Al Qaeda as an NGO


Research Note

1. Argument

Since 9/11, the United States has implicitly treated its terrorist opponents as if they were states. It has deployed traditional assets of hard power against countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush speaks of a global ‘war’ on terror (GWoT) and listed only states in the ‘axis of evil.’ Yet terrorist groups themselves are structurally similar to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). While they may receive state-sponsorship, they frequently are an organizational embodiment of indigenous social movements. Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Islamist groups emanate from the Islamic revival or wave since the 1970s, just as Greenpeace did from the environmental movement. That some of these NGOs or social movement organizations deploy violence distinguishes them tactically, but not structurally. Indeed at least one environmental NGO, the Earth Liberation Front, has slowly drifted into terrorism. Hence, warfighting counterterrorism strategies mischaracterize the opponent. This essay will first, map the structural similarities between terrorist organizations and NGOs through a comparison of Greenpeace and al Qaeda, and second, deduce counter-insurgency rather than warfighting policy implications for the GWoT.

As social movements arise – feminism, Islamism, Irish nationalism – they kick up non-state entities – NGOs – that agitate for new goals. Traditionally the literature on NGOs and social movements has implied that they are leftist or ‘progressive.’ From rising environmental concern emanates Greenpeace or the World Wild Life Fund; civil rights concerns generate the NAACP. Yet this logic does not preclude nationalist, religious, or ‘regressive’ social movements. Rising Irish nationalism in the environment of decolonization generated the IRA, as well as peaceful groups agitating for change. Similarly, an Islamic revival has gripped the Muslim world since the 1970s and created non-state, civil society groups to renew Muslim piety, some of which have reached to terrorism. That some, such as Hamas or Hezbollah, so blur the boundaries between NGO-style aid and charity work and terrorism, intellectually motivates my comparison of the two concepts.

2. Research

Several decades of research on social movements and NGOs has generated a general set of structural attributes of NGOs. For comparison, I choose Greenpeace, because it is a ‘classic,’ well-researched NGO case, and al Qaeda, because it is the best known terrorist group emanant from the Islamic revivalist movement. The following structured, focused comparison will be expanded in the full essay: Both are non-state and transnational. They are networked across borders through national chapters. These chapters have formal memberships, complete with selection criteria and bureaucratic jockeying over advancement, projects, and internal governance. National chapters are complemented by a wider but softer constituency of partially mobilizable sympathizers. Leadership is oligarchic and personalistic; charismatic founders tend to dominate, with limited circulation at the top. Both engage in fund-raising and recruitment within the relevant social movement. They are principled advocates; they seek deep ideational change in world politics. But the ‘deep politics’ of norm entrepreneurship is slow, and both are given to bouts of extraparliamentary direct action for immediate policy change. Neither seeks to enter traditional politics or morph into a political party. Both are media-savvy and engage extensively in public relations campaigns. They heavily use the non-nationalized, deterritorial space of the internet to organize, mobilize and fundraise at a global level for global change. Finally, like many NGOs, both share a general ideological disdain for US-led capitalist modernity.

3. Policy Implications/Results

The policy implications of this analysis, particularly for the current US WoT are significant. Islamism will continue to kick up groups like Al Qaeda or Hamas until the fervor behind the revival fades. As such, militarized strategies that target failed states are unlikely to reduce Islamic terrorism. Indeed, as the National Intelligence Estimates argue, the Iraq war has likely created more jihadists, because it plays to the most extreme variants of the Muslim revival. Warfighting counter-terrorism strategies significantly overrate the relevance of rickety, postcolonial states of the Middle East and Central Asia; they mischaracterize the opponent as a traditional state which can be reduced by traditional means.

If the opponent is primarily ideational – an inspirational social movement – channeled through violent NGOs, then a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, complemented by containment and counterinsurgency, is likely a more efficacious approach. The model for future Western action in the GWoT would be not Iraq but the Malayan emergency of the 1950s. The norm entrepreneurship of Islamic radicals would be met by a contrasting, liberal campaign for hearts and minds. Where unsuccessful, Islamist regimes like Iran would face containment, and violent NGOs like al Qaeda would face counter-insurgency in fine-grained, patient, well-intelligenced, culturally-literate, small-footprint operations.

4. Method

The method is historical and cross-comparative. I will follow Alexander George’s prescription of structured, focused comparison. Along a series of generalized vectors, I will compare these two cases. The attributes listed above (section 2) are the general markers against which the two cases will be measured. The actual research will only involve reading. The relevant information is already in the public sphere. Because I wrote my dissertation on NGOs, I will likely circulate drafts among my NGO acquaintances; I will make a particular effort to solicit Greenpeace. I will also consult with associates from the CIA, homeland security, the military, and the other terrorism scholars in my professional network.

5. Literature/Contribution

This project contributes creatively to the international relations literatures on terrorism and social movements. To my knowledge, they have never been brought together before. Traditionally, social movement and NGO scholars focus on left-‘progressive’ groups like the anti-globalizers around the IMF and World Bank, or indigenous third world development groups. In Power in Movement, Sidney Tarrow noted that almost no one applies the tools of this work to rightist social movements. By contrast, the counterterrorism literature is dominated by Iraq, tactical considerations of how democracies should respond to terrorism, and state-sponsorship of terror. The structure of terrorist networks is simply taken for granted; they are like brigands or pirates or militias. But the operations of al Qaeda, Hamas and others suggest far greater sophistication.

So I believe I am creatively fusing two previously unaffiliated literatures. Applying our tools, as Tarrow suggests, to a conservative social movement and its emanant NGOs should yield theoretically interesting and policy-relevant results.

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