Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wailing Walls: Bela Lugosi's Dead, Part I

Note: After the death of Osama Bin Laden, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East. He last joined us for Slouching from Benghazi, Part III: The Libyan War Is Decadent and Depraved.

A Shadow of Ourselves

"Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue."
— Robespierre

The warm waters of the Persian Gulf deserve better than the pollution of Osama Bin Laden's leaking carcass. The return of that croaked wraith to the sea marks but the final sunnah in his jihad against the world — against the blue Satan. It is criminal that Bahrain's placid pearl oyster beds, or the verdant coral reefs of Marrawah, or even the rusting, awesome shells of supertankers sunk during the Iran-Iraq war, may someday house a shred of Osama's beard. An image shadows me, of a serene whale shark, peacefully gliding along the seabed, filter feeding upon krill and algae, ignorantly sucking up a Bin Laden testicle. The miasma of his putrefying body will infect fish eggs and psychologically warp bottlenose dolphin calves, twisting them into angry teenagers their parents will not recognize.

Osama Bin Laden, the Most Evil Man in History, is fish food, will never be seen again in any recognizable, corporeal form. The fear, the banality, the panic he provoked will remain behind, streaks of blood in the water charting his descent. Many village experts have obligingly explained to us that Bin Laden was a failure. This is true one minute and false the next. The Arab revolutionary movements of this year are a more bracing repudiation than two Navy SEAL stingers to the eye; they killed Bin Laden before we did.

But we must face it: Bin Laden tossed a pocketful of seeds and woke up in a rainforest. He wagged the dog. If anything, the failures of his nearest and dearest efforts, frightfully modest in comparison to the destruction of the American Empire, only serve to highlight the enormity of the scalps he pocketed. Historians will be hard-pressed to find an agitator who castrated an empire using less money and exerting less energy than Bin Laden. His jackal pack induced a full-court psychological meltdown with a disgusting ease. His coalition of Salafist mutants, rejected from polite company in every corner of the Middle East, conspiratorial failures of Arab capital who could've stepped out of a Conrad thriller and kept on bumbling — this was the drifting garbage mound that beggared a superpower.

Here is the cautionary tale the last decade has telegraphed to every person on the face of the earth with working eyes, ship-shape ears, and no cable: a reedy rich boy Tusken Raider with a voice like static can burn three thousand helpless human souls as if they were garbage, find comfort in the arms of America's South Asian allies, then spend six years in a leafy dacha growing tomatoes, dyeing his beard and napping.

Farm out Snickers commercials to fugitive Serbian war criminals, and we'll have moved only half a step away from our mere trucknuts-lovin' jingoism toward the hypernationalism we are destined to embrace, like Rwandan Hutu Power. This murder was a state-sanctioned revenge killing with all the legal pretext a Sicilian would need to avenge a dirty look on the street. Nothing more, nothing less. Bin Laden deserved what he got, but then, if that Old West logic was also the guiding ethos in domestic affairs, Donald Trump should've been shot in the face by Navy SEALs the same week. Don't pretend this was justice, when it only exists in DC Comics. The eagle shrieked for blood, and so blood was served. And it won't even help Obama win reelection — won't make people love him any more than they already did or did not. Some major organ is thoroughly rotten, riddled with abscesses and blisters, if the one "big thing" America can accomplish is the tawdry, soul-sapping killing of a dilettante porn-addicted rich killer.

Bin Laden was clearer than is commonly believed in elucidating his oxygen-deprived "theology." In his last interview with journalist Robert Fisk, in the wilds of his Afghan fiefdom, Osama slowly explained the future: "From this mountain, Mr. Robert, upon which you are sitting, we beat the Russian army and helped break the Soviet Union. And I pray to God that he allows us to turn America into a shadow of itself." He wanted to embroil the U.S. in an endless global war that would enrage all Muslims, kill Americans, and batter the Treasury. He wanted us to writhe with fear in the absence of any sustained threat. We are shadows of ourselves, scanning the horizons for the next looming threat, even as we liquefy our eyes staring into the sun.

