Don Handelman in response to Roberts

This exchange of thoughts between two friends, Michael Roberts of Adelaide University and Don Handelman from the Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), occurred in April 2007 after the latter’s paper on, ‘Self-exploders, self-sacrifice, and the rhizomic organization of terrorism’, was circulated among those belonging to a small academic network. This paper will appear in Galina Lindquist, ed., Sacred Canopies, Worldly Umbrellas: Globalisation and the Politics of Religion, forthcoming. The key facet of this exchange relates to Handelman’s analysis of the expansion and transformation of al-Qaeda via the innovative concepts of “rhizome” and “autopoiesis.” However, the whole exchange is reproduced so that readers will have the full context of this discussion.

MR stands for Roberts and his questions and/or points are numbered serially.
Dh = Don Handelman

MR: I have read some of the Al-Qaeda and terrorism literature but of course it is huge. Here are some desultory thoughts in no particular order, and with minute issues mixed in among more important ones.
1. I was under the impression that the founder of A/Q was the Palestinian Assam but he was assassinated (see Rohan Gunaratna’s book)?
2. I am inclined to think that there is greater centricity at the top than you, Don, allow for – even now, though more pronounced in the 1990s both in the Sudan and Afghan phases, given that modern communications permit exchanges and planning among key figures.

DH: — Question is whether centricity shifted after Sudan and Afghanistan; how this happened, if it did; and whether centricity is being reasserted. My own sense is that all these dynamics are operative simultaneously. Likely they are not linear.

MR 3: I recall someone stressing that A/Q was an IDEA as much as an organisation … and this attracts me. With 9/11 this idea drew Islamic radicals all over the world (those not already switched on) so that, yes, some “autopoetic” [Don’s phrase] elements reached out to Al-Qaeda in the manner depicted. (Mind you Sageman shows this happening even in the 1990s)

DH: — The idea is in the logics of organization. That is, the idea is in the practicing of the organization. Sageman’s understanding of network (like that of Knorr-Cetina) is one of the structure of network, not of its dynamics. Yet the power of the decentralized Al-Qaeda is in the practice of autopoiesis (adapting from Maturana and Varela), that is, the self-organizing capacities of both local and transnational entities that may become networks or may remain looser. Network-as-structure doesn’t do anything. It is a schema, a mapping, into which human agency is in-putted to make it do something. But autopoiesis has forming capacities and properties that are beyond particular individuals – in a sense, the capacities and properties organize the individuals. Sageman doesn’t really get past the individuals of his networks. Still the ego-centric networks of forty years ago, with their limited claims to group (or grouping) effects.

MR 4. The Afghan war was critical in several ways. The A/Q camps were organised on regional lines: SE Asian, Maghreb, M/East (not sure where the Chechens etc were). These veterans were critical to subsequent formations incl your rhizo types (creating common bonds etc). And yes, lop off one leader and one of the remaining cell members takes over. Noordin Top is now the key man in Indonesia tho he seems to have shifted his location to the Philippines [But the Indonesian group seems to have been more hierarchical and have discipleship to Bashir in ways that do not quite accord with the thrust of your paper – which, quite reasonably, concentrates on the ‘central’ arena].
MR 5. Thus the IDEA provides some centricity and has centripetal magnetism – especially when it is linked to the power of media and media sensationalism. So that the Western media did (does) the propaganda work for A/Q. It may be interesting to look at the ‘link’ bween A/Q and Al Jazeera – not thatA/Q finances the latter, but that Al Jazeera’s weight/reach is such and its sympathies such that A/Q can use it in manifold ways to sustain its IDEA and its micro-operations.
MR 6. Again I suspect – for logical reasons – that A/Q has more direct personal and other links with the (relatively subdued) radical militants in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen [about which little seems to have been written of late].
7. The term rhizomic is novel for me and I am still ruminating about it. Q: in what ways does it differ from a NETWORK-with-mutable and labile features? Metaphorically as a sea-person I am also led to coral formations and especially to the octopus with its tendrils, chamaleon and amphibian capacities and its jet propelled power.

DH: — Network as commonly used is a structure activated by individual decisions. Network analysis moves through starts and stops, usually related to individual decisions; with the analyst checking the structure of network at various points of duration, imputing changes in structure that have occurred between, say, Time A and Time B. Rhizome (the idea is of course that of Deleuze and Guattari) is a dynamic mutation of movement that cannot be reduced to individuals, not constructed by adding up and connecting individuals; nor can it be frozen or typed as structure. Rhizome (like crab-grass) spins off its seeds, has no head, etc. Rhizome may become more structured and less structured, but it only exists through the practice of its dynamics. Coral formations are put together differently – limited movement of live organisms that in death sediment into becoming coral. Octopus (which Geertz once used as a metaphor for the organization of culture) is somewhat decentralized and loosely coordinated within itself, but still has limited movement.
Crabgrass goes off in all directions – not a matter of changing directions, but of continuous movement through multiple domains.

MR 8. If the US crime busters cannot stop Mafia money-laundering, how can they stop intelligent Arabs and Tamils operating financial transfers? What you call the Hawali is referred to as the chit system in Asia and it is alive and kicking (migrants use it to send remittances home from M-East and Singapore – now they do so via mobile phones) and the whole betting system operates on these lines.
MR 9. Your voices from ex-Pal suicide bombers via Hassan’s work are of interest to me – but do the Palestinians not undermine your rhizomic thesis [and thus are ill-fitting] in so far as they are agents, however self-motivated, of top-down organisations in ways that differ from the links between A/Q and the various local/regional initiatives?

