Al-Qaeda, U.S. and International Law


13 January 2009


The Global War on Terror (GWOT), fueled by American interests and leadership, crosses cultures, countries, ideologies, and borders. There are nation-states have enemies and societal groups they utilize to garner support for military action. America in particular developed two distinct discourses to persuade the public that military operations in Afghanistan were in the world‟s best interest-women‟s rights and America‟s self-defense. In this paper, I argue that the US strategy for mobilizing public support, on humanitarian grounds, used the figure of the women in a veil or burqa to symbolize a repressed society which needed to be liberated. Furthermore, I argue that the use of intelligence and surveillance information situated Al-Qaeda as being a central branch of the Taliban, and thus, justified military action in self-defense. I then claim that both of these discourses were legitimated by the United Nations through the Security Council. The legitimation in turn is a form of hegemony whereby human rights norms and terrorist eradication is forced upon a nation-state with the Western communities consent.

To support and prove my claim, I will first look at America‟s classification of Afghani women. I argue that the negative categorization of Afghani women manifests imaginative geographies; the women‟s space and place in Afghanistan is destructive and detrimental and must be modernized to fit the Western ideals of women‟s rights. This transformation of Afghani women‟s condition is thus a morally worthy goal, and can be brought about by military intervention. Next, I will examine how America situated Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and how this developed and emerged by applying the theory of imagined geography. Finally, I will look at the United Nation‟s Charter and analyze the sections that govern military intervention and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386 concerning intervention in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Their Veiled Women

For the past thirty years, the US government‟s foreign policy has become influenced more by morality than neutrality, and, “the new morality insists that the use of force to bring freedom and human rights to „benighted‟ areas of the world is now a duty that should be codified in international law” (Scott: 98). This principle justifies military intervention predicated by human rights or humanitarian issues, which lends itself more credibility than intervention strictly in self-defense alone. The war in Afghanistan is an exemplary model for the use of human rights, specifically women‟s rights, as a motivation for invasion. The defeat of a repressive regime, that treats women unfairly, is an important moral step in restoring human rights, and would act as an example for the rest of the world.

The foundation for the human rights claim in Afghanistan classifies women as oppressed, and the veil or burqa as a symbol of that oppression. The theory of imaginative geography best illustrates how an entire society can become either the oppressed or the oppressors. By comparing the Western ideals of freedom with the cultural practices of Afghanistan, America created a discourse on the differences between the two. In America, women can wear whatever clothing they want, go to school, work in government, and enjoy the same freedoms that men in Western society enjoy. In Afghanistan, women must wear a burqa that covers their face and bodies, they cannot go to school, work in government, or enjoy the same freedoms men have. In this way, the contrasting differences between the two cultures create two separate cultural spaces, “ours” and “theirs”. “Our” space is normal, familiar, and right. “Their” space is repressive, barbarous, wrong, and needs change. This change can then occur through the selfless support of the US led military invasion. Derek Gregory, in his book The Colonial Present, further explains the role of imaginative geographies “as fabrications, a word that usefully combines „something fictionalized‟ and „something made real,‟ because they are imaginations given substance” (Gregory: 17). The veil as a symbol of repression is both fiction and substance manifest, “[it] has come to inhabit our imaginations in ways that are totalizing of the culture and its treatment of women” (Kapur: 217). By defeating the oppressors, America would be the liberators. The women can then be free, and their space which was so different before, can become more like the Western, modern, free space. Thus, the imaginative geography which demarcates spaces can be transformed, to some degree, into the space of the Western world. The same process which delineates “our” space from “their” space, can also transform how we view the other.

The practice of imaginative geographies towards women and the war in Afghanistan allows the focus to render an image of the burqa as women‟s repression manifest, and the Taliban as the source of oppression. This focal point undermines the individual connection that Afghani women have with themselves and their country. In 2001, Physicians for Human Rights surveyed Afghani women and concluded, “the rights to freedom of speech and expression, the instituting of legal protections for women, and issues surrounding peace and de-mining are amongst the most pressing concerns for women in Afghanistan” (Kapur: 219). The importance of removing the burqa compared with the issues listed above, seem trivial. The disconnect of cultural translation transforms itself into a discourse which does not reflect the nature and concerns of women in Afghanistan. The imaginative geography utilized by the West, on the micro level, made women the oppressed and the men the oppressors, another edition of “the white man saving brown girls from brown men” (Spivak: 297). On the macro level, the Taliban were the oppressors, and Afghanistan is the homeland for terrorists. The viewer and the viewed demarcate the cultural spaces and define reality based on their own specific viewpoint.

