Al-Qaeda can only be understood as an ideology, an agenda and a way of seeing the world
May 20, 2003 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Terror's myriad faces
Al-Qaeda, conceived of as a tight-knit terrorist group with cadres and a capability everywhere, does not exist in that form. It barely existed before the war in Afghanistan in 2001 destroyed Osama bin Laden's carefully constructed infrastructure there. It certainly does not exist now. Instead, we are facing a different kind of threat. Al-Qaeda can only be understood as an ideology, an agenda and a way of seeing the world that is shared by an increasing number of predominantly young, predominantly male Muslims. Eliminating bin Laden and a few hundred senior activists will do nothing to counter this al-Qaeda. Hundreds more will come forward to fill their ranks. Al-Qaeda, however understood, will continue to operate. The threat will remain and it will grow.
See also Sowing The Dragon's Teeth.
Or, alternately, Hercules and the Hydra.
posted by y2karl (25 comments total)
Perhaps. But what are the alternatives? We indulged al-Qaeda for years, because they were always somebody else's problem, and it ended up in our laps on 9-11. We have in the past been cavalier with the Mideast, but no more so than they have with us (OPEC, Iran Hostages, etc.) I mean, we could take this back to the Crusades, I suppose (although iirc, it was only the First Crusade that could be called a blowout for for the Christains, the rest were thorough spankings at the hands of the Muslims), but that's not really appropriate. I thought we had a good chance in Iraq, but we are screwing up the aftermath and pissing away what goodwill we had generated from the liberation.

I'd take Burke's article more seriously if he had some potential alternative courses of actions tacked on the end. Personally, I always come back around to paraphrasing that famous quote about democracy: attacking Iraq and threatening the rest of the Mideast so as to pressure them away from providing succor and support for terrorist organizations as part of a long-term mideast pacification program is the worst thing we could have possibly done - except for all the other options.

OK, we've seen what Bush has done; what would Gore have done? What will Kerry/Dean/Edwards do? What would you do to fix it? Personally, I'd be pumping as much food, medicine, water and consumer goods as I possibly could into Iraq. That's what would win this peace. I still think that denying state support to terrorists is a good idea. I still think the Mideast disproportinally affects world events because of their wealth and oil, so I would move to wean us off that. But what else? I don't know.
posted by UncleFes at 11:28 AM on May 20, 2003

UncleFes, I disagree - i think the U.S. going into war represented tremendous folly, taking the eye off the ball, so to speak. Burke points out that the war in Afghanistan essentially smashed what al Qaeda infrastructure was there; a successful step in the long fight against terrorism. But in terms of preventing future terrorist attacks, what exactly did taking out Iraq accomplish?

If al Qaeda is as fluid as Burke suggests, then we will necessarily find ourselves backed into a corner when it comes to the "War on Terror," either forced to admit that it is unwinnable - which we will never do - or expand it until it indeed becomes another Crusade, when we as a nation determine that the only way to prevent future attacks is to liquidate any and all who might participate in such attacks, or lend comfort, financial support or in fact any support at all to those who do.
posted by kgasmart at 11:42 AM on May 20, 2003

to liquidate any and all who might participate in such attacks, or lend comfort, financial support or in fact any support at all to those who do.

I think the administration realizes that this strategy is indeed unwinnable. So, rather than target individual terrorists, instead deny them safe havens. By attacking Iraq (and ignore, for a moment, all the PR about WMD, Hussein, etc.), we place a large amount of military force in a nice central location in the mideast, from which we can threaten - not necessarily deploy, but threaten to - the other countries around it. Using this as a bargainign chip gives us the leverage to demand that the surrounding countries back away from supporting terrorists in mass. I think the recent negotiations with Syria were exactly this sort of thing. We don't have to invade if we can threaten to. By taking away al-Qaeda's support system, they cannot foment large scale attacks (hence the Morroco incidents, which would become the norm - individual, smaller scale, ultimately pyrrhic attacks. IF we combine this with increased pressure on Israel and Palastine to come up with a peace - ANY peace - that I think goes a long way toward defanging Big T Terrorism. I agree with you that little T terrorism will always be with us in some form or another - there will always be those who for whatever reason will take gun or bomb - but fi we can successfully undermine state support for terrorism, we can go far in eradicating it. Combine that with a second-tier plan of trade, human rights work, and increased aid, and I think we can go a long way toward making the mideast less dangerous - for everyone, including, perhaps especially, middle easterners.
posted by UncleFes at 11:57 AM on May 20, 2003

I'd take Burke's article more seriously if he had some potential alternative courses of actions tacked on the end.

Perhaps it would help if he spun some dreamy scenarios about promoting Western democracy in the mideast via the example of Iraq without providing any nuts-and-bolts specifics--as opposed to vague spin, as immediately above--of exactly how this was to be done in terms of the cultures and ethnicities involved?
posted by y2karl at 12:04 PM on May 20, 2003

From the link above:

"The only physical infrastructure al-Qaida required were safe houses to assemble bombs and weapons caches," the report says.

