Al Qaeda: The Transformation of Terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa (Praeger Security International)
Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2015. 300p. $51.78. ISBN: 978-1440828706.
Volume: 3 Issue: 11
Yiyi Chen, PhD
Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Shanghai, P. R. China
For a student of the subject, this book gives the feeling of finding a treasure trove when first encountered in that it not only covers almost all possible aspects of the subject matter, but also leads to a plethora of sources that the reader might be delighted to find. In this sense, the book should be on the shelf of all serious students of the subject. Yet after thoroughly combing through the book, even with the help of the accompanying website, trying to follow the authors’ effort in finding the answers to all the questions posted in the Introduction to the book, a reader might become more pessimistic with the prospect of diffusing the ISIS/Al Qaeda threat it is posing to our world today. Nevertheless, she or he still should be able to find in the book plenty of provocative points and inspiration to dig deeper and think further, a reason all researchers on the subject should read this volume.
The authors embarked on a very ambitious goal to cover almost every possible aspect of the subject matter, i.e., Al Qaeda’s history, origins of its ideology, funding and financing, marketing and recruiting, their use of the Internet, and their activities either as various regional quasi-military entities or a network of so-called “lone wolves” in the great Middle East region and around the world. This goal is fulfilled without doubt, and with obviously a large amount of painstaking source collection and re-organization — the book has 44 pages of end notes, with sources spanning from classical books on Islamism to online websites, forums and databases being updated to the minute.
Throughout the book, the authors always have in their minds another higher level goal, i.e., seeking answers to several very relevant questions: “How official is the tie between the ‘self-immersers’ and Al Qaeda central? Is the Internet the new skeleton/framework, replacing Al Qaeda central?…What rising terrorist trends are signals of the next Al Qaeda” (p. viii)? Although the book goes into very detailed aspects of Al Qaeda, trying to answer these questions, while the reader can find apparent answers to these questions quoted by the authors from the various sources they collected, it lacks a coherent and well structured presentation to answer these questions systematically. For example, to one particular question, the reader can find a quoted answer (or attempt at answering) in multiple locations of the book, scattered sometimes in the historical reviews, sometimes in regional factor reviews, and still sometimes in the concluding chapter, which provides more collected notes and gives nothing conclusive.
The authors attribute the fundamental reason of the rise of Al Qaeda to the failed promise of the western powers to the Middle East — it is easy “for Al Qaeda to whip up the distaste that exists” among Arabs because of their disappointment with the colonial powers not being able to fulfill their promises made before the Ottoman Empire collapsed. “It helps Al Qaeda to bypass the individuality of the 57 (Muslim) nation states and perpetuate the colonialism stigma whenever it needs to pit nation-states against each other. This permits Al Qaeda to play followers of Islam against each other, individuals against the West” (p. 158).
To solve the problem, they criticized various approaches. For example, they think drone attacks “remove individual members of Al Qaeda from the target list; it did not remove Al Qaeda, the organization, or Al Qaeda influence… Instead Al Qaeda responded by remodeling itself into a distributed organization, one that exploited the asymmetrical relationships of the ongoing confrontation between the United States, its allies and the elements of the Al Qaeda operating entity” (p. 165). To counter this, the authors think that there should be concerted efforts to reach out to those who pose a particular threat in the western societies, by looking into data and assessing them for the patterns and trends they reveal (p. 166). No further details are given in the book other than this general suggestion. The authors also entertained some other opportunities to exploit in handling the Al Qaeda problem. Among them, one mentioned briefly is interesting, “the rampant drought can offer opportunity for technology that can be used to turn the river conditions to those of pre-2003” (p. 167). The authors did not go into details regarding how to leverage technology to solve water resource problems spanning from Yemen, Iraq to Nigeria. A reader with general background knowledge cannot help but think about Israeli expertise in this area.
The water resource example given above is one of the many (too many) cases of the book, where a point — almost always with a reference to the source — is inserted, with no context before it, no details after it. Actually, almost all the chapters of the book read like a collection of notes by the authors, with limited editorial efforts to provide a coherent argument. For example, on p. 67, the third paragraph starts with a quote from a source with no context given before or after. Another example is on p. 76, where the reader would have benefited from an explanation of the term “hawala.” On the same page, the last sentence is out of place with no context whatsoever. Repetition within the book on some issues reveals again the “note collection” nature of the writings by the authors. Although these collective notes do provide intriguing reading material for most non-expert readers, the fact that this is a published monograph, not a dissertation, still calls for the authors to present their material in a more coherent manner so that it meet a higher standard of scholarly writing.
As an intensive collection of reading notes, the authors did an admirable job of grouping these into three types of chapters, one is tracing the origin, the second is analyzing the status quo, the third, not parallel logically to the first two, is facts of Al Qaeda divided by regions. Of the first type are chapters 1-2, “Origins and Ideology of Al Qaeda” and “Al Qaeda: The Evolution Process.” Of the second type are chapters 3-6, “Al Qaeda: the Violence Examined,” “The Funding and Finance of Al Qaeda,” “The Drive to Survive: Marketing and Recruiting,” and “The Internet: The Personalization of Terrorism.” Of the third type are chapters 7-9, “Yemen and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” “Iraq and Syria: The Evolution of Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers,” and “North Africa and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” The Introduction is the most coherent and most readable part of the book with few notes. The material in the Conclusion chapter are the same in the other 9 chapters, gives the feeling that they are like standalone Lego pieces that can be put interchangeably in many other places, each piece carrying its own endnote of source(s). There are quite a few pieces “recycled,” while it feels odd to have others anywhere, but still, they must be accommodated somewhere, buried in one of the chapters.
Typos, though minimal, are found in some pages, to list a few: p. 66, third paragraph, “fuction”; and p. 87, 4th paragraph, “cutting hedge”; etc.
Appendix A includes nine maps covering regions discussed in the book; Appendix B includes four timelines of Al Qaeda developments. The book has a ten page index for proper names combined with important keywords, though the criteria for the selection of the entries sometimes elude me. For example, the term “Chinese” appears in the book more than once (e.g., p. 49, in “Chinese cyber hackers”), in non-trivial context, but it is not included as an entry; yet the term “Mongol Ilkhan” is selected even though it appears only once in a historical background review of little relevance to the theme of the book. I would assume a reader using the index having little time combing through the whole book would not want to miss the fact that the authors endorse the hypothesis that the Chinese cyber hackers facilitated Al Qaeda cyber terrorism.
Last but not least, the book has an accompanying website, www.findingtheanswer.org, with the intention to reach out to, and enlist the help of the general public (crowd sourcing) to help with finding the answers to the ISIS threat. The website is useful in a sense that it provides a set of charts not available in the book, as well as some very useful links to external sources mentioned in the book. The site and the forum is not yet frequently visited probably due to the fact that the book has just been published. I believe there will be a lot of curious readers visiting it in the future.