Al Qaeda Won
Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, the terrorists have definitively won the battle for the American mind.
This year marks the 17th anniversary of 9/11, an awkward number offering an awkward amount of hindsight. The day is not quite memory, not yet history. Subsequent events during those 17 years—not only the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also the arrival of the smartphone and social media—have transformed its significance. 9/11 was a defining moment in the history of war and terrorism, but it was also the first attack conceived for and executed through the means of digital connection. It was to the internet what the Challenger explosion was to cable television, an event defined by the arrival of the way it was related, an act of war suited to technologically enabled mass storytelling and media saturation. The Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan once predicted that World War III would be a “guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” 9/11 was the beginning of that war.
T.E. Lawrence, who turned himself into the pop culture icon Lawrence of Arabia, was the great innovator of guerrilla information war in the 20th century. His best-known platitude held that “[t]he printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.” His autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom provides the fine details of how he came to that understanding. Lawrence was sick, and in camp, in the sweltering heat of his fly-ridden tent, when it occurred to him that Carl von Clausewitz and the other great military theorists of earlier eras would have considered the war he was waging unwinnable. The Arab forces could not destroy the enemy, take the major strongholds, or break the courage of their opponents, which was how the great generals of the past had defined victory. The insight crept up on him: What if those definitions were all wrong? What if, instead of winning the war by the traditional definitions of victory, the definition of victory changed? “[A]s I pondered slowly, it dawned on me that we had won the Hejaz war,” Lawrence writes. “I brushed off the same flies once more from my face patiently, content to know that the Hejaz War was won and finished with: won from the day we took Wejh, if we had had wit to see it.” He didn’t need to win. He just needed to decide he had won and convince the world. The struggle was to change the definition of victory, to change the meaning of the events rather than the events themselves.
The term Lawrence gave to this kind of semantic warfare was diathetics, a phrase borrowed from the Greek philosopher Xenophon. It was a battle for the stories people tell and for the public consciousness that emerges out of the stories that people tell.
We had to arrange [our soldiers’] minds in order of battle just as carefully and as formally as other officers would arrange their bodies. And not only our own men’s minds, though naturally they came first. We must also arrange the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them; then those other minds of the nation supporting us behind the firing line, since more than half the battle passed there in the back; then the minds of the enemy nation waiting the verdict; and of the neutrals looking on; circle beyond circle.
Diathetics is an extension of guerrilla warfare, in the sense that it is used by the weaker force against the stronger and uses the lines of communication against those who have laid them down. The sabotage of lines of communication turns the greatest strength of the more powerful force—the ability to convey information and materiel across distance—into vulnerability everywhere along the line. Rather than sabotage the lines of communication along the periphery, diathetics sabotages the network at the center, the source of the meaning being communicated.
Osama bin Laden understood diathetics instinctively and explicitly. “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods,” he told Mullah Mohammad Omar in a letter in June 2002. “In fact, its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.” The front is cultural, the conflict over narrative.
The power of diathetical warfare increases as the means of mass communication expand. We are in the middle of the greatest expansion of mass communication in human history. Social media and the smartphone, with cameras, were not yet ubiquitous in 2001. But cable news had long before erased the distinction between news and entertainment. Reality television as a genre had just been invented. The internet had very recently become commonplace in the American home. 9/11 was the first news event that happened to everybody at once. It did not matter how distantly removed you were from Manhattan or the Pentagon; because of the instantaneous communication network, you were at 9/11 if you were at a screen. The events of 9/11 were inseparable from their recording.
The cultural front opened by 9/11 keeps widening, and the terms of the struggles along those fronts, as each new technology opens them, are almost impossible to recognize immediately. In 2015, Jeff Giesea published his famous essay on memetic warfare in the NATO journal Defence Strategic Communications. Despite its immense influence—it predicted, and possibly shaped, Russian techniques of disinformation in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States, and Giesea went on to run significant elements of Trump’s election campaign—the essay’s key insight has not really been dealt with seriously. Russian meme factories achieved, with minimal expense and no direct violence, their country’s deepest foreign-policy aims: a sharp decline in U.S. influence in the world, the endangerment of the post-World War II alliances of the liberal order, and the humiliation of the notion of human rights. There has been no retaliation.
