Peace in our time

Osama bin Laden’s new taped message has been getting a lot of airplay. I can’t quite see why. The only thing I find interesting about it is that he sent it to Al-Arabiya as well as Al-Jazeera, suggesting that he’s broadening his media channel. The idea that he had any intent or power to offer Europe any kind of truce, or that there there was ever any real prospect of European nations going along with it, is just too silly for words.

The core, essential, fundamental truth about terrorism is that it is a media strategy above all else. If terrorists could actually strike strategic targets, they wouldn’t have to be terrorists in order to further their aims. Von Clausewitz said that “war is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means.” Well, terrorism is also the continuation of politics by other means. Both are about the application of violence to gain political goals, but while ordinary war is about the direct effects of organised violence on the military, economic and political structures of the state, terrorism is about the psychological effects of violence, particularly through mass fear.

A lot of people do get that, but they don’t seem to understand that this same logic applies to anti-terrorism. It is no less a matter of media strategy than terrorism is.

Let’s take an example. Mark Kleiman is usually quite perceptive, but he doesn’t seem to realise that anti-terrorism is as much about media as terrorism is:

All together now: Up yours, Osama!

Those of us who remain Europhiles have to hope that the EU can get its act together quickly to repudiate Osama’s proffered “truce.” It would be nice to hear first from the Spanish Socialists.

Update Well, that was quick: The EU (via the President of the EC), Spain, Britain, Germany, and, yes, France all said “No” within hours.

Now I’m waiting to hear from the Europhobes.

Second update Josh Marshall wants to know why this is worth paying attention to. Patrick Nielsen Hayden agrees.

Answer: Because splitting off Europe from the U.S. is obviously an al-Qaeda objective, and not obviously infeasible. Undeniably, there is a strand of European opinion that thinks that Islamist terrorism is a problem due to Israeli and American policies, and that if Europe disowned those policies it could free itself from danger.

It’s good news that the European governments aren’t playing. And those Americans who have spent the past three years coming up with inventive new insults directed at Europeans ought to acknowledge that.

Mark’s got it wrong. This is a big story because no one wants to say that there was never any chance of this “truce” coming to pass under any conditions. Even if bin Laden were capable of offering such a truce – which I doubt – and even if there had been any temptation to accept it, this would be the media equivalent of a tank batallion surrendering to a TV crew. It would have been bad TV.

None of the European leaders to whom this “truce” was offered would have had anything to gain from accepting it. No essential economic or military activity has been directly disrupted by the Madrid bombings or by 9/11. Al Qaeda can’t even threaten them directly. There is little risk to the lives of European politicians. Al Qaeda doesn’t do targetted assasinations in the west because they are ineffective uses of media. Killing thousands of anonymous people creates very productive fear. Killing a single man, even a hated political leader, creates a martyr. The Spanish election was close before the Madrid bombing, terrorism at most brought voters to the polls rather than changing anyone’s vote. Elsewhere in Europe, getting hit by terrorists is more likely to reinforce the existing government than undermine it. There is no risk whatsoever in refusing, and nothing to gain from accepting.

I doubt the idea even reached the conscious level in the minds of European leaders. I suspect deeper political instincts told them how bad it would look to even be perceived as stooping to that level. It was a mistake to even be perceived as organising a response. I suspect that was bin Laden’s goal: to create the appearance that he is so powerful that European leaders have to think before telling him to get bent.

Furthermore, there is no particular value nor any reason for bin Laden to try to split Europe and the US. Remember, this is a media compaign. If the combined military strength of Europe and America could destroy Al Qaeda through ordinary military means, it would have done so long ago. This has to be fought on TV, and having the whole world against him is better TV than having the world divided and creating ambiguity. As long as he appears – at least to some Muslims – to be the only real force in the Islamic world able to put fear into the West, he gains.

That was much of the appeal of the Soviet Union in the old days. People knew that the USSR was far from a worker’s paradise, but in 1917 it was a backwards, ruined country, and by 1950 it had the whole of the developed world scared of it. That had undeniable appeal. Osama bin Laden is playing on the very same thing. Arab nations have gone to war against Israel, what, three, four times? There have been direct wars with the US, France, the UK and India in the last 50 years. What is the Arab world’s record from these conflicts? Lost, every time. But it was the fundamentalists who pushed back the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – or at least, that is how it played out on TV – and it is Osama bin Laden who has them all scared now.

No, Kleiman is wrong to think that dividing Europe and the US is an objective for bin Laden. I suspect that the notion is an entirely fortuitous by-product of the Bush administration’s bungling. Being seen as the only man willing to stand up to America and the West is his objective. Getting Europe to back away might, conceivably, have had some propaganda effect, but I doubt bin Laden ever entertained the idea that anyone would agree to it. This is a different kind of war with a different kind of logic.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Europe and the world by Scott Martens. Bookmark the permalink.

