How Al Qaeda Reinvented Modern Terrorism

It’s easy to forget that until 1993, until the World Trade Center was a target [by Ramzi Yousef, terrorism and assassination and guerrilla warfare stood in direct antithesis to slaughter on an industrial scale. The specificity of the target had been at the heart of political murder for nearly a millennium. The original assassins were Ismaili Muslims, who killed rulers rather than armies. The capitalists and fascists and imperialists led subservient masses into meaningless death; the terrorists knew whom they killed. The essential nature of the propaganda of the deed was that it waged war against those responsible for the system rather than those who suffered under it. Russian anarchists believed that insurrectionary acts against the ruling classes would bring about revolution, but their targets were, as a rule, individuals. (There were exceptions, such as the bombing of the Liceu Theater in Barcelona in 1893, but they were rare.) Carlos the Jackal targeted OPEC leaders and the people who ran Zionist organizations. The forces of guerrilla warfare attached a strategic as well as a symbolic value to individual life. Their smaller numbers meant they could not waste themselves except at a high price.

Yousef saw that the World Trade Center’s brute scale, its sheer bulk, expressed better than any other building the banal dominance of modernity. His letter to the New York Times after the 1993 bombing explicitly described it as an attack from “the fifth battalion in the Liberation Army,” and the political movement to which he was an inheritor belonged to the Russian anarchists, Lawrence of Arabia, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, the June 2 movement in Germany, and Carlos the Jackal. It is essential to understand the necessary framework for guerrilla informational war: To wage diathetics, you have to belong to the culture you hope to distort, and you have to hate that culture at the same time. Diathetics can only be waged both inside and outside a culture; to know what effects a spectacle will have, you have to comprehend the context into which it will be received. Lawrence was a prime example of an inside-outside man and so was Yousef. Yousef was not a good Muslim: He drank, womanized, never prayed, and never fasted. Almost everyone involved in the 9/11 conspiracy was stuck between the West and Islam. On Sept. 10, 2001, Mohammad Atta checked out of his hotel in Boston, rented a car, and drove with one of his co-conspirators, Abdul Aziz al-Omari, to Portland, Maine, where they shopped at Walmart and ate at Pizza Hut. No one knows why. Like salesmen in town on business, the Saudis left in Boston tried to call for prostitutes but didn’t end up hiring any because the prices were too high. Al Qaeda’s ideology was Islamist, but its techniques and ideas were Western.

After the 1993 attack, the symbolism of the World Trade Center took on a significance far beyond itself. Various dreams of its explosion scattered like a billion dark seeds over the global soil. “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade,” Biggie Smalls rapped. Because it had survived, the center became a point of pride for U.S. counterterrorism officials. After his capture, when Yousef was transferred on an FBI helicopter to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan for trial, the SWAT team took off his blindfold as they were flying down the Hudson River. “You see, it’s still standing,” one SWAT member said, indicating the World Trade Center.

“It wouldn’t be if we had had more money,” Yousef answered, shrugging.

— Stephen Marche, Al Qaeda Won, Foreign Policy Magazine

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