Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murad opens with the image of a beautiful thistle flower, wrenched from a ditch, that the narrator seeks to add to his bouquet. His effort to pluck it, however,
proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side—even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand—but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibres one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed, and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful…. But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!
This late masterpiece, written in 1904 but never published in Tolstoy’s lifetime, was based on a real-life episode. In 1851 the Avar warlord Hajimurad al-Khunzaki, a confederate of the Imam Shamil, who led the resistance to Russia’s annexation of the Caucasus, betrayed his ally and went over to the Russians. In Tolstoy’s story he is driven by ambition, hoping to govern the Caucasian tribes under the “white tsar.”
The most telling portrayals in the story—apart from Hadji Murad himself, with his thistle-like mix of bravery, integrity, cunning, confusion, and childlike candor—are the complementary, almost symmetrical descriptions of Tsar Nicholas I and the Imam Shamil, both of whom are depicted as cold-eyed, ruthless autocrats who represent opposing forces of absolutism. As Tolstoy himself explained:
It is not only Haji Murad and his tragic end that interest me. I am fascinated by the parallel between the two main figures pitted against each other: Shamil and Nicholas I. They represent the two poles of absolutism—Asiatic and European.
The reality, however, was a great deal more complicated than a clash of absolutisms. Far from being the cold and ruthless autocrat depicted by Tolstoy, Shamil, as the murshid, or spiritual guide, of the orthodox Muslim Khalidiyya-Naqshbandiyya order, was a leader who sustained the loyalty of the warring Caucasian tribes by diplomacy rather than force. A Russian source described him as “a man of great tact and a subtle politician.” His charismatic appeal was underpinned by his reputation for piety and evenhandedness in dispensing justice in accordance with Islamic sharia norms. These had been severely tested when the Russians introduced alcohol into the region, corrupting, by sharia standards, the tribal chiefs who became their clients.
As a renowned warlord and tribal leader, Hadji Murad had been a Russian loyalist, defending Avaristan in the eastern part of Daghestan against Shamil’s encroachments. It was only after the Russians had replaced him as their client in Avaristan by a rival who had him arrested and abused that Hadji Murad responded to Shamil’s overtures and joined the jihad.
The result of his defection in January 1841 had been dramatic: by April Shamil ruled an area three times as large as at the beginning of 1840, with a cascade of formerly compliant clans joining the jihad. Hadji Murad’s rift with Shamil was a classic example of hubris. Hoping to be named his successor as imam, he refused to recognize the nomination of Shamil’s eldest son, Ghazi Muhammad. Faced with this challenge to his authority, Shamil convened a secret council that charged Hadji Murad with treason and sentenced him to death. Warned by friends, he redefected to the Russians in November 1851.
As an anthropologist with deep knowledge and direct experience of tribal systems, Akbar Ahmed demonstrates in The Thistle and the Drone how richly Tolstoy’s thistle metaphor applies to contemporary conditions in regions, distant from urban centers, where clans resist the writ of government while also engaging with it. He points to their “love of freedom” to act without external constraints, as well as
egalitarianism, [and] a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies…. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.
Ahmed is especially troubled by the use of drones against Muslim tribal groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but his analysis of the nature of the state and its relation with tribal peoples has application far beyond the condition of Muslim tribal societies. As he sees it, the use of unmanned aircraft as a leading counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples generally, with the US president disposing of “Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity.”
Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.
The Zeus-like power, he writes, is especially damaging to children. A Pakistani observer notes that drones circling the skies in Waziristan on Pakistan’s notoriously lawless northwest frontier “produce a monotonous buzz, almost like the sound of a generator,” making it difficult for young children to sleep. Jennifer Gibson, who contributed to a report jointly commissioned by the Stanford and New York University law schools, goes further: “Drones terrorize the civilian population. They subject whole communities to the constant threat of random annihilation.” The use of drone strikes peaked in 2010, and although the number of strikes on Pakistan has fallen each year since then, it is estimated that between 88 and 143 people there have been killed by drones this year.
