Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology?

Joe Katzman cites the comments of John Farren to help explain al Qaeda’s sometimes-incomprehensible actions:

I wonder if there is any sort of reverse analogy with South Pacific “cargo cults”. Instead of creating symbols in the hope of “magically” obtaining Western goods, the destruction of symbols to emphasise, and subconciously perhaps “magically” obtain, the rejection of Western contamination.

Joe believes this “rings true” and points us to Lee Harris, who argues that al Qaeda is not fighting a war but rather is lost in a delusion:

This common identification of 9-11 as an act of war arises from a deeper unquestioned assumption — an assumption made both by Chomsky and his followers on one hand and Hanson and National Review on the other — and, indeed, by almost everyone in between. The assumption is this: An act of violence on the magnitude of 9-11 can only have been intended to further some kind of political objective. What this political objective might be, or whether it is worthwhile — these are all secondary considerations; but surely people do not commit such acts unless they are trying to achieve some kind of recognizably political purpose.


The man who insists on being taken more seriously than his advantages warrant falls into the former category; the maniac who murders an utter stranger because God — or his neighbor’s dog — commanded him to do so belongs to the latter.

What is common in such interactions is that the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props — there is no interest in, or even awareness of, others as having wills or minds of their own. The man who bores us with stories designed to impress us with his importance, or his intellect, or his bank account, cares nothing for us as individuals — for he has already cast us in the role that he wishes us to play: We are there to be impressed by him. Indeed, it is an error even to suggest that he is trying to impress us, for this would assume that he is willing to learn enough about us to discover how best we might be impressed. But nothing of the kind occurs. And why should it? After all, the fantasist has already projected onto us the role that we are to play in his fantasy; no matter what we may be thinking of his recital, it never crosses his mind that we may be utterly failing to play the part expected of us — indeed, it is sometimes astonishing to see how much exertion is required of us in order to bring our profound lack of interest to the fantasist’s attention.

I agree that al Qaeda is living a fantasy if it thinks it will achieve its goals via terrorism. I do, however, believe that they have political objectives for what they view as a war. The author of Imperial Hubris, with whom I disagree on several issues, makes a rather compelling case that Osama has six goals, which he has stated over and again:

· The end of U.S. aid to Israel and the ultimate elimination of that state;
· The removal of U.S. and Western forces from the Arabian peninsula;
· The removal of U.S. and Western military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands;
· The end of U.S. support for the oppression of Muslims by Russia, China, and India;
· The end of U.S. protection for repressive, apostate Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, et cetera;
· The conservation of the Muslim world’s energy resource and their sale at higher prices. (210)

As I note in my review of the book, forthcoming elsewhere, the evidence is rather clear that–by his own standards–Osama is losing the war:

There is no evidence presented in this book or obvious to one who keeps up with the news that they are any closer to fruition. Indeed, U.S. sympathy for the Israeli cause vis-à-vis the Palestinian terrorists is higher than it has been in years; we have stopped condemning Russian atrocities in Chechnya and began buying their assertion that they are part of the war on terrorism; we are more tied than ever to Arab dictators who are willing to ally with us against the Islamists; and we have more forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq than we had before 9/11. It is true that we have drawn down forces in Saudi Arabia, although mainly to take the heat off the Saudi regime. Oil prices are up, although owing to increased demand from China and other factors rather than any policy changes.

The fact that al Qaeda is willing to murder thousands of people in order to achieve goals that are fantastic does not, however, make them necessarily “irrational.” They honestly believe they brought down the Soviet Union through their resistance effort in Afghanistan and see no reason that they can’t topple another superpower in this decade.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Joe Katzman says:

    Robin Burk’s recent article “The Terror Web” might actually serve as an excellent companion article, as it details a group within al-Qaeda who certainly seem to have political goals. But even they seem rather prone to having fantasy ideology take over their thinking process, if their published works are any guide… because their stated goals go FAR beyond those stated in “Imperial Hubris.”

  2. Al-Qaeda’s “Reverse Cargo Cult” Mentality
    John Farren thinks al-Qaeda is a “reverse cargo cult”. It’s a great insight, and Lee Harris’ famous article “al-Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology” fleshes it out. This idea set also applies beyond al-Qaeda.

  3. Paul says:

    The fact that al Qaeda is willing to murder thousands of people in order to achieve goals that are fantastic does not, however, make them necessarily “irrational.” They honestly believe they brought down the Soviet Union through their resistance effort in Afghanistan and see no reason that they can’t topple another superpower in this decade.

    Maybe that first part does not make them irrational but boy that second part does.

    Yes, they chased the Soviets out of Afghanistan (with pounds of our help) but to say that toppled the Soviet Union is plainly irrational.

  4. Thursday’s Terrorism Wrap-Up
    I’m posting this now before I head out to take my last final exam for summer school. Please add links to this post from any and all terrorism-related posts you made today (Thurs. Aug. 5) and send a trackback (manually…

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    As I commented over at Winds of Change “magical thinking” isn’t the explanation. According to Salafist thought the World Trade Center, Wall Street, and the Pentagon are objects of our idolatry as surely as the giant Buddhas were historically objects of idolatry in Afghanistan. Destroying these idols are acts of piety.

    Inspiring terror is a useful side effect. Perhaps this provides useful insight on traditional Islam’s attitudes towards pagan idols.