Author: Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

During my tour of duty for the CIA in the early 1990’s, I received a senior officer from Washington on a mission to collect an important piece of evidence to help identify the culprits behind the bombing of Pan Am 103.

As we sat in a restaurant sipping a glass of wine, “Mike,” a veteran counterterrorist hand, enumerated the reasons why the investigation was among the highest priorities for CIA Headquarters. Mike’s eyes narrowed, as he recalled that the attack had killed one of our own. “Terrorism is a deeply personal business,” he sighed. “It’ll be around as long as there are people with scores to settle. Terrorists embarrass politicians. They are always painful for the victims and their families. But terrorism isn’t a strategic problem. It won’t affect our way of life. And it isn’t a threat to our national security.”

Perhaps that was true at the time, at least for the US. However, Al Qaeda took the fight to US soil in order to change the perception that they could not threaten our very existence. The 9/11 attacks shook the aura of US invincibility in the minds of many, conjuring up the image of an enemy knocking at the gates, and giving hope to Islamic militant extremists that a global jihad could one day topple the “new Rome.”

Throughout the 1990s, al Qaeda sought to provoke the United States into a war that would ultimately lead to the withdrawal of US military forces from the Islamic world. Islamic militants consider the elimination of American presence in the broader Middle East as a precondition to overthrowing so-called apostate regimes and bringing about Islamic fundamentalist rule. To this end, they launched an attack in 1993 to bring down the World Trade Center — but the attack was unsuccessful. Undaunted, al Qaeda launched attacks on two US Embassies in East Africa in 1998. This attack also misfired, killing scores of innocent Muslim bystanders, and failing to incite the US to war. So the group upped the ante in 2000 by attacking a US warship at port in Yemen. Once again, al Qaeda missed its mark. The USS Cole did not sink, and the sleeping US giant did not rise.

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

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