Mohammed Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is a fairly conventional liberal, yet he is perhaps the first liberal to attempt a fully secular understanding of Al Qaeda, in Understanding Al Qaeda: The Transformation of War (Pluto Press, 2006). For Al Qaeda has been deliberately misunderstood for reasons that are far from mysterious. We are used to the usual tryptich of reasons given for Al Qaeda's behaviour: Hatred, Envy and Bestiality. Mohamedou is unsatisfied with this baby talk. He suggests that with the refusal to ask the right questions, the United States has become a land where institutionalised racism and, shortly thereafter, secret trials, ghost detainees, secret prisons, censorship, witch hunts and torture was tolerated and implemented. A reassertion of imperialism was the medicine, not a reassessment of policy: non-military approaches have been dogmatically disdained. “Eradication – the preferred approach of French colonial authorities in 1950s Algeria and Algeria’s authoritarian government fighting Islamist militants in the 1990s – is the dominant approach”. This is imbricated with the discourse of evil, which Bush himself evokes as a noun, as an actual force in the world, with repeated emphasis.
Mohamedou therefore sets out, within his discipline of conflict research, to provide a properly materialist and international account of Al Qaeda as a political movement embedded in geopolitical realities. There's a bunch of peeee-yook stuff at the start, a half-hearted sociological critique of American society's fall from a once resplendent democratic grace, which you don't absolutely need to read to understand this book. It's a pre-emptive strike against charges of anti-Americanism, and as such isn't strictly relevant to understanding what he has to say.
Dating the clash-of-civilisations.
Mohamedou first seeks to displace the usual fetishism of that date that we all know so well, by pointing out that Al Qaeda's war with the United States began in 1991. “Contrary to what many believe, the September 2001 attacks did not mark the opening salvo of the contest between the United States and Al Qaeda … that long-coddled conflict had been going on for a while”. It was part of a a war opened by the invasion of Iraq and the placing of US troops on Saudi soil. The US intellectual class had already been initiating the formulations, such as Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis, that would legitimise a new wave of imperialism centred on the Middle East, and this was reflected in the media coverage, so that on January 21st 1996, the NYT produced a lead story: “Seeing Green: The Red Menace is Gone. But Here’s Islam.” Concepts such as the West and Islam carry weight and meaning, they “summon loyalty” – but in the US, such cultural references are used to reinforce oft-repeated notions about Islam, which “has ‘a problem’”, is “intolerant and anti-modern”. The issues that mobilised Al Qaeda were power and justice. In a message broadcast by Al Jazeera on 29th October 2004, Osama bin Laden explained that the best way to stop future attacks would be to stop threatening Muslims’ security: this is the casus belli, and it has been repeated every time a message has emerged from Bin Laden or Al-Zawahiri.
It is a cherished theme of pro-war apologists that Al Qaeda was attacking long before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. True, between 1991 and 2001, the US sustained six major assaults by Al Qaeda: 26th February 1993, the first WTC attack; 13th November 1995, the attack on a base in Riyadh; 25th June 1996, the attack on the al Khoar towers near Dhahran (a housing site for crews enforcing no-fly zone); simultaneous bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on 7th August 1998; a kamikaze attack on USS Cole warship in Yemen on 12th October 2000. And then there were two thwarted attacks: one to explode 11 American airliners over the Pacific in January 1995, and a December 2000 plot to detonate a bomb during millennial festivities in Seattle. By the same token, however, according to the US State Department, between 1980 and 1995, the US undertook 17 military operations in the Middle East. During the 1990s, of course, three specific nations came under attack: Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan.
New paradigm of war.
Al Qaeda legitimises its campaign in terms of a response to US aggression which Arab states are neither capable of nor qualified to deal with. This campaign emphasises what Mohamedou thinks is a substantial change in the nature of war. The “grammar of war” has undergone generational changes – from the Middle Ages, the main mode of war was massed manpower; before and during WWI, the focus was on destruction by airpower; from then, especially during WWII, the central tactic has been the destruction of command and control. But all three paradigms have been organised as violence between states, with civilians nominally left out of battle. The definition and codification of international law was inherently exclusionary: didn’t include colonised subjects. The German historian Heinrich Von Treitschke (incidentally the originator of the 'sonderweg' thesis about German history that was taken up by leftish historians in West Germany after the war), said that “international law become phrases if its standards are also applied to barbaric people”. During French rule of Algeria, war became total, with Algerian populations regarded as non-conventional enemies, who could be subjected to collective reprisals, summary execution and mass torture.