The American media and government focused its view on the image of a veiled woman, and this image then became a useful instrument to gain popular support. Rosalind Morris argued in here article, Images of Untransability in the U.S. War on Terror, that, “rarely is an image ever assumed to be absolutely bereft of symbolic value…they are the fulcrum for a more general fetishistic practice…by treating the image as that to which reality adheres” (Morris: 412). The symbolic value of a veiled woman represents one who is covered head to toe in fabric, thus, covering her true self, her womanhood. What could be more different than the popular images of women in America? Instead of veiled women we have women whose fashion sense relies on sexuality and individuality. The idea of everyone dressing the same and covering the parts that make a woman a woman is so different to “us”, that “they” must be wrong. Therefore, the symbol of the veiled woman permeates “our” social consciousness thereby providing further support for military intervention in Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds.

The use of Afghani women as a war strategy is elaborated in Jasmin Zine‟s article, Between Orientalism and Fundamentalism: Muslim Women and Feminist Engagement, where she explains the role of the veiled woman:

the archetypal image of the deprived and debased Muslim woman was resurrected to perform her duty as a signifier of the abject difference of Muslims; the barbarity and anti-modernism of Islam and its essential repression of women and most importantly as camouflage for US military inventions (Zine:34)

Zine is alluding that the US championed the image of a veiled society to distract attention from other aspects of military strategy. This approach implies the use of culture and difference as intentional and developed to absorb the media‟s attention. The American people and the world community needed something more to justify the war than self-defense. The struggle American women overcame in earlier decades, provides a familiar basis in associating the circumstance of Afghani women with America‟s history. According to Westerners, basic human rights include suffrage, education, and mobility. Afghanistan‟s circumstance of oppression is thus, a circumstance of the de-evolution of human rights and must evolve by force if necessary.

In mobilizing the women‟s movement to support intervention in Afghanistan, the US reaffirmed the superiority of America‟s ideals of freedom and what it looks like. Moreover, the movement categorized Afghani women in need of saving by reestablishing the positionality of the privileged American and the oppressed Afghani. So, “within this context the headscarf may be seen as symbolic of the gendered dichotomy, which is being reinforced between „liberated‟ Western women and their „oppressed‟ Muslim sisters” (Freedman: 170). Freedman is explaining that this discourse contains an imbalance and distortion of the situational circumstance of Afghani women. This disconnect from reality manifested itself in both US news and government press conferences. The media stories reproduced the gendered discourse and built momentum until invading Afghanistan was a war for freedom, a war for women‟s rights, and most importantly, a war against terrorism.

Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan

Following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Al-Qaeda was the most significant terrorist organization in the world. In Arnuad‟s and Chaliand‟s book, The History of Terrorism from Antiquity to Al-Qaeda, they give an excellent summary of the organization‟s existence. They contend Al-Qaeda emerged from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1989. Abdallah Azzam, the leader of the Arab fighters (mujahideen), decided after the Soviet‟s withdrawal that his army would not disband. Azzam named the army Al-Qaeda al-Sulbah (the solid base). Their goals were the reconquest of the Muslim world and to recreate a unified Muslim nation under one Caliph. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, Osama Bin Laden, the new head of Al-Qaeda following Azzam‟s assassination, demanded the removal of American forces from Saudi Arabia. He saw the American presence in Saudi Arabia as degrading the Muslim nation, and thus saw the US as the enemy of Islam. From this point on, Al-Qaeda‟s terrorist activities aimed at America or governments who supported American interests. Bin Laden‟s Al-Qaeda had state support and central bases in Afghanistan from 1989-1991, Sudan from 1991-1996, and then Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

Al-Qaeda was linked to several terrorist attacks that spanned the globe from 1992-2001. In Kushner‟s book The Encyclopedia of Terrorism he gives the dates and locations of these attacks. He posits, Al-Qaeda‟s first attack was in 1992 when two hotels were bombed in Yemen, injuring several tourists. The next attack was the World Trade Center in 1993 which killed six people and injured 1,000. Al-Qaeda was next linked to the attack on American military in Mogadishu in 1993 which killed 18 soldiers, wounded 78, and destroyed 3 Blackhawk helicopters. In 1994, two Al-Qaeda plots were thwarted which included an assassination plot against the Pope, and blowing up 11 passenger airplanes. 1995 saw two terrorist attacks with links to Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia which killed twenty-six and injured 500. Two other terrorist attacks in 1995 held connections to Al-Qaeda, an assassination plot against the Egyptian president Hasni Mubarak, and a car bombing in Egypt‟s embassy in Pakistan which killed fifteen and injured eighty. When Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, he declared a “Jihad on the Americans occupying the country of the two sacred places” (Saudi Arabia). Two years later, Al-Qaeda bombed two American embassies, one in Tanzania and the other in Kenya, killing 224 and wounding thousands. In 2000, Al-Qaeda operatives kidnapped fifty people in the Philippines demanding the release of the mastermind of the 1993 WTC attack. Later that year, the U.S.S. Cole, harbored in Yemen, was attacked by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber which killed seventeen and injured thirty-nine. The attacks on America in 2001 killed approximately 3,000 people, mostly civilians. It is clear through this timeline of attacks that Al-Qaeda is an international organization with a global reach.

