• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Terror: The Hidden Source

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Boys near a car destroyed by a US drone strike that targeted suspected al-Qaeda militants last year, Azan, Yemen, February 2013

Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes, including Ghamed, Zahran, and Bani Shahr. Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.

The Asiri background is highly significant because of the region’s history. For centuries the terrain, which is divided between rugged highlands with peaks rising to nine thousand feet and the coastal plain, or Tihama, was riven by tribal conflicts, as in the Caucasus and Waziristan. Like the Pukhtun clans of Waziristan, the Yemeni tribes of Asir are organized in “segmentary lineages” (i.e., prone to splitting) without formal leaders. The clans tended to quarrel among themselves when not coalescing in the face of outsiders. In 1906 the charismatic scholar-king Sayyed Muhammad al-Idrisi, connected to the Sufi or mystically oriented Sanusiyya order in North Africa, was invited to settle disputes between these warring tribes. His rule was in many ways similar to that of Shamil in the Caucasus, as described by those Russian observers, better informed than Tolstoy, who recognized that his diplomatic skills were as impressive as his military ones.

Al-Idrisi’s domain grew rapidly as tribes, attracted by his reputation for piety and justice, rallied to his cause against the Ottomans. After backing the Allies in World War I, he hoped that the victors would reward him by preserving Asir’s independence. All such hopes were dashed, however, following his death in 1922, when the region came under the sway of the reinvigorated tribal empire created by the emir of Nejd, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In his aggressive drive for territorial expansion (which included expelling the Hashemite rulers of Mecca), ibn Saud swallowed up most of the region, leaving the southern part to al-Idrisi’s inveterate enemy, the imam of Yemen. Some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the course of this conflict.

The Saudi annexation was followed by an invasion of religious clerics who imposed their narrow Salafist practices on Asiri society. Asiri males were known as the “flower men” from the flowers they wore in their hair (an indication perhaps of their status as cultivators rather than nomads). Even their turbans were adorned with flowers, grasses, and stones. Asiri women were clothed in spectacular explosions of color, their headdresses glittering with coins and jewelry. The Saudi clerics forced young males to remove their “un-Islamic” locks and headgear as well as the traditional daggers that symbolized their masculinity. The women were obliged to adopt the niqab (full facial veil) in place of the traditional headscarf.

In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and “reactionary” royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.

The strategic demands of that war prompted the Saudi ruler, King Faisal (who had led the conquest of Asir on behalf of his father, ibn Saud, in the 1920s), to build the famous Highway 15 linking Mecca with the Hadhramaut valley in southern Yemen. The construction magnate who undertook this formidable feat of engineering was Mohammed bin Laden, father of Osama. Twelve of the September 11 hijackers came from towns that lie along this highway, a key strategic asset in the program of Saudi repression that accompanied the destruction of Asiri culture. Ahmed sees “resentment against the Saudi centers of power” as a “constant undercurrent of Asir society.” It is far from coincidental that a top man on America’s “hit list” in Yemen, Ibrahim al-Asiri, alleged maker of the “underwear bomb” that failed to explode on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, comes from the region.

In contrast to Obama and his advisers, who identify “ideological extremism” as the primary motive for terror, Ahmed looks to the complex interactions between national state systems and tribal identities, as the latter react to the imposition of state authority. Like Hadji Murad, tribal leaders are torn between collaboration and resistance. While bin Laden himself may have become an ideologue, driven by a vision of global jihad against America, the Asiris and Yemenis who signed up as his “muscle hijackers” were motivated, he suggests, more by local considerations of honor and revenge, the usual responses of tribes that feel themselves threatened.

Despite their petrodollar billions, the Saudis did little for the people of Asir. Typically the Yemeni and Asiri tribesmen who drifted to cities in search of work could find only low-paid jobs as cooks, gardeners, or drivers; after guest workers arrived from South Asia and the Philippines, even these menial positions were hard to come by. Not surprisingly, given the explosive combination of neglect, marginality, and warrior tradition, Asiris found outlets in the jihads against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya.

Resentful at the flaunting of Saudi wealth, in contrast to their own loss of dignity and status, they were ripe for the anti-American messages issuing from the Sahwa (“awakening”) group of Saudi preachers in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, when the Saudi rulers invited infidel US troops into the sacred Arabian peninsular. A leading scholar of this tendency, Safar al-Hawali—whose Ph.D. research had been supervised by Muhammad Qutb, brother of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading intellectual—is an Asiri from the same al-Ghamdi tribe that produced four of the hijackers.

