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Understanding Al-Qaeda: The Transformation of War
By Mohammad- Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Pluto Press, London 2007, pp. 136

Reviewed by: Mirza Asmer Beg

This book attempts at understanding the fundamental reasons because of which Al-Qaeda is waging a war against those whom it considers opposed to Islam and Muslims. It tries to correct our perceptions about Al-Qaeda, that are often, not based on facts. It also studies how the traditional framework of international armed conflict is changing fast, in view of the evolving dynamics of international politics, where war is no more the exclusive domain of states.

The author explains how the Al-Qaeda has configured a strategy in which innocent citizens are held accountable for the policies of their government. He calls it the “democratization of responsibility”. Mohamedou rejects the prevailing tendency in academic circles of indulging in “emotional analysis, culturalist finger pointing and legalistic dogma”, when dealing with this subject. He is willing to explore the possibility of looking at dialogue as a viable option to deal with the Qaeda.

Analyzing the causes behind the event of September 11, 2001 in the US, he says that the US government has been consistently and increasingly in conflict with Muslims and Arabs. According to “US Defense Department between 1980 and 1995 the United States engaged in 17 military operations in the Middle East, every one of them directed against Muslims”, (p. 8). On the other hand, in retaliation Al Qaeda launched six major assaults on the US between 1991 and 2001. However, US failed to gauge the kind of violent resentment its polities were bound to produce. Al-Qaeda became the self-appointed champion of the sense of injustice felt by Muslims around the globe. Hence, the reason for the September 11 and other such attacks was not Islamic fundamentalism or any reason advanced by analysts, but it was justice and the craving for it. Al-Qaeda does not resent American power, but its hegemonic policies, maintains the author.

The US failed to ask the right questions about its policies. In their concern for security, they allowed a form of fascism to creep in, where the ‘land of the free’ embarked on an ‘illegal, immoral and ill advised colonial war on a sovereign state. On the other hand, the causes of Al-Qaeda’s use of violence were seen in the fermentation of contemporary Islamic culture and their lack of democracy, rather than in the militarization of the politics of transnational-armed group.

The author argues that after the September 11 events, the world is characterized by the transformation of the temporal and spatial elements of conflict, the mutation of the belligerents identity, the cooperation of the nature of targets and the systematization of privatized asymmetrical warfare (p. 20). A new generation of war has started with attempts at breaking the political will of the enemy to fight. Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the failure of Arab and Muslim government to address the grievances of these peoples, and it has engaged directly with the people of these countries. It also has tried to circumvent statehood, mainly its monopoly over legitimate violence.

The emergence of Al-Qaeda has affected the international system in several ways – the group’s indeterminacy has led to the dissolution of territorial power. Its dispersion engenders tactical superiority, which neutralizes its strategic inferiority. It has redefined international combat methods and in place of the traditional battlefield, we now have a battle space. It is goal-oriented not rule-oriented and this sets it apart from state-sponsored groups.

The war which is being waged by the Al-Qaeda is in the service of the Islamic nation and its historical interests, terrorism is the operational strategy adopted by them. The goal, therefore, is political. Terrorism to them is what raison d’etat is to states, a self-imposing justification employed to enact a political ambition.

The author is convinced that Al-Qaeda is a rational enemy, fully equipped with strategies of fourth-generation warfare. On the other hand the US and its allies continue to condone injustice in the West Asia, rationalize it and call its opponents fundamentalists or terrorists. This according to Mohamedou is a dangerous approach. He still sees hope, but it calls for abandoning the prevailing mindsets and the vested interests which perpetuate them. He says that “confronting the reasons behind the 11  September attacks risks robbing America of its victim status and uncovering the lack of correspondence between American ideals and US policies viv-a-vis Arabs and Muslims” (p.94).
In this book, the Al-Qaeda, its ideology and its operational strategy have been subjected to a thorough analysis by the author. He has presented an entirely new perspective on the subject. This makes the book a must read, for scholars as well as students of international politics. It makes us pause and think, about the Al-Qaeda as a political movement and not as a group of people, guided by nothing else but hopelessness and despair.

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