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The Peculiar Case of Al Qaeda By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 20, 2002


Al Qaeda is giving lawyers, politicians and analysts a lot of headaches because it is indeed the first "post modern" terror organization. Its modus operandi is perfectly adapted to a post Cold War environment , far more so than the international and domestic legal systems and governments everywhere are--no matter the nature of those governments, democratic and Western, third world, transitional or whatever.

While it is never prudent to underestimate one’s enemy, it is even less so in the case of Al Qaeda, whose entire leadership--not just Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri--is adept at understanding and taking advantage of today’s uniquely fluid geopolitical map.

With the fall of the Soviet bloc, a large number of states--particularly in Africa, but also in the Muslim world as a whole--collapsed into black holes of anarchy (Somalia or Sierra Leone come to mind). Many of the post-colonial states were not viable to begin with, but prior to 1989 were kept afloat after a fashion, and with only a small investment, by Soviet, Warsaw Pact or indeed Western (primarily U.S. and French) military and economic aid. That aid gone, such nominal states finally faced their inherently artificial nature--and promptly collapsed.

And so we have places like Somalia and Sudan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Yemen, and, indeed, Pakistan, where the writ of the government--if any--hardly runs beyond the suburbs of the capital city, the rest of the "country" being a wildly anarchic area where a few thousand dollars and a few simple (they have to be simple in a mass of illiteracy) ideas take over.

It is precisely these holes in the Swiss cheese of the "international system" that make groups like Al Qaeda possible: the savage frontier provinces of Pakistan and Yemen, northern Nigeria, parts of Sudan and the whole of Somalia, most of West Africa, the infinite islands of Indonesia, the ethnic mish-mash of Northern Caucasus, the "triple border" area of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina--and the list goes on and on. Al Qaeda discovered this reality long before Washington did and moved into those interstices where the rule of law is a joke, where children use guns larger than themselves, where power comes from bullets rather than electoral mandates, and where mad dictators run amok.

And then there is the West. European countries as well as the United States have lost control of their borders and their cultural destinies. Airline tickets to move terrorists across countries are easily enough obtained that a critical mass of potential recruits to Islamists’ dream of universal power exists in virtually all of Western Europe. Legal systems increasingly prove inadequate in dealing with terrorism, as demonstrated most recently by the acquittal of four Al Qaeda operatives in a Rotterdam court, but also by the United States’ confused legal approach vis-a-vis Islamist terrorist suspects. Some are kept in a legal limbo in Guantanamo, some in military brigs in the United States; some are tried in federal courts, some are killed in the sands of Yemen, etc.

And then there is the inherent confusion of the Western cultural elites. Some are still trying (uselessly, but, hey, it’s all at the taxpayers’ expense) to find "root causes" of Islamist terrorism in American policies or the West’s past colonial guilt, as if they could not read Bin Laden’s own statements: he wants Spain back, he wants Alabamians to convert to "his" Islam--or else! As for the Muslim world, when many Indonesians, Pakistanis or Malays, even Turks, not to mention Arabs, think that Al Qaeda’s massacres in New York was justified by the "victimization" of Palestinians, we have an international dysfunctional culture better understood by psychologists than politicians.

Then there is the biggest problem counterterrorist operatives face: that Al Qaeda is a new animal. Sendero Luminoso in Peru (actually the communist party of Peru, according to its own description), even the Khmer Rouge or the Marxist drug dealers of Colombia’s guerrillas all had immediate political goals, as did the plane hijackers of the Palestinian "cause" during the 1970s: things that could presumably be approached in a political manner. So do ETA in Spain and France, the IRA in Britain, the Corsican separatists, etc. Even the East German-manipulated terrorists of Germany, Italy, France, and Belgium during the 1970s had immediate political goals, but not Al Qaeda.

Indeed, when terrorists are prepared to kill themselves, deterrence--a major tool in dealing with traditional terror groups--becomes futile. Before 1989 the threat of retaliation from Moscow’s puppeteers of terror could work--it was all a rational, albeit deadly, game. But for those whose game is the "recovery" of the Iberian Peninsula, life is of no significance.

Al Qaeda has also been extraordinarily successful in eliminating national and cultural distinctions among its members : Algerians and Moroccans, Egyptians, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Yemenis and French converts, Puerto Ricans and Californians, Lackawana , NY Yemeni-Americans, British mullahs on phony welfare , all make this terror organization a global, indeed a globalist, one.

Culturally, Bin Laden has clearly won one argument--despite President Bush’s disclaimers, he did make the current war one between cultures: between his version of Islam and the rest of the world. Not just the West, but the rest of the world. Since 9/11/01, this war has claimed Hindus murdered in Bali, Buddhists everywhere, Confucians and Marxists in China and Uzbekistan, a Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox killed off the coast of Yemen, Catholics and Protestants in the United States and Europe. It is indeed a war between religions, if not cultures. And, most importantly, Bin Laden has largely won this argument among the world’s fifth largest religious group : the Muslims. Faced with the choice of eliminating Bin Laden or defending him, most Muslims tend toward the latter. There are too many "but" defenses among mainstream Muslims to think otherwise.

True enough, as we all know, there is no Muslim Vatican, no single authority deciding what or who is universally accepted as beyond the bounds of "orthodox" Islam - at least not among the majority Sunni Islam. Islam is not the Catholic Church. But even so, one may wonder. The King of Morocco, self- proclaimed "Commander of the Faithful" insists (quite effectively, one might add) that the (largely illegal) mass of Moroccan residents in Europe remain his subjects--no assimilation, please! The secular regime in Algiers claims control over former Algerians in France, and the Saudis...well, the Saudis do and fund everything possible to ensure that Muslims in the West answer only to the rules of Wahabbism, not the law of their new countries, not reason, not anything other than their own 18th-century ideology.

Unless there is an extraordinary birth of a Western Islam--one that breaks some basic rules and historic traditions, accepts the reality of Muslims as a minority with no more or fewer "rights" than the existing populations in countries to which they choose to relocate, the Islamic diaspora is going to continue to be a deadly threat everywhere, and has to be contained.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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