Ten years later, and we still have no conception of the men who slammed us into the shithouse. Question: do you believe Osama Bin Laden requires dialysis, owing kidney damage, as has been reliably reported since 9/11? If so, you are wrong. Wrong.

Fiction about public enemy No. 1's renal status, disseminated over and over again by pundit and pol hacks who don't know Bin Laden's ass from their elbows. If we can't get kidneys right, it shouldn't ruin the picnic to know that we are no closer to understanding Al Qaeda — that, in fact, our official comprehension of that Islamist phenomenon has only grown more confused since 9/11. Before we can even get into the whopper that was Bin Laden's last stand, we have to establish a few things: what "Al Qaeda" fundamentalism entails, how it appeals to adherents, and how this translated into an organization.

Al Qaeda, as imagined by our leaders and fourth estate, does not exist. It never did. I'll repeat myself: Al Qaeda, global terror hierarchy, never existed. The people commonly associated with "Al Qaeda" exist today as a gang of dreamers and forced retirees in Pakistan, happy to live in suburban, ISI-insured anonymity than as Muslim warriors on the mountains of Afghanistan. This network of hopeless dead-enders does not pose much of a security threat to the West; they are neutered, pocketed by some cabal of Pakistani spies and soldiers, tucked away to be bartered against later.

The Obama machine spun hard, trying to convince us Bin Laden was still "active" in planning terror — as far as I can tell, as actively as Alfred E. Neuman involves himself in crafting Mad Magazine's editorial content. As for the international gallery of goofball Wahabbist punks who drape themselves in the "Al Qaeda" garland, they are local losers in the boonies, with no more a connection with Bin Laden than Rabbi Shmuley Boteach possesses. The Algerian or Yemeni knock-offs of the legit Bin Laden/Louis Vuitton handbag should be dealt with by U.S. authorities in much the same manner as counterfeit street-swag: largely ignored and routinely, professionally busted up by the cops, in full view of all the passing tourists.

Al Qaeda is a warped vision of the world, not a mafia family. It is an ideology shaped by the strictures of the Mubarak Middle East. The single most important fact to know about the Al Qaeda movement — even more so than any of the strictures of its cracked theologies — is that it could not exist, could not sustain itself, without the stagnation of Middle Eastern autocracies. They are a gob of toothpaste burst forth from deep in the near-empty tube, a hardened speck we will squeeze anyone to get at. This force cannot be singularly isolated as a cohesive, static ideology throughout history; as the outstanding Gilles Kepel argues in his astonishing study Muslim Extremism in Egypt, the multiplicity of modern Islamic extremism cannot simply be reduced to a monolithic force.

Fiercely dogmatic and Manichean in worldview, strains of radical political Islam have constituted a resilient, potent, but fringe religio-political force since the earliest days of Islam, a tradition Bin Laden — no great thinker — is but the latest iteration of. There is absolutely nothing in his platform an ardent Googler couldn't identify as cribbed from someone else. Al Qaeda is just a gang of plagiarists, reaching into the past to justify the present. And like the extremists of the past, their rhetoric is as politically subversive as it is religious.

While violently dissident radicalism has proven a resilient haven for small-time wingnuts ever since they whacked Caliph Uthman in 656 C.E., the underpinning of Islamic theology has provided the crucial cosmic legitimization of such extremism. And really, no spitting fundamentalist agitator has changed that formula: political dissidence, often borne of valid grievances, twinned with the undisputed truth of the wrathful word of God, the only knowledge worth knowing in an Islamic utopia. Any godless jahilya who care to disagree will be killed.

