Who's Who in the Terror War

Who's Who in the Terror War

Who's Who in the Terror War

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 20 2001 3:00 AM

Who's Who in the Terror War

The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have scrambled the geopolitical order. Two decades ago, the United States helped Muslim fighters defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Now, Russia and ex-Soviet republics may help us defeat Muslim fighters in Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and India are taking our side. The United States finds itself in the same camp as Iran, Libya, and even China.

Why has the world turned upside down?

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Here's a who's who of the countries in the terror war: which side they're on and why, and whether they're likely to endorse any American military campaign.

Advertisement

Click on a country to read about it. Or scroll down to see all the entries, arranged alphabetically by nation.

115000_115764_010919_afghanmap_final

Afghanistan
The probable target of any American military action, Afghanistan has been at war for more than 20 years. A coalition of U.S.-funded Islamic fighters repulsed the Soviet invasion in the '80s. (Read more about Russia and Afghanistan.) About five years ago the Taliban, an extremely repressive, extremely conservative group of Muslim students, conquered most of the country. The Taliban subscribe to a very militant strain of Wahabbi Sunni Islam that favors jihad against infidels.

Since 1996, the Taliban have sheltered Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist financier suspected in the U.S. attacks. Bin Laden's al-Qaida organization operates training camps in Afghanistan. Bin Laden shares the Taliban's extremist views and is linked by marriage to the Taliban's supreme leader. He has also given the Taliban millions of dollars. The Taliban have refused to hand over Bin Laden but said they might if it were proved that he orchestrated the American attacks.

Most of the world, including most of the Muslim world, has refused to recognize the Taliban and condemned its human rights violations. But it has maintained diplomatic relations with a few countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

115000_115855_top_icon
Advertisement

The Northern Alliance, a small rebel movement, continues to hold about 10 percent of Afghanistan. It is composed largely of Shiite Muslims who fear the Taliban's ferocious Sunnism. The Northern Alliance's capable leader Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated last week, probably by the Taliban. 

115000_115855_top_icon

Bosnia
From 1992 to 1995, hundreds of veterans of the Afghan war fought for the Bosnian Muslims in the Yugoslav civil war. Bin Laden supported these fighters, who were feared by Croat and Serb opponents.

115000_115855_top_icon

Chechnya
The renegade Muslim province has been at war with Russia for more than five years. Many Chechen fighters, who tend to be quite religious, trained at Bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. Russia has sympathized with America's planned strikes against Bin Laden because it hopes to undermine the Chechen resistance and legitimize its brutal war.

China
China is a peculiar case. Muslim Uighur separatists have conducted a bombing campaign in China's western Xinjiang region, prompting a brutal Chinese crackdown. Bin Laden trained some of these Uighur rebels in his Afghanistan camps.

115000_115855_top_icon
Advertisement

But China, which shares a small border with Afghanistan, has recently pursued economic and diplomatic ties with the Taliban. It hopes that by placating the Taliban it can more easily quash internal Muslim dissent. (It's also an economic opportunity to build dams and phone networks.) China, increasingly anti-American, detests the prospect of American military activity in what it considers its sphere of influence. So while China has no fondness for Bin Laden and Islamic militancy, it would likely oppose almost any American military action in Afghanistan. China has said that any military campaign against terrorism should be multilateral and run through the United Nations.

Egypt
Egypt is in an awkward spot. It has a relatively moderate secular government but a population that is increasingly sympathetic to extreme Islamism. Bin Laden has financed and trained Egyptians who hope to topple the government and establish Islamic rule. (Bin Laden's top aide, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian.) The Egyptian government has suppressed Islamic militants but not to such an extent as to risk out-and-out rebellion.

115000_115855_top_icon

Egypt, with traditionally cordial ties to the United States, is also increasingly irritated by American support for Israel during the current intifada. Egypt is likely to back American strikes against terrorist cells, but it probably couldn't support any military action outside Afghanistan. And it might sour on American policy if the Israeli- Palestinian conflict worsens.

The European Union
The EU shares the American distaste for Bin Laden, but it may not be so keen on military strikes in Afghanistan. Bin Laden-affiliated cells operate throughout Europe, and European cops occasionally bust them. (Early this year they arrested some men who may have been plotting to fly an explosives-filled plane into the Genoa G8 summit.)

