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Nothing New Under the Sun

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Adam Elkus

I am finally getting around to reviewing the stack of review copies sent to me from various publishers on security topics. One book I have been especially remiss in reviewing has been Dr. Thomas R. Mockaitis‘ book The “New” Terrorism: Myths and Realities.

An accomplished historian and expert on low-intensity warfare, Mockaitis sets about by defining the myriad terminology of terrorism and insurgency and explaining the tactical and operational interplay between the terrorist and counterterrorist. As such Mockaitis is intent on placing terrorism within the greater spectrum of low-intensity warfare. This is enormously useful for those who can’t tell their VBIEDs from their 4GWs.In the final chapter, he sets about building a global counterinsurgency strategy. Mockaitis hits all the right notes–multilateralism, decentralization, addressing the root causes, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, rebuilding American legitimacy, police and intelligence, etc. But his formula–it is a formula–is strikingly unoriginal. Much of it is already conventional wisdom, stated more elegantly.

The root of the Mockaitis’ problem is in the title–while he admits today’s terrorism is more networked than the top-down cells of the past, he denies it is anything new.

His operational responses are, despite his insistence that he understands the ways of network warfare, predicated on the unitary model of classic 1970s/1980s terrorist scholarship. There is nothing about the desire of insurgents to hollow the state, the strategic incoherency of their core aims, and the lack of unity within Al-Qaeda. Nothing about the new operational methods such as netwar or swarming.

Mockaitis also attributes a highly questionable secular rationality to terrorists–that they are not resisting modernity but the “neo-conservative, free-market secular version of it foisted upon the Muslim world by the United States.”

Rather, as works such as Olivier Roy’s Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Umma or Faisal Devji’s Landscapes of the Jihad reveal, their aims are considerably more complex. Al Qaeda’s ultimate objective–if it can be said to have a unitary focus–seems to be less the targeting of the United States than the formation of a kind of utopian reconstruction of the Caliphate that would exist in defiance to all Muslim traditions and the Western state system. And the attribution of globalization as a solely American narrative thrust upon the world is breathtaking in its simplicity.

Globalization is not an American construct–though it is built on American-backed processes like the Internet and the Bretton Woods system–it is, well global. Sheiks yabbering away on cell phones in Dubai, Chinese World of Warcraft players, and Latin American transnational cartels are all part of globalization–as are networked Islamist militants themselves, many of whom are members of diaspora communities in Europe and the Americas.

Such a world also is one of limited American means–both in the shooting war and the “war of ideas.”

Mockaitis is correct to council that we move away from military focus in terrorism and stop trying to argue with Al Qaeda about what is and isn’t Muslim–a fight we will surely lose. But it is debatable whether the United States (and the West in general) has the means to reconcile the Israelis and the Palestinians, overcome the deepseated prejudices against diaspora Muslims, and implement the host of other measures Mockaitis advocates. It may be that resilience–building our society to withstand the inevitable shocks of a radically flattened world–is the best solution. Mockaitis alludes to this in his conclusion, stating that “risk and vulnerability are the price of living in a free and open society.” Sadly enough, few political leaders seem willing to tell this simple truism to a population hungry for security at any cost.

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Written by Adam Elkus

October 15, 2008 at 3:23 am

Posted in Nonfiction

Tagged with , ,

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