Memetic warfare is only the latest element of the diathetical struggle that has been ongoing since the arrival of the internet. The cultural front is along every point of the network—television, the press, movies, songs, sermons, advertising, and social media. Everything that gives meaning is a battleground. Diathetics is the rearrangement of the enemy’s mindset by spectacle and the means of its consumption. This is a new kind of war and a deeply confusing one. Confusion is its purpose. The problems of assessment are substantial. The line between what is military and what isn’t has blurred, and the cultural front seems ridiculous, beneath the dignity of the military and totally beyond the purview of soldiers anyway. Memetic wars, wars of popular culture, are ridiculous. That does not alter their effectiveness. A reality television star with the world’s most elaborate comb-over has helped achieve Russian foreign-policy aims.
Even to look at 9/11 as a work of culture, to investigate its significance, is fraught in itself. The occasion is sacred, suitable for solemn reflection. Real people really died. But as painful and grotesque and offensive as it may seem, if you want to understand America’s current vulnerability, you have to look at 9/11 as a show. It is a war show that the United States lost and continues to lose.
Begin with a basic question: Why the Twin Towers? Before 1993, U.S. counterterrorism agencies did not consider the World Trade Center a likely target. They worried about water systems, transportation networks, and military installations. The World Trade Center was not a beloved or culturally important structure like the Empire State Building. It featured a pair of large, banal skyscrapers.
Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was the first to recognize the towers’ potential as symbols within a spectacle. He would have seen them first in the company of Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind sheik who preached in a mosque in New Jersey. From his neighborhood, the towers rose up across the waters, totems without faces. They were little more than objects of substantial mass.
Mass death was always at the core of Yousef’s vision for a terrorist act. After his arrival in New York, he initially cruised through neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, looking for ways to murder Jews in significant numbers. But he simply could not find a target of the necessary scale. Originally, Yousef wanted to flood the towers with cyanide, to convert them into death camps in the sky. The bomb used in the 1993 attack was constructed of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil but Ramzi Yousef also explored lacing the bomb with poison. A judge in his case assumed he had used sodium cyanide but that it had burned off from the heat of the explosion. But there was no forensic evidence Yousef ever managed to find the poisons he desired. Generally, his craftsmanship was poor: The cyanide burned off from the heat of the explosion. (Eventually, on 9/11, the towers came to resemble nothing so much as the smoking towers of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; the attack possessed from its inception the quality of a pocket Holocaust.)
It’s easy to forget that until 1993, until the World Trade Center was a target, terrorism and assassination and guerrilla warfare stood in direct antithesis to slaughter on an industrial scale. The specificity of the target had been at the heart of political murder for nearly a millennium. The original assassins were Ismaili Muslims, who killed rulers rather than armies. The capitalists and fascists and imperialists led subservient masses into meaningless death; the terrorists knew whom they killed. The essential nature of the propaganda of the deed was that it waged war against those responsible for the system rather than those who suffered under it. Russian anarchists believed that insurrectionary acts against the ruling classes would bring about revolution, but their targets were, as a rule, individuals. (There were exceptions, such as the bombing of the Liceu Theater in Barcelona in 1893, but they were rare.) Carlos the Jackal targeted OPEC leaders and the people who ran Zionist organizations. The forces of guerrilla warfare attached a strategic as well as a symbolic value to individual life. Their smaller numbers meant they could not waste themselves except at a high price.
