Jason Burke: Al-Qaeda

The first non-fiction book I've read in a long time, "Al-Qaeda" is a refreshing insight into the history and future of radical Islam. The book shatters a number of myths and offers a sobering prospect of a future that is a lot less simple than Dubya and his staff would have you believe.
The book itself can be pretty daunting in its endless enumerations of power shifts and makings and breakings of alliances between endless radical factions. Most chapters bravely begin with a concrete scene ("We drove into Kandahar around noon") but inevitably deteriorate into a detailed family tree of Islamist splinter groups ("Opposing the Sunni states was a second axis comprising Iran and their Shia proxies among the Hazara factions within Afghanistan.")
That said, there is much to discover here, such as:

  • Al Qaeda is much more an ideology than an actual organization, especially after 9/11. The bombs in Bali and Madrid were planted by people who were in no way in contact with Bin Laden or his associates, and their arguments differed both from each other's and from the 9/11 attackers'. The fact that Madrid was not a suicide attack is also a "break with tradition". The problem is not finding the terrorists who were behind 9/11 (many of whom were caught), but realizing that terrorism has changed from something local and factional to something scattered and unified.
  • Bin Laden did not get most of his money from his family. When his father died, most of the man's estate went to the eldest son. Rather, Bin Laden got (and gets) his money through charities, from donations by mostly Saudi Arabian businessmen.
  • There are no terrorist demands to meet. Asking what the terrorists want is absurd, not because they can't be reasoned with, but because they are too diverse. The only thing that more or less binds the terrorists from Bali, Madrid and London together is some abstract notion of a 'cosmic struggle' between the Arab world and the West, a convenient scapegoat for everything that is wrong in the Middle East. Bin Laden can be credited with coming up with this abstract goal, that manages to bring together groups that normally would want to kill each other, such as the former Baatists (ex-Saddam Hussein people) and foreign mujahideen (radical Muslims) in Iraq. As Burke wryly notes, the Baatists supply the money and weapons, and the mujahideen supply the willingness to blow themselves up.
  • From the perspective of terrorism, 9/11 marked the end of an era, not the beginning. The WTC bombing in '93, the attack on the US Embassies in Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole, all fall into the pattern of suicide attacks using big explosives on very symbolic targets. In contrast, post-9/11 attacks are marked by non-suicide bombings using small devices.
  • Al Qaeda did not go out to find, recruit and brainwash its terrorists. Rather, would-be terrorists volunteered for training, or prepared attacks completely independently and only contacted Bin Laden to ask if they could attribute said attack to him. The willingness of young men, often guided by an older mentor, stems more from deep dissatisfaction with the West. War in Islamic countries only serves to reinforce the notion that the West is evil.
  • Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. In fact, when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1993, Bin Laden proposed to the Saudi Arabian government to supply an elite group of Islamist fighters to fight back the secular invaders into Iraq. He was horrified to learn that the Saudi had employed the help of Christian soldiers, from the US, instead.

Posted by cronopio at 01:14 PM, August 01, 2005