Some comments on Atran’s recent NYT op-ed
Scott Atran put out an interesting op-ed this week in the NYT. He raised some good points in it, however, I also found a few things in his piece questionable.
- That al Qaeda has not successfully attacked since 9/11.
No other way to say this except that this is just plain wrong, which is disappointing to see. There is plenty of OS material that shows AQ’s clear involvement in attacks since then. And it is very clear that the London subway plots in 2005 were al Qaeda directed, and supported.
- The US invasion of Afghanistan devastated al Qaeda’s core of top personnel.
It didn’t. Al Qaeda has lost a few of its top personnel but not nearly as many as people think because a good number of them were not al Qaeda to begin with. What has happened is that KSM’s network got routed, but al Qaeda recovered from this. It lost quite a few foot soldiers but its core strength remains essentially the same. There are new faces in the mix to replace those who were lost, and most of them have come in from other linked groups, or have re-joined the jihad so to speak.
- The threat is home-grown youths who gain inspiration from OBL but little else beyond an occasional self-financed spell at a degraded Qaeda-linked training facility.
This quite frankly has me stumped. Aside from my intense dislike for “home-grown”, which is useless as an analytical term of reference, this comment goes against everything we know.
A spell at an al Qaeda linked or al Qaeda run training facility gives people a hell of a lot more than inspiration. It’s the most important element in the entire equation. And a desire to get training is universal. As I have noted repeatedly, going to prepare is a key part of jihadist doctrine and anyone worth their salt will try to do it. Of course there are always exceptions but I can think of only a handful of cases internationally where this hasn’t been one of the defining features of radicalisation (and also operationalisation) and even then its not clear that this wasn’t in the background.
The danger is precisely when people arrive at camps. Actually this is something I recall discussing with General Tito. He has, I think, one of the best understandings of radicalisation trajectories around. He noted that once someone does hijra (and here in this context he meant to go off and head for a location for training and jihad) it becomes exceptionally more difficult to deradicalise them. Then of course there are the implications for counter terrorism once they return from such training.
Here I’d note too that most people who seek training don’t actually go with the intention of joining al Qaeda. They want training to fight jihad. Al Qaeda’s skill lies in ‘turning’ them to its agenda. So, I think that minimising this process of training or seeking training is dangerous. It clouds understanding of the dynamics that are crucial to understanding how plots evolve and people are radicalised in that final stage–when they move from seeking training for armed jihad, to becoming involved with a group and carrying out a terrorist attack on its behalf and at its direction.
- That we are pushing the Taliban into al Qaeda’s arms
Here I presume Atran is referring to the Pakistan Taliban, because this is certainly not the case with the Afghan Taliban. I note he later mentions that the Pakistan Taliban does not have an International Agenda so I found this statement confusing. I do agree that lionising al Qaeda makes it a bigger threat, but I don’t think that on the basis of this one can then make the analytical leap to this somehow causing the Taliban to jump into its arms.
- I read Atran’s comments about using the Southeast Asian experience on al Qaeda with interest. While there are some similarities, I think this type of generalisation can be harmful. I may have misunderstood Atran here, but my reading of his argument is that the experience of Southeast Asia can somehow be transplanted onto either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Following on from this was the assumption that the Taliban or al Qaeda for that matter are similar enough in structure to use the same types of CT approaches used in Southeast Asia and Indonesia in particular.
I think this is confusing apples and oranges on many levels. First in terms of similarities between al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyyah and how they recruit and radicalise, and also in terms of similarities between JI and Noordin’s faction. And then the assumption that any of this can be parlayed onto the Taliban.
JI, as Atran would know has one of the most sophisticated recruitment programs around. It takes years to become a member of JI proper, unlike al Qaeda. The radicalisation, recruitment and membership process is completely different. And that’s because the doctrine and manhaj of al Qaeda is actually entirely different to JI when you get down to the nitty gritty of it.
In JI the role of ustads is critically important in recruitment process as Atran notes when he observes that discipleship is a key element. But there is more to it than this. One of the main keys to understanding this is the different oaths of allegiance taken during the radicalisation process. Often those in the study group under their ustad don’t know they are being recruited for JI but during their study they make an oath to follow their ustad, so their oath isn’t for JI at this point. But it ties them to their ustad and this relationship is crucial to their further progression into JI. But here’s where it gets interesting and where it also gets complicated.
NT’s faction didn’t work like this. He didn’t recruit along the same ways JI did. He couldn’t obviously because he was on the move and JI’s recruitment process is not only long but quite static.
NT was able to stay on the run for so long and continue his attacks by hitting up his old mates in JI. He just went along to an old ustad mate (here’s where the Afghan alumni plays in) and asked him for some help. The ustad agrees and gives him shelter and some students to help out with hiding and logistics.
Those students swore an oath to their ustad. They then essentially get transferred by virtue of their oath to their ustad to NT—without their knowledge for the most part. Besides which an oath is an oath, and so they end up being bound by it, and are radicalised enough to not break it. This is why many of them didn’t know they were working for NT or his faction or have knowledge of JI or chose to go along if they did know. Those he wanted for operational roles were targeted for further radicalisation, which tended to occur quite quickly. They often moved on with him unlike the others who were only limited to providing support while he was hiding out with a particular ustad’s support.
Here I’d add I’m not contradicting what General Tito says, because I understand the context in what he was saying because it was the same discussion I had many many times with the INP in the course of my work with them. What I am trying to highlight is that these factors were especially key to nabbing those senior figures who supported Top and his faction.
They don’t work so well in getting recruits of JI proper because not all ustad are aulumni, nor are the recruits these days, and the recruits are often not as interrelated in the early stages of their radicalisation process. Again something I discussed many times and something the INP has got a great handle on, especially now with General Tito at the helm of CT efforts.
I think the context in where the factors Atran identified are applicable is important to point out, if we are talking about transferring CT approaches, especially when the JI and NT case is the most unique in many respects.
Bottom line: Apples and Oranges.
Al Qaeda doesn’t recruit in the same way JI does. It’s not structured in the same way. It doesn’t have the same organisational processes, or even doctrine. And the Taliban is a completely different case again.
Having said all of that I do agree wholeheartedly with Atran’s general argument that less is more, and the importance of appreciating local dynamics in resolving the Afghan conflict.
However, it is precisely the point I would make in relation to using Indonesia and SEA in general as an example. While CT efforts in Southeast Asia have been truly impressive, they deal with a unique local dynamic, and also have a functioning state and juridical system to underpin them, as well as a great police force. This cannot be transplanted onto the Afghan conflict. Nor should it. Al Qaeda and the Taliban in any of its manifestations do not function in the same way as JI.