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Al-Qaeda: Common criminals?

16/11/2010

In the media and academic world al-Qaeda bares many shapes and faces. There is: al-Qaeda the ideology; the brand name; the narrative; the neo-Kharijite mass movement; the loose cult confederation of allies; the corporate board of takfiris with autonomous regional business divisions; the media machine; the vanguard; and the decentralized transnational insurrection.

But amongst counter-radicalisation practitioners, a wise policy proposal would be simply to brand al-Qaeda criminal. When I pen “criminal,” I am not referring to the crimes against humanity writ large or the crimes against Islam and mainstream salafism as al-Qa`ida rests its ideological laurels on flagrant exploitation of politically-chosen out-of-context Quranic kernels. But instead, I mean normal, run-of-the-mill secular criminality like we see with the brutal and calculated crimes of Mexican cartels.

For example, perhaps Zawahiri—if he showed up on America’s Most Wanted—would be somewhere between a child molester and a murdering meth dealer. Although Zawahiri is one of the leaders of an organisation that has inspired attacks that have killed tens of thousands this past decade, focusing only on his personal criminal enterprises may take the wind out of his and al-Qaeda’s sails.

We have witnessed, since al-Qaeda’s inception, its drug trafficking, illegal and irreligious “taxes,” and illicit fundraising for its leaders and some operations—although most operations require little money.

But, an underused narrative is that al-Qaeda is primarily a criminal organisation—its main identity. This label became brutally clear over the past six months in Iraq. From April through October 2010, 40 people had been killed as a result of jewellery store robberies. The U.S. military command and Baghdad Operations Command believe that al-Qaeda elements are the perpetrators, or at least the stolen goods or money goes to al-Qaeda. Robbers use hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, silencers, and magnetic bombs to target cash-rich gold and jewellery merchants. The robberies, according to press reports, occur with efficiency: criminals shoot out windows, kill occupants, and escape with gold through Baghdad’s seemingly endless traffic jams (showing, perhaps, some police complicity). Gold is especially prized because it has risen in value by 25 percent in 2010 to over $1,300 (USD) per ounce. Al-Qaeda in Iraq may be killing hundreds of police recruits, Christians, Shi’a, and Sunnis alike each month. But they are also just plain criminals—robbers of the working class.

Such a label—forgetting, for now, all religious, humanitarian, and cultural counter narratives—may not only help to cause some visceral disgust for those susceptible to radicalisation but also may deflate al-Qaeda’s status.

And this counter narrative is one of the rare ones that governments can serve openly and widely to even the most cynical audiences. While those susceptible to radicalisation may be closed off to government messages about religion and al-Qaeda’s transgressions, the government is in an ideal position to employ the criminal counter narrative. Mixing al-Qaeda leaders with murderers and molesters on a—for example—Pakistan “10 Most Wanted” announcement would go viral if it were entertaining enough. Members of the Haqqani network, this past year, were implicated in a pornography ring—this would have been the perfect opportunity to force the names of the head Haqqanis into a list of rapists, robbers, and common murderers. At the very least, such a policy may force violent extremists onto the rhetorical defensive and waste their time.