Maktab al-Nasser stands deserted. Those who survived try to forget about this factory of nightmares.

"Not even a spider can survive in this place," says Bashir, exhaling sharply. He gets up and heads out to look after the rebels under his command as they work to secure the buzzing streets of downtown Tripoli.

Philip Poupin