The Magazine

How to Fight a Superpower

Al Qaeda as an NGO

Dec 31, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 16 • By TOD LINDBERG
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PRESIDENT BUSH has described the struggle against terrorism in which we are engaged as the first war of the twenty-first century. Presumably he means more by that designation than a nod to the calendar. He is also referring to a new kind of war. But what kind? Well, the novelty is that the United States finds itself at war for the first time against a non-governmental organization.

Such conflicts are not entirely without precedent. Governments have often fought guerrilla movements bent on their overthrow, for example. And history also offers examples of conflicts in which military force has been systematically deployed against non-state actors, for example in the suppression of piracy and the slave trade, or, more recently, in the "war" against drug trafficking. But still, the current war against terrorism is different.

First of all, Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization is not a guerrilla force bent on our overthrow. The United States has the power to force "regime change," as international relations scholars would say. The terrorists do not. Neither are they pirates, slavers, or narcotraffickers. All of the latter are or were pursuing merely private aims, namely, winning riches (and, one must add, getting their kicks). There is no sense in which the terrorists can be construed to be acting for private gain (though they and their sympathizers no doubt took private pleasure in the attacks). The motivation of pirates was not to threaten British interests by interfering with the right of free passage on the high seas. This threat was a byproduct of the plundering of booty. The purpose of the slavers wasn't to strike a blow at believers in newfangled rights of man. Again, the offense against human dignity, requiring an urgent response, was a byproduct of actions undertaken for entirely different reasons. The case of the narcotraffickers is analogous. In all three examples, the private character of the motives of the malefactors invites us to view them as criminals and the government actions against them as police work, even if conducted by military forces.

Some are inclined to view the terror attacks through this same prism of criminality. But this misconstrues the terrorists' motivation. Those who plan and perpetrate such attacks want to inflict harm on the United States for political reasons. They want us out of the Middle East. In their view, and they are surely correct, the best means of coercion they have at their disposal is the terror attack. Therefore, they attack with terror. And therefore, we respond to them as an external enemy, albeit one with agents on our soil--an enemy that is neither merely criminal nor, in any meaningful sense, revolutionary. We wage war, and the fact that our enemy is not necessarily or even mainly a particular state does not make what we are doing anything less than waging war. But it is a new kind of war--the first war against an NGO.

The 1990s saw the dramatic rise of the non-governmental organization, or NGO. The influence and prestige such organizations have come to enjoy across a whole range of issues is really quite remarkable. From the dashing and glamorous Medecins sans Frontieres to the proliferating human rights watchdog groups worldwide, from the increasingly visible groups courageously delivering humanitarian assistance in conditions of absolute misery to the explosive growth of missionary Protestantism in Latin America, from the international profusion of "civil society" groups to the almost unstoppable ability of the major environmentalist groups to set the international terms of discussion in their area of interest, NGOs are on the march. The classic example is the case of Jody Williams, the woman from Vermont who, by means of the Internet, all but singlehandedly created a network of NGOs campaigning for a ban on land mines, for which she shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

Professors of government at elite campuses nationwide report that for students, at least before September 11, the keenest area of interest is not international relations or comparative politics, but international NGOs and the "soft" security issues with which they have become associated: the environment and global warming, AIDS, globalization and its discontents. Conferences of NGOs can rival in size and attention meetings of the G-8 or the International Monetary Fund. Nowadays, it is quite common for the presence of NGOs to overwhelm the official national participants at world meetings of all kinds. Indeed, some have joked--and it's really not a joke--that the government of Canada has essentially turned itself over to NGOs. These organizations have achieved an unprecedented degree of respect and legitimacy internationally.