Al Qaeda: asking the right questions

Thomas Lalevée 22 November 2007

In a talk at Pembroke on Monday, Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI6, outlined the history of the Al Qaeda movement. He explained Al Qaeda’s various mutations throughout the last 10 years and gave an assessment of the threat posed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-inspired attacks in the UK. He acknowledged that the statistical likelihood of any of us being caught up in a terrorist act is very small, but that nevertheless, one had to explain why there was such public anxiety about the possibility of such attacks. The two things that makes Al Qaeda different from previous terrorists groups, according to him, are that it has no clear political objective and that it (or groups inspired by it) could attack at any time, without any sense of restraint or proportion. And the effect of Al Qaeda terrorist attacks is precisely this: it makes us lose our own sense of restraint and proportion.

But Dearlove did not spend much time questioning why it was that such a threat existed. Yet, that is the question that always needs to be asked: why is it that some people are prepared to risk, or even sacrifice, their lives in support of Al Qaeda? Some may say these people have simply been indoctrinated by extremist Muslim leaders – but this doesn’t explain why the Al Qaeda threat is so potent and so global, and why there are so many groups prepared to follow the ideological example of Al Qaeda without having any links to Al Qaeda proper. Another reason often put forward is that ‘these people’ are against ‘our values’ and ‘our way of life’. This may indeed be the case, but then we need to fundamentally understand what these values and this way of life are, as well as question the identity of this ‘we’ – again, what could drive some to be so strongly against ‘us’ that they would be prepared to risk or sacrifice their lives?

Let’s look at 9/11. Seventeen of the nineteen high-jackers were originally from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both these countries are, on the one hand, awash with oil and oil money and, on the other hand, governed by chronically illiberal absolute monarchies. The link that explains the continuing existence of these regimes is European, and especially American, reliance on oil – in many ways the backbone of these European and US economies. It seems clear the kind of ‘Western values’ these seventeen high-jackers confronted in their home countries – shaped by the unremitting willingness of European and American governments to ally themselves with fundamentally repressive regimes in the interest of their own economies.

The basic question today is therefore what is the global order that we are defending and that has allowed Al Qaeda to become such a threat the ‘West’? This order is undoubtedly that of global capital and the liberal, and neo-liberal, political values that underpin it and promote it. And there is no question that such an order has been ruthlessly defended in the most illiberal ways in the past 60 years. The hypocrisy at the heart of the alliance between global capital and liberal values is the one demonstrated by the numerous US military and political interventions in the past few decades – more often than not legitimised on the basis of bringing freedom and peace, but at the cost of precisely that. This may provide some grounds for thinking that ‘Western values’ are not so appealing.

To come back to Al Qaeda itself. Dearlove said that Al Qaeda has today taken the form of a very loose, adaptable network, with few ideological figureheads, but no central command, no political objective but only a merely quasi-religious ones, and the capacity for groups all around the world to act in its name and attack at any moment. Is this not precisely a mirror image of the logic of global capital today? Working in network formations, insidiously, without central co-ordination, without any clear political objective but only a quasi-religious one (commodity fetishism), that spans across the whole globe. Global capital does not attack, but it destroys, exploits and oppresses.

There is little question that American and European countries should defend themselves if they are being attacked, but it is ultimately essential to spell out what else it is they are defending. They cannot ignore the terrorist threat, but they also cannot ignore the threat that their own logic of political and economic rule poses to global peace and security.

Thomas Lalevée