Malise Ruthven reviews Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam at the NYRB . One of the key themes of the book is that the US has mistaken the identity of its opponents by treating them as ideologues rather than as tribesmen.

Ruthven gives some examples of Ahmed’s insights. For the Pakistani clans that are the target of drone attacks, the US is acting shamefully. Ahmed writes, “Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”

Ahmed traces the family and clan connections of the 9/11 hijackers:

“It is well known that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists were Saudi nationals. Less well known or indeed understood is their tribal background. The official report of the 9/11 Commission, based on information provided by the Saudi authorities, states that four of the thirteen ‘muscle hijackers’—the operatives whose job was to storm the cockpits and control the passengers—came from the al-Bahah region, ‘an isolated and undeveloped area of Saudi Arabia, and shared the same tribal affiliation.’ Three of them shared the same al-Ghamdi surname; five others came from Asir Province, described as a poor, ‘weakly policed area’ that borders Yemen, with two of these, Wail and Waleed al-Shehri, actually brothers.”

In contrast to media reports, Ahmed believes “ethnicity or tribal identity [are] the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. ‘Bin Laden,’ he states, ‘was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,’ ten of whom came from the Asir tribes, including Ghamed, Zahran, and Bani Shahr. Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.”

This is crucial because of the history of relations between the Saudis and the Asir tribes: “While Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and ‘reactionary’ royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.”

In place of ideology, “Ahmed looks to the complex interactions between national state systems and tribal identities, as the latter react to the imposition of state authority . . . . tribal leaders are torn between collaboration and resistance. While bin Laden himself may have become an ideologue, driven by a vision of global jihad against America, the Asiris and Yemenis who signed up as his ‘muscle hijackers’ were motivated, he suggests, more by local considerations of honor and revenge, the usual responses of tribes that feel themselves threatened.”