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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

The Cult of Impersonality

In The War On Terrorism, The U.S. Must Look Beyond Individuals

By J.M. Berger

Just before a widespread uprising broke out in Iraq Tuesday, President Bush commented about the influence of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"In this particular incident, with Sadr, this is one person who is deciding that rather than allow democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force," the president said. "And we just can't let it stand."

Osama bin LadenThe comment highlights a recurring strategy problem in the Bush administration's approach to the War on Terrorism, which extends into relationships in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Middle East: The reduction of complex conflicts into simple personality conflicts revolving around binary issues (i.e., good vs. evil, or rational vs. irrational).

The tendency is well-documented. On Sept. 17, 2001, Bush made his now famous comments about catching Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."

In May and June 2003, administration officials began to claim that half of al Qaeda's leadership had been captured or killed, although it was far from clear what that statement was intended to mean. By February 2004, that figure climbed to "two-thirds."

In September 2003, Bush told CBS News he keeps pictures of the top al Qaeda leaders in his desk, including bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, and others. Bush told CBS that he marks off the pictures as the leaders are captured or killed.

In Iraq, a similar dynamic played out with Saddam Hussein, especially after the factual rationales for the invasion broke down. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney reverted to metaphors for personal conflict: The world was "better off" without Saddam Hussein in power.

Again, this week, the problem in Iraq has devolved to "one man," who is portrayed as being simply and irrationally "against democracy."

"This is a person, and followers, who are trying to say, we don't want democracy," Bush said Monday. The corresponding implication is perhaps obvious, that Iraqis could not be harboring any legitimate grievances regarding the coalition.


Outside the Iraqi theater, the focus on individuals creates a markedly distorted view of how al Qaeda works and inhibits any effective evaluation of how the War on Terror is progressing.

For example, the 3/11 attack in Madrid was a major operation that was likely already started by the time Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was arrested in March 2003. While a significant development in many respects, KSM's arrest did not measurably inhibit the operational ability of al Qaeda and linked groups to execute terrorist attacks beyond a window of several weeks after his apprehension.

While capturing bin Laden or Zawahiri would be a much-needed public relations boon for the U.S. at this stage in the war, such an event would not necessarily have an operational effect in terms of inhibiting future activity by al Qaeda.

It's always desirable to take competent enemy warriors off the playing board (especially an operational fighter and strategist like Zawahiri), but neither man exercises the same type of control within the al Qaeda movement that Western leaders exercise over their nations.

HambaliThe problem is amply illustrated in Southeast Asia, where al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah is emerging from just such a crisis. With the arrest of JI ideological leader Abu Bak'r Bashir and the capture of JI operational leader Hambali, the terror network suffered a loss that directly corresponds to what al Qaeda would experience if bin Laden and Zawahiri were both caught.

At most, JI appears to have suffered a modest setback after the arrests. Certainly, the effect of removing the top two figures in the organization has been far different from the effect of removing a head of state. The structure and cohesiveness of JI remain largely intact. It retains an ability to stage attacks, and it continues to rebuild its capabilities after a series of significant arrests and setbacks.


The focus on individuals isn't just a strategic problem on the field of battle.

Bush's political style is one of personal connection, and Bush camp insiders have long said that the president is at his best in personal encounters, rather than in political forums. Prior to September 11, this was actually considered to be an asset.

But the War on Terrorism, and the corollary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not best understood within the framework of individual dynamics. The administration's insistence on portraying conflicts in terms of competition between individuals is not simply academic. It pervades U.S. policy and the prosecution of the War on Terror.

After the arrest of al Qaeda lieutenant Ramzi Binalshibh in October 2002, Bush was explict in outlining his strategy against al Qaeda.

"The only way to measure success against this part of the war against terror is to hunt them down one at a time. A man named (Binalshibh) popped his head up the other day. He's no longer a problem to America," said Bush. "It's a different kind of war. You might think about it as an international manhunt."

He reiterated this view after the arrest of KSM.

"I told the American people this is a different kind of war against al Qaeda, that we're just going to have to hunt them down one at a time," he said in March 2003, as quoted by the Copley News Service. "And over the weekend, they saw what I meant. We will continue to hunt them down one at a time (...) and will do so until al Qaeda is completely dismantled."

The premise hinges on the individual significance of al Qaeda leaders and the idea that these individuals have qualities which are irreplaceable, to a greater or lesser extent.

If al Qaeda were organized along the lines of a pyramidal hierarchy, there might be some merit to this approach. But Qaeda's core operation is more properly viewed as being organized in concentric circles. When you remove an individual from the inner circle, the outer circles condense inward to fill the void.

The strategic issue extends well beyond the government's view of al Qaeda. In some cases, Bush's personal connection (or conflict) with individuals in other governments has the potential to overshadow serious policy issues, such as in the president's close family friendship with Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.

In other cases, such as the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, urgent U.S. policy concerns are obscured or completely ignored in favor of the reflexive identification of specific individuals as the cause of extremely broad societal dynamics.

"This is one person; this is a person, and followers, who are trying to say, we don't want democracy," Bush explains, and that explanation becomes the official position of the U.S. government.

But there are deep and difficult issues at work in Iraq, some a result of Western intervention and others stemming from decades or centuries of infighting among sectarian groups in the region. An exclusive focus on an individual leader denies the underlying problem. Even if the administration is addressing the problem internally, such comments send a public message (particularly in the Arab world) that the U.S. does not -- and will not in the future -- understand problems in the Middle East.

In the Information Age, leaders are more often born from circumstance than from natural aptitude. In other words, a figure like al-Sadr (or Bush for that matter) develops as a reflection of his followers than spontaneously emerging as a galvanizing figure (although once in a position of power, he certainly is able to exercise influence for good or for ill). The primary quality of a 21st century leader is his or her ability to respond to the public trends that now drive virtually all global activity.

By interpreting world affairs as the actions of a series of misguided or irrational individuals (bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Saddam Hussein, al-Sadr), U.S. policymakers can ignore the often inflammatory effect that U.S. foreign policy has in other nations.

Regardless of whether those policies are ultimately judged to be right or wrong, the inflammatory effect is what empowers terrorist groups to recruit new members and raise funds. Terrorist organizations and civil insurgencies (as in Iraq) arise from group dynamics and a specific societal backdrop.

Individuals are important in this equation, but they are a much smaller part of the overall picture than U.S. rhetoric suggests. To win the war, the U.S. needs to stop looking at the trees and start seeing the forest.

The current enemies of the United States are not motivated primarily by charismatic personalities, and "decapitation" is not an effective strategy against them. Any attempt to significantly deter terrorism must attack the problem from an organizational standpoint, or it will fail.

This analysis can be commissioned in an expanded format, with interviews and additional supporting material, at magazine length or as a research paper. The expanded version also explores the issue of moral value judgments in the context of when and why individuals named as enemies of U.S. policy. Contact J.M. Berger for details.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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