Discussions about the use of drones, in the US as in Europe, have tended to focus on questions of legality and constitutionality. Their wider strategic purpose in fighting America’s enemies may be taken as a given. Scott Shane, of The New York Times, has questioned the sincerity of CIA director John Brennan’s denial that the administration prefers targeted killings to the messy business of trying to arrest suspected terrorists, which involves issues of extradition, American troops on foreign soil, and cumbersome legal processes. Shane writes:
Since Mr. Obama took office, the CIA and military have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones. Only a handful have been caught and brought to this country; an unknown number have been imprisoned by other countries with intelligence and other support from the United States.
Citing counterterrorism specialists inside and outside of government, Shane suggested that the policy of assassination or “targeted killings” has been shaped by, among other things, the decreasing urgency of interrogation as a mode of gaining intelligence “at a time when the terrorist threat has diminished and the United States has deep intelligence on its enemies.”
The claim of “deep intelligence” is questionable. As Kenneth Roth has argued in these pages,1 the Obama administration may have “dispensed with its predecessor’s language of the ‘global war on terror’” but its basic approach is similar; and in his book Ahmed suggests that the “deep intelligence” claimed for the US is profoundly inadequate, not to say deeply flawed.
The fundamental error, according to Ahmed, is that US leaders believe they are facing a threat from enemies whose motivation is primarily ideological. This was clearly stated by President Obama in his speech at the National Defense University last May, when he said that most, though not all, of the terrorism faced by America
is fueled by a common ideology—a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam. And this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist attacks.
Although al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations had suffered setbacks, said Obama, the ideology persisted, motivated by “the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings.” The primary task facing the United States must be to defeat the threat by winning “a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.” Since it was not possible for America to deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist, it sometimes had to take “lethal, targeted action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.”
In a striking reference to the terrain where the terrorists operated, the president stated:
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates try to gain a foothold in some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth. They take refuge in remote tribal regions. They hide in caves and walled compounds. They train in empty deserts and rugged mountains.
The Thistle and the Drone—published some time before Obama’s speech—makes a clear argument that the president and his advisers are putting the al-Qaeda cart before the tribal horse. This impression is reinforced by the recent events in Yemen, where an alleged plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) led to the closure of US embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa—a move that seemed to contradict Obama’s claim that Americans were safer as a result of his efforts. Rather than exploiting the denizens of “remote tribal regions” as Obama’s speech proclaimed, the terrorist activities associated with al-Qaeda and its affiliates are actively engaging the responses of tribal peoples (the thistles of Tolstoy’s metaphor) whose cultures are facing destruction from the forces of modern society—including national governments—currently led by the United States.
Ahmed’s book is a radical analysis based on extensive anthropological detail too complex to be easily summarized. A good example of his approach, however, is his analysis of the background of the September 11 hijackers. It is well known that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists were Saudi nationals. Less well known or indeed understood is their tribal background. The official report of the 9/11 Commission, based on information provided by the Saudi authorities, states that four of the thirteen “muscle hijackers”—the operatives whose job was to storm the cockpits and control the passengers—came from the al-Bahah region, “an isolated and undeveloped area of Saudi Arabia, and shared the same tribal affiliation.” Three of them shared the same al-Ghamdi surname; five others came from Asir Province, described as a poor, “weakly policed area” that borders Yemen, with two of these, Wail and Waleed al-Shehri, actually brothers.
Apart from the brief reference to “tribal affiliation,” the September 11 report skates over the fact that all of these “muscle hijackers” hailed from the contiguous regions of al-Bahah and Asir or from the Wadi Hadhramaut in southern Yemen where Osama bin Laden’s own family came from. Drawing on politically loaded information provided by Saudi intelligence and the waterboarding inflicted on two al-Qaeda operatives, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the would-be hijacker Ramzi Binalshibh, the report focuses mainly on personal contacts, training, and ideological influences. It goes so far as to state that “ethnicity generally was not a factor in the selection of operatives unless it was important for security or operational reasons.”