Yousef saw that the World Trade Center’s brute scale, its sheer bulk, expressed better than any other building the banal dominance of modernity. His letter to the New York Times after the 1993 bombing explicitly described it as an attack from “the fifth battalion in the Liberation Army,” and the political movement to which he was an inheritor belonged to the Russian anarchists, Lawrence of Arabia, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, the June 2 movement in Germany, and Carlos the Jackal. It is essential to understand the necessary framework for guerrilla informational war: To wage diathetics, you have to belong to the culture you hope to distort, and you have to hate that culture at the same time. Diathetics can only be waged both inside and outside a culture; to know what effects a spectacle will have, you have to comprehend the context into which it will be received. Lawrence was a prime example of an inside-outside man and so was Yousef. Yousef was not a good Muslim: He drank, womanized, never prayed, and never fasted. Almost everyone involved in the 9/11 conspiracy was stuck between the West and Islam. On Sept. 10, 2001, Mohammad Atta checked out of his hotel in Boston, rented a car, and drove with one of his co-conspirators, Abdul Aziz al-Omari, to Portland, Maine, where they shopped at Walmart and ate at Pizza Hut. No one knows why. Like salesmen in town on business, the Saudis left in Boston tried to call for prostitutes but didn’t end up hiring any because the prices were too high. Al Qaeda’s ideology was Islamist, but its techniques and ideas were Western.
After the 1993 attack, the symbolism of the World Trade Center took on a significance far beyond itself. Various dreams of its explosion scattered like a billion dark seeds over the global soil. “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade,” Biggie Smalls rapped. Because it had survived, the center became a point of pride for U.S. counterterrorism officials. After his capture, when Yousef was transferred on an FBI helicopter to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan for trial, the SWAT team took off his blindfold as they were flying down the Hudson River. “You see, it’s still standing,” one SWAT member said, indicating the World Trade Center.
“It wouldn’t be if we had had more money,” Yousef answered, shrugging.
In September 2000, New York’s Joint Terrorism Task Force had its 20th anniversary party in the Windows on the World banquet room. For al Qaeda, and for Islamist terrorism generally, Yousef’s career opened more than a possible target; it revealed the tantalizing possibilities of ambition against ambition, the scope of terrorist acts that matched the scale of the targets. This blaze of originality found fulfillment through two much duller men: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was Yousef’s maternal uncle, and bin Laden.
Mohammed had a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and had lived in the Philippines, Bosnia, and Qatar. He had traveled widely and conceived of the rejection of modernity as a calamity of the sky. Planes, like skyscrapers, were miraculous, inhuman, unnatural, and an affront to tradition itself and to the traditions of any people or creed—both tool of and symbol for the radical decentering of modern life. Originally, Mohammed imagined a version of his earlier Bojinka plot, in which he wanted to take 10 planes, one commandeered by himself, to the United States and make “a speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all of the women and children passengers.” Yousef’s strike on the World Trade Center altered his ideas.
Sometime in the middle of 1996, Mohammed met with bin Laden at Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan, and brought a portfolio of schemes, most of which involved a combination of planes and U.S. targets. For two years, Mohammed and bin Laden worked through the conspiracy in all its grand detail. These negotiations were similar in scope to those between a director and a producer: a compromise between the grandiosity of vision and the certainty of accomplishment. Bin Laden became the biggest celebrity after 9/11, but his prominence had little to do with his real role in the attack, being neither instigator nor creator nor performer. The audiences needed a supervillain, an evil genius. Somebody’s face had to be on the firing range targets. A face had to be on the urinal cakes.
Atta was simply an executor and had no role in the imagination of 9/11. His face suited the blankness of the act, though. His roommates in Hamburg recalled that he found the ordinary conversation of crowds unbearable: “Chaos, chaos,” he muttered at a screening of The Jungle Book as the crowd chatted before the show. For his meals, he would take whole boiled potatoes, skin them, smash the potatoes into a mound, and then for a week consume the cold potatoes, leaving the fork in the mound when he put the mess back in the refrigerator. The only trait that anyone recalled about Atta was that he was organized and punctual. Yet he left the Comfort Inn in Portland at 5:33 a.m. for a 6 o’clock flight and made it through security just 15 minutes before takeoff. He nearly missed the appointment for his own death. Stage fright.