"Otherwise, notebook computers, encryption, the internet, multiple passports and the ease of global transportation enabled al-Qaida to function as a 'virtual' entity that leveraged local assets - hence local knowledge - to full advantage in coordinating attacks in many 'fields of jihad'."

The report says that al-Qaida is now thought to have mid-level coordinators in dozens of countries who had been trained in Afghanistan, providing their local followers with logistical and financial aid.

In other words, it's too late for containment ala SARS--the carriers have already left town.
posted by y2karl at 12:13 PM on May 20, 2003

I'll concede, y2karl: western-style democracy might easily be unattainable in Iraq. And I concede that I don't have all the answers. But I don't have the resources of the Pentagon/CIA/White House, and I'm not a reporter for the Observer, either. It's awfully easy to blue-sky prognosticate - for either side of the equation - and far less so to provide the nuts and bolts both you and I would like to see, which I why I mentioned it in the first place. Hey, I don't have any special insight here - I'm just saying that the administration's actions seem, well, at least somewhat workable under the scenario I spun, and I've yet to hear a workable solution coming the other direction. Criticism in buckets, but nothing that looks like an alternative plan, even a rudimentary one. That's all I'm saying.

the carriers have already left town

I'm not sure any solution could have stopped that. So I guess we will be forced to hunt them individually, too. But in my opinion, it doesn't disallow the benefit of doing what is possible to remove their bases of support on their home turf. I don't agree that 'they're already here' should necessitate giving up trying to prevent them from committing terrorist acts, both long- and short-term.
posted by UncleFes at 12:22 PM on May 20, 2003

People interested in the problem of reducing terrorism should take some time to read Scott Atran's extremely well-researched review The Genesis of Suicide Terrorism, published in Science earlier this year. A number of counterintuitive sociological facts about suicide terrorism are shown, including:
  • terrorists are as educated and as economically well-off as surrounding populations
  • terrorists have no appreciable psychopathology (they are normal individuals)
  • the real cause of suicide terrorism is an "institutional manipulation of emotionally driven commitments" - Atran compares the terrorist organisations which hijack natural human instincts of loyalty to one's kin, to the fast food and pornography industries, which manipulate human instincts for sugary, fatty foods and sex for their own advantage.
Furthermore, in preventing terrorism
  • raising literacy rates will have no effect and may be counterproductive
  • lessening poverty is also likely to have no effect or be worse than useless
  • "Ethnic profiling, isolation, and preemptive attack on potential (but not yet actual) supporters of terrorism probably will not help."
  • "Ending occupation or reducing perceived humiliation may help, but not if the population believes this to be a victory inspired by terror (e.g., Israel’s apparently forced withdrawal from Lebanon)."
Atran recommends that in order to stop institutionalised terrorism
  • "[...] it may require finding the right mix of pressure and inducements to get the communities themselves to abandon support for institutions that recruit suicide attackers."
  • "Inciting and empowering moderates from within [...] can produce emotional dissatisfaction leading to lasting change and influence on the part of these individuals".
  • "Another strategy is for the United States and its allies to change behavior by directly addressing and lessening sentiments of grievance and humiliation, especially in Palestine (where images of daily violence have made it the global focus of Moslem attention)."
Please read this important, objective and humane review - it changed many of my ideas about the problem of terrorism.
posted by Bletch at 12:37 PM on May 20, 2003

In other news, terror alert now "orange"...

I don't know why, but I have a weird bad feeling this time around. =[
posted by VeGiTo at 12:43 PM on May 20, 2003

Great thread!
posted by WolfDaddy at 12:56 PM on May 20, 2003


I dunno about the classical allusions; weren't each of these unsurmountable obstacles dealt with?

I seem to remember something about defeating the Hydra by applying a torch to the smashed head... maybe a tactical nuke?
(just gallows humor, there...)
posted by jpburns at 1:04 PM on May 20, 2003

we indulged al-Qaeda for years ...

I wouldn't say indulged, exactly, although Clinton's occasional firing of a cruise missile in their general direction wasn't exactly a firm, coherent policy, either.

Not that the Bush Doctrine is going to ease the problem, either, as the guy says in your link. American boots on sacred ground was the pretext for 9-11. More American boots on sacred ground is not the way to prevent similar attacks in the future. Catching Osama bin Laden, trying him publicly as a criminal conspirator, and then spending some of the money going to this absurd military adventure on rebuilding the economy of NYC: that would have been fine with me. In the meantime, yes, we're going to remain "caught in the crossfire."

