Gwynne Dyer claims to know what motivates terrorists

Lee Friday – July 11, 2017

On May 31st, journalist Gwynne Dyer wrote:

After every major terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists in a Western country, there follows a familiar debate about who is really to blame. One side trots out the weary old trope that the terrorists simply “hate our values”, and the other side claims it’s the fault of Western governments for sending their troops into Muslim countries. . . . But both sides in this argument are wrong.

According to Dyer’s theory, between the first Gulf War in 1990-91 and the events of 9/11, “the West did nothing much to enrage the Arab world.” During this time,

There were no major Western attacks on the Arab world . . . But there was violence in many Arab countries as Islamist revolutionaries, using terrorist tactics, tried to overthrow local kings and dictators. Up to 200,000 Arabs were killed in these bloody struggles between 1979 and 2000, but not one of the repressive regimes was overthrown. By the turn of the century it was clear terrorism against Arab regimes was not working. The Islamists needed a new strategy.

The Taliban’s rise to power as a result of their victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989 was an inspiration for Osama bin Laden, says Dyer.

Bin Laden realised that this could be a route to power for the Islamists of the Arab world as well: provoke the West to invade Muslim countries, lead the struggle against the Western occupation forces – and when the Western armies finally give up and go home (as they always do in the end) the Islamists will come to power.

So, we have three theories about the underlying motivation for terrorist attacks on Western countries.

(1) They hate our values – Dyer dismisses this theory.

(2) Western foreign policies, Western troops in Muslim countries –  Dyer dismisses this theory.

(3) Provoke Western countries to invade Muslim countries, which ultimately brings the Islamists to power in the Arab World – this is Dyer’s theory.

Let’s briefly examine each of these theories.


Dyer dismisses this theory. I agree with him. As former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul wrote:

To those who say that the attackers are motivated by a hatred of Western liberalism or the moral degeneracy of American culture, Scheuer [Michael Scheuer, chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center in the late 1990s] points out that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini tried in vain for a decade to instigate an anti-Western jihad on exactly that basis. It went nowhere.[1]


Dyer dismisses this theory, but I do not.

In 2007, Scheuer said “About the only thing that can hold together the very loose coalition that Osama bin Laden has assembled is a common Muslim hatred for the impact of U.S. foreign policy. . . . They all agree they hate U.S. foreign policy. To the degree we change that policy in the interests of the United States, they become more and more focused on their local problems.”[2]

Philip Giraldi, another conservative and former counterterrorism expert with the CIA, adds that “anybody who knows anything about what’s been going on for the last ten years would realize that cause and effect are operating here – that, essentially, al Qaeda has an agenda which very specifically says what its grievances are. And its grievances are basically that ‘we’re over there.’” The simple fact is that “there [are] consequences for our presence in the Middle East, and if we seriously want to address the terrorism problem, we have to be serious about that issue.”[3]

In 2003, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia had long been a major al-Qaeda grievance.[4]

I am not an admirer of Paul Wolfowitz, or the CIA, and I am usually suspicious of expert opinions. However, the views expressed by Scheuer, Giraldi, and Wolfowitz appear to be self-evident. Saudi Arabia is well known for its human rights abuses, yet the Saudi monarchy has received considerable support from the U.S. government for many decades. Moreover, Arabs object to American occupation of the Land of the Two Holy Places.

Surely, Dyer is aware of all this. He notes the existence of “repressive regimes” in the Middle East, “Western military backing for Arab dictators”, as well as the unsuccessful efforts of Islamist revolutionaries to overthrow these dictators. I do not understand why he is unable to connect the final dot. I will assist him. Locals attempt to overthrow a repressive government – they fail because the government is supported by the powerful U.S. government – so the revolutionaries attack Americans on American soil, hoping this will force the U.S. government to withdraw its support for the repressive regimes. The reduction of Western military support often leads to a reduction of ‘terrorist’ attacks.

Between 1995 and 2004, the al Qaeda years, two-thirds of all attacks came from countries where the United States had troops stationed. While al Qaeda terrorists are twice as likely to hail from a country with a strong Wahhabist (radical Islamic) presence, they are ten times as likely to come from a country in which U.S. troops are stationed. Until the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq had never had a suicide terrorist attack in its entire history. Between 1982 and 1986, there were 41 suicide terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Once the U.S., France, and Israel withdrew their forces from Lebanon, there were no more attacks.[5]


This is Dyer’s theory. He says that “9/11 was intended to sucker the United States into playing the role of infidel invader.” Then, as his theory goes, the Islamists would “lead the struggle against the Western occupation forces – and when the Western armies finally give up and go home (as they always do in the end) the Islamists will come to power.”

Where are the facts to support Dyer’s theory? He seems to be offering his own theory by default when he dismisses the Western foreign policies theory by simply noting that between the first Gulf War in 1990-91 and the events of 9/11, “the West did nothing much to enrage the Arab world.” This statement lacks supporting evidence. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion. The Americans, and other Western countries, were guilty of many actions which enraged the Arab world during this time. The list is as long as my arm. I will provide two examples.

