September 02, 2004

Ransom notes

This French hostage crisis in Iraq is pretty interesting, the more you look at it. I don't know much about the group responsible -- the Islamic Army in Iraq -- but it does seem like they've deviated from the al-Qaeda playbook against Europe, at least as described by Michael Schuerer in Imperial Hubris:

The last thing bin Laden wants in the military sphere is to prompt a situation in which several European powers fully join the U.S. war against al Qaeda. … In many ways the Madrid attack should be seen as bin Ladin's attempt to deter the West Europeans from supporting the United States. Overall, one of the true tests of bin Laden's brilliance will be his ability to keep Europe as much on the sidelines as possible....

If one of the sad-sack, ramshackle groups that have been rounded up in Europe--say, the amateurish Algerians who were holding the toxin ricin…--ever manage to strike it rich and cause devastating damage in Europe, it is a near certainty that al Qaeda will be blamed for the attack. In that case, bin Laden would find himself faced with a level of U.S.-European anti-al Qaeda cooperation similar to, or stronger than, that which existed after 11 September.

There is evidence that this situation worries bin Laden. Writing in Al-Ansar, al Qaeda essayist Sayf al-Ansari advised Muslims that the "feeling of individual responsibility regarding the issue of jihad should not give rise to improvised behavior that translates jihad into some kind of spontaneous activity and makes the issue an undisciplined current in which everyone weaves on his own loom."

One of Schuerer's big themes, as many know, is that bin Laden doesn't hate us for "who we are" (OBL doesn't just "hate freedom"), but has focused on specific grievances against U.S. policy in the Middle East. In pretty stark contrast, the demands of the French kidnappers indicate that the Islamic Army really does hate who the French are and what kind of secular society they've built. (Of course, the hijab concern is a more concrete grievance than just "hating freedom" because Americans are playing craps in Las Vegas.)

And this sort of hostage situation, while less likely to provoke the French than say knocking down the Eiffel tower, is still somewhat likely to rouse France into action. (It's more provocative, certainly, than kidnapping Koreans in order to render the cost of occupation too high.) So what is the Islamic Army up to? Do they really just "hate freedom" and secularism abroad? Or are they -- like al Qaeda -- after something more coherent? And isn't this worth finding out?

-- Brad Plumer 4:23 PM || ||