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Influencing Al Qaeda (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

March 18th, 2004

Much of the value of a blog like Crooked Timber is in the comments threads, but the signal to noise ratio is inevitably low, especially when flame wars erupt. I thought this point by Donald Johnson responding to Chris’ post on the Spanish election (and disregarded in subsequent comments) was valuable enough to justify more prominence.

If al Qaeda has the capability to plant bombs and kill hundreds of people, they’re going to do it however they interpret the Spanish election. They might plant their bombs before elections if they think they can influence them, or they might plant their bombs where there are large crowds on some special date, or they might choose some big symbolic target again, like the Pentagon or the WTC. The point is to stop them, not to worry about how they might read election results except to the extent that understanding what they think might give clues on what their next target is going to be.

Exactly right. The idea, that by doing what al Qaeda (supposedly) wants[1] we are sending a message that will influence them to do more of the same directly contradicts the overwhelming evidence that al Qaeda is unconditionally committed to terroristic war against us, and cannot be dissuaded from it (evidence that has been stressed more on the right of the blogosphere than anywhere else). They cannot be influenced, only incapacitated.

fn1. This applies equally to the Spanish election result and to Bush’s decision to pull US troops out of Saudi Arabia.

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  1. March 18th, 2004 at 11:14 | #1

    I am not so sure that Pr Q or the Crooked Timber guys are correct.
    It is true that AL Quaed hate infidels on principle, and that attempting to analyse their behaviour on a cost-benefit basis is probably doomed to failure.
    But they have a basic strategy: to get the West out of Islamia/Arabia, by attacking pro-moderate Islamic/Arabic targets in the West or pro-Western targets in Islamia/Arabia.
    To the extent that Western states comply with this strategy, under threat of terror, to that extent the terrorists will have won.
    This applies whether or not the original Western attitude in any given case was wise (eg Palestine or Iraq).
    Mind you, the biggest cave in to terrorism occurred through the recent Gulf War, which ditched US troops out of Saudi and hitched them into Iraqi territory.
    This was in direct compliance with Bin Ladens fatwah, but appears to have been the prudent move by US strategists.
    I wonder what the war-bloggers make of it.

  2. PK
    March 18th, 2004 at 11:46 | #2

    And what about the small issue of terrorist bombs influencing the Western democratic process? Or is that unimportant too?

  3. Observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 13:54 | #3

    Well according to the Arab language daily Al-Harat, which quotes the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, who claim responsibility for the Madrid and Turkey and Iraq bombings, if Spain does as its told, it can expect a continuing truce from them.

    “Praise be to God who gave us this victory in the conquest of Madrid… Where one of the pillars of the axis of Crusader evil was destroyed.”

    The message is clear to all all now. Do as you are told and appease us and we will spare you. What will the new Socialist govt do with its troops in Iraq now?

  4. March 18th, 2004 at 14:03 | #4

    Presumably it will do what it has always said it would do — bring the troops home. The PSOE did not support the war on Iraq, even before the bombing in Madrid. The people of Spain did not support the war on Iraq, even before the bombing in Madrid. If they were to change their mind now, that would allow the terrorists to influence Western elections — and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

  5. Warbo
    March 18th, 2004 at 14:15 | #5

    Observa, I can’t see anything in what you’ve quoted that indicates the brigades have declared a truce in Spain.

  6. Observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 14:19 | #6

    Let me make one point clear to those who would do as they’re told. IMO we can take some comfort from the change of MO demonstrated in Madrid. Firstly, the FIMs were not prepared to die and secondly, they now want their victims to accede to their demands. This to me indicates they are short on suicide volunteers and maybe short on success. The question appeasers now have to ask themselves is, whether the combined action in Afghanistan, Iraq and AQ, etc, is beginning to show a glimmer of light.

  7. John Quiggin
    March 18th, 2004 at 14:26 | #7

    Observa, I share warbo’s puzzlement. The quote seems totally unrelated to your claim. Do you have a more extensive quote or a link that supports your interpretation?

    And why would AQ declare a truce when there are still Spanish troops in Afghanistan ?

  8. Observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 14:33 | #8

    Try the following quotes on http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/03/18/1079199323371.html where you will also find the following:

    “Because of this decision,(sic to all its European units to cease operations) the leadership has decided to stop all operations in the Spanish territories….until we know the intentions of the new government that has promised to withdraw all Spanish troops from Iraq.”

    “The Spanish people….chose peace by choosing the party that was against the alliance with America.”

  9. Observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 14:49 | #9

    IMO this report, if accurate, will drive all of NATO(and perhaps the UN) into Iraq and make Bush, Blair and Howard undefeatable at their next elections. They hold the moral commanding heights now.

  10. Warbo
    March 18th, 2004 at 15:02 | #10

    So just one European member of the Coalition of the Willing says it will withdraw its troops from Iraq and a terrorist organisation suspends operations in the whole of Europe! What a fantastic result! This is exactly the opposite of what we were warned would come of appeasement: instead of more bombs, there’ll be none! Europe is saved!

    Observa, I think you’ve spun yourself into a frenzy of fear and speculation by taking purported terrorists’ statements at face value.

    (Incidentally, taking it at face value would also contradict JQ’s assertion that al Qaeda is unconditionally committed to terroristic war against us. No-one wins, so let’s stop playing silly games.)

  11. Observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 15:20 | #11

    The other point I’d make here, is I notice a distinct propensity in the West(well Australia at least)to reassess our fundamental ethos and values we hold dear. We have had it easy, since the collapse of the major challenge to these values, namely totalitarian Communism. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the West has basked for some time in the warm inner glow of self-satisfied smugness. The threat posed by FIMs, has certainly begun to concentrate the West’s mind on what is absolutely important, what’s relatively not and what’s worth fighting for. The threat of sudden death, certainly does concentrate the mind. Might even fill the churches again.