In addition to the humanitarian argument in looking for support of the world community, the U.S. invoked an argument of self-defense. To support the case of self-defense, the US government argued that Al-Qaeda flourished in Afghanistan, and thus, the defeat of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan would in consequence, be a devastating blow for terrorism. To situate an international organization in Afghanistan, Derek Gregory in his book The Colonial Present elaborates on the process and explains that “advanced systems of intelligence, interception, and surveillance were mobilized to produce an imaginative geography of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan” (Gregory: 52). At that time, there were seven military satellites in orbit. From analysis of satellite images, the U.S. military and intelligence divisions reterritorialized Afghanistan. They effectively imagined Al-Qaeda within a bounded geographical space, hence imaginative geography. The imagined geography created an „Al-Qaeda state‟ in Afghanistan. Simply put, by using technology, the symbol of terrorism now had a cartographic region. It was no longer an enemy in many states but an enemy in one state. The War on Terror had a target, and the materialization of the enemy could thus be rendered as the source of attack, and therefore, the source of retaliation.

Situating Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan distorts the substantive intelligence information that maps out the international terror network which includes Al-Qaeda. For example, Al-Qaeda created the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against America and Israel, and American intelligence linked this group to: the Egyptian Al Jihad, the Egyptian Armed Group, the Pakistan Scholars Society, the Partisans Movement in Kashmir, the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh, and the Afghan military wing of The Advice and Reform Committee (Kushner: 23). Clearly, Al-Qaeda is an international organization with various ties to other terrorist groups. Destroying their bases in Afghanistan would not annihilate terrorism. According to the Al-Qaeda manual found on a computer of a captured member, “Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils. They are established as they [always] have been: by pen and gun, by word and bullet, by tongue and teeth” (DOJ). The ultimate goal of Al-Qaeda is to overthrow the world order and build an Islamic state, thus, to destroy the Afghanistan bases would not destroy their fundamental fervor.

The Legal Ramifications

The US, through imaginative geographies, supplied two arguments in support for their military operation – promoting human rights and destroying Al-Qaeda. The following analysis will look at how these two arguments interact with international law and the United Nation‟s Security Council.

The United Nations (UN) Charter is the most significant binding legal framework in international law. Contained in the charter is a supremacy clause which states it is the highest form of international law. The inherent nature of the UN can be construed as a hegemonic organization of universal norms. When nation-states become members of the UN, they agree to follow the charter, and abide by the Security Council‟s decisions. When a conflict cannot be corrected by diplomatic means, a member state can refer the issue to the Security Council. The Security Council comprises five permanent members (America included) with veto power, and ten nonpermanent rotating members. The rulings of the Security Council are binding and must be carried out by the appropriate member states. Thus, the Security Council is the major actor in international security. For example, Article 39 states, “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security” (UN). Articles 41 and 42 of the charter give the Security Council the power to apply soft power, such as sanctions, and hard power, such as military intervention. Legal scholar Jared Schott argues, “in both domestic emergency and Council [rulings] resort to Chapter VII, the acting authority enjoys great discretion in determining that a threat to security exists, and implementing those measures deemed necessary to restore and maintain „normalcy‟” (Schott: 26). „Normalcy‟ for America and the war on terrorism is uprooting the repressive regime in Afghanistan and promoting women‟s rights. The imaginative geographies concerning Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the burqa as a sign of repression are thus legitimated by international law. Furthermore, the UN‟s interest in worldwide „normalcy‟ is the driving force of action with member and nonmember states.

