Pondering the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks against America, I wrote this piece, which appeared in the World Commentary section of the Australian today. Link to the online version of the original article appears at the bottom of this post.
Al-Qa’ida is Still a Mystery
by Joanne Lock
BEFORE the September 11, 2001, attacks against the US, few outside the academic and intelligence communities were familiar with the name al-Qa’ida. A decade later, it pervades the collective psyche. Almost every university, news outlet, government agency and think tank now has an al-Qa’ida expert. But what have we learned about al-Qa’ida in the decade since the towers fell?
A review across academic, military, government and media sources leads to a disturbing realisation. Despite a decade of intensified analysis, there is little clarity and even less consensus on the definition of al-Qa’ida. Of course, a secretive terrorist group is not exactly easy to research. Yet the line between opinion and evidence-based analysis is thoroughly blurred on this important subject. Rigorous research is certainly being conducted. It’s just obscured within the avalanche of punditry and mutual reiteration that has developed around the subject since 9/11. To illustrate, I’ve sampled characterisations from respected commentators. Readers familiar with the field will recognise many sources, but for everyone else, Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” might spring to mind.
First, experts tend to define al-Qa’ida in the abstract. Following September 11, the group was compared to the mythological Greek Hydra (“cut off one head and two more will grow in its place”). Variations on the Hydra theme abound. Al-Qa’ida is a wounded snake, a snake with the head of Medusa, a headless set of tentacles and a dragon with multiple heads. It is a Tasmanian earthworm and a cockroach (both of which can live without their heads, apparently). It is even a chicken (cut off the head and the rest of the body will run all over the place and end up dying somewhere).
Al-Qa’ida is also described as a cancer, a breach in the hull of a ship, a piece of knitting (“complex, interwoven, at times impenetrable”) and a computer virus. It is a burst thermometer, a box of tissues and a balloon (“squeeze it in one place and it bulges elsewhere”). It resembles a fungus, a sand dune, a cresting wave and a virus (“when it appears en masse, it indicates something is wrong with a country’s immune system”). It is a hive of bees that has declared war on a herd of elephants, a media brand, a tool, a plague and a shark that must continually move or perish. If that’s not abstract enough, al-Qa’ida is a precept, , a way of working, a force multiplier and a modernist phenomenon.
Regardless of whether such comparisons accurately portray al-Qa’ida’s mode of being, abstractions are by nature speculative. Only rarely are they accompanied by supporting data. Without that, regardless of the expertise of the writer, these kinds of comparisons are opinion, not analysis. Academic eminence is no reliable indicator of veracity on matters al-Qa’ida, either.
Creative abstractions aside, what is al-Qa’ida’s organisational model, size, reach? Again, we can take our pick from hundreds of definitions. Al-Qa’ida is a corporation with Osama bin Laden as CEO, a terrorist Ford Foundation, a franchised social movement, a federation of Islamist groups and a global tribe waging segmental warfare. It is a decentralised network of regional affiliates, a monolithic, hierarchical organisation, a networked transnational Islamic insurgency and a globally distributed irregular army. It is a revolutionary Salafist mujaheddin terrorist organisation, the vanguard of a violent Muslim revivalist social movement and a death cult. Some opt for a conceptual bet each way, defining al-Qa’ida as four different kinds of organisation in one, combining features of military, criminal, political and commercial enterprises. It is even a universal enemy that exists everywhere but nowhere.
Some try to define al-Qa’ida by ascertaining what it isn’t. It is not a militant religious group, but a cult. It is not a cult in the way a cult-busting organisation defines that term. It is not racist but Islamist, not Muslim but political, not a religious organisation but a terrorist group, not a terrorist group but an insurgency, not a group but a notion. Al-Qa’ida is not Islamo-Fascist but Islamo-Bolshevist. It is not like the World Bank, the Gambino crime family, the German army, the Viet Cong, the IRA, a drug cartel or O.J. Simpson. It is not part of the Arab Spring, not behind the insurgents in Libya and it is not Yemen. Apparently, it is not the first terrorist organisation to make terrorism its focus. It is a product of today’s interconnected world and it is not going away, ever. Yet, it is not and never will be an existential threat.
Confused? So is the literature. Bin Laden’s death has been hailed as a blow to the terrorist organisation, but is it really? Once again, headless chickens and mythological monsters pepper the analysis.
A decade after 9/11, the security landscape is forever changed. The war in Afghanistan endures and encroachments on civil liberties are justified by the terrorist threat. It’s not unreasonable for the public to expect more than multiple choice answers to the fundamental question “What is al-Qa’ida?”. Instead, much of the available analysis brings to mind another metaphor – that of a bird flying in ever-decreasing circles until it disappears up its own behind.
Joanne Lock is an independent writer and media consultant. A former member of the Australian diplomatic service, she studied political science and international relations at the University of Queensland
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