‘The Thistle and the Drone’: Harrison Akins’s explanation of the war on terror, Boston Marathon bombing

The war on terror might not be exactly what it seems.

While the media likes to play up the role of the religion of Islam in the motivation behind terrorist attacks like 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing  and other attacks stemming from Muslim extremists in the world that occur on a daily basis, there might be a greater, underlying thread behind these attacks.

How exactly does one explain the terrorism in Boston which was, as far as we currently are aware, not ordered by the infamous terrorist organization Al Qaeda?

However, while many Americans are quick to point to Muslim faith as the indisputable link between the two, there might be a better explanation.

On Wed., April 24, Harrison Akins, a research fellow at American University in Washington D.C. and one of the key researchers behind the book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” attempted to answer some of these questions about terrorism. He and a group of researchers have discovered an illuminating common thread among terrorist attacks in the world today.

Akins, who is from Maryville and graduated from Maryville High School, began his talk to the Maryville College students gathered in Lawson Auditorium with a telling statistic.

“18 out of 19 of the terrorists on September 11 were Yemeni tribesman,” Akins said. “Bin laden and 95 percent of Al Qaeda are Yemeni tribesman. Osama’s rhetoric was strongly Yemeni. Thus, understanding tribalism is really important to understanding the war on terror.”

The research conducted by Akins and his fellow researchers for “The Thistle and the Drone” led to the conclusion that Islamic beliefs are not at the heart of the terrorist motives; instead, the fierce tradition of tribalism to which the majority of terrorists emerge from is at the center.

Quoting a Pakistani tribal leader from the 1970s, Akins said, “I’ve been a Pashtun [Pakistani tribe] for 6,000 years, a Muslim for 1,000 years, and I’ve been Pakistani for 25 years.”

Akins explained that members of tribes view their tribal identity as the deepest and greatest motivating factor in their personal identity and community life. It is stronger than their Muslim faith, although intricately tied to it, and it is much more influential than any sense of national identity.

Until we understand this aspect of terrorism, Akins argued, we cannot make any advances in combating terrorism.

So, how can the Boston bombing be explained in the context of tribalism?

Akins demonstrated that first and foremost, the two brothers responsible for the bombing considered their identity to be deeply Chechnyan. As Chechnyans, they have been exposed to incredible cruelties, being robbed of their autonomy, respect and, most importantly, they have lost many of their family members and ancestors.

“Every family in Chechnya has been affected by this violence with Russia,” Akins said. “They have lost somebody. Their wife, their mother and their daughter has been raped in front of them at times, and they are striking back.”

Similarly, the Yemeni tribesman who make up the majority of Al Qaeda have lost many family members and view it as not only their right, but also their duty as part of tribal code, to retaliate and exact revenge, Akins said.

Akins explained that tribes are typically small communities organized into clans, defined by a very ancient common ancestor. They are led by a group of elders and a tribal code of honor. The code of honor is of utmost importance and includes compulsions for revenge.

Tribes regulate themselves by this oral code of behavior and through the code’s interpretation and regulation by a group of elders. If someone outside the tribe kills someone inside the clan, then the code of honor obligates tribesmen to kill someone from the perpetrator’s clan, according to Akins.

With the history of colonization and nationalization that has occurred in the Middle East over the most recent turn of history, many tribes were forced into a form of subjugation that offended their fierce sense of independence and autonomy, oftentimes leaving them to wage war against the organized governments—governments that were often set up, influenced or controlled by Western powers.

Akins said that frequently the only way to truly disarm the fiercely independent tribes is to annihilate them.

Quoting another Pakistani leader, Akins said, “If you kill one half (of a tribe), then the other half will lay down their arms.”

This is what happened with the Chechnyans, as 1.5 million were killed in the mid-nineteenth century.

As drone attacks continue to kill tribal targets in the Middle East, some hitting the terrorist targets, some hitting innocent tribal civilians, the now centuries-old bad blood and desire for revenge against the Western powers has brewed among these tribesman, leading to the war on terror that we see today.

Akins pointed out that understanding the centrality of tribalism to terrorism can help us see that the more the military presence increases, the more fear and revenge is sought by the tribal peoples as the encroachment increases.

Moving forward, America and her allies need to combat terrorism by stepping back and examining better methods of combat, armed with this understanding of tribal revenge as the central motivating factor behind the terrorist attacks.

While it is easy to think that we have gone too far in angering these people groups to ever get past their desire for revenge, Akins said that optimism is the only way to look towards the war on terror for the future.

He explained that, through working with tribal elders to figure out who the actual extremist terrorist are and by setting up forms of autonomous and practical purposes for tribal groups within their respective countries, we can begin to give these people their respect back and the ability to live peaceably within their tribal identities.

A student in the audience raised the point that the conflict we see today is similar to the Scotch-Irish conflict with the central government in the Appalachian Mountains.

Akins said that tribal identity, conflict and terrorism are certainly not exclusive to the Middle East and Chechnya; they can be found throughout all national history.

Akins claims that in his book, Scottish tribes and their conflict with England provide a useful model for Western readers to understand the issues at play in the tribal terrorism we see today. The same themes of alienation, subjugation and the fiercely independent spirit of tribes are evident in each example.

While the media may push the fundamentalist Muslim faith as the motivating factors behind terrorist attacks like the Boston bombing, Akins points to the fact that we can seek a more coherent and intelligent understanding of terrorism as an act of tribal retaliation that carries with it an extremist, non-orthodox view of Islam.

Once this understanding of tribalism is reached, there can be a much more effective means of carrying out the war on terror, leading to a more peaceful future world.

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