September 19, 2004

What do those terrorists want?

I've either received or seen a couple of responses to this Mother Jones column, more or less all to the effect of: "So you want to capitulate to the terrorists, huh?" Um, no. But the piece certainly gives that impression, and it makes a number of pretty basic blunders, so it's hard to just walk away from this one. For the record, my excuses for the shoody piece are: a) I'm a terrible writer, b) it's a complicated topic, and c) the constraints of the "Daily Mojo" format meant I had to type the thing up in a few short hours, without any edits. So it goes. But anyways, here's an elaboration and defense, of sorts.

This guy gets a lot right. The important thing is to split the difference between figuring out root causes (including historical causes) of terrorism and taking note of the fact that there really are serious terrorists who can't be reasoned with. And yes, I certainly think, as Masha Gessen pointed out, that al Qaeda and other Salafi militant groups have appropriated the Chechnya conflict for their own purposes. Many of these groups moved into the failed state that arose when Russia withdrew from Chechnya in 1996. Russia is, of course, to blame for the general state of affairs, but as this Stygius fellow says you have to identify "the terrorist as a moral agent" too.

I'll get into the nitty-gritty in a second, but I just want to make my main point, which should have been in the original article and which I made later on: "The point of trying to resolve these situations is to separate out those who, like al Qaeda, will attack the West no matter what, and those who will join bin Laden's jihad because of specific grievances." Yes, I really do believe that if the U.S. helped fixed Chechnya and Palestine and Kashmir (no, of course it's not easy), even on not-so-amenable terms, a lot of people would go home and tune bin Laden (or Shamil Basayev) out. Then the West could focus its attention solely on those who still insist on fighting, even after the grievances are solved—the radical wing of Hamas, say, or Besayev's Wahhabi fighters in Chechnya. I'm not trying to plump for "historicist" explanations of terrorism, simply stating what I think is a pretty basic fact: When there are historical grievances afoot (as in Chechnya), then it's hard to distinguish between "pure terrorists" and "issue terrorists," because their interests meld pretty seamlessly.

Okay, now the nitty-gritty on Chechnya. "Fundamentalist" Islam has a long history in Chechnya because the region has long relied on covert Sufi societies that were set up to evade the Soviet religious crackdown. But Sufi Islam is of course different from and even antithetical to al Qaeda's brand of Salafi Islam, which has nevertheless spread surprisingly quickly through Chechnya in recent years. Wahhabists have found a willing audience among many of the young, impoverished Chechens who fled the region after the first war (1994-96) and traveled around the Middle East. Moreover, it's hard to underestimate the popularity of the mujahideen who defeated Russia in Afghanistan. They are heroes for Chechen nationalists.

So the Salafi fundamentalists are only gaining immense popularity for very specific reasons, all related to the war. If the Chechnya crisis was ever solved (again, not easy), men like Shamil Basayev would find scant audience among Chechen Sufis. Salafi extremists like Basayev and bin Laden may be fighting for the soul of the ummah, but they would not succeed without geo-strategic pretexts such as that in Chechnya. Hence, it's enormously important to figure out what grievances bin Laden uses as their rallying cry—because if we can neutralize those grievances, we can isolate bin Laden (or whoever else wants to go to war).
-- Brad Plumer 6:09 PM || ||