Trying to Understand
A Systemic Analysis of International Terrorism
by Fritjof Capra

October 5, 2001

Fritjof Capra (, physicist, systems theorist, and best-selling author, is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy (, which is dedicated to education for sustainable living.

 The horrific terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11 mark the end of an era — the end of over 200 years of invulnerability on our continent. We had heard fundamentalist rhetoric about “striking at the heart of America” for years, but we took it as empty threats. We did not recognize the emergence of a new weapon on the international stage against which we were defenseless — the despair-driven, desperate suicide bomber.1
 This new form of international terrorism exposes the dangerous fallacy of a national shield against ballistic missiles. Missile defense is of no use whatsoever when terrorists can turn commercial planes into missiles and their fuel tanks into bombs with the help of simple box cutters.

a systemic perspective

 There is no simple defense against international terrorism, because we live in a complex, globally interconnected world in which linear chains of cause and effect do not exist. To understand this world, we need to think systemically — in terms of relationships, connections, and context.
 Understanding international terrorism from a systemic perspective means understanding that its very nature derives from a series of political, economic, and technological problems that are all interconnected. This terrorism is not “mindless,” and it is not directed against our “freedom and democracy,” as our government wants us to believe.
 Terrorism is always a weapon of the politically disempowered and desperate who feel that they are unable to voice their grievances through conventional political processes. In order to combat them effectively, we need to clearly understand the terrorists’ frustration.2
 This does not mean that we should shrink from capturing the terrorists and bringing them to justice. Their crimes are abhorrent beyond words. But we must learn to distinguish between their criminal methods and fundamentalist ideologies on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the often legitimate grievances that drive them into committing such desperate and horrific acts. We cannot fight terrorism effectively without understanding its roots. In the words of Philip Wilcox, who served as US Ambassador at Large for Counterterrorism from 1994 to 1997,
The most important deficiency in U.S. counterterrorism policy has been the failure to address the root causes of terrorism. Indeed, there is a tendency to treat terrorism as pure evil in a vacuum, to say that changes in foreign policy intended to reduce it will only “reward” terrorists….

But the U.S. should, for its own self-protection, expand efforts to reduce the pathology of hatred before it mutates into even greater danger. Conditions that breed violence and terrorism can at least be moderated through efforts to resolve conflicts and through assistance for economic development, education, and population control.3

 Understanding the multiple and interdependent roots of terrorism will be the only way to reduce its impact and frequency, and thus to increase our long-term security. Indeed, we owe such a systemic analysis and corresponding action to the victims of the attacks of September 11, as British prime minister Tony Blair has eloquently stated:
[People] don’t want revenge. They want something better in memory of their loved ones. I believe their memorial can and should be greater than simply the punishment of the guilty. It is that out of the shadow of this evil should emerge lasting good: destruction of the machinery of terrorism wherever it is found; hope amongst all nations of a new beginning where we seek to resolve differences in a calm and ordered way; greater understanding between nations and between faiths; and above all justice and prosperity for the poor and dispossessed, so that people everywhere can see the chance of a better future through the hard work and creative power of the free citizen, not the violence and savagery of the fanatic.4

 A careful exploration of the roots of terrorism shows in particular that much of Islamic fundamentalism is related to the role of the United States in the Middle East and that extremist Islamic movements often arise in direct response to American policies. Of course, the United States is not the only power to blame. There is the insidious legacy of European colonialism; yet American policies since World War II have contributed significantly to the recent rise of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.5

inappropriateness of military strikes

 Understandably, the first reaction to the horrendous attacks on the United States is the desire to “strike back.” But responding to terrorism with violence, rather than dealing with the context from which it emerged, will continue to create more violence. We must recognize that military actions will not succeed in eliminating the rise of militant Islamic movements. On the contrary, they will result in the deaths of innocent Muslim civilians that will further fuel anti-American hatred.
 Retaliatory strikes against suspected terrorist targets trigger further retaliation from terrorists and  thus escalate the cycle of violence, as Israel’s experience has shown. Surgical strikes make sense only when there are military targets with heavy equipment, which the terrorist networks do not have. Moreover, such strikes are often based on faulty intelligence, which further exacerbates their negative effects. Indeed, whenever the United States has carried out military attacks on terrorist targets in recent years, the attacks have failed or backfired.6
 Since this terrorism is international, the response has to be international as well. The goals of the coalitions and cooperation within the international community cannot be limited to identifying and capturing the terrorists, as they currently are, but must be extended to addressing the underlying systemic problems. This will be the only way to marginalize the terrorists and strengthen our security in the long run.