Indeed, anytime you hear Zawahiri raving about Mubarak, or see Bin Laden grimace at the very mention of the House of Saud, think back to the 7th century. Following the prophet Muhammed's death in 632 CE, and amidst the prolonged succession struggle, a number of sects emerged espousing bellicose rhetoric about the responsibilities and privileges of a caliph. Politically, these sects revered the rule of Muhammed, Abu Bakr, Umar, and (for a time) Uthman and Ali, firm in their belief that the chief prerequisite for a potential caliph be not tribal or familial, but Islamic righteousness. For these Kharijites — whose name, meaning "those who went out of the fold," refers to their eventual rejection of the Muslim leadership — should a caliph stray from the piousness of Islam's first leaders, it was the right, nay duty, of all Pious Muslims to revolt and overthrow the apostate.

As Kepel recounts, Kharijite ideology quickly "became one of confrontation with the established powers," in which a "permanent revolt against any infidel regime" was necessary against sinners; faith "without deeds was devoid of validity." This would eventually extend to the caliphs Kharijites at first supported. Dissatisfied with Uthman's tribal-based politicking and perceived economic corruption, the Kharijites came to support his 656 C.E. assassination. Upon Ali's agreement to arbitration with the rebellious Muāwiyah — a maneuver they argued ceded the rights of the people to man — the extremist sects again turned against the caliph, as a Kharijite eventually killed Ali in 661 C.E. Believing that any Muslim who sinned was no longer Muslim, the Kharijites of the 7th century used their politicized declarations of takfir, or excommunication, as pretext to kill any perceived apostates.

The fatal weakness of the Kharijite brand of thinking is that it appealed to very few people. Only the most extreme could thrive on a diet of such theology: the "Kharijite" label remains so toxic today, Islamic extremists like Yemen's hooker-fucking diva Anwar al-Awlaki angrily reject the label of "neo-Kharijite." Indeed, the label was used as a weapon against the father of modern Islamic fundamentalism, Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, a bachelor civil servant with an interesting night job. Qutb punched his ticket in 1966 by publishing the landmark treatise Signposts, calling for the "time of the sword" against the apostate Nasser regime — who, not coincidentally, Qutb sneeringly referred to as "the pharaoh." The mainstream scholars of Cairo's Al Azhar University, upon tracing Qutb's geneology, declared him the descendant of the Kharijites and a munharif, or deviant. This ostracizing by the Egyptian clergy preceded Qutb's 1966 show trial on terrorism charges — some apparently justified — and his subsequent hanging.

But, prophetically, Qutb's truly frightening religious beliefs and swift death did not consign him to the dustbin of history, for a very simple, shocking reason: many of his political complaints are entirely valid and would be seconded by the most secular Cairene strolling to the Zamalek Starbucks. Qutb's work politicizes Islam, recontextualizing and reinterpreting the religion to serve as an ideologically radical vanguard for social revolution. Writing amidst the atheistic, pan-Arab ethos of the Nasser regime of the 1950s and 1960s, Qutb's writings disdainfully reject Nasserism, as well as more conciliatory strains of Islam.

As with the Kharijites, Qutb relied on no interlocutors for his interpretation of Quranic teachings, unsurprising owing his extreme interpretation of jihad's function as to destroy "any wall between Islam and individual human beings." Grasping a sophisticated understanding of the shortcomings of the corrupt, brutal Nasser regime — a junta that within a decade of Qutb's death would lose all credibility — Qutb's fierce political restiveness urged bloody murder against the dictators, the pharaohs who reign in ignorance. Qutb's prison poetry betrays a dream of the excommunication and vanquishing of these apostates: "If you seek protection in God/The slyness of slaves will not harm you./My brother, the armies of darkness will be annihilated,/and a new dawn will rise in the universe."

If you are a radical theorist casting a wide net in a region of the world where virtually every citizen dreams of a "new dawn," you will catch adherents. Some embittered portion of the population will look to your perversion of Islam — enunciated crisply and clearly, simple and unbending — and they will catch on. Blake said, "Cruelty has a human heart." There is simply no other way to understand the appeal of such a malevolent, violent faith amongst a small subset of asshole Muslim youth without recognizing there is political cause to be disaffected and that this Wahabbist madness is merely the visible symptom of systemic sickness, like a rash creeping out of a turtleneck.

