As investigators sift through the carnage of yet another deadly terrorist attack, this time in the heart of the world's first world city, London, British subjects and citizens across Europe and the United States are anxiously demanding to know who is behind such acts and what can be done to stop them. So far, the best Western leaders can offer is a prolonged war on terror, for which yesterday's bombings can be considered Al Qaeda's latest counterattack.

There is good reason for the seeming intractability of the war on terror: Post-September 11 terrorism is, sadly, part of the fabric of 21st-century globalization. It is a direct product of the global economic and cultural transformations that have brought people of different worldviews into closer contact with each other than ever before, yet at the same time marginalized or unequally incorporated large swathes of humanity--including in the Muslim majority world--into the emerging world system.

If we look at the London attacks through the prism of globalization, there is evidence of three phenomena that help us understand what the attacks represent and where they might lead.

First, while those claiming responsibility for the bombings call themselves "Al Qaeda," and reporters, commentators, and government officials throw around such terms as "Al Qaeda and affiliated movements," the fact is that Al Qaeda today is more of a brand than an identifiable organization with a coherent organizational structure and operationally responsible leadership (the classic example of such an organization being the Palestine Liberation Organization).

As a brand with its own "lifestyle" and image attached to it, Al Qaeda is using the strategy developed by many of the biggest corporations in the global era. While in the 20th century, major industrial corporations such as General Motors or General Electric actually made the products they sold in their own factories, today, global corporations such as Nike or Microsoft are primarily brand-producers, engaging in research and development of products that are manufactured by others (mostly subcontractors in the developing world).

In a similar way, since 9/11 the core Al Qaeda leadership has been less involved in planning and orchestrating terrorist attacks than in providing the ideological trappings and motivation for self-starters (for example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian national said to be the mastermind behind the Iraqi insurgency's beheadings and car-bombings) to follow their lead more or less independently. All it takes is a few veterans of fighting in Algeria, Afghanistan, or Iraq, a bit of technical know-how available over the web, ideological commitment, and a pool of young, disaffected, angry recruits, and you can start your own Al Qaeda franchise.

What is "deterritorialization"?
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  • Second, the attacks are evidence of the enormous impact of globalization outside the United States. Most Americans have never experienced globalization physically, materially, and spiritually, in the way that the majority of citizens of the developing--and especially Muslim--world have felt its effects. Globalization's consequences for Muslims--massive politically and economically motivated population migrations, economic marginalization of the Muslim world, and intense cultural penetration and even military occupation by the forces of globalization in their home countries--all have created a potentially poisonous brew of alienation and rootlessness that groups like Al Qaeda expertly exploit to recruit new followers.