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Defining the Fight, Part 2: The ‘global’ issue

17/08/2009

In his major speech at CSIS (See part one) Brennan stated:

… the President does not describe this as a ‘global war’. Yes, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups operate in many corners of the world and continue to launch attacks in different nations, as we saw most recently in Jakarta. And yes, the United States will confront al Qaeda aggressively wherever it exists so that it enjoys no safe haven. But describing our efforts as a ‘global war’ only plays into the warped narrative that al Qaeda propagates.

Wrong.

The criticism that globalizing the conflict validates the AQ narrative is a common one. Check out chapter 7 of Alison Pargeter’s The New Frontiers of Jihad for a good summary of these arguments. Pargeter is critical of those who ignore the differences between various Islamist movements.

To an extent, her criticism is fair because these differences are important. The Islamist movement is ‘plagued by division’ and is far from unified. Still, the fact remains it is a movement and it is global. In nearly every country in the world with a Muslim population, there are Islamist groups and networks that share the goal of overthrowing ‘un-Islamic’ governments via terrorism and insurgency.

This may be uncomfortable to talk about for some, but it is the truth. And what is worse: recognizing a conflict for what it is, in all its uncomfortable glory, or branding it something else because it sounds more digestible? Viewing the ‘fight’ as a global one does not prevent us from understanding that Hamas and al Qaeda are not the same thing (a fact reinforced by recent news), that the radicalization of a Kashmiri villager is different from that of second-generation (Kashmiri) immigrant in Leeds.

That is the beauty (if I may use such a term to describe our foe) of al Qaeda’s success. As Jarret Brachmann puts it in his excellent book, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, ‘the Jihadist message provides a universal rallying cry that resonates locally but applies globally’. (Seriously, read this book. It’s awesome.)

Describing our efforts as ‘global’ merely recognizes that our enemy has a global physical presence and is able to use modern telecomm tech to access global audiences with ease (just like the rest of us). The President seems to recognize this…but at the same time doesn’t.

We also have to understand that the global information environment is key to this conflict. The Internet and satellite media allow images and information to be transmitted to audiences globally, whether they Abu Ghraib photos, news articles, fatwas, or the latest speech from President Obama or Osama bin Laden addressing the Muslim world.

The collective will of all of these accessed audiences – ummah, enemy, neutral parties, media, and beyond – has a profound, dynamic, and global effect on the conflict and, indeed, drives it. David Betz addresses the dynamic of the ‘virtual dimension’ in his Orbis article, ‘The Virtual Dimension of Contemporary Insurgency and Counterinsurgency’.

Understanding the global nature of the threat does not, as Brennan argues play ‘into the misleading and dangerous notion that the U.S. is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world’, nor does it foment a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam – all it does is recognize:

(a) the global nature of the enemy and
(b) the global field on which it plays out.

It is still possible and necessary to recognize nuance and the important differences that exist from group to group, region to region, country to country, province to province, and even village to village while still understanding it as a global phenomenon and yes, a global war.