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Terror: The Hidden Source

Can ideas of revenge built into the localism of tribal politics really explain the brutality of September 11, which killed some three thousand innocent people, including Muslims, working in the World Trade Center, along with the hijackers? Can they help us understand the ferocious armed attack of the Shabab militants on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya? Ahmed supplies a mountain of evidence showing that the current use of tactics such as what he calls the “inhuman, un-Islamic, and deadly” use of suicide bombing is a recent development that departs from previous norms of tribal violence, where revenge is supposed to be exacted “proportionate to the perceived wrong.”

The use of this tactic, in violation of Koranic strictures against suicide, is suggestive both of a progressive brutalization and the process of globalization, whereby feelings of revenge inspired by the trauma of displacement (itself caused in part by military as well as drone attacks, or tribal warfare including suicide bombings) have transformed themselves in the larger theater of the global jihad. The escalation of brutality in violation of “traditional” tribal norms was exemplified by an attack in December 2010 by a female suicide bomber on a World Food Program center at Khar in Pakistan that provides food for some 41,000 families. Forty-five people queuing for food were killed, and eighty were injured. The group called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, saying it was in response to a move by the local Salarzai tribe—to which most of the victims belonged—to raise a pro-government tribal militia.

Like its Afghan Taliban counterpart, the TTP emerged from the “reformed” Islamic tradition promoted by the seminary of Deoband in India. Ahmed regards it as countertribal since it sought to “demolish the entire structure of traditional society pillar by pillar,” including elders and traditional Islamic scholars, and to replace it with its own amorphous notion of an Islamic state. Its leader, Baitullah Mahsud, who declared himself to be the emir of the emerging TTP state, described suicide bombers as “my atom bombs. If the infidels have atom bombs, I have them too.” The recent terrorist attack on civilians in Nairobi also fits the model of a displaced or metastasized form of tribal revenge, since Kenya—with US support—has actively contributed to the African Union’s campaign against the Shabab in Somalia.

Ahmed’s belief, based on his experience in Waziristan, is that tribal peoples must be negotiated with, rather than cowed into submission by targeting their leadership. In his own dealings with the Pukhtun tribes he sought to emulate the strategy of one of his British predecessors, Sir Olaf Caroe, who noted that “if you want to get anything done in dealings with tribes, work through the tribal organization.” But the turmoil he himself describes, whereby tribal systems are shown to be increasingly unstable, makes this solution implausible. The steamroller of state power, with its formidable technologies, has been steadily advancing in the West at least since the thirteenth century, when the English forged their kingdom by systematically destroying the Welsh, Irish, and Scottish clan systems. Drones, for all their horror, are just the latest instruments by which powers based in urban centers (and not just those linked to the United States) beat into submission the peripheries—what Morocco’s rulers used to call the “Land of Insolence.”

For most of the past three centuries, the power of the state was represented by infantry. In the early twentieth century air power took over, with the British RAF bombing the Somali pastoralists or South Arabian tribes who dared to challenge the colonial Pax Britannica. The drone-driven Pax Americana may seem noisier—though less brutal—than its British, French, and Dutch colonial predecessors, but it hardly differs in fundamentals. In confronting the details documented in Ahmed’s book, it is difficult to avoid his pessimistic conclusion:

Hearing the voices of people from the periphery, one gets the impression of utterly normal and decent human beings bearing witness to the slow but inexorable destruction of their communities. It is like a Greek tragedy being played out: the audience knows that ruin awaits the protagonists, and it fears for their fate; but it also knows that nothing can alter the dénouement.
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