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Terrorism Inc.

Amid globalization, Al Qaeda looks a lot like GM

August 22, 2004|Rajan Menon | Rajan Menon is the Monroe J. Rathbone professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a fellow of the New America Foundation.

NORTH SUTTON, N.H. — What do Al Qaeda and General Motors have in common?

This may seem an odd, even perverse question when the Department of Homeland Security's orange alert has police in combat gear and with automatic weapons patrolling the perimeters of the complexes that house multinational corporations in New York City and New Jersey. Not to mention that Al Qaeda does not exactly exalt large corporations, which it sees as symbols of Western -- particularly U.S. -- power and carriers of values that threaten to spiritually disarm the Islamic world.

But both kinds of multinationals, GM and Al Qaeda, are enabled by and reflective of globalization. Both have worldwide reach, with a central headquarters directing affiliates. Both carry out extensive transactions using their dispersed branches -- "intra-firm trade," to use the language of international business. Both thrive in a world of porous borders in which operations can be moved from one country to another in response to changing market conditions: for GM, the prospects for continued profits, for Al Qaeda, the possibility of operating without detection. Both foresee a world without sovereign states: The multinational seeks a truly global marketplace without borders and national identities, and Al Qaeda envisions a worldwide community of believers energized by faith, not citizenship. Both Al Qaeda and GM rely on high-speed transportation, computerized global banking networks and information systems that enable instantaneous communication and the marshaling of financial and human resources.

Try to imagine Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network in a world without satellite phones, global positioning systems, fax machines, electronic banking, wide-body jets, websites, CNN and Al Jazeera and containerized shipping. Think of him without the panoply of "soft targets" that dot the landscape of globalization: high-rise office buildings, rock concerts and sporting events attended by tens of thousands and high-profile international conferences. In such a world, Bin Laden would be an isolated voice ranting in a cave, his millenarian ideology lacking an international constituency.

For all the venom that Al Qaeda directs against globalization, without it the terrorist network could never have acquired its reach and potential to bring death and destruction to so many by relying on so few. It is globalization that has enabled Al Qaeda to upend the arithmetic of power. Bin Laden is dangerous precisely because he has turned globalization's principal assets into a deadly arsenal. And with them, he can bring continuous uncertainty, volatility and rising costs to a system that relies on stability and efficiency to operate.

Hence, the paradox: Although the fundamentalist Islam of Bin Laden bids the faithful to live according to the values of a pre-modern, bygone era, the terrorist leader has mastered modern technologies and used the various circuits and switching points of globalization -- mega-cities, international airports and harbors, skyscrapers, to name some -- to invert and subvert the system. Indeed, the primary source of Bin Laden's wealth, which he used to fund Al Qaeda's early operations, is a multinational corporation, the family construction business.

Globalization's structure enables Al Qaeda to strike -- with calamitous consequences -- at foes far stronger by traditional measures of power. On the surface, globalization's complexity and heterogeneity make for a highly decentralized system that is everywhere and thus, in a sense, nowhere. It spans the worlds of business, advertising, entertainment and politics and is driven by the energies of a vast number of states, groups, organizations and technologies. A system so unwieldy and multifarious would seem hard to disrupt because it has no clear center.

But globalization, although sprawling and multidimensional, is highly vulnerable to attacks by small, determined groups acting in concert worldwide. The damage these groups can inflict on more powerful states is disproportionately higher than the costs of organizing and executing the attacks.

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