After the first Gulf War, the United States did not withdraw all of its troops from the region. Thousands of troops remained in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This enraged many Arabs.

This also enraged many Arabs:

. . . May 12, 1996, . . . Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN, explained to Lesley Stahl of CBS that 500,000 dead Iraqi children, killed by US sanctions, was morally justified to get Saddam. “We think the price is worth it,” were her exact words, words that were mostly unreported here but which rang out throughout the Arab world. She was then made Secretary of State.[6]

These facts support the Western foreign policies theory, not Dyer’s theory. Western intervention in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries was well established long before 9/11. Dyer doesn’t get it. I don’t know why.

Now, here is where things get a bit complicated. To be absolutely clear, when I dismiss Dyer’s theory, I am only dismissing it as the primary theory. Terrorists do not attack Western civilians in order to provoke Western governments to invade Muslim countries so that Islamists can eventually rise to power – unless the Western governments were previously intervening in the affairs of these Muslim countries. Dyer did not make this distinction in his article, and it is an important distinction.

With their superior air power and battlefield technology, the military arms of Western governments have killed and maimed countless innocent civilians in the Middle East. The Islamists cannot match this technology. But their ‘terrorist’ attacks in Western countries are indeed intended to provoke the West into a battle the Islamists feel they can win. As Eric Margolis wrote in December 2015,

. . . The objective of ISIS and other anti-western groups is not to kill Americans, Britons and French, as many foolishly believe, but to drive the western Great Powers out of their hold over the Mideast and Muslim world.

What we call “terrorism,” a mindless, empty term, is really blowback, a reaction from our meddling in the Mideast and South Asia.

All Muslim nations that have tried to stand up to western domination – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and most lately Yemen – have been smashed to pieces, usually by western air power. Nothing can withstand the might of the US Air Force and Navy. The skies of the Muslim world belong to US air power and its extension, Israel’s air force.

For example, US forces would have been long ago driven from Afghanistan had there not been 24/7 air cover by American warplanes ready to intervene on minutes notice. A look at the Afghan clinic at Kunduz shredded by a fearsome USAF AC-130H gunship shows the terrifying power of America’s air fleet – the modern equivalent of the British Empire’s Royal Navy.

. . . The only way that nations of the Muslim world could confront western forces was by close infantry tactics: fighting hand-to-hand where western air or land power could not prove decisive. Israel learned this hard lesson in its disastrous 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

Many Mideast militants regard western forces as weak and cowardly, as they rely almost entirely on air power and heavy artillery, fearing to fight “mano a mano.” They say: “ If we could only draw the western imperial forces deep into our countries and then attack them piecemeal.”

ISIS has precisely such a plan in mind. This is why it has staged such frightful provocations in Europe and the US. Osama bin Laden taught: “enmesh the imperial powers in a number of small, bloody wars. Wear them out and bankrupt them. The economy is the Achilles heel of western powers.”

Demagogic western leaders like Marine le Pen, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton who call for more attacks on the Muslim world are falling right into the trap laid by ISIS. ‘Onward Christian soldiers,” they cry, unaware of the dangerous desert sands that lie before them.


How would Canadians and Americans feel if the tables were turned? How would we feel if we were forced to live under a repressive government, unable to effect change because our government had the support of powerful foreign governments?

If we want to understand, and therefore resolve, the “terrorist threat”, we must be clear about cause and effect. The cause is Western intervention in the Middle East. The effect is “acts of terrorism” on Western soil. The intent here is not to excuse “acts of terrorism”, but to understand the motives. As Ron Paul wrote:

Looking for motive is not the same thing as making excuses; detectives always look for the motive behind crime, but no one thinks they are looking to excuse murder.[7]

Western political sanctions, and Western bombers have claimed far more innocent lives in the Middle East than Islamic militants have claimed in Western countries. Yet, depending on who the victims are, we describe the taking of innocent lives as either an act of terrorism, or collateral damage. We can rightly use the word terrorism to characterize the actions of both sides, because there can never be a morally justifiable reason for the taking of innocent lives.

Western imperialist powers claim to be spreading democracy in the Middle East. In reference to democracy, on July 16, 1814, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote:

“. . . Democracy will envy all, contend with all, endeavour to pull down all; and when by chance it happens to get the upper hand for a short time, it will be revengeful, bloody and cruel.”

The parents of 500,000 dead Iraqi children would likely agree with Adams.


[1] Ron Paul, The Revolution (Grand Central Publishing, 2008) p 17

[2] Ibid., p 18

[3] Ibid., pp 18 – 19

[4] Ibid., p 19

[5] Ibid., pp 20 – 21

[6] Article also printed in this book: Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. The Left, The Right, & The State (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008) p 303

[7] Ron Paul, The Revolution (Grand Central Publishing, 2008) p 15

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