I'm totally into the classical allusions, but then that's just me.
posted by hairyeyeball at 1:39 PM on May 20, 2003

Another classical reference is made by the Medea Game on the Classics Pages (which classical allusionists may like).
Euripides' great play and its relevance to international affairs. 'Euripides highlights the way a just cause can lead to injustice. Medea's grievance against Jason is totally justified. She is in the right. But her actions in pursuance of that right are indefensible. She has been treated unjustly. Can there be a wrong way to pursue the source of that injustice? A question for Bush and Blair in February 2003 as they prepare to invade Iraq. Beware of finding you are on Medea's side at the end! ' (The same question could be asked in connection with many other international situations - Afghanistan, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Kashmir etc. etc.)
The game itself is quite enjoyable too...
posted by plep at 1:58 PM on May 20, 2003

It is no secret that there are millions of angry young muslins waiting in the wings and that taking out one terror group is not the solution. This is why we invaded Iraq to give the freedom to pursue life under some semblance of Democracy so that they wont be angry. Just leaving them alone is not the answer because their own governments breed hate and discontent and the problem only gets worse over time.
posted by stbalbach at 2:48 PM on May 20, 2003

posted by homunculus at 3:11 PM on May 20, 2003

The terror attack I live in fear of is the corn equivalent to the potato blight that nuked Ireland a century ago.

So much of the US economy is ultimately corn-based. From pig food to junk food; from corn oil to chemical precursor for all sorts of good pharmaceuticals and whatnot.

It'd be a helluva disaster. And so easy to spread.

I wonder if mad cow prions can be spread using a crop duster. That'd really suck. I'd hate like hell to find out that I've been chowing down on prion-infected beef these past ten years...
posted by five fresh fish at 6:15 PM on May 20, 2003

"So, it's depressing to see that, just as many Arabs and Muslims are turning against Bin Ladenism, some Western liberals are calling for a capitulation in the mind and hinting that this war is either avoidable or, even worse, not worth fighting, lest it offend the enemy."

Interesting thoughts from "Mr. I'm-So-Liberal-I-Have-No-Patience-For-Mainstream-Liberalism" Christopher Hitchens in Slate today.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 9:42 PM on May 20, 2003

Thanks for that link plep. Something to think about.
posted by crasspastor at 12:23 AM on May 21, 2003

Was there ever any doubt that the US's meddling in another countries affairs would backfire on it?
posted by five fresh fish at 11:49 AM on May 21, 2003

five fresh fish: Yes. For quite a while before 1993, it didn't really seem that we would ever feel negative reprocussions at home for our government's actions abroad. After the bombing of the WTC, though, I started thinking about it.

"Yes, our government's policies abroad cause people to hate me personally. Yes, they are willing to kill me. Yes, they are capable of doing it.

Things I can do to stop it: 0"

Since it was proven in the last election that my individual vote means nothing, and since it was proven by the war that my protesting meant less than nothing, I have no recourse. All I can logically do is sit here and wait for some right-wing asshole to get me killed.

I think that that lack of free will and democracy is more terror than anyone could have instilled before.
posted by fnord_prefect at 12:24 PM on May 21, 2003

addendum : yeah, it's the terrorists who are doing the actual killing, and that's not okay either. but it's highly irresponsible and negligent for my government to institute policies that are going to provoke a segment of the world capable of killing american citizens, especially without something in place to protect said citizens from the reprocussions. since there is no way to viably protect american citizens from terrorists without violating every precept that this nation was founded on, it is therefore logical that the government should take all acceptable measures not to provoke them.

and instead of logic, we have neo-conservatives.
posted by fnord_prefect at 12:33 PM on May 21, 2003

Be patient, folks. It'll all turn out alright.

...U.S. President George W. Bush's administration knew full well the war would initially increase support for Al Qaeda. But U.S. officials estimated the long-term impact of setting up a democratic government in Iraq would outweigh the short-term pain of more terror attacks...
posted by VeGiTo at 4:01 PM on May 21, 2003

Some stuff may have gone missing, and the fanatics may have been encouraged. Well, they can't have this both ways, either. If there was stuff to go missing, then it was there all along, wasn't it? And it wasn't being kept for recreational use. The incompetence of the U.S. protective and investigative teams, in this and in some other areas (like the elementary delivery of supplies and repairs) doesn't alter that fact...

Christopher Hitchens

Um, the only stuff that went missing some radioactive wastes--isotopes used in industry or medicine and some unenriched uranium. Not exactly any part of any WMD program but dangerous in the form of a dirty bomb, no less.

Illness reported after N-site looting

...US military officials, who are conducting a damage assessment at the Tuwaitha plant, have said a fifth of the radioactive materials knnown to have been stored there are missing.

...Iraqi nuclear experts blame Americans for failing to guard the site quickly enough and prevent the looting.

"They knew that there were nuclear materials in this site, and they were supposed to protect it," Mohammed al-Hamadani, a researcher at Tuwaitha, said today.

posted by y2karl at 7:44 PM on May 21, 2003

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