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Confounding Powers: Anarchy and International Society from the Assassins to Al Qaeda, William J. Brenner

Reviewed by Christopher J. Fettweis



How do novel political actors emerge, and what accounts for their persistence? International society usually punishes those who refuse to play by its rules, but on occasion, certain forces emerge that not only thrive but alter those rules. The effects of such extrasystemic actors, those who refuse to conform to norms of international behavior, are the subject of William J. Brennan's Confounding Powers.

Brennan seeks to understand the impact and likely trajectory of al Qaeda by examining cases of previous experience with unconventional actors, specifically, the Nizari Ismailis, (commonly known as the Assassins), Mongols, and Barbary pirates. The book operates where two major schools of thought—neorealism and the English School—overlap, contributing to both systemic and societal conceptions of international politics. Brennan is hoping to contribute to an emerging tradition that he calls “analytic eclecticism” (pp. 8–9) by examining the importance of “dissimilar” actors to both the power structure of the international system and the normative structure of international society.

The Nizaris were a religious and nationalist offshoot of Shia Islam (a “heresy within a heresy,” according to Bernard Lewis [p. 70]) that emerged as its own polity in the late eleventh century and lasted until it

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