Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers
03/02/10 - Cato at Liberty by Julian Sanchez
The common question: Why do Islamic extremists spend their time and resources attacking the US and our people? What is in it for them?
One explanation is hate. They don't mind sacrificing their men to suicide bombings, or enduring our counter-terrorist operations that kill their leaders, as long as it shakes up The West and the US. But, there is much hate in the world, and most organizations and countries are not attacking in that way. So, hate is a plausible explanation, but doesn't leave me satisfied.
The following insight seems right to me. They attack us as a form of thug advertising, to build their organizations.
Sanchez [edited]: The claim that "we are at war" seems to be a statement that "we are very, very serious about national security". This self-esteem boosting ritual has a cost.
Jihadis primarily want to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular. (See "The Far Enemy" by Fawaz Gerges.) Their decision to strike “the Far Enemy” in the United States is not motivated by blind bloodlust or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Their decision is generally unpopular, even among radical Islamists.
Al Qaeda had been perceived within jihadi circles as a marginal organization. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West would revive the jihadi movement and enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda. This has largely backfired
Terrorism is primarily a symbolic act. Terror groups execute sensational attacks as PR stunts. They don’t love blowing up airplanes; they do it to establish their own credibility versus more locally-focused Islamist groups. They compete with both violent and peaceful groups for recruits.
Our response to these attacks will often have a military component. But, we should not treat Al Qaeda as if it were a belligerent foreign state. A big show supports their advertising and outreach efforts. We should treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs, when this is compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals.