Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Speculating About Al Qaeda's Goals

With the latest alarming non-alert (or was it a non-alarming alert?), the other political scientist and I got into a conversation about what Al Qaeda is actually likely to do next. He can correct me if I misrepresent areas of consensus but here is what I remember us agreeing on:

1) Predicting what Al Qaeda will do next is really at the heart of the "War on Terror." Far more important than adventures in Iraq or other "rogue states" which may or may not have any direct links to Al Qaeda.

2) Predicting what Al Qaeda will do next depends on our understanding of what Al Qaeda's goals are. Or at least what the goals of its leaders are.

Here is what I remember us more or less agreeing are major factors contributing to Al Qaeda's goals.

1) Organizational survival. Remember that Al Qaeda's raison d'etre was opposition to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. When the USSR pulled out and then collapsed, Al Qaeda (and Osama Bin Ladin) were out of a job. It was only then that Al Qaeda transformed itself from an anti-Soviet to an anti-American organization. One can view this as politically opportunistic or entrepreneurial depending on your perspective. In either case, this view of Al Qaeda would mean it’s ideology is actually secondary to its activity. The continued operation of the organization is the goal.

2) Furthering the personal ambition of Osama Bin Laden to be a “big shot” in the Arab world. In this view, Al Qaeda is an organization devoted to increasing the political profile and prestige of Osama Bin Laden. Again, in this view any ideological concerns would be secondary.

So what does that suggest?

1) Osama Bin Laden’s audience is NOT primarily the US or Western public. Rather, he is most concerned with impressing people in the Arab/Muslim world. Either because doing so brings in recruits or because that is the community in which he seeks to have political influence. In this context the point of terror attacks is not simply to maximize the casualty numbers. Rather it is to maximize media sensation in the Arab media. This suggests that attacks against smaller towns and cities in the American Midwest or South are not as likely as many Americans fear, it would take too much to explain what the targets are to the intended audience. Instead, Al Qaeda will continue to try to make the “big score” type attacks. So that would be good news for Austin or Columbus but bad news for New York, D.C., Chicago, L.A. and other cities with more fame outside the USA.

2) Questions about who Bin Laden wants to win the US Presidential election are pointless. Bin Laden probably doesn’t care who wins the US elections so long as he can claim in the Arab press to have been a factor.

Comments? Disagreements? Additions?


US West said...

It's an interesting thought you put forward, and presented very logically. I wonder if there is a direct correlation between the explosion of Arab media outlets (which are an outgrowth of the 1st Gulf War) and Bin Laden's actions. I tend to agree with your analysis.

I agree that predicting what Al Qaeda will do next is at the heart of the war on terror. But good luck. If it were predictable, it would be easy to stop it.

You are assuming in your analysis that Bin Laden actually controls Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a loosely affiliated, decentralized network with Bin Laden more as a symbol or figure head than an actual leader. He can influence the actions of the various groups by sending a video tape to Arab satellite channels. But he doesn't immediately direct all Al Qaeda actions in say Chile. I would be curious to know, if you randomly polled professed Al Qaeda members/supporters, how many would know what Bin Laden's manifesto actually is.

I don't think Bin Laden is in this for purely selfish reasons. In your analysis, Bin Laden is only interested in his group surviving. I disagree. That is too simple. He is, as you suggest, trying to gain influence over the Middle East. Of course he is. . He needs to gain influence to get his ideology front and center. He'd like to see the Saudi Royal family gone. They are too close to the evil West. All terrorist groups (or freedom fighters depending where you stand) have a political agenda. They want to influence their own systems. But they can't attack the system directly. But they can attack the system's allies. And the U.S. is allied to many dictatorial regimes. It is safer, more acceptable, to attack the U.S. than to attack Mubarak, let's say. The U.S. influence on the Region is viewed by some as a form of invasion. And thus, these folks feel they have a religious obligation to fight it. It is a war of self-defense. And anyone can join. Al Qaeda offers the easy way to do it. It is an umbrella organization. But Bin Laden isn't just a media premodonna, as yu suggest. He does want the influence. And he has it now.

Raised By Republicans said...

Good point about assuming command and control.

But regarding Bin Laden's committment to an anti-western (or at least non-westernizing) Saudi Arabia I ask the following question: Do you think that Bin Laden et al (again assuming a unified organization) would fold up and go home if the Saudi Royal family broke with the West? See, I think that Bin Laden would just find another reason to oppose the Royal Family in those circumstances.

This is similar to my view of the Palestinian leaders. They would rather be the leaders of a stateless society than simple citizens in a free and sovereign Palestine.

Like the politics of many non-democratic societies, the politics of Al Qaeda (and Hamas and the PLO) are built around personalistic networks and cults of personality rather than ideology or consistent policy goals.