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PG Buchanan: Al-Qaeda’s Perverse Environmentalism

Al-Qaeda’s Perverse Environmentalism

By Paul G. Buchanan

One of the less studied aspects of al-Qaeda’s global strategy of irregular warfare is the environmental element of the campaign. As it turns out, the jihadi project meshes neatly with the concerns of Western environmental groups, especially those who practice unconventional politics against governmental and corporate agencies. The latter directly target environmental policy making in Western democracies, whereas the former do so indirectly via terrorism.

Contrary to those who claim that Islamic fundamentalism desires to colonise the West and create a Caliphate stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago, the main thrust of al-Qaeda’s strategic campaign has been defensive in nature. The primary objective is to drive Western influences out of the Islamic world, especially from those regions where Muslim holy sites and heritage are located. The growing Muslim populations in Europe, a post-colonial repercussion, are viewed more as infiltrating third columns than colonisers. Their role is to sway public opinion and political debate in a pro-Islamic direction, and to serve as sappers in the event that European governments persist in their anti-Islamic activities (both foreign and domestic).

The core of this defensive strategy is to prohibitively raise the costs of Western presence in Islamic countries. Using terrorism in a variety of guises and places as an unconventional warfare tactic, the campaign specifically focuses on raising the costs of oil production in the Muslim world. Since the majority of global oil production occurs in Muslim countries, especially those of the Arabian Peninsula and environs, anti-Western terrorism in them raises the insurance risk and production costs of continuing to maintain a presence in that extractive enterprise.

Ironically, the occupation of Iraq has proven to be the best scenario for both sides in the war on terror: the US gets its “honey trap,” whereby jihadis from a range of nations converge to meet death at US military hands on the soils bordering the Tiber and Euphrates river catchments. From al-Qaeda’s perspective, the occupation serves as a rallying point and recruitment device that continues the momentum generated by 9/11 within the Muslim Diaspora. Thus, for both al-Qaeda and the US, Iraq has become the frontline in which their respective mettles are tested. Yet the convergence of these forces has also hindered the reconstruction of Iraq’s oil production facilities, which in turn has contributed to the climb in global oil prices.

The Western response has been to search for alternatives to Arabian oil as an energy source. This has seen renewed calls in the US for individual and collective energy savings (with President Bush calling for people to drive less), exploration of domestic oil reserves (with the Bush administration giving the go-ahead to oil exploration in Alaska and on the US continental shelves), as well as moves towards wind, solar and non-petroleum based fuel alternatives (which the Bush administration largely ignored until hurricane Katrina hit the southern Gulf Coast).

Perhaps al-Qaeda’s strategists understood that increasing the price of oil by raising the costs of doing business in the Islamic world via asymmetric warfare would remove US insulation from natural disaster. That is important because, as a continental size country, the US has regular yearly instances of drought, earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes, tornados or landslides. Perhaps the jihadis studied global warming trends and noted the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes making landfall on the US mainland during the last decade. Perhaps they see it as divine intervention on their behalf, as part of Allah’s will. However, unless they were uncommonly brilliant, little could they have known how the hollowing out of US federal disaster relief in favour of anti-terrorism measures marked by political cronyism and bureaucratic ineptitude could result in a dramatic reduction in public support for the current war president once natural disaster struck, twice and hard in less than two months.

It is arguable whether most jihadis are environmentally conscious, at least in a Western sense of the phrase. To be sure, Taliban remnants and al-Qaeda fighters in Eastern Afghanistan greatly appreciate the natural wonders of their mountainous redoubts. The Iraqi resistance have shown themselves to be first class re-cyclers of metal, plastic, electrical wiring and pre-explosive materiel. Indonesian jihadis well understand the attraction of tropical beach destinations. But saving the whales and eliminating greenhouse gases are probably not foremost on Islamicist minds when crafting their version of environmental policy.

So far, the terrorist campaign appears to be working. Even before hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the price of oil had risen from pre 9/11 prices of less than $US 25 per barrel of Arabian light crude to more than US$40 per barrel. The disruption of Gulf Coast oil extraction in the wake of Katrina sent the price of crude spiking at US$70 per barrel, now settling around the US$63 mark. This has translated to US$3 a gallon retail prices at the pump in the United States, which if still cheap by international standards has close to tripled since 2001. That has a negative repercussive impact on the US economy, particularly its transportation networks and construction. The negative impact of spiralling petrol prices is a worldwide phenomena, and the push is on to find viable alternatives to oil dependency for energy production.

