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Dreaming of the Caliphate

By Matthew Yglesias

"Dreaming of the Caliphate"

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The President actually sort of curtailed the demagoguery in today’s radio address and offered a recognizable argument about his counterterrorism agenda:

So this week I’ve given a series of speeches about the nature of our enemy, the stakes of the struggle, and the progress we have made during the past five years. On Tuesday in Washington, I described in the terrorists own words what they believe, what they hope to accomplish, and how they intend to accomplish it. We know what the terrorists intend, because they have told us. They hope to establish a totalitarian Islamic empire across the Middle East, which they call a Caliphate, where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology.

Osama bin Laden has called the 9/11 attacks, “A great step towards the unity of Muslims and establishing the righteous [Caliphate].” Al Qaeda and its allies reject any possibility of coexistence with those they call “infidels.” Hear the words of Osama bin Laden: “Death is better than living on this earth with the unbelievers amongst us.” We must take the words of these extremists seriously, and we must act decisively to stop them from achieving their evil aims.

Now if you take this with the appropriate level of seriousness, it really does lead to the conclusion that there’s no point in trying to redress Muslim grievances (i.e., engage in “appeasement”) since the emergence of a pan-Islamic Caliphate organized along Taliban lines and bent on recovering swathes of lost Muslim land that include all of Israel and, from time to time, all of Spain is not going to fly. The flipside, though, is that I don’t think we really should take these particular words all that seriously.


One imagines this really is what bin Laden and Zawahiri are after, since it’s hard to say why they’d say it otherwise. But what one has to ask is how many people are actually motivated by this sort of thing. I saw a presentation from Robert Pape yesterday that did a good job of knocking this down. If you look at who actually conducts suicide terrorist attacks — al-Qaeda or otherwise — the overwhelming common thread is a concrete desire to coerce the withdrawal of foreign military forces from someplace or another. This is not the point of al-Qaeda as such, but it’s the motive that drives the people who are essential to al-Qaeda actually being a problem. Osama in a cave is just a guy in a cave. Osama in a cave inspiring someone to crash planes into office towers is a serious threat to national security.

I’d heard that all from Pape before, but in yesterday’s presentation he had some new material where you look at what actually gets said in recruiting materials. There’s nothing about a Caliphate and very little about the content of Islamic theology. There’s a lot of stuff about foreign soldiers and the civilian casualties Western and Israeli forces have inflicted here and there. This is the stuff that, in al-Qaeda’s judgment, needs to be emphasized to get people to sign up.

This, then, is the real center of gravity of the al-Qaeda movement. It has this horrible goal, but it’s also a fairly crazy goal that, seemingly, attracts very little in the way of volunteers. It also has these subsidiary complaints that it can leverage into foot soldiers and support — whether passive or active. Dry up the complaints and you dry up the foot soldiers and the supporters. At that point you just need to carefully locate the leaders and kill them and even if they prove to be hard to locate (as certainly seems to be the case!) probably nothing terrible will happen as you’re searching. Conversely, as long as there’s a stready stream of recruits and supporters, killing the odd leader or foiling the occassional plot isn’t really going to put a stop to anything.

The other thing to note about the Caliphate is that this is a genuinely goofy concept. Even the much more plausible notion of a unified Arab state has, despite attracting lots of adherents over the years, utterly failed to get off the ground. It’s just too hard to do. Bin Laden’s belief that US power and policy is the reason Muslims can’t unify politically in that way is simply mistaken. Every American on the planet could drop dead tomorrow and the scheme would still be unworkable. Just look how difficult it is to get Kurdish Muslims to consent to live in a state mostly composed of Turkish Muslims or Arab Muslims in one tiny corner of the Islamic world. Nationalism is very real and cuts against hyper-ambitious geopolitical schemes of all kinds, not just American ones.

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