What Books Are Helpful in Understanding 9-11?

History Q & A

Mr. Mattocks is a student at the University of Washington and an HNN intern.

Since September 2001 there have been a great many books written about the September 11th terrorist attacks. As of August 14, 02, Amazon.com has 672 books for sale concerning September 11. But some of the most helpful books for understanding what happened were in print long before 9-11, having been written in response to previous anti-American terrorist attacks.

The following books were all written before the 9/11 attacks, before the demand for 9/11-related books may have hastened the race to publish, and before the recent patriotic resurgence may have distorted objective analysis. Because of this they are in some ways an even better source of information than the books currently being published, and certainly more chilling to read, knowing as we do what subsequently occurred.


Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, published just six months prior to 9/11, provides a first-hand account of the Taliban's rise to power in the wake of interference in the region by foreign superpowers:

The Taliban's wounds are a constant reminder of 20 years of war, which has killed over 1.5 million people and devastated the country. The Soviet Union poured some US$5 billion a year into Afghanistan to subdue the Mujaheddin [Afghan resistance fighters] or a total of US$45 billion - and they lost. The US committed some four to five billion dollars between 1980 and 1992 in aid to the Mujaheddin. US funds were matched by Saudi Arabia and together with support from other European and Islamic countries, the Mujaheddin received a total of over US$10 billion. Most of this aid was in the form of lethal modern weaponry given to a simple agricultural people who used it with devastating results.

Prior to the war the Islamicists barely had a base in Afghan society, but with money and arms from the CIA pipeline and support from Pakistan, they built one and wielded tremendous clout. The traditionalists and the Islamicists fought each other mercilessly so that by 1994, the traditional leadership in Kandahar had virtually been eliminated, leaving the field free for the new wave of even more extreme Islamicists - the Taliban.


In Dollars For Terror: The United States and Islam, published in June 2000, Richard Labeviere explains how the U.S. support of the Saudi Arabian government, in exchange for oil, indirectly supports the Islamist movement and maintains a gross disparity of wealth in the region. This combination of an abject and impoverished underclass with state-financed fundamentalism creates a perfect opportunity for ideological exploitation by zealots such as Osama bin Laden:

The United States has given its unconditional support to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (one of the most reactionary regimes on the planet) since its foundation in 1932…

This historical bargain would prove to have many consequences: black gold for the security, survival and continuity of what is one of the most reactionary religious dynasties in the world and, moreover, guardian of the holy places of Islam.

Saudi Arabia plays the lead role in financing contemporary Islamist movements, within the Arab-Muslim world but also in Africa, Asia and Europe. In August 1996, an "influence" meeting was held in Madrid during which Riyadh endeavored to get a grip on the "Islamic centers" that were the beneficiaries of its largesse. Saudi Arabia finances this 'checkbook diplomacy' to buy legitimacy and peace while exerting its hegemony over Sunni Islam; only Shiite Iran seeks to dispute its control. Obsessed with this goal, upon which the survival of their dynasty depends, the Sauds have created a whole battery of powerful financial tools. Dar al-Mal al-Islami (DMI), the 'Islamic financial house,' is a kind of model. Other banks, innumerable foundations and "humanitarian organizations" ensure continuity between the checkbook and policy decisions, the most visible of which is Riyadh's unfailing support for the totalitarian regime of the Taliban.

Labeviere goes on to document how the "armed Islamism" which the U.S. helped to create, began to turn against the U.S. following the Gulf War, when American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia on large bases:

The sentence "In God We Trust," inscribed on the dollar bill - emblematic symbol of global capitalism - recalls that the lay founders of the American Republic were never shy to seek divine protection for the success of their companies. U.S. diplomacy is in the habit of using religious movements against Communism and any other obstacle to its hegemonic objectives.

After the collapse of the Soviet empire, this policy persisted without any major setback until the Gulf War. Mainly intended to safeguard the American oil supply, that police action caused a great trauma in the Arab-Muslim world. Armed Islamism then started to question the guidance of its protective father. The fatal bomb attack perpetrated right in the center of New York on February 26, 1993 [the first attempt to topple the World Trade Center towers], sounded the hour of truth. Other violent incidents would be targeted against the American military presence in Yemen, Somalia and Saudi Arabia.

The attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are part of the ongoing "blow-back" effect. Shortly after the Gulf War, armed Islamism turned against its principal creator who, in spite of all, did not give up his paternalistic reflex. Indeed, although in the uncomfortable position of the attacker attacked, the United States still continues unabated its policy of supporting the multifarious explosion of an ascendant Islamism, its terrorist excesses and its business networks that are extremely ramified (if not entirely melded into the circuits of the legal economy).