  12. Observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 15:27 | #12

    Warbo,
    We’ll see if Europeans like being told to roll over and have their tummy tickled. You know-This week you Spanish pull out of Iraq- Next week you French allow hajibs in schools- The week after that, Shariah Law for…..?????

  13. Warbo
    March 18th, 2004 at 16:02 | #13

    Observa, mate, the terrorists have won: they’ve robbed you of your sense of humour. I prescribe an immediate visit to Road to Surfdom to see what else was in that statement you quoted from. If that doesn’t bring a smile to your dial, you’re a lost cause.

    (Apologies for absence of fancy link thingy.)

  14. March 18th, 2004 at 16:03 | #14

    When I was a child my sister took one of my toys away from me. I hit her. Admittedly, I was wrong to do that. But why should it mean that she gets to keep the toy?

    As crazy and evil as the terrorists are, they didn’t emerge fully formed from Osama Bin Laden’s brow.

  15. March 18th, 2004 at 20:23 | #15

    John – you ask why the terrorists would stop attacking Spain despite Spain being in Afghanistan. The reason they should stop is that doing so would re-enforce the incentive structure they are trying to create and undermine the right-wing in the west.

    It would be politically smart of the terrs to come out and say that Spain will be spared (and NZ too while they’re at it), and then turn their attention to other targets. Though this sort of smarts has never been strong on the ground on either sides… so I don’t imagine it would happen.

  16. observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 20:42 | #16

    Warbo,
    As I said about this report- “if accurate” was a heavy qualification. My comments were generally predicated on that being the case. With the additional statement about wanting Bush to be re-elected, which was not in the SMH article, it would appear the report should be largely discounted. This doesn’t appear to have the hall-marks of an AQ operation. I’ll stand by the lack of delivery by suicide attack as being a small positive. Oh, and I still think we’re going through the analysis of values thingy.

    Overall, I treat the FIMs as a serious threat to world peace. NATO cannot let the US fail with the BOL in Iraq, due to its longer term example for moderate Islam. If Iraq fails, I fear two civilistions will ultimately engage in a war to the finish.

  17. Warbo
    March 18th, 2004 at 21:32 | #17

    Observa, I hope you won’t mind if I say that the way you use acronyms makes it pretty hard to follow your argument sometimes. I’m guessing FIMs are fundamentalist Islamic militants, but BOL has got me completely stumped. Battle of Liberation? Balance of something?

  18. James Farrell
    March 18th, 2004 at 22:24 | #18

    Ditto for me. Ease up on the acronyms. They may make writing faster by 10%, but they slow up reading by 200% (an elasticity of minus twenty).

  19. James Farrell
    March 18th, 2004 at 22:29 | #19

    And John, I don’t care about Crooked Timber, but the ‘signal to noise ratio’ is in fact quite high here on your own blog. I fear that may change if you keep letting yourself be baited by the likes of Blair. It’s about as rewarding and productive as getting into an argument with a drunk outside a pub.

  20. John Quiggin
    March 18th, 2004 at 22:36 | #20

    I’m well aware of the value of the comments here, James, and of the futility of engaging iwth the kind of trolls who have visited recently. I don’t plan to pursue Blair any further – the flurry of posts since Tuesday was partly an effort to put the whole business behind me as fast as possible.

  21. observa
    March 18th, 2004 at 23:15 | #21

    Sorry Warbo and James, BOL refers to ‘beacon of light’ reasoning for intervention in Iraq. For me now, I prefer to drop the terrorist tag and use the FIM tag for Fundamentalist Islamic Murderers. For me terrorist is too generic and I would not classify militants as necessarily murderers. I take the point about abbreviations.

  22. Jim Birch
    March 19th, 2004 at 16:10 | #22

    I read somewhere that OBL didn’t use the AQ tag until the western press made it a buzzword. A lot of the discussion assumes that that AQ has an organisational structure like a modern multinational corporation – albeit shadowy – with the evil mastermind OBL as CEO. James Bond stuff.

    This fantasy works spin-wise where the objective is simple concepts that put you clearly on the side of the good guys, and is consoling in various other ways, but the reality is different. It seems to me that AQ might be understood equally well (ie imperfectly) as an animating philosophy available to large numbers of Arab men. If Blair was an Arab, he’d likely be a terrorist. He’s the type, isn’t he.

    AQ has no real top-down command structure, no official spokesperson, and different groups and individuals may align themselves to it’s purpose at different times. This makes it much more difficult to deal with.

    This also means that after all the moral outrage wears thin, real political solutions will be eventually required to some of the underlying issues. Up until now the “Arab problem” was in someone else’s backyard and we could deal with it, or not.

    I don’t see that inventing new acronyms does a lot.

  23. nick
    March 25th, 2004 at 16:32 | #23

    Long time reader, first time commenter so take it easy. Interesting stuff from Crooked Timber. From what I’m reading it is clear that regardless of what is said and done by the West, al qadea and its clone army remains hostile. However using force doesn’t seem to be incapacitating al qadea only inciting it to further acts of violence. In my wanderings I read that Spain’s withdrawal is conditional, if the UN intervenes after July 30 they may stay. Perhaps we, the West, have to tell the Yanks to go back to the drawing board and re-engage with the UN. No more lone ranger theatrics. Whatever spin you put on it, after Madrid we need to work out new solutions that get to the root cause of this new terrorist threat.

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