America’s image in the world

 The terrorism we are concerned with is directed against the United States, and hence the attempt to understand its roots has to begin with the understanding of America’s image in the world. This image is multi-faceted. It includes many positive aspects of our society — such as individual liberty, cultural diversity, and economic opportunity — as well as the great enthusiasm for American technology, fashion, sports, and entertainment, especially among the world’s youth.
 On the other hand, the United States is seen by many as the driving force of a new form of global capitalism that is supported by military force and is often socially unjust and environmentally destructive. Indeed, the buildings attacked by the terrorists on September 11 were proud symbols of American economic power and military might.
 The new global capitalism, often referred to as “the new economy,” emerged during the last decade of the twentieth century. It is based on sophisticated information and communication technologies and is  structured around global networks of financial flows. In spite of great social and cultural diversity, today’s world is organized, for the first time in history, according to a common set of economic rules.7
 These rules are the so-called “free trade” rules that the World Trade Organization (WTO) imposes on its member states. In the mid-1990s this framework for economic globalization was hailed by corporate leaders and politicians as a new order that would benefit all nations, producing worldwide economic expansion whose wealth would “trickle down” to all. However, it soon became apparent to increasing numbers of grassroots activists, both in the United States and around the world, that the new economic rules established by the WTO were manifestly unsustainable and were producing a multitude of interconnected fatal consequences — a breakdown of democracy, more rapid and extensive deterioration of the environment, the spread of new diseases, a disastrous maldistribution of wealth, and increasing poverty and alienation around the world.8
 It is not difficult to see how these stark global inequities can bring forth desperate, marginalized people who express their hatred and frustration in terrorist suicide attacks. However, there is a nonviolent alternative. During the past years, a powerful worldwide coalition of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has emerged, which demands greater transparency in the establishment of market rules and independent reviews of the ensuing social and environmental consequences. More recently, this so-called “Seattle Coalition” has begun to propose a whole new set of trade policies that would profoundly change the global economy.9 After the tragic events of September 11, this work is more important than ever.

U.S. role in the Middle East

 To understand the political context of the  recent terrorist attacks, we need to look specifically at the U.S. role in the Middle East. The common view in this country is that we have assumed the role of peacemakers in the region. In other parts of the world, and especially in the Muslim world, the view is quite different. There is widespread anti-American sentiment, based on a number of concerns. They include resentment against
• our uncritical support for the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians and for state-sponsored assassinations;
• our support of undemocratic and repressive Arab governments, in particular that of Saudi Arabia;
• ten years of sanctions and military attacks against Iraq, which have resulted in the deaths of half a million children;
• our massive military presence in the region (seen by Muslim fundamentalists, especially in Saudi Arabia, as the presence of infidels in the holy land of Islam), as well as our role as the largest supplier of arms in the Middle East.
 These grievances have contributed to the rise of several radical Islamic movements, including Hamas and al Qaida, the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
Now, why do we support repressive regimes, ignore UN resolutions, and promote violence in the Middle East? The answer, in one word, is “oil.” In the view of our government, the access to Persian Gulf oil is essential to the security of the United States. In the Gulf region, like in many other areas in the world, our policies are primarily resource-oriented, designed to support our wasteful economy.
Thus, the U.S. role in the Middle East and its contribution to the rise of radical Islamic movements are inextricably linked to our misguided energy policies.
 To assure American access to natural resources around the world, the U.S. government continually tries to “stabilize” various regions and, in doing so, has often supported undemocratic and repressive regimes. This has included the training and financing of death squads and other support to governments that have engaged in widespread terrorism against their own populations. Ironically, the U.S. has at times supported hard-line Islamic movements. Indeed, some of the most notorious Islamic terrorists today, including many followers of Osama bin Laden, were originally trained by the CIA.10
 Our support of repressive governments has helped to encourage underground, often violent, opposition, and the fact that we ourselves have sponsored terrorist attacks undercuts our credibility in the fight against terrorism.

