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Thesis & Antithesis

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

13 October 2005

Zawahiri’s concerns

Those who are looking for a scorecard on the war on terror can read Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; because it is in the words of al-Qaeda’s number two man that comes the greatest evidence that this terrorist campaign is falling apart.

Al-Zawahiri knows he needs to win over the Arab masses. But this is a source of weakness. He knows that terrorism suffers from a strategic defect; “the mujahed movement must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve,” he writes. Al- Zawahiri is concerned about the fight between Sunni and Shiites, which is undermining the unity of the jihad. The excessive brutality on display during the killing of hostages is another way to alienate the public.

In other words, it is when terrorism becomes too decentralized that it also loses its cogency and coherency. We tend to think of al-Qaeda’s strength as lying with its disparateness—the fear that there are always sleeper cells terrifies Western authorities. But the more people are involved in the campaign and the more complicated it gets, the harder it is for the ordinary folk to follow it, to embrace it, and to champion. Al-Zawahiri knows this: “I repeat the warning against separating from the masses, whatever the danger,” he writes.

The failure to convert military victories into political capital is another of al-Zawahiri’s fears. This is the classic problem of terrorism: militants can destroy but they cannot create; they might have power to overthrow but not the strength to take over. Al-Zawahiri writes, “I stress again to you and to all your brothers the need to direct the political action equally with the military action, by the alliance, cooperation and gathering of all leaders of opinion and influence in the Iraqi arena.” What al-Zawahiri is saying is that there is more to terrorism than killing. But many terrorists have yet to understand that.

And so from al-Zawahiri’s letter comes the most solemn and damning critique of terrorism. As terrorism becomes more powerful it loses focus; it gets embroiled in killing and forgets that killing is only a means to an end—to capture political power. But rarely are those who are capable of running a state the ones in the basements plotting attacks against civilians. It is easy for terrorism to collapse under its own weight. This is the limit of terrorism and al-Zawahiri knows it better than anyone today.

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