In this, as in numerous other settings, Ahmed puts his finger on the crucial linkage connecting the localisms of tribal conflicts with the broader Islamic notion of global jihad. His theme is not some vaguely defined “clash of civilizations” but rather the clash between metropolitan centers and rural peripheries that is internal to all modern civilizations—whether these be Islamic, Western, Russian, or Chinese. He provides numerous examples to show that the “thistles” of Tolstoy’s metaphor are to be found in a wide variety of regions, including Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan’s northwest frontier, as well as Berber North Africa, Nigeria, and Aceh in Indonesia.

Ahmed produces an impressive body of data to support his argument that tribal systems are coming under attack everywhere from the forces of the modernizing state. With regard to Waziristan, for example, where he served as a Pakistani political agent before entering academic life, he finds that

every aspect of life—religious… and political leadership, customs, and codes—is in danger of being turned upside down. The particles that formed the kaleidoscope of history and remained stationary for so long have now been shaken about in bewildering patterns, with no telling when and how they will settle into some recognizable forms.

The linkage with Islam, he suggests, is more symbolic than religious or ideological. In many Muslim societies the tribes acquire prestige through claimed (if questionable) genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammad. In these patrilineal societies the Islamic identity thus sanctioned confers legitimacy on practices that may differ significantly from the Islamic norms applied elsewhere. For example, the Pukhtunwali, or tribal code, of the Pukhtun people of Pakistan and Afghanistan combines notions of hospitality and revenge with the “constant compulsion to safeguard what is normatively understood as honor.” The same code denies inheritance to women and permits interest on loans, contrary to sharia law.

Although the Pukhtunwali tends to be glorified over other forms of identity “including Islam itself,” Pukhtuns do not recognize any contradiction with Islam. Their claimed link to the Prophet through a common ancestor is, Ahmed writes, a “cultural master stroke” that provides every local custom with a “religious cover, however tenuous.” Hence interference with local custom, or the writ of local elders, can be represented as an attack on Islam that justifies jihad.

Ahmed argues, convincingly enough, that the acts of terror or violence directed at the US or its allies are set off as much by revenge based on values of tribal honor as by extremist ideologies. In making his case, however, he de-emphasizes the role of ideology—or, to be more precise, the complex process whereby tribal ideas of revenge framed in the traditional language of Islam are transformed into global revolutionary activism. It seems fair to argue, as Ahmed does, that the values of honor and revenge inherent in the tribal systems contribute to jihadist extremism, and that by ignoring this all-important factor the US has been courting disaster. As Ahmed puts it:

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Unted States has been fighting the wrong war, with the wrong tactics, against the wrong enemy, and therefore the results can be nothing but wrong.

It would be pushing this argument too far, however, to suggest, as Ahmed appears to do by omission if not explicitly, that the ideological and organizational factors are irrelevant. As Leon Trotsky famously put it in discussing the role of the Communist Party in the Russian Revolution, “without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.” As a “piston-box” directing tribal energies away from local targets toward a global enemy epitomized by the United States, al-Qaeda may have proved less formidable than the Communists who took power in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

But the analogy still has force. As Fawaz Gerges observed in The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global2 (an indispensable account of the background to September 11 that is missing from Ahmed’s sources), the change from localism to globalism by al-Qaeda and its affiliates represents a “paradigmatic shift” among a segment of the jihadis who had previously directed their energies at overthrowing local governments they believed to be failing in their duty to rule in accordance with Islamic laws.

Frustrated in their endeavors, they concluded that the most effective means to create an Islamic polity and to defeat the “near enemy” represented by governments such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be to attack its “superpower patron, the United States.” Following the massacre and arrest of supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, along with President Obama’s refusal to call the military takeover a “coup,” there is every likelihood that this tendency will gain renewed traction. The military overthrow of an elected Islamist president after just one year—however inept, unpopular, and violent his tenure—will very likely reinforce the zeal of global jihadists, such as bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who argue that Islam and democracy are incompatible, and that the “far enemy,” the United States, should be attacked as well as its client regimes.

  1. 2

    Cambridge University Press, 2005. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print