Non-Linearity of Engagement: Transnational Armed Groups, International Law, and the Conflict between Al Qaeda and the United States

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou
Jul 2005

The conflict between Al Qaeda and the United States illustrates the evolution of warfare in three respects. • First, in an effort to compensate for the disparity in logistical military capability, a non-state actor party to an international conflict has sought to expand the platform of combat, regarding disparity of forces not as a deterrent but as an opportunity. This has implied the expansion of the panoply of means at the disposition of Al Qaeda; not merely terrorism but the full range of kinetic force to influence its enemy. • Second, a non-state armed group, whose membership transcends borders and nationality, has declared war on a state and its citizens, regarding war as retaliation for what can be termed ‘privatized collective responsibility.’ Al Qaeda estimates that the citizens of the countries with whom it is at war bear a responsibility in the policies of their governments. Such democratization of responsibility rests, it is argued, in the ability that citizens of the enemy state have to elect and dismiss the representatives which take foreign policy decisions on their behalf. • Third, a political movement with a demonstrated military ability has sought to overstep the state while co-opting the la�er’s a�ributes and channeling its resources. In that sense, Al Qaeda’s is a claim to circumvent statehood, and particularly its monopoly over legitimate violence. The leading conflict of our time takes the form of war between a major state (and allies) and a group of a few thousand individuals harboring a perceived right of self-defense that is substituted for statist authority. Al Qaeda’s actions alter the grammar of the existing international relations regime thus: • the geographical indeterminacy of the group’s action speaks of the dissolution of territorial power; • Al Qaeda’s pretension has an important twofold implication for enduring principles of international humanitarian law, namely the obliteration of the combatant/civilian status categories and the refusal to distinguish between civilian and military targets; and • a rational disputation has arisen whereby the authority to fight may no longer be related to the state authority that governs lawfully, and the will and power to act militarily is affirmed by a private entity. Claiming a valid jus ad bellum case, Al Qaeda sets itself as deciding war as a proper authority whose just cause is a case of self-defense. Permissible warfare is channeled within (i) aggrandizement of the principle of necessity, (ii) literalization of civilian responsibility, and (iii) tactical instrumentalization of technological imbalance. Coming to grips with such metamorphosis of offense means acknowledging the logic in which terrorism is used as a method of warfare, according to a principle of indiscrimination whose rationale is negation of the notion of innocence of the civilian population, and imputation of collective responsibility. Al Qaeda is an industrious, commi�ed, and power-wielding organization waging a political, limited, and evasive war of a�rition — not a religious, open-ended, apocalyptic one. Since its creation, it has implemented a clearly articulated policy, skillfully conducted complex military operations, and demonstrated strategic operational flexibility. Of late, this versatile transnational phenomenon has exhibited an ability to operate innovatively amid heightened international counter-measures. The organization has also suffered setbacks, chiefly the loss of Afghanistan as an operational base and the arrest or death of several key figures.