relationship with Saudi Arabia

 To understand the motivation of Osama bin Laden and other Islamic extremists, we need to pay special attention to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. This relationship is based on an extraordinary bargain, concluded in 1945 between President Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud, according to which Saudi Arabia grants the U.S. unlimited and perpetual access to its oil fields (which contain 25% of the world’s known oil reserves!) in exchange for protection of the Saudi royal family against its enemies, both external and internal. This bargain has shaped American foreign and military policy for almost half a century, during which we have protected a totalitarian regime in Saudi Arabia that blatantly disregards basic human rights and tramples democracy.11
 The main purpose of the Gulf war in 1991, originally code-named “Desert Shield,” was not to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, but to protect Saudi Arabia from a possible attack and to guarantee U.S. access to the Saudi oil fields. Since then, the U.S. has maintained and steadily expanded its military presence in the Gulf. In addition we also defend the Saudi regime against its internal enemies. The Saudi Arabian National Guard, which protects the royal family, is almost entirely armed, trained, and managed by the United States.
 The goal of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network is to drive the U.S. out of the Gulf region and to replace the corrupt Saudi regime by what they consider an “authentic” Islamic state. Such a state would be modeled after that of the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan, which  is many times more repressive than the current Saudi regime, especially in its barbarious treatment of women. Nevertheless, as long as we continue to support the totalitarian system in Saudi Arabia, our support will fuel anti-American hatred.

a multi-faceted anti-terrorist strategy

 To summarize, at the core of the multiple causes of the recent terrorist attacks against the United States lies the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and our support of the repressive Saudi regime. This presence, in turn, is a consequence of our dependence on Saudi oil, due to many years of misguided energy policies.
 Bin Laden’s terrorist network has declared an anti-American jihad, a religious war, and finds it easy to recruit volunteers among Muslims who feel frustrated and helpless about other aspects of the U.S. role in the Middle East. These aspects include, in particular, the U.S. support of the Israeli occupation of Arab land and the dispossession of Palestinians; Muslim casualties of U.S.-supported military actions and assassinations, and especially the death of large numbers of civilians in Iraq.
 At a deeper level, the extremists often receive sympathy from Islamic fundamentalists who are keenly aware of present global inequities and are struggling to preserve their cultural identity in the face of U.S.-led economic globalization.
 The systemic understanding of the background of extremist Islamic terrorism calls for a multi-faceted anti-terrorist strategy. The immediate goal, obviously, is to identify and capture the perpetrators and supporters of the terrorist attacks against the United States, and to bring them to justice before an international court. Since the extension and scope of this terrorism is international, it requires sustained international police work, based on extensive and widespread cooperation among the international community.
 This means, in turn, that the United States will have to reverse its recent isolationist stance and become a responsible member of the international community. Instead of weakening or walking away from a series of international treaties and conventions — including the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the Biological Weapons Convention, the World Criminal Court, and the UN Conference on Racism — the Bush Administration needs to realize that cooperation with the United Nations and other multilateral agencies will be vital to increase our own strength and security. Because of our rich cultural diversity, we should be in an ideal position to become active citizens of the world. One fifth of today’s Americans, or their parents, were born in other parts of the world; five million of us are Muslims.
 In this international collaboration, it will be especially important to enlist the help of Islamic states in portraying the extremists as enemies of Islam, because no true Muslim would take thousands of innocent lives in such reprehensible acts. At the same time, our leaders need to help counteract American religious stereotypes. We need to make it clear that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims opposes terrorism and religious intolerance.