From the moment the first plane hit the first tower, the level of recorded information about 9/11, as an event, was unprecedented. Those closest to the event itself were, in a sense, those most removed from its meaning—distance being one of the defining attributes of informational guerrilla war. In the case of 9/11, the people who knew what was going on with the most clarity were those living farthest from the event itself. Bin Laden, in the mountains of Afghanistan, wanted to watch the scenario unfolding live. Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, his chief video technician, couldn’t manage a strong enough signal. They listened on the radio instead, to the BBC’s Arabic service, with some 50 of bin Laden’s men.
The heroism of the first responders was that they went into the catastrophe with all that they did not understand. “I think the entire world knew more than we did,” Jules Naudet claimed in his 2002 documentary, 9/11, following New York City firemen on the day of the attack. “We didn’t have a clue what was going on outside our lobby.” The tower itself was a meaningless eye in a hurricane of meaning. The most extraordinary scene in the whole of 9/11 is the firemen arriving at the tower and opening an elevator. The people inside, escaping, look annoyed. For everyone else, the world had changed. For them, it was still an ordinary day full of ordinary bullshit, such as being stuck in elevators.
The fact that 9/11 was a media event was even clear to those in the towers at the time. Stephen Tompsett, a computer scientist attending the Risk Waters conference at the Windows on the World restaurant, emailed his wife, Dorry, from his Blackberry: “Watch CNN. Need updates.” Even to those in the towers when the planes hit, what mattered was on television. Greg Trevor, in the public relations office on the 68th floor, saw fire and glass tumbling outside the window. When his phone rang, he picked it up.
“Hi, I’m with NBC national news,” the voice said. “If you could hold on for about five minutes, we’re going to put you on for a live phone interview.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t. We’re evacuating the building.”
“But this will only take a minute.”
“I’m sorry, you don’t understand. We’re leaving the building right now.”
“But, but, this is NBC national news.” Didn’t he understand? This was no affiliate. This was network.
By 8:51 a.m., Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show declared: “We wanna go live right now and show you a picture of the World Trade Center.” The second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03. That day, cable news achieved its fulfillment as a format, mimicking traumatic memory. The clip rolled over and over. A smoking tower. A plane flying into a tower. The clip rolled over and over, with new clips added, fantasies spiraling from fantasies, commentaries piling up, voices crashing into voices. Television lurched into collective mind, creating the event by playing and replaying, working and reworking, the moving image.
The manager of a Duane Reade drugstore just north of the World Trade Center said on the day of the attack: “The only thing I sold today was cameras. Within an hour of the first initial hit, we sold 60 to 100 cameras.” Rather than hit the location of mass media—midtown Manhattan—the 9/11 attackers chose to strike within viewing distance. A terrorist act without spectators is meaningless. Its triumph is in its recognition, and, even more, the size of its triumph is the size of its recognition. Recognition requires a slight distance.
The view was worth more than any public statement: the sweeping cords of the Brooklyn Bridge, the icon of American will and know-how, the achievement of the once impossible, a bridge more than a mile long, the beginning of American greatness, containing in its history all the strangeness of America, ending in catastrophe inveigled in desolation.
Then, from the top of the tower, in imperfect focus because of the range, the grainy image of a man tumbling through the air, leaping into death, discontinuous, twisted, senseless, angelic, tormented. No one could fathom him.
The towers fell, and a great white spume poured through the city, swallowing the faces, covering all the cameras in an omnivorous white fade. The screens went blank.
Diathetical warfare is a struggle for meaning. In the case of 9/11, that struggle began instantly, and it continues to this day. The terrorists manufactured, as they intended, a spectacle of interrelated images. These were created not just by traditional media but also by individuals sharing media over the internet. In 2001, the majority of Americans didn’t have the internet, and it worked by dial-up connection. Most press organizations had just opened digital venues. Nonetheless, 9/11 revealed the new media in all its world-consuming power: instantaneous communication as a basic fact of life. The first critical reaction to 9/11 took place on United Airlines Flight 93. Its passengers were the first Americans to grasp that terrorism itself had changed, that the strategy of simply waiting quietly for others to negotiate was no longer available. “I know we’re all going to die,” one passenger, Thomas Burnett, told his wife. “There’s three of us who are going to do something about it.” Todd Beamer famously declared, “Let’s roll,” before he died living up to its meaning.
