Saturday, April 11, 2009
# Posted 10:48 AM by Patrick Porter
In analysing a movement like Al Qaeda, it is very tempting to mystify the enemy.
Two things often said about AQ are that: 1) its continued violence shows that it has not been effectively combated, and 2) that as a networked, decentralised movement based on a diffuse ideology, it is highly resilient.
Seth Jones and Martyn Libicki’s fascinating new study of ‘How Terrorist Groups End’ argues the first.* It discusses Al Qaeda’s progress on a range of fronts, but AQ’s enduring capabilities is one of its key arguments. And a whole swathe of literature over the past few years argues the second.
Both of these assumptions are open to doubt. It seems inadequate to argue that the continued frequency of Al Qaeda attacks means that the war has not damaged them substantially. First, by measuring success in terms of ‘inputs’ and regularity of activity, it is apolitical and astrategic, ignoring ‘outputs’ and effects of that violence. It is commonplace to point out that America’s military behaviour has had counterproductive effects on global opinion - but the same dilemma haunts our enemies.
Al Qaeda’s method is to use inspirational and exemplary violence by taking jihad, a predominantly local phenomenon, to the ‘far enemy’, the United States. It hopes to spark a great uprising in the Islamic world. It directs its violence to make war on its enemies, and also to convince other Muslims to support its vision of perpetual struggle against the infidel. Its long term project is to drive ‘Crusaders and Zionists’ from Arabia, to overthrow the apostate regimes that corrupt the house of Islam by attacking their patron, and to restore a ‘united Islamic caliphate as a vast empire of the righteous.’ Only through unity under a Caliph can divine law be reinstituted. Through its mayhem, Al Qaeda seeks ultimately to purify Islam, bring down the internal and external forces of ‘unbelief’ that oppress it, and to bring about a world order that enforces a dogmatic version of the Qur’an and Islamic law. On its own terms, destruction is ultimately a means, not an end. It seeks to translate violence into earthly, political goals. Quantifying attacks in a vacuum pays no regard to the relationship between Al Qaeda’s terrorism and Islamic opinion.
So far, it has not inspired a great, massed Islamic uprising. It has not generated revolutions in Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia. America the patron has not fled the region and cut its ties with apostate regimes. Furthermore, AQ’s methods if anything has generated a blowback against itself. In a major theatre of Al Qaeda’s war, Iraq, the movement has been bloodied by a revolt against its overreaching brutality, a blowback with wider ripples. Al Qaeda’s despairing fighters and theorists speak of a great reversal. Its stocks have plummeted in Saudi Arabia, due to both mass opinion, state power and the counterproductive effect of terrorist attacks there. On a range of measures of global opinion, it is suffering.
We are not privy to the inner councils of Bin Laden’s movement. But from their perspective, it is surely inauspicious that they are endangered and unpopular in two vital places in their cosmos, Saudi Arabia, the land of the prophet, and Mesopotamia, which Bin Laden described as the ‘land of the two rivers’, the ‘capital of the caliphate’, with Baghdad as ‘the world’s millstone and pillar.’ This was not exactly what their visionaries had in mind, no matter how many explosions they can trigger around the world.
Second, by pointing to the frequency of attacks, the ‘counting incidents’ method fails to differentiate the kinds and intensities of attacks. In terms of operational success, it continues to inspire violence. But its ability to inflict complex mass-casualty atrocities has been curtailed. Despite frequent boasts, attempts at ‘spectacular’ atrocities continually collapse, are intercepted or broken up. This is partly because an international coalition of states has cooperated to make it more difficult to coordinate transnational terrorism in the First World (NOT impossible, but more difficult!). It is also because being at war with an American-led coalition has dislocated its infrastructure and organisational cohesion. It is now a more disjointed and disunited movement. Being deprived of its main sanctuary and staging post in Afghanistan, being almost driven from Anbar in Iraq, and being regularly molested in its new hideaways in Pakistan, has made it harder to operate on a grand scale.
The third difficulty with this approach is that it sets an eccentric standard, imitating the same utopian mentality of the Bush Administration, that success should be defined in absolute terms as the utter eradication of the movement and its method. Instead, we can see from opinion polls on suicide bombing, to internal schisms, to uprisings against AQ, that its violence has not had the political gains it desired within the Islamic world. The goal cannot sensibly be to abolish terrorism, but to manage the terrorist network as it busily destroys its own cause.
AQ can congratulate itself on one big thing. It has helped induce its main enemy to hurt itself in many ways. This remains one of the great dangers of terrorism, that it can goad states into self-harm. The climate of insecurity it created did play a part in making the Iraq war possible, for example. But in doing so, AQ has overreached itself, and jeopardised its own survival as a movement. It is now for the US to encourage AQ’s self-destructive tendencies, but at a lower cost.
The other mythology is that by mutating into a ‘network’, AQ has become greatly resilient. This is part of a broader trend in war studies, that stresses the strengths and dynamism of ‘netwar’, and the problems that industrial-age state behemoths like the US face in waging it.
But as new literature convincingly demonstrates, becoming a network is a decidedly mixed blessing. Networked forms can lose the capacity to forge unity of purpose, strong ties and shared strategic vision, and the loss of a safe central base disrupts effective learning and competitive selection of members. In gaining flexibility and endurance, they sacrifice command and control. Hence the hard time Al Qaeda has had with its own ‘brand’, as its affiliates commit atrocities in Algeria or Iraq that undermine its following.
So, some contrarian conclusions. Networks suffer great disadvantages. Regular attacks are not necessarily a sign of ‘winning.’ And America was not the only international actor to suffer blows in Iraq. Declaring a war on terrorism, as every Tom Dick and Harry can say, is a silly concept. But so, historically, is declaring war on America.
*Its also a really interesting analysis of how terrorist groups end or die out, a la Audrey Cronin’s work. I’m not sure about its general presumption against military force as a tool of counter-terrorism, but that’s for another time.
Cross-posted from Kings of War (1) opinions -- Add your opinion
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