The Nebula and the Swamp: Just Responses to Terrorism

Ramzi Kassem, of the City University of New York, has a splendid oped in The New York Times on France, the state of emergency and terrorism. It is well worth reading, and thinking about.

Gilles Kepel in a work on jihadi groups in Egypt, written not long after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, made the point that the jihadi milieu is akin to a nebula. Jihadi groups and activists have a nebulous relationship of affinity with each other. The most important aspect of the metaphor, however, is the way that the nebula, much like the astronomical variety, serves as a stellar nursery. Supernova like charismatic jihadi leaders emerge whose star shines brightly, attracting adherents and recruits, only to wither away to be replaced by others; Faraj, Azzam, bin Laden, al Zarqawi, al Baghdadi and so on.

James Burke, in his perceptive post 9/11 study of al Qaida, made the point that although the West was fixated upon bin Laden, his star no longer was shining brightly, activists within the milieu already were looking beyond bin Laden. He was to be replaced by new stars arising from the nebula especially following any invasion of Iraq, Burke held. How right he was.

Why is the metaphor important?

The metaphor is important when put into the context of a statement made by the former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Yehoshaphat Harkabi, many decades ago regarding the occupied territories; “To offer an honourable solution to the Palestinians respecting their right to self-determination: that is the solution of the problem of terrorism,” for “when the swamp disappears, there will be no more mosquitoes.”

The nebula is a swamp from which there emerges jihadi leaders and organisations whose star shines brightly for a period, only later to collapse under the weight of their own gravity; the depravity of jihadi violence well exceeds civilised norms and so jihadi groups wither without support from wider society as they face crackdowns from the state and/or outside military intervention.

The swamp essentially comes from the relatively low level of human development in the Middle East, a direct consequence of neocolonialism and rapacious local elites who serve the neocolonial order and outside military intervention designed to ensure that the neocolonial order, with its attendant privations and sufferings, continues to hold.

As the Kazzem article shows, the swamp now includes Muslim communities alienated from wider society in the West, a process of alienation gathering steam during this period of counter attack against multiculturalism. That is, the nebula has been able to spread to new swamps and from this nebula stars will emerge following the familiar pattern.

So long as the swamp, the nebula, exists stars will be born, they will grow, they will unleash havoc, and then they will collapse.

We don’t concentrate on the swamp. Our concern is with the mosquitoes. Western security discourse is dominated by their manner of flight, the way they bite, where they like to bite, where they lurk when at rest, what form of chemical is best to counter them. We strive to know everything of the mosquito but nothing of the swamp, but so long as the swamp obtains so will the mosquitoes.

Why is this?

It is because the neocolonial order in the Middle East is highly functional for the overseers. The energy resources of the region are “the most stupendous material prize in world history,” a source of “immense strategic power.” Compared to this terrorism, and “a few agitated Muslims,” to borrow from Zbigniew Brzezinski, are but a trifling. Furthermore, Islamophobia has now become a useful tool enabling the extension of the neoliberal restructuring of society back at home, France is a graphic example of this, pursued in the interests of narrow elite sectors.

Of what trouble are mosquitoes to the rich that bite the poor?

Justice at home and justice abroad is the way to eradicate the swamp, to replace the stellar nursery with a stable solar system like arrangement of international society. To do otherwise is to act in the interests of a system of world and domestic order that is designed to enhance the interests of the few come hell or high water.