ANALYSIS & OPINION: There is no single story to al Qaeda

There’s no single story to al-Qaeda

In the mountains of the Swat valley, in north western Pakistan, a militant cleric called Maulana Fazlullah has successfully carved himself a miniature version of a Taliban state. His most potent weapon has been his radio station. ‘It’s all about the message,’ one of his associates told me in Peshawar, the nearest city, last month.

Islamic militants around the world have long known this. ‘The battle will be fought in the media,’ said al-Qaeda’s chief strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. After a suicide bomb in Afghanistan last week killed women and children, Taliban spokesmen phoned correspondents within minutes to deny responsibility. The videos pouring out of al-Qaeda’s in-house production system may indeed be, as some optimistically say, a sign of operational weakness and a consequent reliance on propaganda, but they are still coherent and cleverly targeted and their strength is that they explain, in simple and unvarying terms, what the militants believe to be the cause of the violence: the supposed war on Islam by the West and their allies among heretic, apostate and hypocritical Muslims.

In contrast, media interventions by Western governments, militaries and security services tend to be flat-footed. Last week, a speech by the new head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, generated many headlines, largely frightening ones about al-Qaeda ‘grooming’ British youths and ‘more than 2,000’ dangerous individuals on our streets. Evans’s disappointment at this coverage was in some ways understandable, having made the effort to remind his audience of journalists that as ‘we are tackling a threat which finds its roots in ideology… we must pay close attention to our use of language’ and having pointed out that the more lurid coverage of terrorism made him ‘grit his teeth’. [complete article]

Engineers of Jihad

While looking for something entirely different (research on the Italian mafia), I just came across this absolutely fascinating new paper (pdf) by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog on engineers and Islamic terrorism. There’s been a lot of speculation about the visible elective affinity between education in certain technical disciplines and propensity to join Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, none of which has stopped some loons from claiming that the jihadists were led astray by trendy leftist post-modernist academics in the humanities and social sciences. Gambetta and Hertog use a combination of illustrative statistics, qualitative data and logistic regression to show not only that there is a strong relationship between an engineering background and involvement in a variety of Islamic terrorist groups, but to arrive at a plausible hypothesis as to why this relationship pertains. [complete article]

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