Leadership: Islamic Radicals and the "Che Guevara Effect"


January 21, 2008: In late 1966, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967) arrived in Bolivia. "Che," the nickname by which he is generally known, was a seasoned revolutionary with a global reputation. An Argentinean, Che was a physician, but had become active in leftist circles in the early 1950s, even spending some time as an insurgent in Guatemala after the CIA overthrew the Arbenz regime in 1954. In 1955 he met Fidel Castro, then an unsuccessful Cuban revolutionary just out of jail due to an amnesty. The two hit it off, and Che, who had a real talent for organizing, training, and leading insurgents, played a crucial role in the guerrilla campaign that put Castro in control of Cuba on New Year's Day in 1959.

In 1964, Che, by then international revolutionary "star," disappeared from public view. Over the next couple of years he turned up advising guerrilla movements in the Congo, Mozambique, and other countries. This was connected to Che's "foco" strategy, that is, using small cadres of revolutionaries to act as focal points for local dissidents to promote the creation of "a hundred Vietnams" all over the world that would ultimately destroy the capitalist system in favor a socialist paradise. His 1966 arrival in Bolivia was another step in this campaign.

But Che's campaign in Bolivia failed, miserably, and led directly to his death. After some small success against the Bolivian Army, by September Che's Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia (National Liberation Army of Bolivia), was on the run. Che was captured on October 8th. Although CIA operative Felix Rodriquez, who had engineered his downfall and admired him as a wily foe, tried to prevent it, Che was almost immediately executed.

So what does this have to do with al Qaeda and the Taliban? Actually, several things. Al Qaeda's strategy against the West is very similar to Che's "foco" strategy, providing cadres to ignite a whole series of local Islamist revolutions toward the goal of establishing a global caliphate. And the outcome of these efforts has tended to be quite similar to the outcome of Che's efforts, that is, failure. They reason for failures can be found in what happened when Che showed up in Bolivia. Although there was already a local communist insurgency in the country, when Che arrived, his first words were, "Soy el jefe – I am the boss." Che had missed a critical aspect of the success of the Cuban Revolution. Although he had played a major role in that movement, its leadership was very definitely Cuban. By claiming to command the revolution in Bolivia, Che so alienated the local communist leaders, that they failed to rally to the cause, and may even had aided the government against him.

This has apparently already happened to al Qaeda's efforts in Indonesia, Kashmir, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and possibly elsewhere, such as Yemen and some parts of Africa. In all these cases, resentment over the "foreigners" trying to run the Jihad, men who are often contemptuous of local custom, has led many groups to openly oppose al Qaeda and even to side with the government.

There are, of course, some differences. While Che believed the "revolutionary struggle" was international, in fact each country gets the revolution it needs, that is the revolution that's perceived to be needed to provide the solutions to real or imagined problems. These problems may not be the same as those of the folks next door or half way 'round the world. This helps explain why it's taken longer for al Qaeda to lose traction. Islam is a stronger bond than "worker solidarity." Eventually, however, tensions do arise between al Qaeda's agents and local peoples over ethnic identity, cultural background, economic needs, political objectives, and even religion, Islam having a surprising number of local varieties that mostly don't conform to al Qaeda's version of the faith.

This is one of the reasons for the swift downfall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, since at the time it relied heavily on al Qaeda "Arab" troops to maintain its authority over the country. The resurgence of the Taliban in the past year or two has been due largely to what might be termed a return to their base, that is, the Pushtun tribes living astride the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. As the Taliban tries to assert its influence beyond the Pushtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, it may run into the "Soy el jefe" effect" as well.


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