December 20th 2001 saw the passage of Security Council resolution 1386. This resolution reaffirmed the condition in Afghanistan as a threat to the peace and allowed broad military operations. Moreover, the resolution stressed, “that all Afghan forces must adhere strictly to their obligations under human rights law, including respect for the rights of women, and under international humanitarian law” (UNSC). This resolution confirms the effectiveness of America‟s arguments of self-defense and women‟s rights as reasons for military intervention. International law scholar Achilles Skordas, further defines the hegemonic powers of the UN, “the intervention in Afghanistan assumed a hegemonic character, in that the exercise of the right of self-defense had the objectives of preventing the risk of further terrorist attacks, enforcing regime change, and creating a political and societal environment considered conducive to the eradication of terrorism” (Skordas: 434). By uprooting terrorism, upholding human rights, and promoting regime change, the UN is forcing Western norms upon a nation-state. If the plan in Afghanistan is successful, military intervention as a form of hegemony would be considered a possible solution to rogue nation-states that may harbor terrorists, or defined by the Security Council as a threat to, or breach of, the peace.

In framing the war in Afghanistan, the US argued that Al-Qaeda used the country as a base, and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center originated there. In doing so, they were protected under Article 51 of the UN charter which states, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” (UN). The inherent issue in Article 51 is-what defines self-defense? Thomas Franck, Professor of law at NYU points out, “whether force in self-defense may be used against indirect aggression by one state or its surrogates. Indirect aggression includes the fomenting of civil war by one state in another state, or supporting the export of insurgency, subversion, and terrorism” (Franck: 60). Franck is questioning the plausibility of nation-states acting in self-defense without a direct attack. Indirect aggression can also be seen as an argument for preemptive self-defense and subsequent expansion of Article 51. Under international law, unilateral action would be justified if an argument for self-defense is asserted. Thus, through imagined geographies, specifically utilizing intelligence gathering, nation-states can outline high volatility geographic regions where preemptive self-defense is the most effective tactic. As was the case in Afghanistan, terrorist cells within a sovereign state could be reason enough for military intervention.


The UN Charter provides a rubric for military intervention, but interpreting the Charter is an important component in legitimizing the predicated argument and subsequent action. In Afghanistan, imaginative geographies appeared and reproduced cultural symbols that could be used as part of a larger tactic to gain public support. America‟s argument for military intervention on humanitarian grounds modified the societal conditions of Afghani women. The symbol of oppression became the burqa, and the discourse for intervention became the modus operandi of removing the burqa. In effect, “the burqa has become a battleground for justifying the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, the breaches of international law and the enormous civilian casualties that have resulted. (Kapur: 220). The question of women‟s rights in Afghanistan and how they have improved since the intervention is still not known in its entirety. The US military presence is strong in Kabul, but elsewhere in the mountainous regions, women‟s rights have not changed. The liberation of Afghani women was ultimately rhetoric in support of military intervention.

The same could be said of Al-Qaeda. The US manipulated intelligence information to situate Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the Taliban as the supporters of terror. What we have seen of Al-Qaeda in the years following the invasion is that they have morphed into other regions. “The Afghanistan intervention offensively hobbled, but defensively benefited al-Qaeda. While al-Qaeda lost a recruiting magnet and a training, command and operations base, it was compelled to disperse and become even more decentralized, „virtual‟ and “invisible‟” (qtd. in Post: 219).

Invading Afghanistan did not eradicate terrorism, but instead pushed it deeper and further into other geographical spaces. The imagined geography of Al-Qaeda rooted in Afghanistan was thus more fiction than substance. The substantive component of Al-Qaeda quickly migrated across borders to continue the network. Intelligence analysts concluded:

In the space of a year [following the invasion], the movement quietly repositioned itself geographically. Its key leaders fled to Pakistan and Iran, where long-standing and influential networks existed. Its operational chiefs and their lieutenants regrouped along a second axis, formed by the geographical crescent spanning Georgia, Turkey, Syria, the Gulf states, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Mujahedeen sleeper cells took a third tack, remaining in Europe and Asia as well as in the United States.” (Chaliand & Blin: 335).

Unfortunately, the intervention in Afghanistan has not stopped the terrorist activities of Al-Qaeda. Since 2001, there have been over a dozen terrorist attacks with links to Al-Qaeda.

The danger of the UN legitimizing imaginative geography practices, as was the case in Afghanistan, is that the foundation of the intervention is based on distorted information. Whether the basis is humanitarian, self-defense, or preemptive self-defense, if the reasoning behind the intervention is based on a binary discourse of “us” and “them”; the gap between the two could be filled with fiction instead of substance. Legitimizing imaginative geographies only reproduces the cycle of difference and negates the cycle of unification. Celebrating the differences of cultures and working together to improve human rights protections is more effective than regarding the differences as grounds for change through military intervention.