In Terror In the Mind Of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2000), Mark Juergensmeyer analyzes modern terrorism, comparing Islamic fundamentalist terrorists with other similarly violent terrorists. He examines in particular the motives of the unsuccessful 1993 attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. He identifies the principal reasons he thinks America is regarded by some as an enemy:

1)America is often a secondary enemy. In its role as trading partner and political ally, America has a vested interest in shoring up the stability of regimes around the world. This has often put the United States in the unhappy position of being a defender and promoter of secular governments regarded by their religious opponents as primary foes. Long before the [1993] bombing of the World Trade Center, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman expressed his disdain for the United States because of its role in propping up the Mubarak regime in Egypt. "America is behind all these un-Islamic governments," the Sheik explained, arguing that the purpose of American political and economic support was "to keep them strong" and to try to "defeat the Islamic movements."

2)A second reason America is regarded as an enemy is that both directly and indirectly it has supported modern culture. In a world where villagers in remote corners of the world increasingly have access to MTV, Hollywood movies, and the Internet, the images and values that have been projected globally have been American.

3)The third reason for the disdain of America is economic. Although most corporations that trade internationally are multinational, with personnel and legal ties to more than one country, many are based in the United States or have American associations. . . When Ayatollah Khomeini identified the "'satanic" forces that were out to destroy Islam, he included not only Jews but also the even "more satanic" Westerners--especially corporate leaders with "no religious belief" who saw Islam as "the major obstacle in the path of their materialistic ambitions and the chief threat to their political power."

4) What the ayatollah was thinking of when he prophesied a "black and dreadful future" for Islam was the global domination of American economy and culture. This fear of globalization is the fourth reason America is often targeted as an enemy.

Juergensmeyer closes his book with a chapter entitled "Healing Politics With Religion," ending a discussion of religiously-inspired terror with a seemingly paradoxical proposal for a religious renewal within popular culture. He suggests that a moderate amount of religion infused in modern life may be ameliorative to a world increasingly divided between either starkly secular or fundamentalist cultures.

This is one of history's ironies, that although religion has been used to justify violence, violence can also empower religion. Perhaps understandably, therefore, in the wake of secularism, and after years of waiting in history's wings, religion has made its reappearance as an ideology of social order in a dramatic fashion: violently. In time the violence will end, but the point will remain. Religion gives spirit to public life and provides a beacon for moral order. At the same time it needs the temper of rationality and fair play that Enlightenment values give to civil society. Thus religious violence cannot end until some accommodation can be forged between the two-some assertion of moderation in religion's passion, and some acknowledgement of religion in elevating the spiritual and moral values of public life. In a curious way, then, the cure for religious violence may ultimately lie in a renewed appreciation for religion itself.


In Jihad vs. McWorld (1995), Benjamin R. Barber focuses on the interaction between global culture and reactionary fundamentalism, arguing that both endanger democracy. Bobbit expands the simpler "clash of two opposing cultures" explanation for Jihadic violence, arguing that in some ways our own culture of globalization and excess is just as alien and harmful to democratic and civic institutions as are fundamentalist movements. These two extreme forces of globalism and tribalism feed off one another. To curb the Jihadic violence which feels threatened by a sterile globalization, we must attempt to bring democratic order up to the presently-anarchic international level.

McWorld in its most elemental negative form is a kind of animal greed--one that is achieved by an aggressive and irresistible energy. Jihad in its most elemental negative form is a kind of animal fear propelled by anxiety in the face of uncertainty and relieved by self-sacrificing zealotry--an escape out of history. Because history has been a history of individuation, acquisitiveness, secularization, aggressiveness, atomization, and immoralism it becomes in the eyes of Jihad's disciples the temporal chariot of wickedness, a carrier of corruption that, along with time itself, must be rejected. Moral preservationists, whether in America, Israel, Iran, or India, have no choice but to make war on the present to secure a future more like the past: depluralized, monocultured, unskepticized, reenchanted. Homogenous values by which women and men live orderly and simple lives were once nurtured under such conditions. Today, our lives have become pulp fiction and Pulp Fiction as novel, as movie, or as life promises no miracles. McWorld is meager fare for hungry moralists and shows only passing interest in the spirit. However outrageous the deeds associated with Jihad, the revolt the deeds manifest is reactive to changes that are themselves outrageous.

This survey of the moral topography of Jihad suggests that McWorld--the spiritual poverty of markets--may bear a portion of the blame for the excesses of the holy war against the modern; and that Jihad as a form of negation reveals Jihad as a form of affirmation. Jihad tends the soul that McWorld abjures and strives for the moral well-being that McWorld, busy with the consumer choices it mistakes for freedom, disdains. Jihad thus goes to war with McWorld and, because each worries the other will obstruct and ultimately thwart the realization of its ends, the war between them becomes a holy war.

In a 2001 introduction to Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber more explicitly articulates a possible solution to the global division between capitalism and fundamentalism: the globalization of democratic institutions.

Now neither Jihad nor McWorld is in itself novel. History ending in the triumph of science and reason or some monstrous perversion thereof (Mary Shelley's Doctor Frankenstein) has been the leitmotiv of every philosopher and poet who has regretted the Age of Reason since the Enlightenment. Yeats lamented "the center will not hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," and observers of Jihad today have little but historical detail to add. The Christian parable of the Fall and of the possibilities of redemption that it makes possible captures the eighteenth-century ambivalence--and our own--about past and future. I want, however, to do more than dress up the central paradox of human history in modern clothes. It is not Jihad and McWorld but the relationship between them that most interests me. For, squeezed between their opposing forces, the world has been sent spinning out of control. Can it be that what Jihad and McWorld have in common is anarchy: the absence of common will and that conscious and collective human control under the guidance of law we call democracy?

