Yesterday afternoon TigerHawk and I attended Lawrence Wright’s lecture on “Al-Qaeda: Past, Present and Future.” These are my notes:
Mr. Wright started his lecture by asking what drew the 9/11 attackers to al-Qaeda? They were college educated Saudis, not the products of religious schools, with no obvious mental disorders, not religious. What draws these young men to al-Q?
In the 70s: Most al-Qaeda recruits came from rural areas of Egypt – displacement was the most common element among them; they joined the jihad in countries away from home.
Another factor is feeling marginal in the culture you’re in. The recent plots in UK by second- and third-generation Brits but whose feelings of marginality persisted through 3 generations. There’s not a clash of civilizations, but aa clash of identities within a civilization. For instance, in Belgium the most common babies’ name is Mohammed. For that Mohammed, not surprisingly, Mohammed becomes more than a religion, but an identity.
We’re more blessed in America with a Muslim community that’s part of our society. The average American Muslim makes a higher wage than the average American.
Displacement doesn’t explan everything: there are nihilists and idealists in al-Qaeda.
There are economic reasons: 1/5 world’s population lives in Muslim countries but those countries account for 1/2 of the world’s poor. If you take the oil out of those economies, 300 million Arabs produce less than Nokia corporation.
1.3billion Muslims mostly living in the 57 countries of Organization of Islamic Countries produce less than the German GDP.
Another factor is the lack of civil society: no movies, no plays, no dating, no political life, no museums, few parks, no unions. Nothing between the government and the mosque except shopping. No wonder that a study on depression showed that 65% boys, 72% of college age girls in college were depressed.
The separation of the sexes takes a toll on women. Saudi woman can’t drive, need permission of men to travel; can’t check into a hotel. One of his reporters when he worked in Saudi Arabia, Najia, slept on carpet of mosque at the airport in order to be able to attend a press conference she wanted to report on.
It also takes a toll on men, who are deprived of the solace of women’s companionship. The guys didn’t spend adolescence molding their behavior trying to please girls. Women are referred to as BMOs – Black Moving Objects.
The element of humiliation:
Many Muslims are personally humiliated, for instance, in Egypt’s prisions. But Mr. Wright saw video of Bin Laden talking at a mosque in the 1970s – on the theme of humiliation: Why did this rich young charismatic man feel humiliated? P
There’s a profound sense of cultural humiliation: on 9/11/1683 at the Gates of Vienna marked the end of Islamic superpower. This sense of humiliation is linked to a desire to strike back. Mr. Wright quoted Bernard Lewis on the movement from “how did this happen” to “who did this” to us.
The sense of injustice is reinforced by images of Muslims under siege in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Fox News and al-Jazeera show images of the continuing humiliation of the Arabs. CNN showed a pair of US Marines ignoring “quivering lips of little girls” (LW’s phase), and a family kneeling in front of Marines; this image was repeated endlessly.
The sense of humiliation is expanded by fact that nearly everything you own is made elsewhere. Measurements for excellence, such as Nobel Prizes, are practically absent from the Muslim world at large.
Bin-Laden wanted the US to replicate the errors of Soviets. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan the USSR dissolved. Bin-Laden miscalculated. 80% of al-Qaeda’s membership was captured or killed, and was repudiated all over the world. The WOT was essentially dead; then, Iraq sparked the flames.
A-Qaeda had planned for day when a country’s leadership would be smashed.
The old al_Qaeda was run from the top-down. The new is a network of small groups. In a way, it follows the model of street gangs: flat-horizontal groups tied together by internet. Al-Qaeda makes tremendous use of internet, leaving a legacy for future jihadists. Training’s a vital element in al-Qaeda.
Now al-Qaeda has training camps in Mali, Iraq, Pak, Somalia, Afghanistan, and roots in many different countries. How has it been able to reconstitute?
Al-Qaeda believes in the management of savagery: through savage acts, and taking advantage of danger opportunity, such as attacking oil fields so the government neglects other areas. Once the government falls, people look to other sources for safety.
Mr. Wright mentioned how Al-Zarqawi came to the fore: he cut off the head of a hostage, and began bombing Shiite mosques, thus creating a civil war.
In 2005 Fuad Hussein outlined al-Qaeda’s master plan in Zarqawi’s biography, as a 20-year plan:
9/11: The Awakening. This first stage ended in 2003 when US entered Bagdhad.
2d stage, up to 2006: recruiting
3rd stage: Syria Turkey, Israel
4th stage: 2013 al-Qaeda overthrowing Arab governements as US power continues to decline
5th stage: Caliphate. Israel won’t be able to defend itself
2016 total confrontation: Caliphate Islamic army on the attack
2020 definitive victory, which is defined as, “falsehood will come to an end. Islamic state w/lead mankind to shore of safety …and happiness”.
A failure of the US in Iraq will embolden al-Qaeda.
Measures we can take to defeat radicalism:
1. Fix our intelligence, and emphasize understanding, penetrating, disrupting AQ. FBI agent Ali Safan came close to stopping 9/11, but there are fewer Arabic speakers now than in 9/11. The head of FBI doesn’t know the difference between Suni & Shiite. [SEE NOTE BELOW] We need native speakers. Instead, there’s a new tier of bureaucracy: the Dept. of Homeland Security. We need skilled people on the ground. There are only 6 fluent Arabic speakers in the Iraq embassy. Spurned Arabs & Muslims can’t get a job in security after serving 4 yrs in the Army.
2. Need allies in this effort. “Antiamericanism seemed to have vanished from the lexicon after 9/11”. Many countries have a stake in Iraq, for instance Sweden, and the countries harbroing millions of refugees in Iraq’s neighbors.
3. We’re in pregnant moment in Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It’s difficult to make people make peace but it’s clear that the Arabs are suing for peace and want peace. This offers a great opportunity to restore our reputation and focus in the settlements. If we want Israel to survive, need to create prosperous successful Palestine. We need to succed in Israel and Palestine as this will reduce the flow of recruits and inflammation.
3 reasons why al-Qaeda won’t win:
1. Everyone is its enemy: Shiites, Israel, USA, Westeners, NATO, Russia, China, and “atheists, pagans and hypocrites”, too.
2. Most of a-Qaeda’s victims are Muslims: for instance, in Casablanca, Instanbul, Algiers, Bali.
3. Al-Qaeda offers nothing to the people that follow it. Bin-Laden never thought in terms of politics because al-Qaeda doesn’t believe in the future. Al-Qaeda offers one thing: death. For instance, death, not victory, over the Soviets. Al-Qaeda is a suicide machine.
Questions and anwers:
Q: Humiliation issue; Why do the Turks, Albanians and Bosnians why feel less humiliated?
LW: There are no Turks that he knows of in a-Q, and very few Bosnians. A young Turk has the opportunity to affect his society, prosper, marry and date – no reason to look to old stories of former greatness. Al-Qaeda has used Spain’s Caliphate beauty, tolerance, learning, poetry, history selectively to inflame their followers.
Q. What’s the best way to extricate ourselves from Iraq?
LW: I’m ppposed to getting out. We have the moral burden to do as well as we can to the Iraqi people to try to create a space of calm so the Iraqis can organize themselves.
Al-Qaeda’s happy if US stays because the civil war’s prospering like crazy; a-Q’s happy if the US withdraws and leaves a likely genocide, spreading to other countries. We should not fool ourselves with thinking there are easy paths out.
Q. aQ offers people something to do – could you address other sources of humiliation in that part of the world?
LW. Al-Qaeda’s like an engine that runs on the river of despair in the Muslim world. We need to fight despair w/hope: jobs, greater sense of justice, but there’s a limit on what we can do.
