The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Coding al-Qaeda

July 12, 2005

As I’ve discussed before, the current incarnation of “al-Qaeda” appears – at least based upon public documents – to be more of a diverse movement than a single organization. Indeed, “al-Qaeda” is, in some respects, linked together by the claims of particular groups to represent “al-Qaeda” and by the tendency of many western governments, pundits, and ordinary individuals to label any militant Islamicist terrorist attack as an act of “al-Qaeda.” The latter groups’ rhetoric may serve the interests of those who want to represent the War on Terror as a “classic” sort of war against a coherent entity, but it also plays into the hands of the members of the “al-Qaeda” movement by making them seem bigger, badder, and more unified than they actually are.

There are, in fact, significant direct and indirect connections linking many militant Islamic terrorists. The transnational structure of training and recruitment makes this inevitable; Islamic militancy almost certainly is subject to “small world” dynamics. But this does not mean that waging a struggle against these networks is the same thing as waging a struggle against “al-Qaeda.”

Let me put it a bit differently: just because some of the terrorists involved in an attack have links to someone associated with al-Qaeda, or themselves are associated with al-Qaeda, does not mean that al-Qaeda is a sufficient cause of the terrorist incident in question.

Bill Roggio and Marvin Hutchens have produced a “flash animation” that suffers from precisely this kind of problem. Coding the Beslan school attack as an “al-Qaeda” operation strikes me, at least based on the evidence I’ve seen (scroll down), as something of a stretch. The same could be said of a number of the attacks chronicled in the animation.

Part of the purpose of the animation, Roggio argues, is to show that Iraq is not the cause of global terrorism:

There have been 30 major mass casualty attacks directed against the United States, Britain, France, Spain, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and North Osetia. 14 of the 30 attacks were conducted prior to the invasion of Iraq, making claims of the occupation of Iraq as a casus belli for al Qaeda’s terrorism to be disingenuous at best.

This point has been picked up by many who have commented on and tracked back to his post [fn1].

There are two problems here.

First, Roggio and Hutchens are upfront about the fact that they didn’t bother to display the large number of “small-scale” terrorist attacks in Iraq. I understand why they’ve done so, but selectively ignoring data is not the first thing you want to do when trying to make an argument based upon trend lines.

Second, they’ve misrepresented the key claim made by those opposed to Iraq War. Serious opponents of the war do not argue that Iraq caused the current wave of terrorist attacks. Their cricitism is that the War expanded the recruitment pool and the broader base of support for Islamic terrorists, i.e., that it confirmed the “al-Qaeda” narrative and thereby made it more difficult for the US and its allies to prevail in its struggle against Islamic revivalist terrorism.

To be perfectly blunt, I am not confident that this criticism of the Iraq War is either right or wrong. Nevertheless, it is very clear to me that Roggio’s and Hutchen’s flash animation really doesn’t do anything to resolve the debate one way or another.

Because the juxtaposition is interesting, check out Dan Drezner’s post on prospect theory and assessing the danger of terrorism.

(I’m not convinced that we need the architecture of prospect theory to know that people tend to do a bad job of estimating the risk of certain kinds of catastrophic events, but Dan’s post is definitely worth a read.)

UPDATE: nice post by Stygius expressing what I suspect is the correct relationship between Iraq and international terrorism.

1Including Marc Schulman, whose blog alerted me to the post, despite the fact that I have Winds of Change’s RSS feed in my newsreader client and should’ve noticed it earlier.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.