This is the classic war paradigm: monopoly (of the means of violence); distinction (between civilian and military); concentration (of forces); brevity (of battle); linearity (of engagement). The last two were framing principles as early as the Lieber Code drafted by Francis Lieber at Lincoln’s request in 1863. Article 29 of the Code says: “the more vigorously wars are pursued, the better it is for humanity. Sharp wars are brief”. You can see the expression of this strategy in Blitzkrieg, and the US strategy of Rapid Dominance (known commonly as 'Shock and Awe'). Mohamedou has it that Al Qaeda represents one aspect of the way in which the traditional war paradigm has broken down, specifically the "Westphalian" system. I think this is mistaken, not simply because the "Westphalian" business is largely mythical, (see Benno Teschke on 'The Myth of 1648'), but because the claims about de-statisation have been drastically exaggerated. Yes, Al Qaeda pursues sub-state warfare - but the twentieth century is littered with the debris of such modes of warfare.
However, if the novelty is a little exaggerated, Mohamedou still draws some useful insights. Al Qaeda is "positioning itself consciously and functionally on different planes of the power continuum, using the full range of kinetic force" to influence its enemy. Disparity of force is no deterrent inasmuch as it no longer functions on a straightforward plane of quantitative advantage. Asymmetry spells a disinclination to prosecute wars swiftly: it is no longer merely a condition of war, but a full-blown strategy in which the non-state group avoids constant exposure to the enemy state, and offsets the state’s calibration of its use of force. By extending the conflict, it enables itself to strike when it is ready, while its enemy is constantly in a protracted state of defensive anticipation. The geographical indeterminacy of its operations has much the same effect.
While traditional ius ad bellum involves states being the sole legitimate actors in warfare, Al Qaeda undertakes to carry out an autonomous domestic and foreign policy, given the paucity of the Arab states. This has a history: the Muslim Brothers were to be a nothing more than a welfare association promoting its version of Islamic reform until the Arab states lost the 1948 war. Only then did they take up arms against domestic states. In an analogous fashion, the defeat in 1967 also led to a flourishing of combat Islamist movements that increasingly took up arms against the state. Similarly, Al Qaeda legitimises war on civilian targets by privatising collective responsibility, holding citizens accountable for the actions of war-making powers. Bin Laden told ABC’s John Miller in May 1998: “Any American who pays taxes to his government is our target because he is helping the American war machine against the Muslim nation”. This is a theme he has gone on to repeat, as has al-Zawahiri, and as did Mohammed Siddique Khan in his video will.
If Mohamedou is right that “the geographical indeterminacy of the group’s action speaks of the dissolution of territorial power”, then he would be correct in his assessment that international law has been fundamentally altered and humanitarian law in particular, based as it is on the state-structured mode of warfare, is threatened. I think he is wrong about this, but let's hear the argument a bit more fully: international law assumes an equality of the parties involved. Recognition is the sole thing makes such standards relevant; and as international law is tautologously state-centred, states are not bound to recognise sub-state movements as equal forces. Again, Mohamedou (drawing on such writers as Mary Kaldor) seems to me to overemphasise 'de-statisation' and its consequences. To be sure, to the extent that the periphery is able to export violence to the centre, this begins to call into question the notion of a centre: but realistically, how far have these power relations altered? With the best will in the world, how could Al Qaeda possibly win as long as it remains a peripheral, subaltern force? Wasn't its most pragmatic move the decision to ally with a movement (the Taliban) that already possessed a state? International humanitarian law is not threatened here: for it is the form in which torture, starvation and mass murder has been imposed. This is reflected in the way that the US responded to the OAS when it demanded to know the status of Guantanamo: the US didn't snub the OAS or put on a swagger, but instead sent amply documented legalistic arguments for its policies.