Al Qaeda Recruits and the Arab Kleptocracies: A Match Made in Hell
Al Qaeda is comprised of capricious, dogmatic dullards riding the briniest, lowest breaking crest of the Arab liberation tsunami. They are a phenomenon born of societal failure, and their influence will continue to erode so long as there are more palatable means for effecting change in the world. Bin Laden's words appealed to Muslims not because of his chauvinistic, deeply creepy vision of Islam, but because he was a mock-populist who spoke in plain language about the formaldehyde coursing through the sclerotic, autocratic Mideast. No Arab had to subscribe to the Al Qaeda vision in order to agree with Bin Laden that the 1996 Israeli shelling of Qana was a crime. And in one out of one hundred thousand cases, such pontificating by Bin Laden snared a recruit.

Middle Eastern democratic activists — from elders like Syria's Michel Nour, Palestine's Mustafa Barghouti, or Iran's Ibrahim Yazdi to the youth of Tahrir Square — are deeply conflicted people. This is a quality every successful dictator has learned to exploit. Decent people worry about the welfare of others, torn between their commitment to non-violent resistance and the risks inherent in adopting that tactic. They are direly susceptible to state liquidation as the few, the weak, the brave always are. They are wracked with doubt over how to defeat a monolithic foe and are tortured by the knowledge that their activities will lead people to their imprisonment or death. When the Ottomans appointed regional governors, they would make sure one of the lucky appointee's sons lived in Constantinople — lest they got a little cocky and forgot to render unto Sultan what was Sultan's. The modern Mukhabarat of your average Arab despot must be similarly adept in inspiring such fear and uncertainty amongst its citizens.

Al Qaeda types lack such doubt, and do not care who gets hurt by their uncompromising vision. This is a strength that ensures their sustained survival under trying circumstances and a weakness that will forever confine them to fringe status. They hate Muslims who don’t subscribe to their beliefs with intensity far more gripping than that of the "American-Zionist Crusaders." How best to eradicate an enemy for whom death is not something to be feared, but the greatest gift God can bestow? That is some king-hell one-upsmanship: "You wanna arrest me, Sadat? I'll raise you and say HANG ME."

The strength of "Al Qaeda" has never been and will never be that of numbers; more Muslims have won the Michigan state lottery than led the life of a jihadist. Their strength is their fanatical rigidity, a cosmic monovision capable of suppressing all the human considerations that mark the path of the Arab Gandhi as a rocky road indeed. To Bin Laden, the splendor of music was a subversive, jahilya threat; he would order his kids to sit by the TV during the evening news, at the ready to mute the tube as soon as any theme music came on. "Al Qaeda in Iraq" ordered Mosul shopkeepers to separate male and female fish, lest this shameful intermingling of genders displease God. It's all prescribed, eminently explicable, a celestial law to be made a state ethos.

An uncompromising vision of justice that frees its supplicants from the human considerations that would keep any tolerant Muslim up at night — it seems self-evident how powerful this ideology could be to those brutalized by Mubarak, al-Assad or the Shah. The life of a hormonal teenager in Saudi Arabia, a moral moonscape, is that of a clod waiting to be kicked. And in the 1980s, in the fourth decade of the modern Arab stooge autocracy, amongst this sea of stifled youth, a handful of elite fuck-ups emerged, inspired by the Iranian Revolution and enraged by the Soviet foray into Afghanistan, ready for action.

Chickenhawk academic shitsack Samuel Huntington's base, crudely racist theories of a "clash of civilizations" would conceal an important fact about the mujahideen who became Al Qaeda: they were weird people and a distinct minority of Muslims, usually disliked wherever they went in Afghanistan. These radical leaders were almost uniformly wealthy and well-educated. The average Taliban super-soaker will never be involved in a future 9/11; he's a Mideast bumpkin, a redneck, an extraneous set of boots whose only chance for glory will come dispatching either the Red Army or the Green Marines with "Bouncing Betty." Your average Taliban fighter in the Korengal Valley is but the next relay runner for the familial sport of killing foreign invaders. Those wife-beating wastrels have as much in common with a Cairo Brahmin surgeon like Ayman al-Zawahiri as the "you buyin' brains?" maniac from the documentary Vernon, FL has with David Brooks.

