August 10, 2004

Al-Qaeda on the Inside

So far, I haven’t seen much conversation about Alan Cullison’s fascinating article in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly (available online to subscribers only now, unfortunately) that centers on information he gleaned from an al-Qaeda laptop acquired right after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Perhaps that’s because the information in the article tends to be discomforting for both the ardent defenders of the Bush Administration and some of its strongest detractors.

Cullison’s account fills what I feel is an extraordinary gap in our national—indeed, our international—discourse about al-Qaeda in specific and militant Islamacists in general. There are some interesting intellectual histories of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism out there, including Paul Berman’s contentious linking of fascism to Islamacism. There are some good institutional histories of the spread of particular Islamic educational and ideological projects under Saudi patronage. There are good accounts of the social roots of Islamicism in contemporary Arab nations, and of the role of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in providing actual military experience to future jihadis.

But there’s almost nothing that really gets ethnographically inside of an organization like al-Qaeda, that gives us a good model of how they think and operate on a day-to-day basis. All we have had so far is a lot of loose talk about Islamofascism from people who have zero curiosity about the enemy they propose to fight, or on the other side of things, a lot of lazy assumptions about the relationship between terrorism and past U.S. hegemony, as if US policy is a kind of “just add water, create terrorism” thing. In one case, we have terrorists as remorselessly unidimensional, in the other case, as people without real agency who exist as a kind of social formation produced automatically and monolithically by events.

Cullison discovered some interesting things on the laptop he acquired that finally begin to flesh out the complex reality more meaningfully. On one hand, it seems to me that defenders of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” can actually come out of the article armed with some new support for their views. First, it’s very clear that 9/11 was not a strategic aberration, and that the current security alerts may well be warranted and legitimate, that al-Qaeda, whatever it is and however it is constituted, intends to attack the United States, Western Europe and indeed “Western” influences wherever it can, however it can. If 9/11 wasn’t convincing enough, Cullison’s information should convince more: al-Qaeda’s plans for terrorism are serious, substantial and of long-standing.

More to the point, much of what Cullison found tends to confirm something that George Bush and his associates have said since 9/11, and sometimes been mocked for saying, that al-Qaeda’s principal motivations for planning attacks against the West have a great deal to do with abstract hatred for Western freedoms. Cullsion found, for example, that news broadcasts from the West were carefully saved and compiled on the laptop by al-Qaeda observers, but that the image of female newscasters was always covered over. More generally, I see considerable evidence in what Cullison describes of a non-negotiatble philosophy of total struggle against the West. There’s nothing as tangible and achievable as a simple withdrawal from Saudi Arabia or a simple ending of support for corrupt Arab autocracies here. It might be that those moves would undercut the larger popular enthusiasm for Islamcism in parts of the Arab world, but they would do nothing to placate the core of al-Qaeda’s membership as it stood in late fall 2001. There's also some very interesting and sometimes rather funny material that indicates that al-Qaeda has been actively trying to figure out how to obscure the differences between its members and other Muslims or Arabs and has given serious thought to how to move unmolested across borders and through airports.

Now on the other hand, you can’t just take what you want from the article and ignore the rest. If you go to it and find support for the proposition that the fight against al-Qaeda really is total war, and that a tight focus on homeland security is justified, you have to also deal with another fact that the article extensively documents: that the strongest hope that some al-Qaeda members took into planning for 9/11 is that the United States would respond over-aggressively and clumsily to the attack and entrap itself in a no-win war close to where Islamicist insurgents might inflict heavy and continuing damage on the Americans. In other words, what many critics of the Iraq War said before the invasion, that the Iraq War would turn out to serve al-Qaeda’s interests, to grant al-Qaeda's fondest wish, appears to be something that al-Qaeda also believed.

It doesn’t mean that this is necessarily true—another thing that the article does wonderfully is to capture al-Qaeda’s leaders as fallible and capable of serious miscalculation, financial mismanagement and petty in-fighting over small perogatives—but I think the article, read seriously and honestly, is yet another nail in the coffin of the war in Iraq, and yet more confirmation that anyone serious about the war against terrorism should have been against that war from the outset, and should turn against it now.