The demands of the Prophet, perpetuated by four different caliphs, would appear to vitiate Al Qaeda's claim to piety: Do not mutilate; Do not kill little children or old men; Do not cut down trees etc etc. I'd say that at the very least Al Qaeda must have cut down a tree or two in one of its blasts. This is what Bin Laden said on 20th October 2001: “They say the killing of innocents is wrong and invalid, and for proof, they say that the Prophet forbade the killing of women and children, and this is true. It is valid and has been laid down by the Prophet in an authentic tradition. However, this prohibition on the killing of children and innocents is not absolute … God’s saying ‘And if you punish your enemy, O you believers in the Oneness of God, then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted’ … The men that God helped did not intend to kill babies; they intended to destroy the strongest military power in the world, to attack the Pentagon that houses the strength and the military intelligence”. Sheikh Nasser Ibn Hamid al Fahd argues that since it is permissible (according to Islamic scholars) to use a catapult to bombard the enemy, and this doesn’t distinguish between men, women and children, this establishes the principle that it is permissible to destroy infidel lands and kill them. We've come a long way from catapults, baby.
This is, however, an argument that would resurface in Iraq when al-Zarqawi, having declared loyalty to bin Laden, was upbraided by his former mentor Abu Mohammed al Maqdissi, who wrote an open letter urging him not to target non-combatants, “even if they are Infidels or Christians”. This did not result in a reduction in the killing of infidels, Christians, or even Muslims, (albeit it is important not to exaggerate the role of the Zarqawists in Iraq), but it did cause Zarqawi to issue statements denying this attack, excusing that one, pointing out that the accidental shedding of Muslim blood was "unavoidable" etc.
But the strategy of targeting civilians remains. Ayman al Zawahiri explained in his pamphlet Knights Under The Prophet’s Banner the rationale for these measures in terms of “the need to inflict the maximum casualties against the opponent, for this is the language understood by the West, no matter how much time and effort such operations take.” This is a tactic understood by Pape as an extreme measure undertaken for national liberation against a perceived aggressor in asymmetrical warfare. It threatens civilians usually in democratic societies from whence some threat from troops is imminent. Since it has been pursued by secular and religious forces alike, Mohamedou suggests we drop the lazy assumption that this has to do with some idiosyncratic psychology of Islam or the Arabs and instead see the theological claims as the circumstantial byproduct of a pragmatic strategy by an elite commando group. That is to say, “Al Qaeda is an industrious, committed and power-wielding versatile organisation exerting an extraordinary amount of influence and waging a political, limited and evasive war of attrition – not a religious, open-ended, apocalyptic one.”
A very brief history.
Al Qaeda is "a political movement with a demonstrated military ability, which has sought to bypass the state while coopting its attributes and channelling its resources". It has concluded that the Arab state system is dying, and incapable of defending the population’s interests. Forging itself as a vanguard, it has separated two tactical fights: the domestic war against failed states, and the international war against the ‘far enemy’: the latter involves husbanding financial and logistical resources with professional cadres and a corps of officers and permanent contacts. For instance, Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian leader of the ‘Arab Afghans’, had set up an office for logistical coordination, the Maktab al Khadamat lil MuJahideen – an international bureau for some 25,000 people. The organisation remained more or less intact after the winding down of the Soviet campaign – before Azzam’s death in November 1989, he put in place the elements of an international army in alliance with Osama bin Laden, who was later Joined by Ayman al Dhawahiri. This entity was initially dubbed ‘Al Qaeda al Askariya’. The new organisation did seek to displace traditional states to some extent: pace bin Laden’s unsuccessful offer to the Saudi government to use his force to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait. Initially, the structure was hierarchical – bin Laden, leader, Dhawahiri deputy, and both receiving advice from 31-member Shura, divided into five operational committees. The military committee, headed by Abu Obaida al Banshiri and Mohammad Atef, oversaw activities of local units, including the 300-strong 055 Brigade which was integrated into the Taliban army in its war with the Northern Alliance. It also oversaw growing number of international cells. From 1996, Al Qaeda mostly maintained its training camps while assembling a coalition of operatives and overseeing the preparation of several parallel missions.
In the Declaration of War against the United States, on the 23rd August 1996, Al Qaeda noted: “Due to the imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces, a suitable means of fighting must be adopted, namely using fast-moving light forces that work under complete secrecy … It is wise in the present circumstances for the armed forces not to be engaged in conventional fighting with the forces of the … enemy … unless a big advantage is likely to be achieved.” Al Qaeda's sophistication grew: its unsuccessful attack on USS The Sullivans off the Yemeni coast was followed by the successful kamikaze attack on the USS Cole. One of their recruits was Ali Mohammad, a serving sergeant in the US army, who trained Al Qaeda recruits in surveillance techniques, cell structures and detailed reconnaissance. Perhaps up to 100,000 were trained in the camps: maybe up to 10,000 remain active and scattered through the world, perhaps even more.
