Thursday, June 22, 2006

Of Pirates and Terrorists

Over three years ago in Washington I interviewed Bruce Hoffman of the RAND corporation - one of the worlds leading academic researchers on terrorism and political violence. He said already then - less than a year and a half after 9/11 - that it is better to think of al-Qaeda as an ideology than as a movement. This is something that all my research since has not led me to question. Rather, three years on its seems to be even more the case.

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of Open Source discussing Iraq and al-Qaeda after Zarqawi and one of the guests, Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker (and author of an excellent article on Ayman al-Zawahiri), made an almost throwaway yet brilliant comment. He said:
"[Al Qaeda] is like a pirate flag; anybody can run it up, you can just call yourself Al Qaeda. I think that Zarqawi was the last one who formally went through the motions of saying ‘can I join this organization?’"

I would still say that Dr. Hoffman was/is correct - except for one of the most noticeable things about al-Qaeda is its lack of an identifiable political ideology in the sense that the western world has become used to various "-isms". Bin Laden has always had concrete political aims, as analysts like Michael Scheuer (formerly of the CIA, now at the Jamestown Foundation) have tried to point out to particularly the American media which seems far more interested in describing it as nihilistic violence. There is an ideology behind the Salafi-Jihadi violence we have seen from London to Bali but it is defuse, vague, and often couched in language and terminology designed to appeal to al-Qaeda's core audience. It is also flexible enough to be adaptable to local specificities. We should attempt to understand it but this is by no means a straightforward task.

In this sense, the Jolly Roger is a superb analogy that brings home what al-Qaeda is to a non-specialist audience with real clarity. In the days of the pirates there did not have to be links between different pirate crews or commanders, yet when a merchant vessel saw the skull and crossbones flying from an approaching ship anywhere in the world they knew exactly what to expect. We should no longer fetishize "links" to try and prove that Mr. X arrested for a bomb plot in so-and-so western city once met master-terrorist Abu al-Y who was last seen hiding from American predators drones in the hills of South Waziristan - that's for the police and intelligence agencies to work out. If Mr. X and his mates in Leeds, or Toronoto, or Lille think they are doing global jihad for al-Qaeda, they are al-Qaeda - links or no links.


KGS said...

That is probably one of the better analagies I have ever read on Al-Qaida affiliates. I believe that the idea is very understandable to the general public.

That the British finally beat the pirates, in part (to becoming more of a nuisance than a issue of national security) by depriving them a safe haven to operate from, resembles the Afghanistan campaign.

Anonymous said...

Another historical analogy might be the KKK: anyone who pulled a white sheet over their head was the Klan, hence the failure the attempts of self-styled Klan leaders (notably Nathan Bedford Forrest) to control 'their' followers. (No other parallel between the KKK and al-Qaida is implied here.)

Anonymous said...

OK, this is my second attempt to post this comment, hope it works this time. Can't see what would be unacceptable about this:
Another possible parallel would be the KKK. The Klan was anyone who put on a white sheet and started burning crosses (and people). There was never any central organization, and self-styled leaders (notably Nathan Bedford Forrest) who tried to moderate the actions of 'their' followers always failed.

Anonymous said...

OK, here goes the 3rd attempt at commenting...
Another comparison might be the KKK who were basically any white guy who put on a sheet and started burning crosses and people. The first nominal head of the supposed organization, Nathan Bedford Forrest, tried to rein in 'his followers' and found most of them had no idea he was supposed to be their leader and just ignored him...

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