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America’s War on Terror in the Time of Technology

The US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. We’re coming up on the 5th anniversary of this invasion, a useless war that distracted from the war on terror, from the US focusing on Al-Qaeda (and the Taliban) in Afghanistan and in Waziristan, the autonomous Pashtun tribal region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is supposed to be hiding out with Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban.

On March 16, 2008, The New York Times reported that American officials say that Pakistan’s pledge to fight Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Waziristan is being weakened by disagreements in the Pakistani military and security forces over what their priority should be. The divisions have emerged as a source of growing frustration to the Bush administration, with officials saying the main disagreement in Pakistan is over whether to gear up a counterterrorism campaign against Islamic extremists or to try to shore up a conventional force focused on potential threats from India. (Almost two months after elections in Pakistan, in which the assassinated Benezir Bhutto’s extant Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) won the elections against Pervez Musharraf’s party, there is still no viable government in Pakistan.)

On March 10, 2008, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition had the following report:

"It’s been more than six years since the al-Qaida network was routed from its bases in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, many al-Qaida leaders have been killed or captured – but not Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Within intelligence circles, there is debate over whether the terrorist network has recovered from the setbacks it suffered after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some analysts say al-Qaida is a shell of what it once was. But U.S. intelligence officials are not so sure.

There are many different judgments of al-Qaida’s strength being put forth these days. Just last month, President Bush, before the Conservative Political Action Conference, said the group is reeling.

"The Taliban, al-Qaida and their allies are on the run," Bush said.

But the president’s own intelligence agencies offer a different opinion.

National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell, in his most recent threat assessment, said the core al-Qaida leadership has "regenerated."

Having survived the global war on terror, al-Qaida in this view is again a centrally directed network with military capabilities. Speaking on CNN two weeks ago, McConnell reflected that view.

"They have the leadership that they had before, they’ve rebuilt the middle management, the trainers," McConnell said. ‘they’re recruiting very vigorously.’ "

And also on March 10, NATO reassessed its presence in Afghanistan in light of the Taliban’s reconsolidation not only in Waziristan but within Afghanistan itself:

Those Nato countries whose armies are taking growing casualties on the front line are very publicly accusing other member countries, deployed in quieter provinces, of not fully sharing the burden.

Map of main Nato deployments

And Afghans who welcomed their country’s return to the international fold after the fall of the Taleban, are asking where the billions of dollars have gone and why the rebels’ reach is growing.

The Taleban now control swathes of land across south-west Afghanistan and mounted about 140 suicide attacks last year, including some in the capital Kabul.

The intelligence findings follow Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff statement on Wednesday that he has a "gut feeling" that the United States faces a heightened risk of attack this summer.

A counterterrorism official speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity said the stark appraisal, entitled "Al-Qaida better positioned to strike the West", indicates the terror network that launched the most devastating terror attack on U.S. soil has been able to regroup despite nearly six years of bombings, war and other tactics aimed at dismantling it.

Al-Qaida is ‘considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," the counterterrorism official said, paraphrasing the report’s conclusions. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States.’

The report says al-Qaida has used its safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border to restore its capabilities."

Let’s briefly reexamine what happened on September 11, 2001 (9/11/01: 911: the national emergency number, as the property manager of my apartment building pointed out to me that morning), events happened in New York City, Washington, DC, and near Shanksville, PA that brought together several components: capitalism, technology, nomadism, multiple identities, postcolonial citizenry in the first world, and political and economic regimes in the third world.

The hijackers who targeted US capital used its technology against it.

Capital and technology framed the master text of this disaster. Corporate America had been dealt a blow, possibly leading to an economic recession in the US that might extend to the whole world because of the international grid and network of capital. The hijackers transformed the hijacked jetliners into ferocious missiles (with human freight) aimed at corporate America and aimed against capital.

These hijackers were polyglots, had multiple identities, and used technology to plan and achieve their nefarious mission: When they were flight students, they reportedly frequently used flight manuals, cell-phones, and laptops with complicated software programs to plan their missions. They also honed their training by frequently playing Microsoft flight simulator games on their laptops. And they also drank quite a bit of alcohol in bars (not a usual practice by Muslims) where they played other kinds of video games (presumably Velocity’s "Jetfighter II" was one of these). (These hijackers belonged a special jihadist group known as Tafkir-wal-hijra, [H/T John Forde] whose members are not bound by the usual Muslim constrictions , like abstention from alcohol, for purposes of deception.)

Most lived near or in Delray Beach, Florida, because of its proximity to Interstate 95, halfway between the municipal airports in Boca Raton and Lantana–obviously to facilitate their global travel while designing plans for their September 11 mission. And all the hijackers bought the airline tickets (which they used for their doomed September 11 flights) on the Internet from Travelocity using credit cards or frequent-flyer miles.