There is where al-Qaeda’s environmentalism meshes well with those of mainstream environmental groups, environmental militants and a variety of anti-globalisation organizations in the West. In the measure that the West begins to adopt non-petroleum energy sources or re-emphasise domestic oil production where feasible, the structural need to maintain a presence in the Muslim world will diminish. It was after all, oil that brought the West to Arabia in a significant way, and it is often the first point of interest and contact between Western agents and the Islamic diasporas (consider, for example, the Western presence in places such as Brunei, Malaysia and Nigeria). Economic interest brings on its coattails diplomatic and military interest, so any move to encourage economic agents to look elsewhere for energy is seen by the jihadis as the first step in diminishing Western political and military presence in the Muslim world as well.

From al-Qaeda’s point of view, Western pursuit of more environmentally friendly energy sources as a replacement for costly oil implies that many Western actors will lose interest in the Muslim world. As they withdraw they will take with them the insidious and pernicious cultural, political and social influences that sparked the Islamicist backlash. That, in turn, will increasingly isolate pro-Western (often secular and authoritarian) regimes in the Muslim world, thereby making them more susceptible to Islamicist destabilisation. Therein lies the core objective of al-Qaeda’s campaign.

In the measure that Western environmental groups find mainstream support for energy alternatives (be it by direct action or conventional institutional means), they indirectly buttress the al-Qaeda campaign. This is no fault of their own, as Islamicists do not share most of their political objectives. Yet to the extent that both groups succeed in shifting Western government attention towards alternative energy production, they constitute a tactical alliance that serves the jihadi’s political objective of diminishing Western influence in the Islamic world. That in turn dovetails with the objective of anti-globalisation proponents, who see the spread of market-driven Western secularism as a source of increased exploitation and inequality on a global scale. To the extent that these various groups consciously mould their strategies to pursue their common objectives, the possibility exists of networking between them.

The US claims that it is democracy, not oil, that it is pursuing in its occupation of Iraq and global war on terrorism. Decreased dependence on oil for energy production theoretically should not have an impact on that democratisation-by-imposition project. The US has ongoing strategic interests that require the continuation of a military presence in the Muslim world. But in the measure that the economic incentive to continue there is removed, the geo-strategic and political rationales underpinning the US approach towards the Islamic world may well give way to policies of partial disengagement. There is already evidence of such sentiment within the US electorate, and in the measure that energy alternatives to oil dependency are made commercially viable, it may bring political pressure to bear in favour of military withdrawal from the more conflict-ridden or intractable Muslim countries where the defence of “freedom” is increasingly tenuous.

Should events unfold in this fashion, al-Qaeda’s perverse environmentalism will reap political dividends. Any withdrawal from current conflicts on the part of the US will entail a diminishing of its presence and stature abroad, particularly in the Muslim world. Rather than a world superpower, it will be seen more as a great power, perhaps on the path of irreversible decline. That the motivation for withdrawal was a shifting of energy priorities rather than military defeat is beyond the point. The objective of pushing the West out of the Muslim world will have been achieved along with environmental conservation.

Which begs the question that Republicans are sure to ask: does being an environmentalist and anti-globalisation advocate mean that one is an ally of Islamicist evildoers? If we follow President Bush’s logic that all those who abet violent Muslims pursuing anti-Western agendas one way or another are the moral equivalent to them, then everyone with an anti-corporate stance, hybrid car or energy efficient home can be considered to be an accessory to mass murder. Given the scope of anti-terrorist legislation in many Western countries after 9/11, that may prove ominous for those who believe that global sustainability and socio-economic equality are worth pursuing via counter-hegemonic means. Should there be an increase in governmental suppression of such voices in the West, al-Qaeda’s environmental campaign will have borne double fruit: a diminished Western presence in the Islamic world along with increased political repression in the West. At that point one might say that Islamicists are winning the war on terror.


Former Pentagon staffer and security consultant Paul G. Buchanan is Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland. His latest book, With Distance Comes Perspective, is available from the Digital Printing Group in Auckland.

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