Al Qaeda had expected that when its spectacular organisation in America on - well, I forget the date - was carried out, it would have to mount a retreat. It sacrificed its foothold in a state and fought only brief battles with invading US forces where it thought there was an advantage to be gained. It lost some officers, but easily replaced these. It then sought to proliferate other groups (mini-Al Qaedas) with loose connections to the mother ship. It provides, in its more diffused form, an umbrella for 1) attacks directly commissioned by Al Qaeda through sophisticated urban operators; 2) attacks inspired by more populist associated groups in the periphery. The peripheral branches and central organ operate differently. For instance, ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ beheaded hostages and pursued anti-Shia violence, something bin Laden had not done. In the 1996 declaration, there is the insistence that “there is a duty on the Muslims to ignore the minor differences amongst themselves”. This apparently caused some brief friction between the leadership and Zarqawi himself.
Having reorganised itself, it has intervened in several elections, including the US election in November 2004 (in which Americans were advised to dislodge rulers who would pursue anyone who threatened Muslim security), and in the Spanish elections (in which a North African militia carried out attacks on Madrid trains). Since then, the newly elected Zapatero government withdrew its troops from Iraq, and bin Laden announced that there would be no further attacks on Spain. There followed an attempt to offer a truce to America's European allies, and in early 2006 to America itself. It wasn't the first time Al Qaeda had stressed that its violence would be proportionate with that of the US. In 2002, bin Laden suggested: “Whether America escalates or de-escalates this conflict, we will reply in kind”. Of course, these were rebuffed. The White House Chief of Staff put it thus: “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business”. At this point, the Toby Keith gene is supposed to kick in and goad you into leaping to your feet and waving an imaginary red, white n blue, in a drooling, saucer-eyed state.
Both the United States and Al Qaeda have reckoned on a long war. Joint Vision 2020 emphasises ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ over ‘adaptive enemies’, which is mirrored by Al Qaeda operative Sayfr al Adl’s seven-phase strategy until 2020. Only a reconsideration of policy by the US could reverse this course, but it is unambiguously opposed to such measures. Rumsfeld told the National Press Club in 2006: “The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war … fading down over a sustained period of time … The only way that terrorists can win this struggle is if we lose our will and surrender our fight”. This perspective was fleshed out in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America in March 2006. Bush's recent statements while in Vietnam ("we can only lose if we quit") sustain the strategy. The 9/11 Commission similarly concluded that Al Qaeda's was “not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it, there is no common ground – not even respect for life – on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated”.
Martin Creveld, almost two decades ago, said that: “If, as seems to be the case, the state cannot defend itself effectively against internal or external low-intensity conflict, then it clearly does not have a future in front of it. If the state does take on such a conflict, then it will have to win quickly and decisively. Alternatively, the process of fighting itself will undermine the state’s foundations”. Most such combats in the 20th Century have been concluded with political settlements, and the settlement with Spain suggests that a de facto agreement (not a literal treaty) is available to the United States. In fact, it is the only thing available if the United States is actually interested in winning the war (which is something Mohamedou does not address).
To keep this perpetual war going, the group’s political goals have been muted by US planners and ideologues, and its impress limited to terrorism, in which only a strict dichomotising and moralising condemnation is permitted. Terrorism, however, is merely one way to employ force, and the blanket condemnation of it as such simply avoids the important political scrutiny and analysis required. Terrorism is valuable as a category only if “beyond all semantic positional warfare” it locates what is specific to “certain economies and strategies of political violence”. Since terrorism is a political tool and a malleable one, it can at any moment be replaced by another one, potentially one that is legitimate in the terms of traditional war-making. Al Qaeda's cells are “no different in their organisation from secret Pentagon battlefield intelligence units”, while its strategic thinking is “akin to the military doctrine developed by the United States Army during the Vietnam War”. In that sense, the US is perfectly placed in terms of morality, and also its strategic position, to chat terms with Al Qaeda. It is not interested in doing so, so long as massive extraneous benefits accrue from the pursuit of the 'war on terror'. For this reason, Al Qaeda is misunderstood.