The War on Terror -- Through a Tribal Prism

04/23/2013 03:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013
AP

Commentators are discussing a "next phase" or re-ignition of the war on terror in the wake of the Boston bombings. They are also raising questions about what the Chechen identity of the two alleged bombers means. Many are attempting to understand their ethnic identity as a signal that this was part of some larger plot from terror groups in the Caucasus and link them back to their ancestral lands.

Few are understanding what their Chechen identity means to these individuals in the context of tribal culture and history.

In fact, in light of their tribal identity, this is not a new phase of the war on terror at all. The tribal roots of terrorism are a reality which has been overlooked by many since the declaration of the war on terror over a decade ago. It is this reality which I have investigated in my new book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam. Using 40 case studies of tribal societies across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Chechnya, I show how the United States misunderstood its enemy after 9/11, mistakenly believing that it was engaging in a "clash of civilizations" between the West and the Muslim world.

What I discovered was that the driving force of terrorism is the conflict between tribes on the periphery and their central governments, conflicts which predate 9/11 and which the United States entered in its hunt for terrorists. For tribal communities, this is a period of complete disruption. They are attacked by the armies and artillery of their own central government looking for terrorists one day, by suicide bombers and tribal rivals the next, and in certain tribal societies, by the deadly drone the day after. "Every day," they say, "is like 9/11 for us."

Tribalism can even be detected in the catalyst for the war on terror, the events of 9/11. Eighteen of the 19 hijackers were Yemeni tribesmen, as were 95 percent of al-Qaeda members, according to quotes by bodyguards of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden himself had a Yemeni tribal background, with his grandfather having come to Saudi Arabia from the Hadhramaut region of eastern Yemen. Bin Laden's rhetoric and poetry is replete with references to tribalism, talking of tribal honor, courage, revenge and raiding. He even referred to the events of 9/11 as a type of tribal raid. The last two houses he resided in were Ghamdi House in Afghanistan, named after the Yemeni tribe, and Waziristan House in Abbottabad, after the tribal region of Waziristan in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda represented the periphery, and their primary target was the Saudi central government.

It is thus these issues -- tribalism and the struggle between center and periphery -- that are the causes of the violence in Chechnya in the Caucasus region of Russia. The Chechen tribes, who live by a code of honor and revenge called Nokhchalla, have fiercely resisted encroachment and colonization by Russia for centuries. In the 1940s, the Soviet Union under Stalin deported nearly the entire Chechen population to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with as many as half dying in the process. Many of the survivors of the deportations returned to the Caucasus in the 1960s.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya experienced two brutal wars with the Russian military in the 1990s, as the newly formed Russian Federation attempted to keep the region from declaring independence. About 10 percent of the Chechen population was slaughtered in these wars, causing a distinct mutation in their tribal code.

This mutation led to the attack by Chechens on the Beslan School, the Moscow Metro and a Moscow theater, and countless other attacks, including suicide bombings in which many innocent men, women and children were killed. These were acts of sheer cruelty and violence designed to cause pain. They made no sense, as they alienated people from the larger Chechen cause.

The violent groups, much like the TTP in Pakistan, al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, will say that they have killed these innocent people to cause pain -- an act of pure destruction and revenge. Their families have been raped and murdered in front of their eyes, and they will do the same -- a distinct mutation of the tribal code and its compulsions for revenge. It is clear that relations between the center and periphery have broken down, not only in Chechnya but across the Muslim, and even non-Muslim, world.

Chechnya is rife with tragic stories. In one November 2001 incident, a 23-year-old woman who had lost her husband, two brothers and a cousin to the violence in Chechnya blew herself up, killing the Russian general who had previously tortured her husband to death in front of her. Right before detonating the explosives strapped to her body, she asked "Do you still remember me?" The general had personally called for her to enter the room and witness her husband's torture, during which the general allegedly slashed her husband's stomach and forced her face into the open wound.

It was this violence that the Tsarnaev family, to which the Boston suspects belong, was fleeing when they landed in Kyrgyzstan and eventually the United States. Within the United States, they faced a whole new set of challenges, lost between two worlds, without guides or role models. They found themselves as part of a broader Muslim community, constantly suspect due to the actions of a few, and with religious and community leadership disconnected from American culture and the experiences of the younger generation. With the lack of effective leadership, violent ideas and ideology too often fill the minds of the disaffected youth, made more complicated with the tribal element and its compulsions for revenge.

Within the United States, we need to understand that the roots of terrorism lie in the broken relationship between central governments and tribal peripheries. In fact, Islam has very little to do with terrorism. Considering the hundreds of thousands of immigrants with a tribal background who live in the U.S., there is a need to reaffirm the principles of pluralism proclaimed by the Founding Fathers as the bedrock of this country.

And the Muslim leadership -- the imams and elders of the community -- needs to become better aware of the broader American culture that the younger generation of Muslims is engaged with. Events like the one in Boston must not be allowed to happen again. Only with communities working together through understanding and dialogue can we work toward a more peaceful future.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., and the former Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom. He is the author of "The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam" (Brookings Press 2013).

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