policy shifts

 In the long run, the United States will be able to reduce the terrorist threats only if it adopts a series of policy shifts to deal with the legitimate grievances that often underlie terrorist acts. Systemic thinking means shifting our focus from attempting to crush terrorist movements to pursuing policies that discourage their emergence.
 The following two policy shifts would go a long way toward increasing our national security.
 1. A reassessment of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, including pressure on the Saudi regime to move toward democratization and the provision of basic human rights.
 2. Promoting a peace agreement that includes the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the establishment of a safe and secure Palestinian state together with the guaranteed existence of an equally safe and secure Israeli state, each with its own territorial integrity. This would bring the United States in line with international law, UN Security Council resolutions, and with the views of virtually the entire international community. In the words of the Israeli novelist and peace activist Amos Oz,
With or without Islamic fundamentalism, with or without Arab terrorism, there is no justification whatsoever for the lasting occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people by Israel. We have no right to deny Palestinians their natural right to self-determination.12

change of energy policy

 In order to carry out these shifts of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, it will be crucial to sever our dependence on Saudi oil. A shift of energy policy from the current heavy emphasis on fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and conservation is not only imperative for moving toward ecological sustainability, but must also be seen as vital to our security.
 More generally, we need to realize that the concept of security needs to be broadened to include considerations such as food security, the security of a healthy environment, social justice, and cultural integrity. In our globally interconnected world, the concept of “national security” is outdated; there can only be global security. A global economic system based on inequity, overconsumption, waste, and exploitation is inherently violent and insecure. An economy based on local self-sufficiency, decentralized renewable energy sources, and the continual cycling of materials will be ecologically and socially sustainable and thus globally secure.
 The shift to such a sustainable and secure economy is absolutely feasible with technologies that are available today.13 In particular, the recent development of efficient hydrogen fuel cells promises to inaugurate a new era in energy production — the “hydrogen economy.” A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity and water — and nothing else! This makes hydrogen the ultimate clean fuel. At present, several companies around the world are racing to be the first to produce fuel cell systems to supply electricity for our homes and commercial buildings.
 At the same time, car companies are developing hydrogen-powered hybrid-electric cars that will revolutionize the automobile industry. The gradual replacement of the U.S. car fleet with these “hypercars” would eventually save all the oil OPEC now sells and, in addition, would reduce America’s CO2  emissions by about two thirds! Moreover, if a hydrogen tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, this would have no adverse environmental effects, nor could a hydrogen-fueled airplane be used as a bomb. In both cases, the hydrogen would escape rapidly into the air on impact.

moral and political will

 The hydrogen economy will eventually be realized, because it features superior technologies — more economical, safer, and ecologically sustainable. However, this development could be accelerated dramatically with massive investments by the federal government. Such investments would not only bring great environmental and health benefits, but would also significantly increase our security. Moreover, massive federal investments to put a hydrogen infrastructure in place would create tens of thousands of jobs and would give our sagging economy a tremendous boost.
 The obstacles that stand in the way of a secure and sustainable future are neither conceptual nor technical. All we need is the moral and political will. To quote Tony Blair once more.
 This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us…. Today, humankind has the science and technology to destroy itself or to provide prosperity to all. Yet science can’t make that choice for us. Only the moral power of a world acting as a community can…. For those people who lost their lives on 11 September and those that mourn them; now is the time for the strength to build that community. Let that be their memorial.14

1 See Robert Fisk, “The Awesome Cruelty of a Doomed People,” The Independent, September 12, 2001.
2 See Stephen Zunes, “International Terrorism,” Foreign Policy in Focus (, September 2001.
3 Philip C. Wilcox Jr., “The Terror,” New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001.
4 Tony Blair, speech to the Labour Party Conference, Brighton, October 2, 2001.
5 See Stephen Zunes, “U.S. Policy Toward Political Islam,” Foreign Policy in Focus (,
June 2001.
6 See refs. 2 and 3.
7 See Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell, 1996.
8 See Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith (eds.), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.
9 See International Forum on Globalization,
10 See refs. 2 and 5.
11 See Michael Klare, “Asking Why,” Foreign Policy in Focus (, September 2001.
12 Amos Oz, “Struggling Against Fanaticism,” New York Times, September 14, 2001.
13 See Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, Little Brown,
New York, 1999.
14 Tony Blair, ref. 4.