Killing Al Qaeda

I listened to two stories in Morning Edition (NPR) this morning. The first was an interview with U,S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker about his experience of and thoughts about the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 9/11/01 and subsequent events.

I was struck by something Crocker asserts:

“What I say in the case of Afghanistan is, you know, this is where 9/11 came from. We’re engaged with the same adversary that gave shelter and space to al-Qaida to plan those attacks — the Taliban.”

I was surprised to hear Crocker say that Afghanistan is “where 9/11 came from,” by virtue of the Taliban providing Al Qaeda with a place to plan. Even sadder that President Obama said the same thing when he endorsed the Afghan war (“because that’s where al-Qaida is”).

In concrete terms, yeeeeesssss (and I assume that Obama was making the distinction, that al-Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq, where the Bush administration started a war after 9/11, but in Afghanistan, thus justifying that war) but in every other way except the most concrete, 9/11 came from — and by our response, has led to, I think — a global anti-Western movement that’s fueled by oppression, indignation, religious fanaticism, fear of annihilation, belief in sovereignty and intolerance for outside interference, and which has been enabled by an unwavering focus among adherents, coincidence and “luck,” and both the mimetic engagement and the distractability of the West.

The Taliban, in its fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, did unify and strengthen as a cohesive group in Afghanistan. But it was inspired, in nascent form, in India during the long (and ongoing) fight against the Hindu-ization of Indian politics, when Sunnis started madrassas (schools) in the Deobandi (Muslim) tradition (more on the Deoband schools). Later these schools were opened in Pakistan and then in Afghanistan, where the Taliban developed — helped along by Pakistan’s intelligence service — into a more localised organisation, made up of primarily ethnic Pashtuns. In the 1990s, some of the madrassa students were the children who had been orphaned by the war with the Soviets, who had suffered (they may have felt) the consequences of outside interference. The Taliban almost died out in the early 2000s, but after the U.S. started fighting a war in Iraq, it regrouped and strengthened again.

Al Qaeda’s forerunner organisation also operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the 1980s and 1990s (though when bin Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia, he and al-Qaeda were based in Sudan from 1992-1996, and the organisation also operated from Pakistan during this time), funded by money from Saudi Arabia and from the U.S., who financially supported the Arab mujahideen fighting the Soviets; some of those mujahideen joined what would become Al Qaeda. But far from being an Afghan creation, Al Qaeda is composed mostly of Arabs or Islamic militants from countries other than Afghanistan. As a scholar on Afghanistan, Barnett Rubin, said in 2004: “Al-Qaeda…is a kind of globalized anti-imperialist movement with Islam as its ideology.”

Al-Qaeda has expanded its base now into many countries, including Saudi Arabia, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Niger, Mauritania, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with inroads into Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Libya, and Chad. [An interesting article on this topic is Robert Worth’s “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” (July 2010)]. The Council on Foreign Relations says Al-Qaeda is connected to groups around the world, including (besides those named above) groups in Egypt, Iraq, Kashmir, Uzbekistan, Algeria, Malaysia, the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Peter Galbraith, in a lecture last summer, suggested that the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Europe and possibly the U.S. all have more Al Qaeda operatives than Afghanistan does. Barbara Sude, who tracked Al Qaeda for the CIA for many years and who is now an analyst with the Rand Corporation, said earlier this week that Al Qaeda has “a lot of Europeans and a lot of U.S. people also working for them.”

Crocker himself notes that “there’s al-Qaida in North Africa, remnants of al-Qaida still in Iraq.” But, he says, “al-Qaida central, in my judgment, is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”

If we’re determined to go to war with all the places where the perpetrators of 9/11 (Al Qaeda operatives) came from, then we have quite a world war on our hands. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were in Afghanistan for good reason, but it’s certainly not the only place — nor perhaps the primary place — they were, had been, or are now. The conditions that made Afghanistan (and Pakistan) a breeding ground for terrorism existed and still exist many places.

The second story I heard contrasted the lead-up to the events of 9/11 with vignettes of Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, and Richard Clarke, longtime White House counterterrorism chief.

What caught my attention in that story were two things:

>> the role of coincidence: Mohammed Atta and his friends had decided to fight in Chechnya, against the Russians, until “they met another Muslim on a train” who suggested they go to Afghanistan to get training first. This occurred in 2010, just “a month after bin Laden approved [the] plot” to attack the U.S. and started looking for the right people to accomplish it. And, it’s not exactly coincidental that Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets, or that the U.S. funded those who later helped develop Al Qaeda during that time, but that war laid some of the ground for Afghanistan’s centrality in the attacks of 9/11.

>> the distractability of the U.S. government and citizens: Ambassador Richard Clarke and others felt in the months before Sept. 2011 that an attack of some sort was coming, but “Clarke couldn’t get the Bush administration to plan a Cabinet-level meeting on al-Qaida. Too many people were on vacation.” Similarly, two years earlier, in 1999, “Clarke had been warning for years about the threat Osama bin Laden posed. The U.S. had been tracking bin Laden through Afghanistan.” But the U.S. was also focused in January and February of that year on the Senate impeachment trial of Clinton, a consequence of his relationship with Monica Lewisnki. Another distraction mentioned: The contentious 2000 Bush-Gore election and its recount. This contrasts to the strict focus of the 9/11 planners and attackers on achieving their goals.

This talk of distractability echoes comments made in the Dartmouth lecture series last year. Jim Miklaszewski, Chief Pentagon Correspondent for NBC News, said that “The Taliban knew America would be distracted. A common saying among them is, ‘You have the watches; we have the time.’ I.e., they can wait out the empire.” Former CIA station chief Haviland Smith said, in his lecture: “Counter-insurgencies are not good things for ADHD nations to get involved in.”

I look at this from a mimetic theory standpoint, which suggests that “Satan cannot cast out Satan.” That is, we can’t expunge evil — or aggression, terrorism, revenge, hated, envy, victimising, scapegoating, and violence in general — using violence. Killing our enemy may kill that particular enemy, but it also perpetrates the same killing mechanism on and on and on. As natural and satisfying as it can feel to lash back after being attacked, and as good as it would feel to win the “war on terrorism” and thereby feel we have regained some control over the future, imitating violence is ineffective in decreasing violence.

As many research studies have shown, not to mention history and most people’s personal experience, almost all of us will react aggressively and even cruelly in certain circumstances. In fact, in circumstances not unlike those perceived by terrorists and convicted criminals the world over: feeling chronically oppressed; believing a grave injustice has been done to us or those we love; when surrounded by people who believe and behave as we do; fearing destruction of ourselves, our status, or what we hold most dear, whether people, hope for the future, religious or other beliefs, etc. This is not to excuse terrorism or violence, in any way. It’s to say that if we want to finally expunge violence by using violence, we will have to kill all of humanity.


World: Taliban and Al-Qaeda — Provincial vs. Global by By Ron Synovitz, August 2004 at Radio Free Europe.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ backgrounder on al-Qaeda (a.k.a. al-Qaida, al-Qa’ida), updated Aug. 2011.

A Decade After Sept. 11, Al-Qaida Has Morphed, by Dina Temple-Raston, All Things Considered, 8 Sept. 2011.

Notes from Dartmouth lectures on The Perilous Triangle summer 2010: 1, 3, 6, 7.

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