Archive for the ‘Identity Politics’ Category

In his most recent video, Al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri quoted Malcolm X in order to call American President-Elect Barack Obama a “house negro” (عبيد البيت).  There has been a number of interesting commentaries on Zawahiri’s comments including this from Abu Muqawama:

But alas, the term “abed” (lit. “slave”) to describe black Africans and blacks is all too common in the Arabic-speaking world.* And I actually think Zawahiri was trying to be clever by co-opting a phrase — “house negro” — used by Malcolm X & Co. back in the day. So I don’t think Zawahiri is going to take too many hits for his diction. I also, though, don’t think his latest silly message will be effective. Especially since no one cares what some Arab Egyptian living in a cave thinks about 1960s-era divisions in the African-American community. What, did Zawahiri get around to reading Alex Haley last week and get fired up? And does he honestly think Malcolm X would have broken bread with the likes of him?

What is the the motivation behind this racial rhetoric? Noah Shachtman at Danger Room offers some thoughts:

Why go after Obama? Well, “say you’re an al Qaeda supporter and have given your time, money, sons, or sympathies to the group because you believe al Qaeda is an effective counterweight to the Great Satan,” Jim Arkedis notes. “You might begin to doubt America’s Great Satan-ness if the country is so bold as to elect Barack Hussein Obama as its next president.” Nearly a year before he was elected president, in fact, Obama was already starting to change America’s image in the world.

OK. So what’s with the Malcom X and Obama-as-closet-Jew talk, then? For quite a while, al-Qaeda has been trying to tweak its messaging to gain a recruiting foothold in the United States. Sometimes they deploy Adam Gadahn, the Southern California methalhead-turned-jihadist, to speak in an American idiom. Other times they bring up the slain civil rights leader.


Al-Qaeda’s strategy in the United States and around the world is to reframe the national grievances of Muslims as part of a narrative of global religious war. In America, the storyline has largely fallen on deaf ears.

So now Osama’s minions are trying a new tactic: Presenting themselves as blacker than Barack. Like Arkedis says: “If that’s all they have, AQ is verging on irrelevancy.”

The complete transcript can be found at The Counterterrorism Blog.


Read Full Post »

In “Afghans Trading AK-47s for M16s,” Sharon Weinberger comments on the ongoing transfer of M16 rifles to the Afghan National Army:

The AK-47 may be cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous, but it’s not, according to the U.S. Army, the ticket to a modern military. That’s why the U.S. military in Afghanistan is working to equip the Afghan National Army with M16s.

Col. Thomas McGrath, the commander of Afghan Regional Security Integration Command-South, told bloggers on a Friday conference call that the M16 equipping effort, so far, appears to be going well. McGrath argues that the M16 is a “better weapon” that teaches soldiers how to shoot and take care of their weapon, though he admitted that some Afghan were “a little nervous” about giving up their AK-47s.

Both the AK-47 and M16 families are excellent weapon systems, each offering advantages and disadvantages.  However, the phrases “cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous” and “modern” require some deconstruction to understand the technological and cultural assumptions that underlie these two weapons and their adoption worldwide.

Cheap. Generally, the AK-47 family, which includes dozens of variations (AKM, RPK, AK-74, AK-101, et. al.), uses a stamped steel receiver that in terms of manufacturing costs and materials is significantly cheaper than the M16 family’s (M16A1, CAR-15, XM177E1, M4, et. al.) forged aluminum receiver. Not only is the unit cost lower for purchasing, developing nations can manufacture the weapon easier than M16, encouraging its sanctioned and unsanctioned manufacture around the globe.

Reliable. The AK-47’s reputation is well-deserved, but the M16 has been judged somewhat unfairly. The uncritical repetition of the AK-47’s much-touted reliability–particularly in comparison to the M16–is so pervasive that even those with no experience with either weapon proclaim it from the hills. (Researching small arms and their influence on postcolonial cultures, I witnessed countless academics who have never so much as touched a firearm do this.) This is the result of equal parts history and popular culture. When the M16 was first fielded in Vietnam, it suffered reliability issues secondary to several factors including a gunpowder in the issued ammunition that exacerbated fouling and the widespread misconception that rifle was “self-cleaning.” Even after these issues were addressed, the rifle’s reputation was sealed. However, the AK-47 does have several distinct advantages in terms of reliability. The M16 uses “direct impingement,” which redirects hot gasses and burnt powder into the action–the most critical moving parts for reliability–to cycle the weapon, increasing the probability of a malfunction. By comparison, the AK-47’s gas-operated piston design introduces much fewer contaminants into the action. There are a number of other design elements–loose tolerances, two-lug bolt, etc.–that also contribute to the AK-47’s exceptional reliablity, but a well-maintained M16 is a very reliable weapon. (Contrary to popular belief, this is not rocket science. Indeed, Pat Rogers, one of the United States’ preeminent small arms experts, shows this in his article “Keep Your Carbine Running.”)

Ubiquitous. In this case, the AK-47 is guilty as charged. As world’s most prolific weapon, one might say there is a glut on the market. It is manufactured in numerous countries and distributed all over the globe.  On the other hand, manufacture of the M16 family has been limited to the West by and large. However, the United States has done its best to challenge the AK-47’s distribution through widespread arms transfers to its allies and proxies.

Modern. This is the most “loaded” of the assumptions about the two rifles. Recent variations of the M16, namely the M16A4 and M4A1, provide a more suitable platform for the mounting optics (including night vision equipment) as well as other sophisticated accouterments. In this sense, these rifles fit with RMA theories of technological dominance. This is most evident in the United States’ Special Operations Peculiar Modification (SOPMOD) requirements:


However, there is also racial and cultural baggage that accompanies the M16’s claim to modernity. From the beginning, the M16 symbolized the United States and capitalism in opposition to the Soviet Union and communism. Over time, the diametric has evolved to include any number of postcolonial states and revolutionary groups. For example, the image of the AK-47 appears on the flags of Mozambique and Hezbollah:

The Flag of Hezbollah

The Flag of Hezbollah

The Flag of Mozambique

The Flag of Mozambique

In American film and television, the dichotomy is stressed further.  Often, the American hero armed with an M16 confronts villains (identified with communism, terrorism, or both) armed with an AK-47. In this way, there is a ideological discharge that precedes even the firing of the weapon. Its display becomes part of the strategy. As much as race, clothing, religion, or any number of cultural cues, small arms encode the self in relation to the other. In small arms, culture is weaponized–quite literally.

In this sense, the arms transfer constitutes a techno-cultural realignment for the Afghanis who adopt this weapon.  As the article suggests, the transfer of M16s to the Afghan military may offer the United States stronger hand in the flow of weapons in the country. However, arms control has a more insidious consequence through the fostering a technological dependence in terms of replacement parts, ammunition, and training. Most importantly, the United States attempts to bring its allies in Afghanistan under a wider cultural and ideological umbrella of the West. Indeed, this is no accident but a critical component of culturally-aware warfare.

Read Full Post »