SPECPOL 2001 Topic 1 Issue Briefing

Topic 1 – The Question of Islamic Extremism and Terrorism: how should the UN react, following the September 11 attacks?

Following the deadly attacks on 9/11 the world was unprepared for what was to happen next. It was the first major terrorist attack on a civilised western nation in modern memory and understanding how and why it happened is important. We need to look back at what led to the creation of the terrorist group known as Al Qaeda. This group, with strong ties to Afghanistan and the Taliban, can only be understood by considering the history of Afghanistan. 

In 1979 Afghanistan was living under the presidential dictatorship of Mohammed Daoud Khan. His increasing political repression as well as the stagnant state of the Afghan economy led many to become disenfranchised, and disenchanted with his regime. A group of left wing politicians started to coalesce to form the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Eventually on the 27th of April 1979 the old government was overthrown in a coup d’etat which killed Mohammed Daoud Khan and his family and installed a new communist one party state in its wake. But plagued by infighting and unpopular with the rural peasants due to its secular policies, the new regime quickly started to lose popularity with the nation and by the end of 1979 the Soviet Union was forced to intervene in order to save the failing Marxist regime. 

The next decade saw Afghanistan torn in a multi way civil war between the government and guerilla forces that saw thousands die, many of them civilians. Despite success on the battlefield, the Soviet Union achieved only pyrrhic victories, and by 1989 the USSR found it prudent to withdraw. Without the support of Moscow, it was not a question of but when the regime would fall: and by 1992, despite the government’s unexpected initial military successes, such as the Battle of Jalalabad, that question had been answered. 

The UN created a new interim government called the Islamic State of Afghanistan which would hopefully be a stepping board towards a true popular government to administer the country. However this was not to be; united only in their hatred of the old order, the rebel groups soon succumbed to the entropy of victory and 1993 the country had descended back into anarchy. 

It was from these ashes that a new group would emerge: the Taliban. An extremely religious rebel group based in the south of the country, they took advantage of the chaos and by 1996 dominated it, becoming the de facto government despite the fact that the UN continued to recognise the Islamic State of Afghanistan. 

Al Qaeda also trace their roots back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Initially conceived as a resistance group, they soon expanded their vision and their raison d’etre became to protect all Muslim countries from foreign powers, whether Soviet or American. Funded by a prominent Saudi millionaire known as Osama Bin Laden, the group became important in helping the rebels topple the Communist regime. However Osama Bin Laden came into conflict with the Saudi Royal Family after they accepted help from the US and its Allies in the First Gulf War. This disagreement became so strong that Bin Laden’s Saudi assets were frozen and the group was forced to relocate to Sudan in 1992 and continue their work there. 

Despite finding some success, political pressure from Egypt as well as further disagreement with the Saudi Royal Family forced the group to relocate again in 1996, back to their original home, Afghanistan. The country had by this point been overrun by the Taliban and the two groups found each other very useful. Al Qaeda found the Taliban very helpful as they were allowed to exist and grow unimpeded. Meanwhile the Taliban found Al Qaeda very useful for training their soldiers. By 2001 Osama Bin Laden felt that the group had become strong enough and due to the continued interference of America in Middle Eastern affairs, decided to launch his infamous attack on the Twin Towers. Now the countries assembled must decide what to do and how to respond to the crisis as hand.

Major Stakeholders:

United States and her allies: For obvious reasons the US is heavily involved and interested in the UN’s response to the terror attacks. It sees this as a personal humiliation and seeks to restore its dignity and prestige on the world stage as well as send the message that any attacks on itself will be met with a serious response. On a more practical level, these attacks threaten to destabilize the fragile balance of power in the Middle East, which could lead to issues of America being able to obtain resources such as oil. It’s clear that America seeks to punish those responsible for the attacks and will work hard towards this end.

Saudi Arabia:  Saudi Arabia has a mixed approach to the situation. She seeks to stop any terrorist group from spreading but also sees any further intervention in the Middle East as a threat to her interests and goals. It is also important to consider that many of Al Qadea’s top leaders are of Saudi origin and despite the monarchy having revoked many of their citizenships, there is a sense that Saudi Arabia seeks to find a peaceful solution rather than initiating a full scale war.

Afghanistan: Afghanistan, or at least the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the interim government set up by the UN has a clear interest in removing the Taliban and retaking the country is nominally governs over. It seeks to have its position as the official government of Afghanistan reaffirmed and from there take back control of the country. However its interests also lie in ensuring that the country rebuilds effectively to stabilize the country.

Questions to consider

How should the UN respond? Should it intervene directly and invade the country or should it try and find a peaceful solution?

Who currently own Afghanistan? Despite the claims of the Islamic State of Afghanistan to ownership over the country, should the UN perhaps seek to create a country that is more representative of the population or work with the status quo?

Who is responsible for the attacks? Are the Taliban really to blame or should the UN solely focus on punishing Al Qaeda?

Further Reading

Reasons for the 9/11 attacks

Wikipedia – Taliban

UN protocol on anti terrorism

UN Designated Terror groups

BBC – Who are the Taliban?

History – Origins of Al Qaeda

Effects of 9/11 on the USA

Views on 9/11 from Muslium countries