Behind Enemy Lines | The Nation


Behind Enemy Lines

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The Bush Administration appears to underestimate the importance of this type of imagery. In terms of "message," Washington's answer to Al Qaeda's leader--a man who relinquishes vast wealth to subsist on unripe pomegranates and bread on the frigid Afghan terrain; who speaks of universal issues like faith, justice and retribution; who vows to bring down the world's Goliath and has already dramatically struck at it--was to create a bureaucratic office within the State Department called the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and to send former White House counselor Karen Hughes as its first officer on "listening tours" to tell the world that yes, she is a mother, and yes, there are many mothers in America. Upon reaching Jakarta this past October, Hughes breezily told an audience of Indonesians: "My state of Texas is very big. So you can imagine my surprise to learn that your country, Indonesia, is three times bigger than my big state of Texas." Now, imagine for a moment: You're an Indonesian and you're confused about the United States. Whose message do you take seriously?

About the Author

Raffi Khatchadourian
Raffi Khatchadourian has written on militant Islam in Central Asia and North Africa for several publications, including...

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As it happens, the Bush Administration's worst response to bin Laden wasn't to unleash Karen Hughes but to invade and occupy Iraq in what the Pentagon might call the War Within the Long War. Whereas the invasion of Afghanistan greatly weakened Al Qaeda, removing from it an important stronghold, killing or capturing its top leaders and forcing operatives into hiding, the war in Iraq diverted American military resources away from the pursuit of bin Laden, gave Al Qaeda a point of focus, an opportunity to engage the enemy in conditions favorable to it and a chance to train new recruits--basically, a means to regain its strength. "Islamist militants are happy that the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq," Bergen writes. "Without the Iraq War, their movement, under assault externally and fragmented internally, would have imploded a year or so after September 11." Bin Laden, who loathed Saddam Hussein and his secular regime, has called the Iraq War a "golden and unique opportunity." With Iraqi civilian casualties in the tens of thousands and the White House's justification for the war a figment, it only helps bin Laden make his case to the world. (Perhaps one of the most surreal moments during the Long War occurred last October, when Bush said of bin Laden, without any irony, "Our new enemy teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed to serve a political vision.") In May Sayf al-Adl, an Al Qaeda military commander, said that prompting the United States "to come out of its hole" was one of the 9/11 plot's "ultimate objectives." By drawing America into the Middle East, he explained, Al Qaeda knew it could easily fight Americans and that it would gain "credibility" among Muslims and "the beleaguered people of the world."

There is a hint of hindsight to these pronouncements, and while Congressional researchers in their recent government study "Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology" are willing to take Adl at his word, Bergen seems more skeptical. He points out that another aspect of bin Laden's persona is his impulsiveness, a trait he has demonstrated throughout his career as a militant. "September 11 showed that al Qaeda could attack the United States itself," Bergen writes, "but it turned out to be something of a kamikaze mission for bin Laden's organization, as the American response to the attacks was to decimate al Qaeda and destroy its Taliban partners." As a result, bin Laden's organization was forced to adapt. In November 2002, Al Qaeda's top leadership reportedly convened a meeting in northern Iran, where members recognized that they could no longer function within their existing hierarchy. After much discussion, they decided to become even more decentralized, according to a team of West Point scholars in their paper "Harmony and Disharmony," an analysis of the Defense Department's massive database of primary Al Qaeda documents. Meanwhile, as the organization shifted in structure, Abu Jandal explains, a much more profound development occurred. "Al Qaeda became an ideology," he says, and "what effected this transformation from an armed group into an ideology is the United States."

Many terrorism experts agree that this adaptability is a mark of Al Qaeda's astounding resilience. But since 9/11 an alternate theory has emerged suggesting that Al Qaeda in its newly fractured form, beset by ideological rifts, may be its own worst enemy. Bergen, along with the team at West Point and Fawaz Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence who interviewed numerous Islamist militants for his excellent book The Far Enemy, point out that bin Laden's strategy--attacking the "head of the snake"--was always a deeply controversial move within the jihadi community, and that the further the Long War progresses, the more controversial that move has become. Gerges makes this case persuasively, citing the testimony of disaffected militants such as Abu al-Walid al-Masri, who once worked closely with bin Laden but who now holds undisguised contempt for his "recklessness." (At one point, Walid angrily says that bin Laden "was not even aware of the scope of the battle in which he opted to fight, or was forced into fighting. Therefore, he lacked the correct perception and was not qualified to lead.") The West Point analysts also note that Al Qaeda documents "reveal a surprising level of infighting and conflict," creating many opportunities--some military but more, perhaps, ideological--that the United States can exploit to combat Al Qaeda.

Since 9/11 bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have released more than thirty audio- and videotapes, which averages about one communiqué every six weeks; lower-level functionaries have spoken more frequently. After combing through this extensive jihadist literature, Gerges concludes that "Al Qaeda's reaction to its Muslim critics has become more volatile and abusive, a clear sign of desperation and escalation of the war within." In 2003, for instance, Zawahiri wrote a book titled Loyalty to Islam and Disavowal to Its Enemies, and he warned of "a misleading intellectual and moral campaign" that was threatening the movement. Zawahiri, much like bin Laden, is a man who seeks "revenge" and "retribution" for the suffering he finds in the Muslim world. (Last year, after the London bombings, he warned Europe: "It appears that you want us to make you taste the horrors of death. So taste some of what you made us taste.") The object of that revenge, Zawahiri insists to wayward jihadists, must be the West. In fact, if Al Qaeda's motivating logic can be reduced to any single principle, it is that ancient code of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, or "terror for terror," as Bruce Lawrence titles one of bin Laden's interviews. Bin Laden's vanguard, at its core, weaves toxic religious commitments with political grievances to form a cult of vengeance.

Vengeance is both immediate and primordial, what Martha Nussbaum calls "the primitive sense of the just," offering clarity of action when there is none, reducing complex situations to a simple and forceful binary struggle. As the 9/11 attacks unfolded, an aide to bin Laden watched the coverage on an Arab news channel. He recalled: "The scene was showing an Egyptian family sitting in their living room, they exploded with joy." When the aide looked to the bottom of the TV screen, he noticed a subtitle that read: "In revenge for the children of [Palestine], Osama bin Laden executes an operation against America." He rushed to bin Laden, who was conferring with fifty people in a room nearby. "I tried to tell him about what I saw," the aide said, "but he made a gesture with his hands, meaning: 'I know, I know.'" What bin Laden did not know was the limitations of vengeance, the ephemeral nature of its satisfaction, the inherent bankruptcy of its form of redress. Vengeance is an unstable foundation for a movement because, like a centrifuge, it propels the aggrieved to the furthest extremities of violence (a problem that Al Qaeda's leadership began to recognize when it admonished Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq for his gruesome beheadings). Vengeance is shortsighted, blinding. It matches injustice with more injustice. And when vengeance is met with an opposite force of vengeance, as history and literature tell us, the result, inevitably, is tragedy.

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