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Making al-Qa’ida legible: Counter-terrorism and the reproduction of terrorism

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Why did America’s counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen fail to contain al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula in the years prior to the Yemeni government’s collapse in 2015? Moreover, why did the US administration think that its strategy was successful? This article draws from field research in Yemen and a diverse array of other Yemeni sources to argue that the answer lies in the fact that there are two broad, but ultimately irreconcilable, ontologies of what al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula ‘really is’: one legible, organisationally rational and thus governable; and one not entirely so. I argue that by targeting tangible elements of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (such as its leaders, sources of revenue and bases) in partnership with the Yemeni state security apparatus, the strategy strengthened the group’s less coherent aspects. As a result, Western counter-terrorism practices target a stripped-down, synoptic version of the group while missing, even empowering, the shadowy appendage of state or hegemonic power that animates popular Yemeni discourses. This article is concerned with what al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula looks like when we prioritise Yemeni observations about how it emerged and is reproduced. I argue that seeing al-Qa’ida as at least partly illegible removes counter-terrorism’s obvious targets, making it more suited to quelling anxieties than actually preventing terrorism.




Phillips, S. G. (2019). Making al-Qa’ida legible: Counter-terrorism and the reproduction of terrorism. European Journal of International Relations, 25(4), 1132–1156.

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