The misinterpretation of 9/11 began before the smoke had cleared. At Booker Elementary School, President George W. Bush, informed of the catastrophe, continued to read The Pet Goat like a boy waiting to be told what to do. His press secretary, Ari Fleischer, held up a sign in big block letters so that the press wouldn’t notice: “Don’t say anything yet.” Bush read along, the students slowly enunciating each word: “A girl got a pet goat.” His flummoxed face was defeat itself. “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” he told the press later, using the one word he could not afford to use. Then he turned bin Laden into an outlaw from the movies: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’” Bush and bin Laden were raised on the same shows. Bin Laden’s favorite show as a boy was Fury—the story of an orphan child who is the only one who can ride a wild stallion and who saves guest stars from trouble episode after episode. What could be better for him than to be as beautiful and free as an Old West outlaw wanted dead or alive? Did he not dream of being an untamable thing?
But it would be foolish to blame America’s diathetical defeat on Bush’s casual incompetence or bin Laden’s narrative instinct. Diathetical warfare uses the collective storytelling system against its creators. That’s what makes it so hard even to perceive. The goals of diathetics remain the goals of guerrilla warfare. The first aim is to provoke a massive overreaction. The larger goal is to reorient the behavior of the enemy, to alter the mindset to a state of despair and counterproductive reaction.
The massive overreaction was inevitable given the brute size and scope of the media and the collective unfamiliarity with its effects. Perspective becomes impossible in an environment of media saturation, or, rather, perspective is irrelevant—9/11 could not be just another act of war any more than the O.J. Simpson trial could be just another case. Distortion is at the heart of the disaster. In 2001, heart disease killed 700,142 Americans, accidents killed 101,537, and influenza killed 62,034. Sugar is vastly more dangerous to public safety than terrorism. In hindsight, 9/11 was not the most important historical event that year. In a hundred years, 2001 will be remembered for the launch of the 3G network in Japan and the entrance of China in the World Trade Organization—the advent of an instant global communications network and nascent Chinese power were both events with much more long-term consequences than what we call 9/11. Even to mention these facts seems distasteful, as if I’m missing the point. That size of meaning is the core victory of the diathetic effect. “Everything changed on 9/11” is the one thing everyone can agree on. A victory for the United States would have been for nothing to have changed.
Diathetics works. For the cost of the lives of 19 terrorists, al Qaeda sparked the global war on terrorism, with its subsequent $2.1 trillion cost and the loss of thousands of American lives. More importantly, they changed the way America thought of itself and the way the world thought of America. They made powerful people believe that the war against Islamist terrorism, a technologically incompetent fringe hiding in caves in the most remote locations in the world, presented a threat comparable to the fascist war machines of World War II. They convinced America that the only way to protect itself from this threat was to suspend civil liberties. Seventeen years later, America is stumbling back from the Middle East, believed by its own people and by the rest of the world to be a defeated occupier. The Taliban is still a force in Afghanistan. The central proposition of radical Islamist movements since Jamal al-Din al-Afghani—that Islam was anti-modernity—was proved to everyone’s satisfaction. The consequences of these changes in mindset were vast, elaborating themselves in ways that would have been inconceivable to bin Laden or to anyone else.
Why did America tell itself such a disastrous story about 9/11?
At the core of the failure was American exceptionalism, the assumption, which in my experience no American escapes entirely, that what happens in the United States matters more than what happens elsewhere. American exceptionalism is a form of political myopia, making perspective nearly impossible, even among the most educated.
The legacy of World War II was also decisive. The military narrative of the liberation of Europe was less important than the story of the reconstruction—America’s overwhelming might underpinning a liberal order. The Bush administration dreamed of a war of liberation, a war against fascism, a war to build liberal democracy, just the kind of war their fathers had waged. The neoconservative fantasies were plugged into images borrowed from documentaries of Europe from their childhoods. From that fantasy, they were able to conjure whatever arguments were needed, even though the struggle against al Qaeda was not even against a state, never mind a system of government.
