Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: Challenging the Assumptions of Transnational Terrorism

By Gueli, Richard | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, November 2003 | Go to article overview
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Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: Challenging the Assumptions of Transnational Terrorism

Gueli, Richard, Strategic Review for Southern Africa


Some specialists and observers have charged that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have marked a major turning point in the evolution of transnational terrorism. The fact that the New York and Washington attacks have had such an immense impact on the course of contemporary international relations has led many to question the most basic assumptions on terrorists and terrorism. This article attempts to determine Whether the nature of terrorism has in fact changed by, firstly, discussing how the basis for terrorism has changed since its more modern form began in the early 1970s, and secondly, demonstrating how terrorism--in its transnational form--has increasingly played a fundamental political and strategic role in world affairs.


The events that unfolded on the morning of September 11, 2001, will probably be inscribed in living memory as one of the more famous landmark dates to punctuate modern history. In fact, so famous (or infamous) has 11 September already become that it does not even have to be referred to in full, but can be signalled by the simple shorthand of two numbers, that is 9-11.

From the moment terrorists turned jetliners into weapons that caused mass destruction, the world appears to have been catapulted into a new and uncertain conflict against terrorism, (1)) and perhaps even to have stepped into a new era of international relations. Arguably, no other event in the last decade has so dominated the headlines and, already, it has inspired a distinct body of academic literature. Indeed, Cox maintains that 9-11 has made the previously unfashionable subject of terrorism fashionable (and the dominant paradigm of the 1990s--globalisation--distinctly unfashionable), while, as during the Cold War, rendering the study of weapons and military budgets, large-scale wars and armed forces, academically exciting once again. (2)) The focus of this article is to examine the nature and evolution of terrorism, in its transnational form in particular, and to establish whether the most basic assumptions about terrorists and terrorism need be re-evaluated in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.

While the future cannot be exactly defined, it is clear that the international community at large--particularly the United States of America (US) and its allies--faces a number of new or unexpected threats, many of which could lead to international tension and conflict in the years ahead. In the case of the US, challenging its preferences and undermining its global influence are often referred to as 'asymmetrical' threats to its security. Of the various threats, transnational terrorism, and the proliferation of both weapons of mass destruction (3)) (WMD) and long-range ballistic and cruise missiles are all seen as part of the 'asymmetric' dynamics that are shaping the US and the rest of the world. (4))

The results of some of these dynamics have been witnessed in the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. More seriously, the 9-11 attacks appear to reflect both a deep concern regarding how the US is behaving in the world and an apparent belief that using such threats can deter US power.


More recently the term 'asymmetry' or 'asymmetric' has been extensively used in military journals, and has spilled-over into political and academic discourse. Concepts such as 'irregular', 'unconventional', and 'non-traditional' are often considered as precursors to the current preference for the term asymmetry. (5)) However, although a modern construct, the concept of asymmetric attacks or warfare is a concept as old as warfare itself (6))--the idea of mismatching forces seeking to achieve comparative advantage has been around for a very long time indeed. (7)) For centuries weaker opponents have sought to neutralise their enemy's technological or numerical advantage by fighting in ways or on battlefields that nullify it.

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Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: Challenging the Assumptions of Transnational Terrorism


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