Hidden Source of Terror | NYRB

In “The Thistle and the Drone“, Akbar Ahmed considers how drones might appear to a tribesman:

Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.

The gulf between their perspectives on combat, honour and courage and this long distance, antiseptic, anonymous killing could hardly be greater.

Conflict between tribal societies and centralised states continually expanding their power is hardly new. Post 9/11, however, it’s intensified as the US in particular pursues its war on terror. One thing seems certain: it breeds a deep and mutually destructive cycle. How much of terrorist and jihadist activity is rooted in tribal resistance and revenge, and how much is ideologically driven is a question taken up in Malise Ruthven’s review:

Ahmed argues, convincingly enough, that the acts of terror or violence directed at the US or its allies are set off as much by revenge based on values of tribal honor as by extremist ideologies. In making his case, however, he de-emphasizes the role of ideology—or, to be more precise, the complex process whereby tribal ideas of revenge framed in the traditional language of Islam are transformed into global revolutionary activism. It seems fair to argue, as Ahmed does, that the values of honor and revenge inherent in the tribal systems contribute to jihadist extremism, and that by ignoring this all-important factor the US has been courting disaster. As Ahmed puts it:

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Unted States has been fighting the wrong war, with the wrong tactics, against the wrong enemy, and therefore the results can be nothing but wrong.

It would be pushing this argument too far, however, to suggest, as Ahmed appears to do by omission if not explicitly, that the ideological and organizational factors are irrelevant. As Leon Trotsky famously put it in discussing the role of the Communist Party in the Russian Revolution, “without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.” As a “piston-box” directing tribal energies away from local targets toward a global enemy epitomized by the United States, al-Qaeda may have proved less formidable than the Communists who took power in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

But the analogy still has force.

It does. It also suggests turning down the heat has to be part of any successful longer term strategy.


The Sound of Terror: Boston Review


2 thoughts on “Hidden Source of Terror | NYRB

  1. Very interesting point.

    The tribesmen might not be too far off. Our drone policy allows us to delude ourselves that we are more powerful than we are. The one thing it does do is permit hostilities without immediate American combat deaths. Since Vietnam (until the GWB Iraq adventure and since then again) politicians have been loath to risk the sight of coffins in American flags. The morality of the use of force has never entered into the equation. Drones seem to eliminate that objections, at least for a certain kind of engagement (pure assassination).

    The tribesmen are also not unique in detesting this form of warfare. Every study since the OSS/CIA reviewed the effects of aerial bombardment campaigns during WWII concludes that far from breaking the will to oppose, bombing in fact increases the backbone of the population to resist. Even if there weren’t these studies, the experience of Londoners during the Battle of Britain would show the same thing.

    The problem is that drones allow the military to show short-term results with apparent little downside (the “collateral damage” that no one seems to care about on our side). If hawks thought about the potential long-term blowback (and believed it possible–but they probably delude themselves on this), they would simply conclude, rightly, that most people will never trace the the result back to its proximate cause.

  2. DK, apologies once again. I’ve been distracted elsewhere and not paying enough attention.

    Anyway, entirely agree. America’s use of drones is a classic case of seen vs unseen effects. The bill is being quietly totted up in the background and will, in due course, be presented.

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