Scott Atran on Defeating Al-Qaeda
The anthropologist Scott Atran has an op-ed piece, "To Beat Al Qaeda, Look to the East," in New York Times (December 12, 2009) that's worth reading. I've read elsewhere that the US Military has contracted professional anthropologists as paid advisors to obtain insights into local culture so as to help defeat insurgencies and engage in state-building. I suppose that such advice is enlightening . . . though from my experience at academic conferences, I wonder if two different scholars can agree on anything.
Scott Atran, however, doesn't have a position with the US Military, though he has apparently received research funding through the US Defense Department. His professional positions are as an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, at John Jay College, and at the University of Michigan. He has recently authored Listen to the Devil . . . whatever the hell that title might signify. Listen to the devil we don't know? It's forthcoming, and I've not seen a synopsis, but he has other books already published.
Anyway, the crux of Atran's argument on how to defeat Al-Qaeda reduces to his focus on three critical factors that bind terrorist networks together and that can therefore be utilized for rooting them out and tearing them apart. He gives the example of success in Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia, whose security forces killed Noordin Muhammad Top, head of Al Qaeda for the Malaysian Archipelago (a splinter group of the Islamist organization Jemaah Islamiyah), and he lists these three factors in that context:
First is friendship forged through fighting: the Indonesian volunteers who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan styled themselves the Afghan Alumni, and many kept in contact when they returned home after the war. The second is school ties and discipleship: many leading operatives in Southeast Asia come from a handful of religious schools affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah. Out of some 30,000 religious schools in Indonesia, only about 50 have a deadly legacy of producing violent extremists. Third is family ties; as anyone who has watched the opening scene from "The Godfather" knows, weddings can be terrific opportunities for networking and plotting.He then describes how the three factors were applied, but you can read the article for that. What I find interesting is that in the entirety of his long and insightful op-ed piece, Atran never uses the term "Islam" or even "Islamism," as though Islamist ideology played no role. Perhaps he ignores it because it plays little role in the practical job of rooting out terrorist networks? One need only follow up the links of friends, school, and family? That might work once a terrorist has already been identified, but where would one go about looking for terrorism in the first place? The friendships were formed during jihad (the fighting in Afghanistan), the schools taught Islamist ideology, and the families undoubtedly raised up a child in the radicalized Islamic way he 'should' go. Moreover, the defeat of Al-Qaeda is only one battle in the defeat of various Islamist groups and, more importantly, in the defeat of Islamist ideology.
But I don't fault Professor Atran for avoiding these larger issues. He's focusing on a practical problem, rooting out Al-Qaeda, and pointing toward a way to do so. Moreover, the three factors that he notes might offer some predictive power as to where Islamist ideology might lead to terrorist acts. Islamism doesn't inspire every Muslim to terrorism -- and not even every Islamist. Where, then, can we expect terrorists to emerge? Follow up the links of friendship, schools, and families.