DH: — In rhizomic terms, there is no single contrast of the top-down/bottom-up variety. al-qaida decentralized and may be recentralizing, but perhaps only in part; hezbollah probably began less centralized and continues to centralize. hamas probably was not so centralized, but may be becoming more so. The rhizome is always sensitive to its environment. One of the problems of writing about terrorism is the desire to summarize definitively and circumscribe the phenomenon, the bottom line … though there may not be one in many instances. This is my difficulty with writers like Sageman.

MR 10a. I had read the translation of the 9/11 LAST NIGHT by Cook but your angle pushes the interpretation further and the focus on key words is illuminating.
10b. Imam Samudra who chose and trained the Bali s/bombers was quite clear that a desire for Paradise would not lead them to Allah –they had to be PURE OF HEART. And, boy, isn’t Samudra (who I think comes from a lineage of Arabic Indonesians with a mullah background] the quintessential fierce, ascetic, stern, uncompromising terrorist – absolutely defiant and attached to his cause when in court.

MR 11. For several years in seminars I have been arguing that the forms of personhood among Arabic radicals on paths of jihad are different from the Japanese tokkotai and the Tamil Tigers: much more individuated and with a keen sense of personal autonomy directed towards service of Allah; and thus with a contractual aspect to the respectful connectivity between them and Allah, much less self-dissolving. One key that activated my thinking on these lines is a Sura quoted often by the radical ‘theologians’ [some self-appointed as you stress].

DH: — I don’t think the self dissolves; rather it expands, retaining its integrity, honed to purpose and deed. But is there a contractual aspect? The decision is in Allah’s hands, and the self-exploder cannot know what this is.

MR 12. I am not entirely convinced that at the moment of self-explosion the victims are seen, by the perpetrators, to be incorporated into the ummah. So this is an analysts’ claim is it? The logic of engagement and the fact of “the enemy other” means an element of hate and certainly a removal of an obstacle to the transcendental Islamic state – so how can this enemy obstacle be quite on the same plane (pun intended) as the jihadist-shāhada in self-exploding process?

DH: — Yes, this is the analyst’s claim, following from the implicit logic of the analysis. In the purification of self, hate seems to be downplayed, and even gets in the way. The enemy is an obstacle turned into an asset, since the ummah must become all-encompassing, the transcendental state. The self-exploding process is an act of transformation in this direction, one in which the enemy plays his role of being re-made.

MR 13. I liked your terminology in many spots … “ braided”, “spiritual manual” [latter = also an operations manual –a lethal combination what?]
MR 14. EXTENSIONS: the enchanted cosmic magic cum practice of the Al-Qaeda modalities … For instance
14a. The training of their commandoes for reflex shooting as they storm a site does not have normal cut-outs popping up –they are cut-outs with a Crusader sword in keeping with the key archaic characterisation used by Osama to forge past and present.
14b. Selection of Christmas Day at Strasbourg Market for one of their major operations (failed). This was in 2000 and preceded 9/11 — the cell planning this attack was all Algerian.
14c. The Sura often quoted by radical Muslims to justify “martyrdom operations” is 9.110 in some Qurans, but when David Cook reproduced it in his book it was from a Quran where it is 9.111. I do not think the choice of 9 Sept 2001 is a coincidence. There is cosmic numerology operating here.
MR 15. Around 2003/04, I opened correspondence with Emiko even tho I did not know her (having recruited her to Soc/An long ago gave me an opening). If you wish I can send this lot. I am rather critical of some facets of her analysis, though I like the cherry blossom theme [which is central]. When I tried to organise conference panels I found her remarkably sticky and pedantic. Rejected any broad titles because it did not fit her case and rejected my use of the term “zealots” (as loose title for comparative panel) for the Japnese pilots because they were “educated”!!!! This suggested a peculiar Americanization of her thinking! Nor does she accept that they were dutiful. And she did not like my reference to their (diary-keepers’) “intellectual gymnastics”. But I notice that her new volume editing some diaries refers to their thinking as “tortuous”.
MR 16. QUESTION: I am intrigued by the fact that where the LTTE suicide bombers have generally hit high value targets, including top leaders [this must be qualified –more recently there have been some smaller civilian targets], the Palestinian suicide bombers seem to explode themselves in spots where they create relatively limited casualties. Sort of mosquito bite tactics that seem to be directed to ramify through quantity. …

DH: — When self-exploders were most successful, they shut down much of Jerusalem’s civilian public life, street life. The idea being, no normality for Israeli Jews. Quantity was important. Civilian casualties were important. Randomized damage was important. Some targets of symbolic significance were hit. One bomb in the Jerusalem university turned it into a fortress. One coffee house about 100 meters from the prime minister’s official residence was exploded, as was a bus only a bit further away. The residence is now a fortress. The Israeli response has been to freeze and stop movement; to force movement into controllable channels; to double check and triple check, so that a person may be stopped one way or another. Foucault would have recognized on the ground some of his arguments in Discipline and Punish. On the whole the Israeli strategy seems successful, regardless of the cost to Palestinian rights (which are non-existent anyhow). Since Rabin’s murder it has become difficult to get close to political leaders (even for visiting foreign politicians, dignitaries, etc, go through stringent personal security checks before being allowed into the prime minister’s office. But who knows what’s in the offing ….

MR Question: Does it impact on normal everyday life in the cities of Israel? And have an effect on the economy by reducing trade for restaurants, night spots etc. I was under the impression that the effects were limited but an Israeli woman disagreed with me the other day. Please clarify.

DH: — During the second intifada the effects were huge, on public life, on the economy. People stayed home; many were afraid to ride the buses. Today, Fatah more or less seeks political respectability; Hamas, in the government (now its own government in Gaza), is building up its armed forces, and has enough difficulties with its image and the European/American economic boycott. Only Islamic Jihad is still active in terrorism, but on a low burner.


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  2. […] 9/11 terror attacks. But it is not your grandfather’s al-Qa’ida. It is a changeling, protean, […]

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