Monday, February 11, 2008

All Politics Is Global?

Here's an interesting paper out of Australia, arguing that terrorism has, in essence, reached the viral stage:

[W]e are not now dealing with some kind of well drilled, structured organisation where people are recruited into a hierarchy and they are trained and given high-level skills that allow them to pull off spectacular acts of terrorism. More and more, terrorists are amateurs. They may be relatively incompetent, but they are also unlikely to be part of a network. Such people are not recruited – they recruit themselves.
Hmm...yes and no.

There certainly are some self-recruited amateurs out there, but it's incorrect to assume that all potential terrorists are amateurs.

The paper's author, Waleed Aly, argues that Osama bin Laden understands the new nature of globalized terrorism. The evidence of his new understanding is his evolving mode of communication in his video and audio addresses:
[Bin Laden] is not dressed in military fatigues. He’s dressed in the golden robes of a statesman. He has carefully cultivated a more youthful, vital appearance. He is not, and for a long time, has not been issuing strategic advice or instructions. He is not identifying targets. He is not addressing somebody he knows personally and with details of the next operation and how it will be conducted. ... bin Laden’s mode of discourse is a motivational one. He is a motivational speaker now. He provides a political narrative for people, a narrative of inspiration, but he issues no direct instructions.
The upshot of this?
[T]errorists scarcely need to recruit anymore because we have entered a phase of self-radicalisation, of DIY terrorism.

We are not dealing with organisational structures. We are most truly dealing with a persuasion around which otherwise disconnected people can coalesce accidentally into a movement. These are people that often have wildly divergent ideologies, and often disagree vehemently with one another. They are not some uniform factory product. This is not some singular evil ideology, despite the now familiar insistence of various pundits and politicians. It is a persuasion that has converged on an expression of political violence at a given point in time.
Again, yes and no. Some plotters, such as the Fort Dix guys, are clearly beginners - DIY types. But it's naive to think that, because we're seeing some of these guys, that's all there is.

Organization is critical to marshaling forces and increasing capabilities. Terrorist organizations understand this as well as anyone, even if, for security reasons, they seek to establish small, self-contained operational groups.
Identity politics is central to forging, and fighting, such a persuasion. It is crucial to grasp this because it leads us to think of counterterrorism in new ways. Presently, the governmental focus is disproportionately on the pointy end of the terrorism process: finding people who are about to kill us and locking them up. And it is precisely because the more formative stages of this process are beyond the conventional gaze that the scope of the threat grows consistently.

A person might begin with deep local grievances, but quickly learn to give them a global meaning. This is the nature of liquid modernity, where space collapses and it is possible to plug into the grievances of antipodean communities, even virtual communities, instantly. With globalised information flows, I can now appropriate the grievances of Muslims from Europe, Asia or the Middle East as my own, and I can therefore construct an artificially unified story. The brilliance of demagogues like bin Laden is in their ability to exploit this; to impart upon people the tools to knit together global narratives of persecution out of their domestic grievances; to convince disconnected audiences that the frustration, exclusion and alienation they feel domestically is not merely a domestic problem, but is precisely the same oppression visited upon their co-religionists in Iraq, Israel, Chechnya or Kashmir, part of the same grand design.
No disagreement here. This is the danger of the metastasization of the terrorist threat - that the old adage "all politics is local" becomes turned on its head. (Or perhaps, more accurately, the newer adage, "Think global; act local" is expressed in malevolent ways.)
The implications for government policy are relatively clear. No longer can we maintain the convenient political fiction that it is possible to quarantine policy decisions, whether foreign or domestic, from issues such as the terror threat. It is clear that whatever actions we take, in whatever sphere we take them, can and do have an increasingly global resonance.
The reverse is also true. On the local level, we ought to understand how events in faraway places can have significant local impacts. In the battle of hearts and minds, we can engage this argument only when we see both the near and the far - how we affect and are affected by events around the corner and around the globe.


J. said...

Ever read the book, "The Amateur"? I was searching for a memorable quote in it - something to the effect that professionals are people who think that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. To which Charlie, the protagonist, says somewhere in there that the definition of an amateur is someone who thinks that if a job is worth doing, it can be done poorly.

Not all potential terrorists are amateurs, but let us say that most of them are definitely not professionals, and that plays into the development of their tactics and weapons (keeping it simple, stupid).

John Bowen said...

I haven't read it. That's a clever line, though.

Certainly there are plenty of amateurs who can cause harm. I'm frankly surprised that in the 7+ years since 9/11, the U.S. hasn't had any significant domestic terrorist incidents, even something done by amateurs on the scale of the Virginia Tech or Columbine shootings.

Preparedness, as I see it, means being ready to prevent and respond to the professionals, even if they're a minority.