The concentration of energy that drew itself around 9/11 emerged from so many more deeply rooted American narratives, too: the glorification of war in and of itself, the need for redemption from Vietnam, cop shows and blockbusters and the single-minded structure of their storytelling—good guys kill bad guys. As the former CIA agent Amaryllis Fox put it in her viral video: “You are the empire, and we are Luke and Han.” Straight racism and simple xenophobia contributed, too.
Notice that some of these narratives are shallow and ignorant and some of them are real and substantial. Some belong to the educated elite. Some are lowest common denominators. Some are fictions; some aren’t. None of those distinctions matter—diathetical warfare preys on the whole of a collective mythology, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. When Bush said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”—a perfect statement from al Qaeda’s point of view—the phrasing emerged out of movies he had seen and books he had read and conversations he had heard.
The museum commemorating the events of 9/11 is a more durable failure: It looks like a Holocaust memorial, which is exactly what Ramzi Yousef intended. The face of Mohammad Atta is nowhere; therefore it is everywhere. A quote from Virgil’s Aeneid—“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”—has been inscribed on the wall. The dreams of the terrorists are fulfilled: Their victims have given them entry into history.
To this day, the border guards at John F. Kennedy International Airport face all day, every day, a sign that calls for them to remember 9/11. Nothing could define U.S. diathetical defeat more completely.
Walmart sold 116,000 flags on 9/11. In Iraq, key chains appeared with pictures of the Twin Towers crumbling soon after. A friend of mine returned from Iraq with a poster of bin Laden riding a unicorn with a Kalashnikov rifle in each hand. That poster, not the position U.S. forces hold in the Baluchistan hills, is the reason that victory is impossible in Afghanistan.
9/11 exposed, more than any other event, the fundamental vulnerability of the United States, which was not at its borders but within its culture. The vulnerability lies within the greatest glory of American life, its explosive variety of expression, its sanctity for the freedom of the press, its movies and debates and sermons and songs and advertising, its bottomless need for drama, its constant invention and reinvention of itself. The conditions that made that vulnerability possible have only intensified over the past 17 years. The fracturing of media, the expansion of the scope of information, the role of screens in our lives—these have all increased exponentially. The rise of social media and the smartphone means that the diathetical battlefield is more dominant than ever.
The biggest vulnerability the United States faces in the diathetical struggle is that it refuses to recognize its vulnerability. The effects of social media have become apparent, but the U.S. government, the media, and the tech sector have shown exactly no will to defend themselves from the consequences. Controlling social media is a matter of national security. Those in power in the United States are simply too old to see it. That control will have to be in the hands of elected officials. The creators of the vast networks along which guerrilla informational war has been waged have shown, over and over again, that they possess no loyalties beyond their financial interests. There are few patriots in Silicon Valley, at least insofar as patriotism conflicts with self-interest. Values are not scalable.
Meanwhile, it is inevitable that other countries will engage in their own cultural operations against the United States. The logic is impeccable: Why attack U.S. soldiers and diplomats if you can attack the State Department? Why attack the State Department if you can help elect a president who won’t bother to hire anyone at the State Department? Eventually countries friendly to the United States will have to participate. If they don’t, only America’s enemies will. Already, in its tariff war, Canada has targeted individual districts on the basis of their political representatives. Why not start using social media to exert the same pressure? If U.S. opinion, and hence U.S. power, is for sale and cheaply, Canada will have to buy. The behavior of the United States is simply too integral to its national interests. Why wouldn’t anyone do the same?
Diathetical warfare is the battle for hearts and minds, not other people’s but our own. The only real defense against guerrilla informational war is clarity, the rarest and most precious of victories. That struggle involves humility and self-awareness—commodities perpetually in short supply and in deteriorating condition. The campaign for clarity requires more strength of purpose, more perseverance, more intelligence than bombing. No wonder it is so rarely undertaken.