115000_115855_top_icon
Advertisement

Germany, which has a huge Muslim population, estimates that more than 3,000 Muslim militants are operating within its borders. Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, an exceptionally violent Bin Laden-backed Islamic guerrilla organization, has conducted several bombings in France during recent years. Even so, several European states, including France and Germany, seem increasingly hesitant about a unilateral American military operation.

115000_115855_top_icon

India
India, in an effort to outplay Pakistan, immediately offered the United States use of its military bases. India has been warring with Pakistan for years over Kashmir. Recently, Pakistan has sent men trained by Bin Laden and the Taliban into the battle. These "Harkat ul-Ansar" fighters have made enormous trouble for India. India would like to do anything it can to undermine Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And it would like to guarantee U.S. sympathies for its struggle against Pakistan.

115000_115855_top_icon

Iran
Like Afghanistan, Iran is a Muslim theocracy that has backed terrorist groups. But Shiite Iran fears and abhors the radical Sunnism of the Taliban. There is some evidence that Iranian officials met with Bin Laden in the early '90s, but the meetings didn't seem to lead anywhere. Iran condemned the attacks, but it remains so anti-American that it probably would not cooperate with a U.S. military mission against Afghanistan.

115000_115855_top_icon

Iraq
Saddam Hussein's secular government frowns on Islamic militancy. Iraq has not been linked to Bin Laden or his Taliban allies. Still, they share an intense hatred of the United States, and analysts don't rule out the possibility of Hussein cooperating with Bin Laden.

115000_115855_top_icon
Advertisement

Israel
Israel, unsurprisingly, has offered the United States unequivocal support. Israelis seem to be taking a gloomy satisfaction that the United States now understands what suicidal terrorism means. Israelis also hope that that the attacks will intensify American support for Israel during the current intifada. Even so, Israel has just agreed to a truce in the conflict, perhaps as a favor to the United States. Suppressing the conflict in Israel will make it easier for moderate Arab states to endorse American military action. (American support for Israel is one of the reasons that Bin Laden and his militant comrades so despise the United States.) Read about the Palestinians.

115000_115855_top_icon

Jordan
This moderate Arab monarchy has been a target of Bin Laden's organization because of its support for the peace process in Israel, close alliance with the United States, and general secularism. Al-Qaida operatives tried to assassinate the Jordanian crown prince several years ago. The Jordanian police have rooted out Bin Laden cells and foiled a scheme to murder American tourists during millennium celebrations. Still, some Jordanian clerics have endorsed Bin Laden's fatwas, and he remains very popular among Jordanians. Jordan also has to cope with a huge Palestinian population increasingly radicalized by the current intifada. Jordan can't afford to seem a U.S. puppet or Israeli apologist.

115000_115855_top_icon

Kosovo-Albania
Bin Laden backed Muslim fighters in Kosovo, and al-Qaida may have cells in Albania. Funds from Muslim charities in Albania may have been siphoned off for al-Qaida. A Bin Laden-connected plan to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Albania was aborted.

115000_115855_top_icon

Libya
Col. Muammar Qaddafi has long considered Bin Laden an enemy. Bin Laden has enraged Qaddafi by training and funding Libyan Islamic guerrillas who seek to overthrow the colonel's regime. But though Libya has condemned the World Trade Center bombing, it probably wouldn't endorse American military assaults.

Advertisement

Pakistan
Pakistan is in a very precarious position. The military government has offered the United States cooperation in strikes against Bin Laden. But it doesn't dare offer too much, because militant Islam is incredibly popular in Pakistan. It was Pakistan's hard-core religious schools (madrasahs) that trained the Taliban, and conservative clerics are pressuring Pakistan to adopt Taliban-style government.

The government has so far tried to distract or buy off the radical Islamists. Pakistan has supported the Taliban government in order to mollify its zealots. Pakistan has also accepted Taliban/Bin Laden assistance for its war against India. Bin Laden trained some of the Harkat ul-Ansar, the Pakistani irregulars who are fighting in Kashmir.

