Fundamental attribution error and Al Qaeda’s strategy
As I’ve said recently, Al-Qaeda’s current strategy of killing large numbers of Muslims makes little strategic sense. Stephen Den Beste recently offered up his explanation: “bin Laden’s strategy was to get God, or Allah, involved in the war against the infidel.” A slightly longer excerpt: This is not a war which they expect to win ...
As I've said recently, Al-Qaeda's current strategy of killing large numbers of Muslims makes little strategic sense. Stephen Den Beste recently offered up his explanation: "bin Laden's strategy was to get God, or Allah, involved in the war against the infidel." A slightly longer excerpt:
As I’ve said recently, Al-Qaeda’s current strategy of killing large numbers of Muslims makes little strategic sense. Stephen Den Beste recently offered up his explanation: “bin Laden’s strategy was to get God, or Allah, involved in the war against the infidel.” A slightly longer excerpt:
This is not a war which they expect to win with guns or explosives. It is a spiritual struggle. The word “jihad” is sometimes claimed to have two meanings: one of holy crusade against the infidel, but another representing a struggle within to achieve moral purity and faith. Those are not separate meanings to the zealots. They are the same thing; they’re inextricably linked. If they triumph internally, and achieve purity of faith, they will win the holy crusade against the infidel, because God will aid them and there is no limit to God’s power. Not even America’s wizard weapons can defeat God. And they can only become pure internally if they are also dedicated to holy crusade. And that’s why al Qaeda’s plans seem idiotic to rationalists like Donald and me. bin Laden could not create and follow the kind of plan which we’d think was essential. If bin Laden’s plan had been based entirely on temporal power and cogent strategy and real resources, and if such a plan did not rely on miracles, it would have demonstrated lack of faith. If there were no place in the plan for God, it would prove that bin Laden didn’t truly believe God would help.
This is certainly a plausible theory. However, part of me is also convinced that this kind of analysis suffers from fundamental attribution error — a tendency to overemphasize motivational factors and undeemphasize situational or environmental factors when explaining an actor’s actions. It’s possible that Al Qaeda’s strategy is based on a fundamental constraint — it can’t hit the bigger targets. Maybe Al Qaeda will strike on American soil in the future. However, would anyone have predicted that, more than two years after 9/11, there would be no additional attacks? Even in Iraq — and bear in mind that I’m not claiming that the insurgent attacks there are coordinated or managed by Al Qaeda — there’s been a shift in tactics:
Guerrillas thought loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein are shifting away from attacks against American troops in favor of killing and terrorizing Iraqi civilians who cooperate with the US-led coalition occupying the country, the chief of US Central Command said yesterday. General John Abizaid said that the aggressive American anti-insurgency campaign underway in Baghdad and in the “Sunni Triangle” region to the north and west has resulted in a sharp decline in attacks on US soldiers, although the soldiers from four Army divisions are still very much under the gun. “The offensive actions [by US troops] have driven down the attacks against coalition forces,” he said in a Baghdad news conference. “Unfortunately, we have found attacks against Iraq civilians have increased.”
Because the perception of the Al Qaeda’s strength rests on its ability to wreak terror, better to attack somewhere than nowhere. Hence the bombings in Istanbul. And for those who believe that such attacks have a persuasive effect on Muslims, consider this report from the http://www.guardian.co.uk/turkey/story/0,12700,1092383,00.html: Radio 4 and the broadsheet comment pages reflected my pessimism. A bridge between east and west had been destroyed, said one. It was only a matter of time before the west pulled out entirely. I had heard all about the new draconian security measures: the truck now blocking the gate to the American-owned Robert College, where my brother-in-law teaches; the armed guards and sniffer dogs outside the malls, the banks, the supermarkets, and just about anything with a foreign-sounding name; the blockades around the building that was, until a few months ago, the US consulate, and has now become the temporary headquarters for the British. So I was expecting to find the streets empty and most of the city’s 10 million residents cowering behind closed doors. Indeed, there was a great hush in the arrivals lounge. For the first time ever, I did not have to queue for a visa. But once we had left the airport, it was hard to see any sign of a crisis. The streets were clogged with traffic and people shopping for the holiday that begins today. The shores of the Bosphorus were lined with fishermen and a procession of large, slow-moving families enjoying the unusually fine weather. The restaurants and cafes were doing a brisk business, and every few hundred metres there was a florist overflowing on to the pavement to meet the seasonal demand. In my brother’s neighbourhood, which was ankle deep in broken glass a week ago, the glaziers have been working so hard that there is a joke rumour going around that they were the masterminds behind the bomb. Now all but a few of the windows have been replaced, bar the ones on the mosque next door to the synagogue. The buildings across the street have lost their fronts and been condemned. But the lighting store next to them is open for business. My brother says that the shopkeepers on the street were out with their brooms within minutes of the explosion. It was the residents who got the wounded to hospital. He saw no official presence for two hours. They are very much in evidence now. Those with homes or businesses in the affected areas must leave their identity cards with the police manning the barricades. Anyone who stops to look at the damage can expect to be filmed by a man who may or may not be an innocent journalist. It is all very subtle, and very calm. The shopkeepers in the fish and flower markets near to where the entrance to the British consulate stood until last Thursday do not want to talk about the bomb any more. They would rather sell me a string of red peppers or talk me into a pair of wonky glasses and a monster mask. Like my friends, they see staying at home behind closed doors as a form of defeat. They are determined to get life back to normal as soon as possible, no matter what. This was Istanbul’s September 11. They thought they were safe from the war on terror because they thought all Muslims were brothers. Now they know otherwise, and are unified in their condemnation of the terrorists, who cannot be “true Muslims”. The fact that the terrorists staged this attack in the last days of Ramadan has added to their outrage. But no one is in any doubt why the city has become a terrorist target.
Christopher Hitchens has some additional points on this subject (link via Andrew Sullivan). I’m not claiming that my theory is more compelling than Den Beste’s or anyone else’s, for that matter. I’m just putting it out there for consideration. Developing….
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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