Shortly after the national air lockdown, President Bush declared a national state of emergency and mobilized some 1 million military reserves to get ready for what he proclaimed "the first war of the twenty-first century." He said that "a group of barbarians have declared war on our country," and that "Americans must prepare themselves for battle." From Day One, corporate media had been describing the rubble of the WTC towers as Ground Zero: military moniker for the front line of a war battle.

(And let’s recall that Osama bin Laden wrote what is referred to as a fatwa in August 1996, and was one of several signatories of another and shorter fatwa in February of 1998.)

On September 15, 2001, in a brief appearance with his senior advisers at Camp David, George W. Bush said point-blank: "We’re at war. There’s been an act of war declared upon America by terrorists, and we will respond accordingly. My message is for everybody who wears a uniform to get ready." Shortly afterward, in his weekly radio address, he warned that "those who make war on the United States have chosen their own destruction." He told Aericans to steel themselves for a campaign "without battlefields or beachheads." Victory, he said, "will not take
place in a single battle, but in a series of decisive actions against terrorist organizations and those who harbor and support them." Bush again called those responsible for the attacks "barbaric people."

And so the US prepared for war against Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, his international network of terrorists, and against nation-states, which is what Bush meant when he said "and those who harbor and support them." And therein lay the rub: this network is transnational, nomadic, and diasporic, and operates with fake multiple identities, passports, and nationalities, with cell-phones, rented apartments and apartments near freeways in world cities, with Internet encryption communications, and with face-time in modular cells.

The US engaged diasporic and fluid cell-units in war. And the nature of war itself had changed considerably since Pearl Harbor. To paraphrase the title of Manual de Landa’s excellent book: What we now have is "war in the age of intelligent machines." The US and the West, mostly Judeo-Christian, armed with global capital, confronted an international network of nomadic terrorists, mostly Muslim, armed with ferocious passion for redressing (perceived) injustice, guns, knives, robust funds, and jetliners transformed into lethal missiles. The world might be faced with what Samuel Huntington famously called the "clash of civilizations."

And both sides are armed with technology. The former’s terrain are digital cities, and the latter, deserts and mountains, and also digital cities. It seemed at this point that in the US, we aren’t too far from the Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, if we believe what security experts said in the wake of September 11 events. Security experts described a new kind of country, where electronic identification eventually became the norm, immigrants tracked more closely, and airspace over cities like New York and Washington off-limits to civilian aircraft. Security experts said–and still say–technology presented almost limitless possibilities, including national electronic identification cards. "Each American could be given a ‘smart card,’ so as they go into an airport or anywhere, we know exactly who they are,"said Michael G. Cherkasky, president of Kroll Inc, a security consultant. "The technology is there," Mr. Cherkasky said. "These cards in industry are going to spread, and then it’s going to be rapidly spread elsewhere."

By December 2007, all new and renewed US passports became smart cards, with computer chips that have detailed information about those they were issued to and that would identify them when read by a computer. (Disclosure: I have one of those.) It’s just a matter of time before these passports will be coordinated with fingerprints, or in a few years, with facial characteristics, and be programmed to permit or limit access through turnstiles into buildings or areas. They could track someone’s location, financial transactions, criminal history, and even driving speed on a particular highway on a given night. Video surveillance, already becoming widespread, could be sharply increased in stores, offices, and public spaces and at public events. In the interim, the profiling and surveillance of Arab- and Muslim-Americans have increased and will most certainly continue to increase within the US, echoing the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

What the future on earth will look like is anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain: Life in America changed forever after September 11, 2001. Already people talk about "pre-September 11" America and "post-September 11" America. Again, as a professor-friend of mine said:

"America discovered foreigners after 9/11." It took me some bit of time to unpack that one…

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Biodun Iginla

Biodun Iginla

Biodun Iginla has published nine novels, including LOVE IN THIS TIME OF SILICON, A CYBER ROMANCE I-V, a series of five novels, THE SEX DIARY OF A PROFESSOR, and one nonfiction book, THE REGIMES OF CAPITAL AND TECHNOLOGY, and is also an online full-time senior news analyst for BBC out of London, UK, and a freelance writer, editor, and political blogger who divides his time between Minneapolis, London, and Paris. He writes mostly about (international) politics, capitalism, globalization, technology, and culture--and can be reached at He also freelances full-time for BBC News World Servce. Please visit his political blog at to see his cross-posts on the BBC News website: He is currently working on another novel, RAMBLINGS OF SOMEONE AT THE EDGE.