The only presence this kind of meathead had in Al Qaeda was as a killer, which is why the closest those kind of ill-educated Arab hayseeds got to Bin Laden was as the "muscle hijackers" of 9/11. Most of the nineteen hijackers were morons from the blowing hot hell that is rural Saudi Arabia, from the poorest reaches of the kingdom. These are men fit for stabbing flight attendants and little else.

But they are not typical of Al Qaeda. It is a movement that draws disproportionately not from the economic abyss, but from the social margins. Consider the pilots of 9/11. Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Marwan al-Shehhi were Egyptian, Lebanese, and Emirati, respectively. All were raised in moderately wealthy households, and and were all radicalized living in the rainy loneliness of Hamburg. All of the pilots — including the fourth, Saudi ex-Arizona State student Hani Hanjour, as well as co-conspirator and current Gitmo ironing board Ramzi Bin al-Shibh —were enrolled in graduate technical programs at Western universities. But they were also losers. What hooked all of them was a social network.

Just as Hamas grew out of a social network of doctors and teachers in the Gaza Strip, or the Weather Underground emerged from a conclave of SDS drop-outs, so too did the Hamburg cell radicalize and ripen together, because everyone gets by with a little help from their friends. It really isn't that different from the college freshman who becomes a militant atheist by the spring semester. Why did these guys, of all people, stab toward such an exit? Unclear. To paraphrase an unwitting half-imperialist from another war on terror, maybe it was the way the sun glinted at them.

Religious chauvinism seems almost ancillary in explaining the behavior of the Al Qaeda faithful. Most of the hijackers didn't even know much about Islam and spent their time in the United States terrifying flight instructors, drinking Seven & Sevens at strip clubs and welshing hookers over their rates. The overwhelming majority of self-identifying "jihadists" are fantasists, fanboys who post on web forums and would never commit violence. But as for those who do… well, transnational Al Qaeda scrubs tend to be non-observant, middle-class technical students radicalized in the diaspora, vocal in their anger at U.S.-Israeli behavior and, most importantly, by the corrupted acquiescence of Arab petty tyrants. These are middle-class mediocrities who should be the backbones of the local Elks Lodge, not international terrorists. Bin Laden and his ilk just marshaled the political rage of a handful of these waterheads, adrift in exile, then stamped HEAVEN on their passports.

We will never be able to understand why some are spellbound while others aren't. It's also ultimately unimportant. But as with the Kharijites of the 7th century, a political system incapable of alleviating downward pressure is a system begging for blowback. There is enough human capital in the Arab dictatorships of the world, and enough badly damaged people, that extremists will always have a modicum of manpower, always find a few crocs snapping in the swamp. Like the pollution Cairo pumps into the Nile, the detritus washes back up on a weekend you weren't expecting, a black fog coming in off the water and fouling even your mucus with grit. It is impossible to separate the audience Bin Laden attracted from the acrid muck of the Mubarak Mideast.

Having so roughly established the Al Qaeda vision, as well as the political conditions under which it found adherents, one might think Bin Laden was able to draw his chilluns close, gathering them around a campfire as he delegated the responsibilities of a terrorist: money laundering, flight training, recycling, freegan dumpster diving, etc. This is wrong. "Al Qaeda" was a Frankenstein's monster culled from every basement hideout of flag-burning skells around the world, a truly ugly creation, riven with differences. Bin Laden didn't even call his clique "Al Qaeda" until his 2004 "October Surprise" message — when it had already been made ubiquitous as a James Bond-style international syndicate.