115000_115855_top_icon

Even so, the Pakistani government is trying to accommodate the United States. The generals hope that the United States will lift the sanctions imposed after Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998. They also want to make sure the United States does not decide to take India's side.

Russia
Russia hates Bin Laden as much as the United States does. He helped defeat them in the Afghan war. He funds and trains the Chechen rebels who have so harried and embarrassed the Russian army.

Russia and the United States have cooperated recently in efforts against Islamic terror. There are reports that a couple of years ago Russia even offered the United States access to bases in Tajikistan for an operation to snatch Bin Laden. Russia generally favors some American action against Bin Laden for two reasons: 1) It would eliminate a source of support for the Chechen rebels and; 2) it would suppress American criticism of the Chechen war. If the United States is making war on Islamic militants, then Russia's brutality may seem less awful.

115000_115855_top_icon

Still, Russia is ambivalent. It knows from bloody experience the difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan. And, like China, Russia worries about the United States sending troops into its sphere of influence. The Russians are so far cooperating with the United States, not objecting yesterday when we based planes in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two ex-Soviet Republics that border Afghanistan. But they are not likely to favor a significant, long-term American presence in the neighborhood.

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is the root of the Taliban's theologically conservative Wahabbism, and Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that recognized the Taliban government.

Still, the Saudi Arabian government opposes Bin Laden. It exiled and stripped him of his citizenship. Bin Laden, in turn, has constantly inveighed against the Saudi government. He considers its decision to invite American troops during the Gulf War and then allow them to stay to be the greatest possible insult to Islam. It desecrates the holy land to allow infidels to live there. As a result, Bin Laden reportedly sponsored bombings of U.S. military facilities in 1995 and 1996 and also endorsed radical Islamic resistance to the Saudi monarchy.

115000_115855_top_icon

The Saudi leaders are in a tricky spot. They value U.S. military and diplomatic support but can't risk a too-close alliance. The Saudis are also increasingly irritated by Israel's suppression of the Palestinian revolt.

115000_115855_top_icon

Sudan
Bin Laden was based here from 1991 to 1996. He was closely allied with the Islamic government, but it eventually expelled him under intense U.S. pressure.

115000_115855_top_icon

Syria
Syria has allowed Islamic militant groups to operate in Lebanon against Israel. But its secular government may be suspect in the eyes of radical Islamists such as Bin Laden. Syria deplored the World Trade Center attack but is unlikely to support significant U.S. military operations in the Muslim world.

115000_115855_top_icon

Tajikistan
This former Soviet republic has been plagued by Islamic rebels trained in Afghanistan by Bin Laden. It shares a huge border with Afghanistan and was a staging ground for the Soviet war there. Russia still effectively controls Tajik defenses. It is allowing American planes to operate from Tajik bases.

115000_115855_top_icon

Turkmenistan
This former Soviet republic borders Afghanistan. Russia exerts enormous control over its military, and may permit a limited U.S. presence there. Unlike Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it does not have a Bin Laden/Taliban-backed Islamic rebellion.

115000_115855_top_icon

Uzbekistan
Like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan was a staging ground for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has been struggling with Taliban-allied Islamic rebels who want to carve out an independent state. Uzbekistan is permitting U.S. planes to operate from its bases.

West Bank/Gaza Strip
Palestinians have traditionally been fairly secular Muslims, but militant religious groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been gaining popularity among young Palestinians. (These groups conduct most of the suicide bombings against Israel.) Members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad may have trained in Bin Laden's camps.

115000_115855_top_icon

While popular support for Bin Laden is apparently strong among Palestinians, Yasser Arafat has been careful to condemn the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks as forcefully as possible. It seems likely that the attacks on the United States will weaken American support for the Palestinians and make the United States more sympathetic to Israel's crackdowns in the West Bank and Gaza. 

115000_115855_top_icon

Yemen
Bin Laden's family originally comes from Yemen. He has trained Yemeni Muslims who oppose the current regime. The USS Cole was bombed in Yemen, by either Bin Laden operatives or Bin Laden supporters.

115000_115855_top_icon

The rest of the world
Bin Laden's al-Qaida has trained militants who are fomenting Islamic rebellions in Algeria, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Eritrea, Tunisia, and Somalia, among other countries.