Fish in the sea
December 5, 2003 | More from Don Murray
The man who leads "the war on terror" has an MBA. It shapes his thinking on the key issue of his presidency.
George Bush stood at a podium on Nov. 20 during his state visit to Britain and offered this glimpse into his approach to the enemy: "If you were to view al-Qaeda's organization structure as a kind of a board of directors, and then there would be the operating management, we are dismantling the operating management, one person at a time."
The war against al-Qaeda as corporate takeover. Now consider this: "Western societies are governed by the belief that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign. As societies become more modern, so they become more alike."
This is the opening salvo in a book called "Al-Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern" written by John Gray of the London School of Economics. Gray sets out that idea only to trash it in the next breath. "The suicide warriors who attacked Washington and New York on September 11, 2001 did more than kill thousands of civilians and demolish the World Trade Center. They destroyed the West's ruling myth" that modern societies resemble each other more and more.
Well, not quite. George Bush still subscribes to it, judging from his remarks. And his friend, Tony Blair, helped out at the same news conference with Bush. This was his contribution: "The wretched and backward philosophy of these terrorists will be defeated and destroyed." The idea that groups like al-Qaeda are a throwback to blinkered, medieval times, says Gray, is another myth.
Revolutionary terrorism is a modern idea, born in Czarist Russia. "The dislocated students who took to terror as a political weapon did not hark back to a mythical pastůModern men and women, they looked instead to a mythical future."
At the end of the 19th century there was a wave of bombs, grenades and gun attacks across Europe. The ruling elites were severely unsettled. Their response was of matching severity. Many bomb throwers were caught and marched to the scaffold.
These people came to be known as "nihilists." Their goal and their passion was destruction. The father of modern anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, summed up their attitude in a celebrated dictum: "The passion for destruction can be a creative passion." It was from this "creative passion" that they believed a new, purified society would emerge.
The anarchists believed in what is now known as "targeted assassination." But as the battle became more intense, their approach to targets became less discriminating. One leading Russian terrorist, Sergei Nechaev, when asked which of the Romanovs should be killed, replied, "all of them." In the end, it was the Bolsheviks who carried out that order, wiping out the Czar and his family in Ekaterinburg.
The Bolsheviks took over another concept pioneered by the terrorists - the idea that they were the "vanguard," that they had a clearer vision of the future and how to get there and that others must accept that vision or be eliminated.
This is an idea that migrated across the decades and lodged in the theology of al-Qaeda. The man responsible for that was Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian thinker and writer. He lived in the United States for several years. He came away convinced of its spiritual emptiness. His writings became an intellectual pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the principles he inserted into his philosophy was the anarchists' idea of the revolutionary vanguard. For his efforts, he was arrested by Nasser, the Egyptian leader, and executed in 1956.
At the King Abdul Aziz university in Jeddah, Osama bin Laden was taught Islamic studies by Muhammed Qutb, the brother of Sayyid Qutb. Thus do ideas move and mutate.
Deep contempt and hatred for American civilization motivate al-Qaeda and its leader, along with the conviction that, as the repository of a vision of truth, it can impose its violent will on others, even killing them to make its point. But other movements over the years have shared that motivation and methodology. What is innovative is al-Qaeda's worldwide reach and its business acumen. Other movements that have used civilians as dead hostages to advance their aims have stuck to local patches of ground from Northern Ireland to Spain and Israel.
Al-Qaeda has ranged the world to choose its targets, all the while moving money around through numbered accounts and dummy organizations. These are the tactics not of a giant corporation, as Bush seems to believe, but of a guerrilla army on a global battlefield. A noted theoretician of guerrilla war, Mao Tse-tung, once said that guerrilla fighters "must swim like fish in the sea." In other words, they must become invisible in the society where they're preparing their attacks. But Mao's sea was China; al-Qaeda's is the world and its weapon is surprise.
The impact of such surprise attacks was most recently seen in Turkey. Four car bomb attacks in five days, first against two synagogues, and then against the British Consulate and a British bank in Istanbul, killed more than 60 people.
The attacks stunned and horrified the people of Istanbul. The force of the car bomb explosion at the British Consulate was such that the body of the consul, Roger Short, was blown across the street. He wasn't found for five hours.
"The shops in front of the consulate were completely destroyed," said Onur Galhanoglu, who worked next door to the building. "There was blood everywhere. The two gatehouses next to the entrance had been demolished. Cars were on fire. There was a huge hole in the ground where the bomb went off. The explosion flung an air-conditioning unit and a microwave into the consulate garden from an electrical shop nearby."
Amid the devastation there was incomprehension. "How could they do this in a Muslim country?" was a refrain heard many times in the following days. The incomprehension went all the way to the top of the government. After the attacks on the British targets ministers insisted the methodology was too sophisticated; it must have been outsiders. But it wasn't.
The realization that all the bombers were Turks unleashed a second emotion: shame. At the funerals of two policemen killed in the consulate blast, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, used that very word, calling it the country's shame that Turks should have carried out these deeds.
The two emotions of incomprehension and shame combined when it was discovered that three of those allegedly involved in the suicide bombings came from a small town called Bingol in southeastern Turkey. They had been part of something called Turkish Hezbollah, a radical Islamic group created with the support of the Turkish security services at the end of the 1980s. Bingol is in the Kurdish part of Turkey and for 15 years, starting in the mid-80s, the extremist Kurd party, the PKK, led a brutal guerrilla war against the Turkish state, trying to achieve independence for the Kurds. In that dirty war, Hezbollah became a vicious tool in the hands of the Turkish security services. Over a dozen years, it's estimated Hezbollah gathered in 20,000 members who committed 500 murders. The targets were Kurds.
The Turkish state smashed the PKK and then apparently forgot about Hezbollah. Meanwhile, some of Hezbollah's members were making side trips to places like Bosnia during the war there, and to Afghanistan. Then they turned their attention to bomb-making and targets in their own country.
It was left to Ridvan Kizgin, the head of the Human Rights Association in Bingol, to draw a disturbing parallel. "The situation is comparable to what happened in Afghanistan. The U.S. supported Islamic movements in their war against the Soviet Union. Then they turned on the U.S. itself. Here the result is that we can't find and arrest these people and we will continue to pay the price."
In fact, several suspects appear to have slipped out of Turkey.
There is now a third emotion being expressed in Turkey: anger. It was articulated most recently by the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, and it is directed against European governments. Gul accuses them of offering pro-forma words of solidarity but, in reality, isolating Turkey. Europe, he said, "has failed the solidarity test in the fight against terrorism." Many suspects are abroad but, he charged, European intelligence agencies aren't sharing information. "European countries should not distinguish between your terrorist and my terrorist," he said.
There is another source of anger. European governments have issued warnings to tourists and business travellers not to go to Turkey unless absolutely necessary. Conferences have been cancelled. European soccer games have been moved. Gul bitterly called all this "a victory for terrorism."
Turkey feels particularly vulnerable. The attacks, which al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for, were aimed at Jewish and British targets, but the message was for the Turks as well. The country is a lay democracy; it is part of NATO and co-operates closely with Israel. All of that is anathema to al-Qaeda.
And so the war drags on. The battleground shifts from country to country. The American president says his forces are picking off the enemy's line managers. But al-Qaeda isn't a corporation.
And the fish continue to swim in the sea.