Pre-9/11 Al Qaeda is better thought of as a hideous mishmash of washed-up failures, the political equivalent of the band Velvet Revolver, though less offensive to the senses. It cannot be thought of as a top-down, hierarchical organization, a myth debunked in the spectacular BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares. It was a coalition of coalitions, which largely collapsed into oblivion following the American decimation of its middle management and relocation to Pakistan. Imagine Muhammed Ali shrieking and girlishly swatting around his head at a mosquito, and you’ll have some idea of how America looks being intimidated by these patchy vultures.

"Al Qaeda" was heavily factionalized, and it is a joke to think Osama Bin Laden was the sole arbiter of the group, where everyone heeds the master's voice. No. Al Qaeda was most stunning collection of megalomaniacal, cocksure Custers assembled since the collapse of the Nixon administration. Mustard gas in a crowded cave couldn't have kept a lid on these ghouls. One hilarious tidbit to emerge from the interrogation of 9/11 hatchetman Khalid Sheikh Mohammed involved Bin Laden's strained attempts to get his "underling" to formally swear bay'at, or allegiance, to him — in a conscious imitation of the prophet Muhammed. KSM didn't see things quite so reverently and led the poor sap around like a high school Tracy Flick, avoiding the Asperger's Chess Club president she knows is trying to ask her to prom. As Bin Laden expert Peter Bergen described it, Sheikh Mohammed "attempted to postpone swearing baya'at as long as possible to ensure that he remained free to plan operations as he chose, but he eventually took the oath after the 9/11 attacks," when it was starting to look like a really, really bad sign to the rank and file. This is not the fluid politicking of a well-oiled killing machine: it's a titanic clash of egos, melting down even as they retreated in ignominy into the arms of their Pakistani interlocutors.

Classic Al Qaeda wasn't a very cohesive organization; it was necessarily an egomaniacal hamburger scraped together from the basement prisons of every Arab capital. Before the Saudis finally pulled the plug on official contact with him in the mid-1990s, and possibly tried to kill him in Khartoum, Bin Laden certainly had some high-level contacts with influential and moneyed Saudis, as well as with the Qatari emirate. Ancillary Al Qaeda freelancers included the Indonesian Islamists aligned with shadowy Bali bombing maven and 9/11 conspirator Hambali, the Filipino insurgency of Abu Sayyaf, and the Kuwaiti-Pakistani axis, revolving around financier KSM and his nephew, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. Even weirder than that Sanford and Son act was the infighting amongst Egyptian Al Qaeda sympathizers. Whilst grouchy perennial loser and Mubarak torture squealer Ayman al-Zawahiri commanded the splinter Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, it was the larger Gama'ah Islamiyya (Islamic Group), under the aegis of "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman, that did the heavy lifting in the firm's early years, orchestrating the 1993 bombing and the killing of ultranationalist Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Following the World Trade Center trial, which left Rahman tapping his way through a supermax life sentence, these Egyptian Islamists competed amidst a campaign of terror in their homeland. While Gama'ah Islamiyya hacked dozens of tourists to death in the ancient city of Luxor, Egyptian Islamic Jihad nearly managed to assassinate Hosni Mubarak on a 1997 trip to Ethiopia. Fortunately, they could all take comfort in the stomping Mubarak then unleashed against any mope with a beard and a prayer rug, a crackdown that sent the few surviving stragglers streaming towards Kabul.

But O, my brothers, that I wish the loose-knit, horizontal nature of the Al Qaeda network was merely yet another horseman knelling the congenital stupidity of American policymakers and media slugs. I am afraid that this has been merely prelude to the main event, where the story turns from the quirky, bumbling misadventures of the worst men in the Middle East and toward their unbelievable success in laying America low, deep sixing the Roman Empire using nothing more than Priceline. Because a laughing joke is a killing joke when the six-pack of mutant Muzzie illiterates outrun the most deadly tornado of force and capital ever to lash the face of this crumbling rockslide we call Earth.

Continue to Part II: The Real Story Sucks: Bin Laden, the ISI and a Dawood Sandstorm.