WASHINGTON -- When the brutal attacks on 9/11 happened 11 years ago, there was an overwhelming mystery about them. Why would anyone do this to US? There was also a singularity about them, as though this was one attack, out of nowhere, meant to signify nothing except hatred of the United States. There was almost an accidental quality about the whole thing.
Soon, we got a name for the group behind the attack -- al-Qaida -- and we went after it mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Behind all of this was the idea that there was a finite number of fighters in al-Qaida, and if we got them, we got it. We would soon kill or capture all of them and then we could go home again.
This Sept. 11 illustrated tragically that our buildup to eliminate a certain number of al-Qaida enemies is an idea that has already lost any relevance to the current state of affairs in the Middle East and elsewhere. The awful attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, the massive street protests in Cairo and the related street attacks from Sudan to Yemen to Sinai, Mali and Nigeria show that there has been a devilish larger plan to al-Qaida than previously thought.
With these Sept. 11 attacks, some of them unquestionably coordinated, it is now becoming clear that these radical Islamist groups have a worldwide penetration, cause and intention. They are moving toward taking over countries such as Yemen, Mali and now Libya, and the idea of an international Islamist caliphate is no longer simply something to shake one's head over.
Take first the case of Libya. We have been getting little in the way of news after Moammar Gadhafi's death, except that the country was being ruled by a democratic transition government and that foreign capital was returning.
But to kill beloved American Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats, the Benghazi attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles. They were heavily armed in a country where the dictator left tens of thousands of tons of heavy weapons behind. Moreover, the group that attacked the consulate was one of dozens of radical "militias" that now roam the streets of Libya. They have already killed 300 to 400 people since the end of the "revolution," and there is no real government security force to contain them.
The U.K.-based risk analysis firm Maplecroft recently expressed its concern about "a recent string of kidnappings, small bomb explosions, grenade attacks and discovery of explosive devices in Benghazi." While Karim Mezran of the U.S. Atlantic Council sees the "fault lines" in today's Libya as "not only pro- and anti-Gadhafi, but also tribe versus tribe, city versus city, young versus old, Islamist versus secularist, poor versus rich and so on."
In fact, there were many attacks leading up to the one that killed the four Americans. In the months before it, a radical group had attacked the British ambassador's car. One group destroyed one of the beautiful Sufi shrines -- the peaceable, wise Sufis are also considered enemies by the radicals -- undisturbed, and watched by tourists in a nearby luxury hotel.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida temporarily raised its frightening black-and-white flag over the U.S. Embassy in Cairo; it took over whole towns in Yemen; analysts were seeing radicals inserting themselves actively into the Syrian revolution, etc.
Newsweek last week published a piece by terrorism specialist Bruce Riedel in which he averred that the Egyptian leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, is largely orchestrating a "global terror network and communicating with its followers."
"The fastest-growing al-Qaida operation is in Syria," Riedel wrote. "Zawahri ordered al-Qaida jihadists from around the world to go to Syria last February. They carried out seven attacks in March, and at least 66 in June. Al-Qaida won't take over the embattled country, but it will thrive in the civil war and chaos there -- and use Syria as a base for attacks in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon."
The questions I would like to see answered are these: Where are these "troops" being trained? Is there a sociological form for them, beyond their being homeless, aimless young men with no occupation and no hope? Who is supporting such an enormous undertaking as these small armies that are arising all over the Middle East?
For that is what they are. How wrong were the idealists who were so certain that a democratic Middle East would come out of the Arab Spring, now almost two years ago? The pre-eminent scholar Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski points out: "Populism is the first stage of political awakening. It doesn't necessarily lead to democracy." In fact, political and religious minorities had more protection in the Islamic worlds under secular autocratic leaders than under "democratic" ones.
Moreover, Brzezinski continues, the political world of the Middle East is "increasingly driven by an historical narrative in which America is more and more associated with imperialism and colonialism."