Egypt has the roots for democracy, but its future is 1. the Mubarak regime perpetuates itself, or 2. the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power through democratic means. It won’t be pretty. The Muslim Brotherhood’s a shallow political organization, with the jihad, and now people are beginning to look at democracy in a different way; if they come to power through democracy it’d be better [than through other means].
Q; In the West we do not look forward to death, but they look forward to death through religious teachings. Why does [LW] say he say it’s not a cultural religious war, then?
LW: Jim Jones had an organization drawn people, even when knowing it celebrated death. Death has attraction not exclusive to al-Qaeda.
Qatar’s more open & tolerant, profoundly different from Saudi Arabia; the rotten political systems are stifling & humiliating the ambitions of so many young people.
Q. The person commented on the concept of humiliation in American foreign policy: Attempt to humiliate Lebanon, Abu graib, “Bring them on”, the US’s unwavering support of Israelis, & therefusal to recognize Pal elections.
LW. Wishes for a humble foreing policy, and a far more modest role in foreign relations.
Q. On the culture of death – culture of an alternative to life; what comes after death?
LW. It’s remarkable that the Muslims commit suicide – Mohammed said that suicides spend all of eternity repeating the act of killing himself w/ same instrument.
The suicide killings are justified because (using a suicide killing in Egypt) first there are no innocents because everyone in Egypt were perceived as supporting the advance of Islam. Suicidal choice is made because of those who die for the greater glory of god are not considered suicides but martyrs.
LW asked, why doesn’t everyone see through this sophistry – because there’s awillfulness to believe in this philosophy.
Q. General Petreus said there’s no diplomatic solution – only through diplomacy [NOTE: see my prior post on this statement]
LW. Only the military can provide some kind of protection to the Iraqi people because the diplomats aren’t going to do that. LW’s not an expert on subject. He worries about staying or pulling out. Anyone who advocates one or the other has to acknowledge the dangers of either course.
Q. The West Bank had been in the hands of Jordan; Gaza was held by Egypt. Is the sense of humiliation misplaced because a state could have been created by the Arab world and it wasn’t?
LW. No one who cares for Arabs can’t help but feel anger by missed opportunities to make pace. There’s an opportunity and we have to seize it.
Q. (This was a very wordy statement on the commenter’s study of Palestinian suicide bombers: honor students; the whole society is disaffected. Gangs in US, Colombine, etc., all are disaffected by socty around them.)
Q. What are the Islamic intellectuals doing to counter this lack of civil society?
LW. In the Arab world there are different things going on in different places. Entrenched autocrats have an investment in staying in power. We face a chove: they help us on terrorism or we democratize (for instance, in Egypt). The US has helped train people for democracy in Yemen. There are no rapid chgs in the Middle East.
There’s only a certain amt of chg people can take. For instance, the Editor of his paper (where LW worked in Saudi Arabia) had been a young shepherd, and graduated at the U of Texas, but lived an entire industrial revolution in his lifetime. The whole flood of change has been so instant there’s a kind of reluctance for more. Saudi Arabia’s so stuck: frustration, hopelessness, anger. What force is greater? Fear is that force. Fear not of the government (which is not as cruel as Egypt’s), but fear of change. Change does not equal progress in the Middle East.
Q. What lies ahead for Europe?
LW. Europe’s very exposed to attack. There are many radical Muslims in the UK; tis’a much different situation than here. LW was at a mosque when someone asked for more beheadings and he watched the nodding heads of community approval. There’s a real problem in England right now. All over Europe, France Spain, Germany, the jihadi vets returning & joining new cells with the network now created in Iraq. The future in Europe’s not very attractive.
NOTE On the matter of the head of the FBI not knowing the difference between the Sunni and the Shiia, I was wondering if Mr. Wright had in mind Democrat Silvestre Reyes, head of the House Intelligence Committe instead. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to ask a question.
Hugh Hewitt interviewed Lawrence Wright on Tuesday
Lawrence Wright’s Official Website
Lawrence Wright is the author of