Jul 28, 2002

Review of Gunaratna and Pipes books

Was Sept. 11 the beginning of something or the end of something? Are militant Islamists a significant ongoing threat to the West, or is militant Islam a force that will eventually exhaust itself? -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Risk Assessments A book review of Daniel Pipes's "Militant Islam Reaches America" and Rohan Gunarathna's "Inside Al Qaeda" The Washington Post July 28, 2002 Was Sept. 11 the beginning of something or the end of something? Are militant Islamists a significant ongoing threat to the West, or is militant Islam a force that will eventually exhaust itself? Daniel Pipes has been sounding the alarm about the threat posed by militant Islam for more than a decade and posits that it threatens the West "in many and profound ways," while Rohan Gunaratna has written a well-researched investigation of al Qaeda, the group that best embodies that threat. Pipes is a natural polemicist, and his collection of essays is engagingly written. His deconstruction of the dubious criminal career of former Black Panther and Muslim "activist" H. Rap Brown, a k a Jamil Al-Amin, and a particularly enjoyable jeremiad against the leftist notion that poverty incubates militant Islam, are worth the price of admission alone. When it comes to analysis, however, Pipes's book is much rougher: It takes simultaneously contradictory positions about the scale of the threat posed by militant Islam. First, Pipes makes the entirely reasonable point that an inevitable "clash of civilizations" between the West and the Muslim world appears unlikely. Indeed, as early as 1990, Pipes wrote an essay, included in this collection, entitled "The Imaginary Green Peril" that poured cold water on the notion that the green flag of Islam represented the next important threat to the West after the demise of the Soviet Union. However, in his concluding chapter Pipes approvingly cites a former NATO secretary general's statement that militant Islam poses as much a threat to the West as communism. This is, to put things mildly, hyperbolic: The Soviet Union and the United States came perilously close to annihilating each other in a nuclear war and fought proxy wars for decades that killed millions. In another essay, Pipes again contradicts his earlier downplaying of the "Green Peril" when he writes, "about one in every eight Muslims worldwide accepts militant Islam. These today are the prime threats to the United States and other Western countries. They have proven themselves to be ideologically dedicated, ruthless and technically sophisticated. They will stop at nothing to harm or even destroy the countries they hate." Yikes! Pipes seems to be conflating the sizable number of Muslims around the world who dislike the United States with the tiny minority willing to do violence against Americans. There are more than a billion Muslims in the world. If it were indeed true that more than 10 percent of them were bent on the destruction of the West, we would indeed be in a clash of civilizations, approximating a world war. Instead, since Sept. 11 the United States has presided over a police action in Afghanistan against al Qaeda, undertaken in large part by the Afghans themselves, who are overwhelmingly Muslim. While sometimes Pipes proffers militant Islam as an important threat to the West, at other times he takes the more sanguine view that in fact the "real battle . . . is taking place among Muslims themselves, between the Islamists and the moderates." Indeed, Pipes observes: "Non-Muslims are mostly bystanders to the great ideological battle of the post-Cold War era." And here Pipes has come to the heart of the matter. The real threat posed by violent Islamists is mostly in their own backyards. Wars caused by radical Islamists in Afghanistan during the 1990s destroyed Kabul and killed tens of thousands of people. During the same decade, Algerian Islamists unleashed a civil war causing the deaths of as many as 100,000 of their fellow citizens. And these are but two examples. Undoubtedly, al Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups do threaten Westerners, but it is important to calibrate the threat. On the scale of the challenges posed to the West by Nazism or communism, militant Islam barely registers. So how best to judge the threat? Look no further than Rohan Gunaratna's excellent investigation of al Qaeda. Gunaratna has taken a great deal of information from around the world -- marshalling together police and intelligence sources, his own interviews with al Qaeda associates and the group's own documents -- to create a comprehensive examination of the terrorist network. His chapter on Asia is particularly fine; he provides a great deal of ground breaking information about al Qaeda's activities in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. However, Gunaratna's zest to deliver a comprehensive portrait of al Qaeda sometimes overwhelms his ability to write in a comprehensible manner. Even the most ardent al Qaeda watcher will be flummoxed by sentences such as: "Abu Zubaydah dealt with MILF via MAK while Khalifa's dealings with MILF and ASG went through IIRO and IWWM." There are also a number of factual inaccuracies in the book that should not occur in a work of this import. Gunaratna mentions that "of the twenty 9/11 hijackers. . . all went willingly to their deaths." There were, of course, 19. Gunaratna suggests that al Qaeda was the "first terrorist group to conduct suicide attacks on land." Hardly. The Assassins conducted suicide operations in the Middle East during the 11th century, and more recently Hezbollah mounted suicide attacks in Lebanon during the 1980s. Gunaratna places bin Laden at the battle of Jalalabad in Afghanistan in 1986, when that major battle of the war against the communists occurred in 1989. Gunaratna's provocative final chapter assesses the future threat from al Qaeda -- and supplies some stimulating ideas about countering that threat. He makes the excellent point that "in the virtual absence of counter-propaganda, many literate and illiterate Muslims view [al Qaeda's] ideology as compatible with Islamic theology." Therefore, he argues, the United States must discredit "al Qaeda's leadership, ideology, strategies and tactics in the very countries where Muslims live and work." Gunaratna also hazards some educated guesses at where al Qaeda may strike next. He quotes bin Laden at length on the financial impact of the Sept. 11 attacks, suggesting that bin Laden's interest in those economic repercussions "is likely to inform us of [al Qaeda's] next wave of strikes." Al Qaeda has in the past attacked targets associated with the U.S. military and government, in addition to American symbols such as the Trade Center. Now, American counter-terrorism planners worry, as Gunaratna does, that the next wave of al Qaeda attacks might be directed at U.S. economic targets. Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post