Steve Coll has a good piece in the New Yorker about the importance of Al Qaeda as a brand:
…as long as there are bands of violent Islamic radicals anywhere in the world who find it attractive to call themselves Al Qaeda, a formal state of war may exist between Al Qaeda and America. The Hundred Years War could seem a brief skirmish in comparison.
This is a different category of issue than the oft-criticized “war on terror,” which is a war against a tactic, not against an enemy. The war against Al Qaeda implies that there is a structurally unified enemy organization. How do you declare victory against a group that refuses to enforce its trademark?
In this, the war against Al Qaeda (which is quite preferable to a war against terror — and I think Steve agrees) is similar to the war on cancer. Cancer is not a single disease and the various things we call cancer are unlikely to have a single cause and thus are unlikely to have a single cure (or so I have been told). While this line of thinking would seem to reinforce politicians’ referring to terrorism as a “cancer,” the same applies to dessert. Each of these terms probably does have a single identifying characteristic, which means they are not classic examples of Wittgensteinian family resemblances: all terrorism involves a non-state attack that aims at terrifying the civilian population, all cancers involve “unregulated cell growth” [thank you Wikipedia!], and all desserts are designed primarily for taste not nutrition and are intended to end a meal. In fact, the war on Al Qaeda is actually more like the war on dessert than like the war on cancer, because just as there will always be some terrorist group that takes up the Al Qaeda name, there will always be some boundary-pushing chef who declares that beefy jerky or glazed ham cubes are the new dessert. You can’t defeat an enemy that can just rebrand itself.
I think that Steve Coll comes to the wrong conclusion, however. He ends his piece this way:
Yet the empirical case for a worldwide state of war against a corporeal thing called Al Qaeda looks increasingly threadbare. A war against a name is a war in name only.
I agree with the first sentence, but I draw two different conclusions. First, this has little bearing on how we actually respond to terrorism. The thinking that has us attacking terrorist groups (and at times their family gatherings) around the world is not made threadbare by the misnomer “war against Al Qaeda.” Second, isn’t it empirically obvious that a war against a name is not a war in name only?