Cover: The Thistle and the Drone

The Thistle and the Drone

How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam

InThe Thistle and the Drone, world-renowned author, diplomat, and scholar Akbar Ahmed draws on 40 current case studies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, to reveal a tremendously important yet largely unrecognized adverse effect of campaigns on the war against terror. Ahmed argues that in the aftermath of 9/11, the use of drones as a leading military counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples that has actually exacerbated the already-broken relationship between central governments and the tribal societies on their periphery. Although al Qaeda has been decimated, the U.S. is drifting into a global war against tribal societies on the periphery of nations.

In the third volume of his trilogy that includes Journey into Islam (2007) and Journey into America (2010), Ahmed offers an alternative and unprecedented paradigm for winning the war on terror.


The Thistle and Drone was awarded the prestigious German Peace Prize at the 2014 Karachi Literary Festival. On accepting the award, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed said:

“Over the past decades, especially after 9/11, I have committed my life to understanding and explaining the complex relationship between the West and the Muslim world, promoting interfaith dialogue, and building bridges between peoples and communities. With so much violence and turmoil running rampant across the world today, I believe that promoting knowledge and understanding is the key to finding peace. …I am inspired by the saying of the Prophet of Islam, ‘The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.’”

The Thistle and Drone
was named the 2014 Gold Winner in Political Science from Foreword Review's IndieFab Awards.

Abridged Excerpt from New York Review of Books by Malise Ruthven

Ahmed’s book is a radical analysis based on extensive anthropological detail too complex to be easily summarized. A good example of his approach, however, is his analysis of the background of the September 11 hijackers. It is well known that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists were Saudi nationals. Less well known or indeed understood is their tribal background. The official report of the 9/11 Commission, based on information provided by the Saudi authorities, states that four of the thirteen “muscle hijackers”—the operatives whose job was to storm the cockpits and control the passengers—came from the al-Bahah region, “an isolated and undeveloped area of Saudi Arabia, and shared the same tribal affiliation.” Three of them shared the same al-Ghamdi surname; five others came from Asir Province, described as a poor, “weakly policed area” that borders Yemen, with two of these, Wail and Waleed al-Shehri, actually brothers…

Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes, including Ghamed, Zahran, and Bani Shahr. Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning

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Praise for The Thistle and the Drone: 

“In the end, I was close to tears.  Lagrimas caudales or ‘flowing tears,’ to use the apposite phrase of Blas de Otero, seems to be what the book’s conclusions lead to. Thus lagrimas for the tribes, for the soldiers, and for the United States. Professor Ahmed gives us the only way out of this dangerous dilemma, a way to coexist with the thistle without the drone.”
—Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary 

"The Thistle and the Drone reminds the intelligence professional of the importance of understanding local culture and history as the start point for any successful counterinsurgency and counterterrorism far the greater value of this book lies in the detailed examples Ahmed provides of various tribal communities around the world. Avoiding the esoteric, he provides data useful to the diplomat, intelligence officer, or warrior engaged in political actions or operations in nearly every part of the Islamic world."
—J.R. Seeger, retired CIA National Clandestine Service officer, CIA. gov Library, Center for the Study of Intelligence

"The Thistle and the Drone is a must read. It unveils what few understand and demythologizes the war on terror for what it is; a failed, overly simplified response to the highly complex role that tribalism plays in America's war on terror."
—The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane D.D., The 8th Episcopal Bishop of Washington DC, Senior Advisor, Interfaith Relations, Washington National Cathedral

"Professor Ahmed combines a clear professional anthropological expertise with an equally clear, critical and humane moral perspective.  This is an unusual and groundbreaking book, which should be compulsory reading for Western governments."
—Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, UK

“Yet another brilliantly written masterpiece—a must-read for all, particularly Muslims who have an interest in understanding the roots of the conflicts that go back in history but have become accentuated since 9/11. Only Akbar Ahmed can give us these insights into the post-modern era we live in and the conflicts that bedevil our times through this highly readable and deeply engaging narrative."
—Jafer Qureshi, Co-convenor of the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs

"In this groundbreaking and startling book, Akbar Ahmed bravely uncovers an inconvenient truth, a fearful reality which endangers us all and in which we are all implicated. It should be required reading for those working in the media, policy-making and education—and, indeed, for anybody who wishes to understand our tragically polarised world."
—Karen Armstrong, author of The Case for God