You can always tell a leftist is writing counterterrorism analysis, because more often than not they will communicate their oh-so-nuanced approach to Al Qaeda by dismissing what AQ has to say, and moving on to more important things, like, say, the reasons why we went into Iraq (none of which have anything to do with the actual reasons why we went into Iraq). Throw in a few words on how the US is ultimately to blame for all this mess, and you have yourself something worthy of, say, a Washington Post book review.
CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon leaves Iraq out of his "review" of Ray Ibrahim’s new book The Al Qaeda Reader. For that, I’m grateful. Instead, he spends most of the review pushing individuals and ideas more to his ideological liking. Don’t get me wrong, he does appear to like the book. He describes what Mr. Ibrahim has “cobbled together” as “useful,” and “instructive,” but the reader has got to work to get an overall positive impression.
Three paragraphs into it, Mr. Simon has already condescended to the author and dismissed UBL’s “utterances” and Al-Zawahiri’s “scribblings” as inspired by the ever-so ho-hum “anti-American and anti-Semitic motifs that have circulated in Europe and the Middle East for over a century...”
I could have done without his sneering dismissal of Mr. Ibrahim’s analysis. Apparently, Mr. Ibrahim’s weakness is that he has “found a place in the neocon blogosphere.” For such an offense, however, Mr. Simon is willing to forgive him, because, you see, Mr. Ibrahim is a victim. “As the son of an immigrant family from Egypt and a Coptic Christian,” he writes, “he might be forgiven for taking this position. Fundamentalists of al-Zawahiri’s ilk have tried to make a misery of Coptic life in Egypt.” Oh, yes, of course, Mr. Ibrahim’s analysis all has to do with sour grapes, events beyond his meager “archivists” mind.
Mr. Simon and his “ilk” apparently only see the current global conflict with radical Islam in geopolitical terms. This fits in with their training. It also continues to be an effective analytical approach for analyzing practically any other trends, event, person or policy other than radical Islam. When it comes to radical Islam, all geopolitical analysis falls short, and individuals who would otherwise give sound insights on any other topic are actually left sputtering and posing. Because, you see, the enemy has no interest in dealing with us in anything but their own terms, and those terms are spelled out in their astonishingly broad body of religious and ideological texts, the most important of which predate Al Qaeda by decades.
It’s hard to explain to someone who is not in the “industry” so-to-speak, but this posing is common among the Middle East studies-graduates being fast-tracked into key government analysts positions. They tend to be so ill-prepared to take on the radical Islamist ideology that they can only pretend to know anything about it by dismissing it, feigning some deep, nuanced understanding of the enemy with a sniff of condescension. Many of them can parrot Edward Said without so much as an intake of breath, but can’t seem to wrap their minds around one of Al Qaeda’s three fatawa.
Now, Steven Simon has written two books on Al Qaeda. I'll give him credit for knowing far more than your average GS-9 analyst, but if all he's going to do is sniff at the enemy and blame the US , he might as well get a hobby. He writes:
The usefulness of anthologies such as this one is generally thought to lie in the importance of better knowing the enemy. But winning a war of ideas also requires understanding how others see us -- and why it resonates with so many whose hearts and minds we are battling for. I'm reminded of a Hellenistic tombstone from Egypt that depicts a reclining skeleton and the phrase gnothe seauton: "know thyself." That's part of the challenge bin Laden poses to us.
No, Mr. Simon. The only challenge UBL poses to us is how to kill him.
Radical Islam existed for decades before bin Laden and will outlive him for many more decades. The challenge is understanding radical Islam, and for this we turn to men like Ray Ibrahim. At least he's willing to take the enemy at their word.
I remember sitting at some think tank event recently where a group of analysts from one think tank were arguing with a group of analysts from another think tank about the quality of their sources: “Our sources are better than yours.” Reply: “No, ours are better than yours.” Of course, with a few exceptions, like RAND, and Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project, most think tank analysis of Al Qaeda is appallingly off, because they're all stuck in the Cold War era mindset of analyzing for national interests. Al Qaeda isn't a nation, as a matter of fact, it tries its darnedest to eradicate national identity from its followers. The major reason why groups like RAND and Investigative Project tend to get it right lies in their reliance on primary source material. They take the enemy at their word.
Minor edits - 10-08-07