June 13, 2012: Islamic radicals have a major problem with tribal culture. It wasn't supposed to work out this way. Al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals have lost out to the tribes at least five times recently: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Mali. This is in part because the United States has recognized the importance of tribes and learned to work more effectively with tribal leaders. This is a tricky business, as you want to do this in ways that don’t inflict fatal harm on the concept of a central government in places where tribal leadership and central governments live in uneasy coexistence. The U.S. had an advantage in that they possessed thousands of military specialists (the U.S. Army Special Forces) who are a unique pool of experts on tribal politics and how to deal with it. For decades the American military and political leadership did not appreciate the importance of tribal politics and Special Forces capabilities in this area. Now they do.
Groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban thought they could exploit the tribes to support Islamic radicalism. But the Islamic radicals botched it once they resorted to violence to intimidate tribal leaders to continue supporting Islamic terrorism. The Islamic radicals got things started by taking advantage of tribal resentment against corrupt governments. There are lots of despots in the Middle East. But al Qaeda took that one a step too far by insisting that Westerners (who are largely not Moslem) were a key factor in supporting the corrupt Moslem governments. This led to Islamic terror attacks on the West, which generated a massive counterattack. Many tribal leaders eventually concluded that the Westerners had little to do with creating and maintaining their local tyrants and made peace. This enraged the Islamic radicals, who tended to retaliate by kidnapping or murdering tribal leaders. This, not surprisingly, backfired and continues to do so.
Tribal governments continue to exist because they are the only viable alternative to central government that is too incompetent or corrupt to supply essential services. This includes unbiased help settling disputes, usually those involving property, marriage, inheritance, crime, and disagreements of all sorts. Without the tribal government (often described as "tribal elders") to settle these disputes, you have people resorting to violence and, frequently, bloody chaos.
Some parts of the world, like Europe (most of it) and East Asia (much of it) transitioned from tribal to central government centuries ago. In Europe there are still a few places where tribal leadership is still important (like Albania). In the United States there are still tribal governments for the original inhabitants of North America, at least those who did not assimilate into the more efficient form of government from Europe. In East Asia there are lots of tribal cultures around the edges of China and in the southeast.
Al Qaeda came out of a tribal culture in Saudi Arabia, a country founded in the 1920s, by the Saud family that created a tribal coalition that controlled what is now the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Part of that effort was the use of religion (a very conservative form of Islam) and tribal leaders to provide a familiar and workable form of government. The Saud family, especially the king and his close advisors, spend a lot of time maintaining good relations with tribal leaders. Many of the founders of al Qaeda, who came from Arabia, were very familiar with tribal governance. These Islamic radicals overestimated the importance of religion for tribal leaders and found, to their grief, that, in the end, more practical matters are more important.
Another factor in this Islamic radical and tribe based violence was a generational dispute. One faction wants to change and adapt to the modern world. The other faction (usually existing tribal leaders supported by the Islamic radicals) wants to keep things just as they are. But the Islamic radicals add another angle by backing tribal leaders who will turn back the clock, shutting non-religious schools and imposing more lifestyle restrictions (no videos or music, or education or outside jobs for women). Thus the Islamic radicals often find themselves fighting traditional tribal leaders who want girls in school and economic development. The winds of change are blowing through many tribes and stirring up all sorts of unpleasantness. While the Taliban use modern technology (while rejecting the culture that creates it) they get nervous about how eager young tribesmen are about their cell phones. Most importantly, the Islamic radicals forget that tribes exist to serve their members, not some Islamic radical terror organization.