Al-Qa'ida & Iraq: Another Cartesian Misconception???

February 11, 2003

Comment:  #472

Attached References:

[Reference 1] Jason Burke, "Powell doesn't know who he is up against: US focus on al-Qaeda ignores the many hues of Islamic militants - and underplays the danger of men such as al-Zarqawi," The Observer, February 9, 2003 Excerpts.

Notwithstanding our national deification of individual freedom, which by necessity implies an intellectual preference for a bottom-up, self-organizing cultural evolution, free society in the United States has somehow evolved a leadership culture that exhibits a top-down Cartesian view of the world. In this deterministic world view, the free will powering independent self-organizing actions of individuals and small groups counts for far less than centrally controlled actions. In foreign policy, the Cartesian Misconception has led sometimes to simplistic assumptions and misguided policies that triggered unintended consequences—a phenomenon known in the spy trade as "blowback."

During the Cold War, for example, American political leaders viewed all local communist insurgencies as being centrally directed by puppeteers the Kremlin. To be sure, the Kremlin usually encouraged and supported these insurgencies, but viewed from a historical distance, it is becoming clear that self-organizing local roots were more influential in shaping the evolving the nature of each insurgency. Had we better appreciated these local roots at the time, for example in Vietnam, American policies might have evolved more favorable outcomes.

Similarly, a deterministic Cartesian world view inspired the idea that we could stir up Islamic militancy in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, together with the unstated but nevertheless implicit assumption that we could turn off that militancy with no downstream effects after it had served its purpose. It did not matter that such thinking was totally at variance with our national ideal of free will—whether it is possessed by of radical Jihadis or nations like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The folly of this primitive assumption is now painfully obvious.

The attached article by Jason Burke in the Observer raises the disturbing possibility that our leadership may be making a similar mistake with respect to al-Qa'ida and by extension Iraq.

Burke paints a portrait of Islamic militancy that is far more diverse in its roots but also less centrally organized than the popular image of a global terrorist network that is organized, centrally directed, and financed by Osama bin Laden.

If Burke's assessment is correct, we are not fighting a single enemy or an identifiable group but the self-organizing effects of many local groups motivated by a political religion. The terrorist threat we face might therefore be similar to the threats posed by the variety of gangs in inner cities or the criminal organizations running the drug trade—with one major exception: the catalyst for self-organization is "political religion" in the case of Islamic terrorism, whereas it is a weaker form group dynamics and greed in the case of gangs and mafias. Alliances between such diverse groups, in either case, are by their nature for convenience, temporary, and ever-shifting. That is their weakness. On the other hand, this kind confusion and disorder is itself fertile ground for self-organizing phenomena, and given the right catalytic shock,—like perhaps a bloody war in Iraq , which amplifies the forces of "political religion"—Islamic rage—to level that overwhelms the moderating forces of their non-politicized co-religionists.

Such a grand-strategic assessment might lead to a very different military strategy than one that assumes cutting off the head of the snake kills the snake, in part, because such a well-defined, military strategy also makes it easier for these diverse insurgency groups to coalesce their efforts against.

In these circumstances, some theorists of Fourth Generation warfare [see Thread T-1] might argue for a low-intensity military strategy that is more akin to police work based on infiltrating, dividing, and neutralizing the operations inner city gangs or drug rings, while at the same time going to great lengths to protect the local citizenry from the collateral effects of combat operations.

All this is speculation, of course. No one knows the answer to this problem. But I urge you to read Burke's essay and judge for yourself whether a more diverse view of Islamic militancy merits further consideration.

Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822

Reference 1

Powell doesn't know who he is up against

Jason Burke warns that the US focus on al-Qaeda ignores the many hues of Islamic militants - and underplays the danger of men such as al-Zarqawi

Jason Burke
The Observer
Sunday February 9, 2003,6903,891943,00.html  [External URL - out of DNI's control.]

[Jason Burke is the Chief Reporter of the Observer. His book on al-Qaeda and modern Islamic fundamentalism will be published by IB Tauris in the summer.]


 Powell linked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an experienced and committed Jordanian militant, with both Osama bin Laden and Baghdad. To grasp the truth about al-Zarqawi, and thus the truth about contemporary Muslim militancy, a major revision of the conventional wisdom is needed. Powell, like many strategists, seems to think he is fighting a war against a single enemy or an identifiable group. He is not. He is fighting a war against a political religion.


Indeed many had been in Afghanistan long before bin Laden returned to the country, after a seven-year absence, in 1996. They had come to fight the Soviets and, unable to return to their own countries for fear of incarceration and execution, had stayed on after Moscow pulled its troops out in 1989. Over the next decade many continued their activism, organising violence against Middle Eastern regimes and, increasingly, against the people who they felt were supporting those regimes: America and its allies.


Bin Laden spent from 1989 to 1996 in his native Saudi Arabia and in Sudan. He had contact with many radicals, including some of those who had remained in Afghanistan. But many more militants had nothing to do with him. They had their own resources. They did not need him. From 1989 to 1998, when al-Qaeda pulled off its first big attack, there were scores of bombings. Bombs exploded in France, under the World Trade Centre in New York, in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East.

None was the work of bin Laden, but of the diverse groups who formed a new wave of Islamic militancy washing across the world. Al-Qaeda was part of that wave. But al-Qaeda was not a large part of it. There were dozens of independent operators with their own funding, their own contacts, their own ambitions and agendas. The violence that extended the jihad against the Soviets into cities from Yemen to the American East Coast was their work, not bin Laden's. Al-Zarqawi was one of these men.


Al-Zarqawi is not an al-Qaeda operative. If there is a link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein he is not it. His story is the story of modern Islamic militancy. It is also the story of why the American-led 'war on terror' risks backfiring badly. Al-Zarqawi is not even, on close examination, an 'al-Qaeda associate', as Powell claimed. ... Focusing on individuals, even bin Laden, is a ludicrous oversimplification.