Threat Assessment

Cross posted from The American Prospect

Terrorism penetrates the psyche by being unpredictable. Terrorists rely not only on the element of surprise but also on a second-level uncertainty to strike so deep: The difficulty of knowing exactly who the terrorist might be. Background is no guide. Many of the 9-11 plotters had tertiary educations. Others, like the self-starting (and foiled) millennium bomber and former petty thief Ahmed Ressam, came from the social margins. Ethnic profiling, proposed again recently by New York Representative Peter King, hardly works. The July 2005 London attackers and the recent High Wycombe arrestees both defied racial stereotypes. Any halfway calculating terrorist group, moreover, will simply work around ethnic profiling.

Worse, al-Qaeda has shifted from a centralized, geographically situated entity that operated in eastern Afghanistan into a borderless network, connected by Internet tendrils and shared sentiments. Its ideas spread like viruses. The key questions for counter-terrorism policy involve understanding not only the virus's DNA, and also how it propagates.

For all the cheap talk of civilizations clashing, few have examined Osama bin Laden's particular ideological concoction. Mary Habeck, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University's international affairs school, takes it seriously. Her Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and War on Terror is one of the clearest and most concise introductions to the peculiar blend of eschatological egomania and Islam that al-Qaeda proposes. Like Christian theology and exegeses, Quranic readings have run in various directions. Habeck sketches one discrete tradition, running from 14th-century jurist Ibn Taymiyya to 20th-century Egyptian radicals Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Her focus then turns to Islamist ideas of political theory, from its wide-eyed embrace of Samuel Huntingdon's thesis to an erosion of strict religious rules for war.

Echoing Peter Bergen, Habeck argues that al-Qaeda's failed to achieve the principle ideological goal on 9-11 -- catalyzing a global war between Islam and Christianity. Only thanks to the ill-conceived and recklessly executed Iraq War, among other things, did bin Laden's vision gain fresh currency. Thus Habeck recommends that we not rely solely on political and military means in counteracting that vision. Marginalizing jihadi ideologies and their carriers by supporting less extremist clerics, Habeck argues, offers the path to success.

Oddly, such prescriptions have rather little do with the ideological exposition that precedes it. As Habeck surely knows, ideological incoherence is no obstacle to strategic success. Stalin's 1938 Dialectical and Historical Materialism is no guide to events on the Eastern Front of World War II.

The ideology of bin Ladenism holds some interest, like the dead, infertile thoughts of a Stalin or Pol Pot, but offers little in terms of strategic instructiveness. Given Habeck's conclusions, it's worth wondering why she did not write a book like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Treading the same ground as the 9-11 Commission report, Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker¸ casts greater light on the development of al-Qaeda. Unlike the commission, Wright is not hobbled by reliance on fragmentary half-truths gleaned from CIA's "high-value" detainees, filtered through agency screens. (Moreover, he pinpoints with ferocious accuracy the moments at which government agencies failed to share information that could have led to the 9-11 plot's unraveling. The CIA, driven by interagency jealousies and dismissive of legal constraints, comes in for Wright's particular ire. Agency withholding of information about the bombing of the USS Cole, he notes, not only prevented the intelligence community from piecing together the 9-11 plot, but was criminal "obstruction of justice in the death of 17 American sailors.")

As Wright acutely notes, it was never ideological affinities that bonded together members of al-Qaeda. With a few important exceptions, it was "displacement" that those who came to Afghan terrorist training camps in the late 1990s shared. These were, by conventional measures, intelligent men who found themselves migrants or exiles in societies that cabined their ambitions. This is certainly true for bin Laden himself. Wright shows how bin Laden père transcended his roots in the Hadramout region of Yemen and made himself indispensable to Saudi society, but bin Laden himself proved unable to live up to his father's legacy in business. As a Yemeni, moreover, bin Laden found himself frozen out of many of the modes of advancement open to his friends with Saudi roots. Transnational jihadism gave men like bin Laden a sense of belonging. One exception to this trend seems to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, who grew up to be a physician in a posh Egyptian suburb. Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden have other similarities, though. Unlike their younger compatriots, for example, both came into puritanical Islam at a tender age. Both found legitimacy in outflanking others in the radicalism of their views.

Yet ideological radicalism itself didn't determine the violent form al-Qaeda would eventually take. Circumstances, contingencies, and the ineluctable dint of character -- all these factors, and not mere ideology, account for it. One of The Looming Tower's many telling passages is Wright's description of bin Laden's 1996 flight from Sudan. Up until that moment, Wright suggests, bin Laden might have remained a terrorist financier, rather than an ideological entrepreneur propelling the 9-11 conspiracy. When he fled Sudan, bin Laden lost the lion's share of his wealth and many of his followers. Arriving in Afghanistan, he had few allies and was wary of the newly formed Taliban regime. Subsequent strategic choices by both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, especially the decision to merge al-Qaeda with the Egyptian al-Jihad, were crucial. This analysis is corroborated by scholars, such as Fawaz Gerges, who have examined closely the traceries of radicalism in the Middle East.

What matters more than ideology, then, is personality and circumstances. The first terrible stirring of the 9-11 plot is telling in this regard. It was Hamburg 1996. Future hijacker Mohammad Atta wrote a will outlining his desire to die by suicide attack. The will, Wright suggests, hints at two sources of anger: Middle Eastern politics --specifically, Israel's 1996 invasion of Lebanon -- and Atta's "conflicted sexuality," manifested in a neurotic repulsion toward women. For someone like Atta, the exact details of jihadist ideology were less important than its function as a vehicle to channel otherwise exogenous frustrations.

Wright and Habeck provide worrying reminders of the complexity of the needed responses to terrorism and the urgency of transcending the kind of petty partisan point scoring that will likely dominate this election season. Habeck alone pitches explicit prescriptions, but it is Wright's thought-provoking account of organized radicalism's roots that likely will provide enduring insights for citizens and policy-makers seeking to understand the motivating forces behind terrorists.

Aziz Huq: "Threat Assessment" (PDF)