Friday, November 21, 2003

Avoiding snap judgements

In the immediate wake of the awful suicide bombings of synagogues in Turkey on Saturday, officials there and elsewhere verbally rounded up the usual suspects, calling it an al-Qaeda job. Personally, I wasn't so sure. Those attacks that can be clearly connected to al-Qaeda have tended to be, for lack of a better term, flashier. Al-Qaeda, that is, has tended to go for the big target, the dramatic symbol, targets like embassies, the World Trade Center, the USS Cole. (Or, indeed, the subsequent bombings of the British bank and consulate in Istanbul.) What happened on Saturday seemed more like murderous street thuggery, closer to the "let's blow some people up" style of a group like Hamas. (No, I'm not saying Hamas was behind it. We're talking style here.)

Admittedly, authorities gave themselves some wiggle room - Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul left open the possibility the attackers were al-Qaeda "sympathizers...have the same mindset" rather than having "worked directly" with them - but at the same time, such language still is going out of the way to propose an al-Qaeda connection, one which was emphasized in various headlines and leads. This was even though
Intelligence analysts, pointing to a history of dubious claims, are discounting two claims of responsibility made on behalf of al Qaeda for the bombings and for last week's attack on Italian troops in Iraq that killed 19. (From the same article.)
That's why I found this from the November 19 Los Angeles Times (registration required) so interesting:
PARIS - A spate of suicide bombings in several countries illustrates that Al Qaeda has survived by mutating into a more decentralized network relying on local allies to launch more frequent attacks on varied targets, experts say.

In bombings from Turkey to Morocco, experts say, evidence suggests that Al Qaeda provided support through training, financing or ideological inspiration to local extremists. Through an evolving and loose alliance of semiautonomous terrorist cells, the network has been able to export its violence and 'brand name' with only limited involvement in the attacks themselves.

"Al Qaeda as an ideology is now stronger than Al Qaeda as an organization," said Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. ...

The very name Al Qaeda, some experts say, has become shorthand for a larger jihad fed by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That is, it's like al-Qaeda has become more of a rallying point than a specific organization, something that even isolated cells of terrorists can feel themselves connected to. I suppose a comparison - strictly in terms of the specific emotion, I emphasize, not the politics or tactics - could be made to the '60s, when we thought of ourselves as being in "The Movement." It wasn't a particular organization (although there were national- and even international-level groups), it wasn't that we were given any orders (although we did respond to calls for large-scale demonstrations), "The Movement" wasn't an identifiable thing or group, it was rather something that was happening, an ongoing event, and of which you felt a part even if all you could do was gather a half-dozen people for a peace vigil.

The bottom line here is that the too-easy blaming of any and all actions on al-Qaeda should be suspect and in fact may serve to distract investigators from the real culprits, who might well be home-grown fanatics. Remember, for example, how everyone was eager to blame "Arab terrorists" for the Oklahoma City bombing. In that case, happily, reality quickly overthrew rhetoric - but what if it hadn't? And what if it doesn't now? We all know the expression "failing to see the forest for the trees." This could become a case of failing to see the trees for the forest, and that's every bit as risky.

Israeli Knesset President Reuven Rivlin, in Istanbul for the funerals, also said there was information linking the bombing [of the synagogues in Turkey] to al Qaeda. Israel has been helping Turkey track down the attackers.

"We have found out that we are talking about the al Qaeda and those terrorists who exploded themselves as suicide bombers were coming from Persia, and I understand that they have been taught there, they had training there," Rivlin said.
Uh.., "Persia?"

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