Post-Boston: Keep Calm and Think Clearly (Part I)
What can the Boston Marathon bombings teach the United States about employing more effective forms of countering violent extremism?
- In cosmopolitan cities such as London and Paris, the Manichean stringency of extremism in a religious idiom offered young immigrants or otherwise disenfranchised men something vital.
- It gave them a sense of being grounded in a world that otherwise marginalized them or offered little support.
- To combat this form of global terrorism, the United States attempted a global war centered largely on armed combat. Last week tragically demonstrated that the United States did not win.
- The Dagestani jihadist group that has been named as potentially behind Tamerlan's motivations has publicly announced that its battle is with Russia, not the United States.
- Both young men lived — as we all do — in a world of many ideas. Out of these ideas, they each structured a narrative.
Warning: Prominent policy makers are already making demands to disinter the discredited concepts of the Global War on Terror. Options presented range from designating the bombers enemy combatants to calling for sweeping surveillance of majority Muslim communities.
The motivations that led Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev to set off lethal bombs at the Boston Marathon last week may not yet be clear. But the characteristics of that event already tell us a substantial amount about the direction of 21st century terrorism — and how we might combat it with increasing effectiveness.
Just over a decade ago, the American public was shocked at the postmodern qualities that Al Qaeda brought to bear on its brand of global jihad. Rather than a strictly hierarchical organization organized into discrete cells, the group was a horizontally-structured network of individuals.
Eliminating a leadership figure or any given “node” in the network did not necessarily mean cutting off the flow of information among members. The ease of global travel and communications helped keep them connected.
They communicated using state of the art digital media forms, such as email and chat rooms and, later, websites and online videos. That allowed them to transcend territorial boundaries and to spread their ideas globally.
Unlike ethnic or nationalist groups committed to a specific ideological narrative, Al Qaeda offered a sinuous storyline of glory through sacrifice that local actors could “franchise” and mold to fit local grievances.
In cosmopolitan cities such as London and Paris, the Manichean stringency of extremism in a religious idiom offered young immigrants or otherwise disenfranchised men something vital. It gave them a sense of being grounded in a world that otherwise marginalized them or offered little support.
In order to combat this strange new form of global terrorism, the United States attempted a global war centered largely on armed combat. As the events of last week tragically demonstrated, the United States did not win.
As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized, “over the long term, the United States cannot capture or kill its way to victory.” That is not an effective strategy for the terrain of ideas and beliefs on which so much of the battle with violent extremism takes place.
Even the application of direct military force to terrorism will be enfolded into the battle of ideas. The U.S. military can kill a combatant, but in his or her place ideas and feelings that inspire others will take root: vengeance, pride in a martyred compatriot, inchoate mourning.
We must therefore return to a war of ideas. But it should in no way be the same war of ideas attempted in response to the attacks of 2001. That war was envisioned, first by members of the Bush cabinet and then in military doctrine, as a bipolar battle with a single ideology of “Islamic extremism.” Later, it was rephrased as the more acceptable “extremism” despite the fact that the referent continued to denote extremist ideas in the name of Islam.
That war of ideas was modeled on the Cold War, when there was more clearly a bipolar battle between two competing ideologies, American free market democracy and Soviet communism. These ideologies were embodied in state institutions and reflected in the concrete daily activities of citizens.
Al Qaeda had no such coherence, especially as it spun away from Osama bin Laden into derivative forms. Sometimes it was composed of multiple groupings that included not only religiously motivated violent ideologues, but also criminals, thugs and other political groups with specific grievances.
Indeed, the Dagestani jihadist group that has been named as potentially behind Tamerlan’s motivations has publicly announced that its battle is with Russia and not with the United States.
We will in the coming days and weeks learn more about why Tamerlan Tsarnaev was already on watch lists that suspected him of having been radicalized. That is to say, we will learn more about how and where he gained particular ideas that made terrorism a reasonable choice.
It is crucial to remember that most people do not make that choice, even in similar circumstances, and that motivations are always multiple. It is already being recognized that Dzokhar Tsarnaev, Tamerlan’s younger brother, did not develop his motivations via the same path as his brother.
Rather, both young men lived — as we all do — in a world of many ideas that are porous and contingent on our circumstances and our receptivity. Out of these ideas, they each structured a narrative that helped them make sense of who they were and how to make meaning out of the disparate events of their lives and their communities. Choosing terrorism is choosing a particular narrative. So is not choosing terrorism.
The second part of this article can be read here.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the National War College or the U.S. Government.