Domestically, most nation-states have struck the balance that is the meaning of democratic capitalism. Internationally, there is only a raging asymmetry that is the first and last cause of an anarchism in which terror flourishes and terrorists make their perverse arguments about death to young men and women who have lost hope in the possibilities of life.

This book depicts a war then between Jihad and McWorld that cannot be won. Only a struggle of democracy against not solely Jihad but also against McWorld can achieve a just victory for the planet. A just, diverse, democratic world will put commerce and consumerism back in their place and make space for civil society religion; it will combat the terrors of Jihad not only by making war on it but by creating a world in which the practice of religion is as secure as the practice of consumption and the defense of cultural values is not in tension with the defense of liberty but part of how liberty is defined (the true meaning of multiculturalism).

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More Comments:

Ann Cheers - 8/25/2006

David Ray Griffin's books

"The New Pearl Harbor" or
"The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions And Distortions"

Jeffrey Damon Younger - 12/31/2005

His list is more emblematic of radical left-wing anti-Americanism than real historical scholarship. The basic strategy of these writers is to present every global problem as the result of US culture. Since even an amateur historian can trace Islamic jihad back before the medieval period, laying the blame at the door of the US is preposterous on its face. That mere fact that most of these books lay blame shows that they cannot be take seriously as histories; hence they can only give a partisan, overtly Gallic view of anti-Western terrorism.

I would recommend " The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Authorized Edition)" by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.

"The Arab Mind" by Raphael Patai, which is now required reading for US military officers.

In particular, I would recommend "Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries" by Paul Fregosi. This book describes events that neo-liberals like Labeviere want to forget: the Muslim siege of Vienna; the Battle of Tours in France; and the US Marine Corps' victory over a para-national, Muslim terrorist group in 1809 and 1812 which led to our first power projection base in Majorca, Spain.

There is no justification for whitewashing American history, but likewise there is no excuse for painting it all black either. Read Mr. Maddox's list if you want a laugh or two, but don't expect much more than partisan, French journalism. You'll get precious little history.

Peter Smith - 10/1/2005

Good idea to find books published before 9/11.

But I have to recommend one book written (or spoken, then transcribed) immediately after 9-11 by Noam Chomsky.



The human being - 11/28/2003

Ah, the example that proves the point. That's what you've given us here "Muslim Soldier." It is unfortunate that your lack of correct grammer and spelling is only exceeded by your utter ignorance.

The Muslim Soldier - 9/17/2003

YO! Wake up people. Your talkin a lot of crap. All the so called terrorist attacks were blatenly made by Isreal, so that they could wipe out islam, the one and true religion. I'm not sayin that Judaism and Christianity are 'fake' religions, they were both at one time God's true commandments but as time went on the two reigions have been changed by humans, which were miss leading so God brought down the quran through Prophet Mohammed to human kind. This new religion, Islam, is the last and final religion. It is the fastest growing religion, which is a fact. Even if the terrorest attacks are true which they arn't. You don't look at the people and blame isalm. You don't judge a religion by the people, You look at islam it self. Anyway, i just don't want people to get islam all wrong. We have the similar belives to Judaism and Christianity but we don't follow the wrong path of drinking alcohol, gambling etc. Because we belive that this could seriously damage a persons life. If you want the true revealed read some books about islam and try to read the translated version of the quran. i give my word that if you do this your view on islam will change and you might even become a Muslim yourself. Thankyou for your time.

Gamal Saleh

Nathan - 2/14/2003

I enjoyed the book: 'To Afghanistan and Back' by Ted Rall. It was published in 2002 and tells of one reporters time spent in Afghanistan during the "War on Terrorism". It also gives lots of informative information about the events of September 11, 2001.

Daniel Mintz - 8/16/2002

Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky both have excellent books on 9/11.

Peter Sluglett - 8/14/2002

Mr Mattocks :

Although it's written after 9/11, I think it's also worth recommending John L. Esposito, Unholy War : Terror in the Name of Islam, Oxford UP 2002. Esposito (Georgetown) is better known for his rather cuddly approach to Islam and Muslims, i.e. that they are mostly jolly nice, a few bad apples etc., and he has previously been (in my view) rather over-sympathetic to militant Muslims. This short (c. 150 pp) book is rather more realistic and does a fair job of dealing with such questions as 'Why should middle class Palestinian kids become suicide bombers ?' Also, Chapter 2, Jihad and the struggle for Islam is a decent stab at a historical survey of 'Islamic politics' since the end of the 1920s (which, some readers may be surprised to learn, is when it starts).

Best wishes Peter Sluglett
Professor of Middle Eastern History
University of Utah, Salt Lake City