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Terror: The Hidden Source

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Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
A tribesman near a building damaged by a US drone strike that targeted suspected al-Qaeda militants last year, Azan, Yemen, February 2013

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.”

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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.

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.
  1. 1

    What Rules Should Govern US Drone Attacks?,” The New York Review, April 4, 2013. 

  2. 2

    Cambridge University Press, 2005. 

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