About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

16 thoughts on “Peace in our time

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this post. In fact, I was about to post something along the same lines (though with far less detail and nuance). I’m with Josh Marshall: This is news why? I think the best OBL could have hoped for is that European leaders would actually respond to his demonic ramblings, and that exchange would get a lot of press. So I think we just handed him the victory he was looking for.

    The correct response would have been, “The PM/President of XXXX is not going to justify this with a response other than to say we are still committed to destroying Al Qaeda.”

  2. Scott – bingo! Much of what I think is wrong with the whole strategy of the “war on terrorism” was to talk it up as a war. It makes Bin Laden a foreign power – a man to be reckoned with. If they treated him the way they treated Timothy McVeigh, as a criminal at large running a rag-tag gang of losers and the Arab equivalent of poor white trash, it would be much harder for Al Qaeda to muster support. Bush keeps calling this a war on terrorism as if you could conduct a war against an abstraction. But it keeps playing out as a war on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. Every time Al Qaeda is publicly treated as a grave threat to national security, they empower him.

  3. I would not go so far as to say our fight with Al Qaeda is not a war. It really is, and should be conducted as such, because I do think Al Qaeda’s a grave threat to national security — or rather national securities. (Please, let’s not bring up Iraq.) In any case, just because you declared war on somebody doesn’t mean you have to justify his wretched entreaties with a response.

  4. I guess our politicos were playing to the domestic audiences, rather than giving a thought to how it would look to Al Qaeda’s potential recruits. Possibly because they think we’re all checking under our beds every night for Islamic (sic) terrorists and need reassuring.

  5. Thank you, Scott, for this analysis. There’s only two things I would like to add.

    First, it’s striking how we see BinLaden according to our own interpretation schemes – ie the idea that the transatlantic rift is actually important for him because it is “our” current preferred way to make sense of world affairs.

    Second, being “congratulated” by BinLaden will only increase the determination to fight him within the European public, and conceivably even change some people’s stance with respect to sending troops to Iraq if his use of the country as a PR tool succeeds in establishing a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq – something the Bush administration failed to do to this date.

  6. Good post. What I found strange about the tape was that OBL was addressing the people of Europe and not so much its politicians. What made him think he could reach us?

  7. There’s a Simpson’s episode where Burns hires a bunch of striking baseball players for the nuclear plant’s softball team. During a game, Burns goes to Darryl Strawberry and says, “Hit a home run.” Which Strawberry, to no one’s surprise, does. Burns then sits back proudly and says, “I told him to do that.”

    I think bin Laden’s much the same. He encourages Muslim extremists to commit acts of terrorism. Muslim extremists do, and then bin Laden sits back and says, “I told them to do that.”

    Given that al-Qaeda is a loose affiliation of decentralized cells, I think it’d be a real stretch to describe al-Qaeda as having anything like a hierarchical leadership structure. Bin Laden doesn’t have the power to speak for the terrorists who act in his name.

    If someone’s really committed to bombing Barcelona, or Athens, or Paris, do you really think bin Laden could stop them?

  8. If they treated him the way they treated Timothy McVeigh, as a criminal at large running a rag-tag gang of losers and the Arab equivalent of poor white trash, it would be much harder for Al Qaeda to muster support.

    We tried that before Sept 2001 and it was a disaster. The Mc Veigh comparison seems wrong. He did not have the same level of popular support that Bin Laden enjoys. For example, 13.5% of British Muslims believe that the US is deserving of further attacks by Al Qaeda.

    The idea that the war on terror is a war on an abtraction is risible. An abstraction did not destroy the world trade centre, bomb the USS Cole or kill innocents outside the US embassy in Nairobi. This so-called “abstraction” had bases in Afghanistan that the war on terror has now removed.

    The reason that Bin Laden is now more of a spiritual head, rather than hands on in charge as before, is because his organisation has been dismantled. His plans to reform Islam seem a little shaky now after, he failed to ignite the clash of civilisations he expected.

  9. Anthony, I said that Bush describes this as a war on an abstraction, which is exactly what terrorism is. Terrorism doesn’t blow things up, people and organisations do. However, I am hard pressed to figure out how an organisation that “has been dismantled” can make a coordinated attack on Madrid.

    And no, treating terrorism as a criminal matter, albeit a very serious one, wasn’t America’s strategy before 9/11. Clinton bombed two countries over Al Qaeda, one of which demonstrably had very little to do with it. If bin Laden has such a large amount of public support, it leds credence to the idea that at least some people do think this is a clash of civilisations – a word invented for an entirely different purpose by an American political scientist well after Al Qaeda started trying to blow up bits of the West.

    It also leds credence to the idea that as a media campaign, the US isn’t winning. I think the media campaign is the real war and the fighting is a sideshow. And, I think the war is going very badly. Especially right now.

  10. David – I also forgot Algeria, and I’ve been confusing Pakistan with an Arab country. The point holds. Losses way outnumber wins. The particular statement, however, is a bit problematic.

  11. Scott: I read your blog entry and commented on it at my own blog, along with my own interpretation of the tape.

    HP: I agree that al-Qaeda is very much a loose network, but perhaps not quite as loose as you are saying. Certainly, if Usama bin Laden decides on Tuesday that, say, Holland needs to learn a lesson, there won’t be a bombing in Amsterdam Wednesday morning. Claims of responsibility by al-Qaeda linked groups also sometimes turn out to be false. However, this does not mean that bin Laden is irrelevant.

    I wrote a thesis last year in which I analysed statements made by Usama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and some other main al-Qaeda figures. I have read statements by satellite groups such as South East Asia’s Jamaah Islamiyya, and Morocco’s Salafiyya Jihadiyya, and they are uncannily similar in their outlooks.

    During the Afghan Jihad, Abdullah Azzam and Usama bin Laden worked together recruiting mujahideen around the world. All the foreign jihadis passed through Usama bin Laden’s hands, and he kept records. A new ideology was born in Afghanistan, and when the “Afghan Arabs” returned to their own countries, a worldwide network was formed. Thousands of jihadis have pledged bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden. They have been trained and given funding by al-Qaeda, and are contacted by the group through a network of cells.

    When bin Laden issues a statement like this, it does hold a great deal of weight.

  12. However, I am hard pressed to figure out how an organisation that “has been dismantled” can make a coordinated attack on Madrid.

    It isn’t that hard to work out. Fifteen to twenty thousand people go through training camps and return to their home countries or bases. The infrastructure that did this is destroyed, yet the smaller cells continue to operate. This may restrict the operations to smaller actions than before, but individual cells still continue to fight. But still this is better than leaving the camps and infrastructure in place in Afghanistan.

  13. As for the war on terror being unprecedentedly a war on an abstraction, one could in a sense say that the Cold War was a war on Communism, or (from the other side’s perspective), a war on Capitalism. We won the war against Communism, because although it continues in countries such as China PRC, Vietnam and North Korea, and continues to be believed in by many individuals, it is nonetheless finished as a viable challenge to the liberal-democratic-capitalist system. It was more than just “The Vietnam War” for example, it was a wider struggle against Communism as a power. Had the Soviet Union somehow caused America to become a Marxist republic, the war on Capitalism would have been won, even though Capitalism is really just an abstract set of ideas about economic organisation.

    If groups such as Al-Qaeda (and affiliates), Hamas and Hizbullah are destroyed or incapacitated, and the idea that terrorism is a viable method of defeating non-Islamist regimes and creating a Caliphate is discredited, the war on (Islamic) terror will be won. Al-Qaeda specifically predicts that the West is a “paper tiger” that will fold under pressure – this is why the Madrid election results were so worrying.

    The justification of the war in Iraq as a war against al-Qaeda was on exceedingly shaky grounds. However, the justification that it was part of the “War on Terror” was accurate – Hussein was funding anti-Israeli terrorism and attempted to have Bush Snr assassinated. I was originally opposed to the war in Iraq, but the realisation that I was in a sense applying a double standard (some terrorism should be stopped while other terrorism can be tolerated) helped to sway me to the other side of the argument.

  14. In the PR-fight more “parties” are involved!
    The absurdity of Bin Ladens “proposition” gives an opportunity to European leaders to speak out on their solidarity with aims of the US leaders without risking political suicide.
    On my blog I mention some polls on the “truce” offer. The reliability of the polls can be (and rightly are) questioned but still they give some reassurance that Zapatero being elected should not be perceived as the ultimate prove of cowardice on the European side.
    If, through actions of Bin Laden or more probable through Bush’ policy, the US is going further down the unilateral line this is really dangerous stuff.
    The US administration, -and if it?s not capable the Democrats should start already before november indeed-, should acknowledge that US-unilateralism is in short term interest of Europe: the US will attract even more hate when the US neglect their alliances.
    And the other side of this is really crucial: when US-politics succeeds in involving European (and other democratic countries!) in Iraq and the greater middle east issues, these countries will be targeted by the islam-fascists. The politicians of these allied countries will have to to be open about this and defend it!

  15. “The correct response would have been, “The PM/President of XXXX is not going to justify this with a response other than to say we are still committed to destroying Al Qaeda.”

    The correct response would have been ACTIONS which indicate that European countries are committed to destroying Al Qaeda. There is very little evidence for such a commitment even in the supposedly easy case of Afghanistan (are we up to even a pittance of European troops there? 10,000 even?)

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