July 27, 2006
by Martin ‘HStorm’ Odoni
First published in September 2005
In late-2001, US and British military forces were scouring the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan for a vast, sophisticated and well-defended complex of underground caverns. They were hoping to find and exterminate soldiers defending the headquarters of a worldwide Islamic terrorist organisation, the infamous al-Qaeda network, headed by the sinister and charismatic militant mastermind, Osama bin Laden. They had expected to find a number of huge, well-equipped caverns that had been artificially cut out of the rock with heavy machinery, and stocked up with their own power generators, bristling with fortifications, and defended by up to a thousand well-armed fanatical soldiers.
Strangely, they found pretty well none of this. Indeed, once the total number of foot soldiers, strategic officers, tactical commandos, munitions experts and demolition saboteurs they had incarcerated had been totted up, allied forces found that the sum of al-Qaeda fighters that were found and captured or killed in the Tora Bora region were, more or less, give or take one or two prisoners taken for them by Northern Alliance warlords, somewhere in the region of, er…
Indeed, the only sign they had that there had been an underground base in the mountain range at all was a small cave that went all of twelve metres underground, and was apparently used as a munitions store. No mass cadre of dedicated super-warriors, no huge complex of sophisticated underground military habitats, no powerful cybernetic storehouse of commercial or military intelligence, no sub-terranean power generators, nor even the aforementioned sinister and charismatic militant mastermind.
For all but one of the above, there is a good explanation why none of it was found (and there is an equally good but different explanation for why the other was not found either). It is because, of course, it was never there to begin with. In the case of the sinister and charismatic militant mastermind, well he had been there, but he had managed to evade the US advance by the devilishly cunning and unsporting tactic of refusing to stay put while they were looking for him.
Time to be serious. It is astounding the naive and hysterical expectations the US and British forces had of their enemies. Given that Afghanistan was – indeed still is – one of the five poorest and most under-developed countries on the face of the Earth, with a general technological level that has not even caught up with the Russian Empire of the nineteenth century, it really is hard to fathom exactly where Western forces expected the terrorists to get the tools from to drill such an enormous complex of caverns below ground, let alone how they were able to equip them with mighty power generators, regular clean water and heavy defences. But this amazing misapprehension can almost be seen as a microcosm of the West’s view of Islamic terrorism as a whole.
Still, many of what we can, loosely, call ‘al-Qaeda’ fighters were captured or killed by Western soldiers elsewhere in the country, while still more were captured and handed over by Northern Alliance fighters (although proof of these captives’ identity as Islamic militant fighters has never been obtained, or even looked for). And from a certain standpoint the invasion was a success, in that it did all-but-destroy what was, supposedly, the target organisation.
This organisation is what is called ‘al-Qaeda’, though only by Westerners in the main, which is ironic seeing it is such an obviously Arabic term. The name is a misnomer at best, and not only is it applied to an organisation that did not refer to itself as such until relatively recently, it is often used to describe the organisation as something that it cannot be. ‘Al-Qaeda’, in short, has become one of the great fantasies of modern politics; an exaggeration, a distortion, an anachronism, a misapprehension, and on some levels even an outright lie. There are two really big aspects that Westerners misunderstand; the name of the beast, and the nature of beast.
To address the doubts about the name first. No one is absolutely sure why Governments in Europe and North America talk of an Islamic fundamentalist group called ‘al-Qaeda’, and there is serious doubt how many people in these Governments are conscious of its actual meaning. It is a term that can roughly be translated as meaning ‘the doctrine’, or ‘the basis’. It is no more specific than that. It might be considered a principle or philosophy of some kind, but even that is not certain. One possible explanation for how the name was applied stems from the early 1990’s, when the term was used a few times by senior figures in communications between several Middle Eastern terrorist groups. When FBI figures stumbled across transcripts of these communications around 1995 or 1996, they may have mistakenly thought it was a name, when in fact it appears to have been some kind of ideological reference and nothing more. But the name appears to have stuck.
However, although a mistake, it is forgivable using the term ‘al-Qaeda’ to describe the militant group that was based in Tora Bora. The term may have come to mean what it did not, but at least it is something that everyone can recognise. I have a bad habit of using the term myself sometimes, merely for convenience. Indeed, in recent times there have been signs that leadership figures in militant circles, recognising the infamy it has in the West, have started using it to refer to themselves, at least unofficially. The other common mistake, however, makes the use of the term completely inexcusable, and that mistake is the assumption that the organisation itself is something it is not (or perhaps, was not).
When most people in the West talk of al-Qaeda, they mean a terrorist network run by the exiled Saudi Arabian billionaire, Osama bin Laden, from a hidden base in Afghanistan, and infiltrating most countries on Earth with small terrorist ‘sleeper cells’ answerable only to him, committing atrocities in his name after months, perhaps years, of peaceful integration. This description barely begins to resemble reality.
Now, bin Laden did – probably still does – lead a terrorist group. And yes, sure enough, it was based in the Tora Bora hills of Afghanistan. But it was not a network. It did not have political tentacles spreading far and wide around the world, and infiltrating every society known to Man. Nor did it ever number thousands of people, with lots of mini-camps all across the Middle East. At its height, bin Laden’s organisation numbered less than one hundred and twenty people, possibly no higher than ninety.
When people talk of bin Laden’s organisation, and of a worldwide Islamic militant network, they are unknowingly talking of two different things, and not really getting either of them right. Bin Laden does not rule a worldwide Islamic militant network, because there is no worldwide Islamic militant network. This is not to say that there is no such thing as Islamic militancy at all of course, only a fool would believe that, but to assume it is a vast worldwide network of sleeper cells, all carefully integrated and answerable to one man, is equally foolish. The term ‘al-Qaeda’ can be applied to bin Laden’s group, at a stretch. Or it is just about admissable to use it to describe Islamic militancy as a whole. But it should never be used to describe both at once, which is sadly the common, completely misleading practise.
There are three other names that would be better applied to wider Islamic militancy than ‘al-Qaeda’, but even they are not ideal, as none of them really manages to cover the phenomenon both precisely and as a whole. One term is ‘Wahabbism’, referring to a political doctrine born from a particularly crude and extreme interpretation of the anti-Western ideas of the Egyptian Muslim, Said Qutb, in the 1960’s. The methods of almost all Islamic militant groups resemble Qutb’s ideals in some heavily-distorted ways – distorted because in truth, Qutb would never have approved of the indiscriminate murder of innocents – but most groups do not offer any tribute or acknowledgment to him, suggesting they took no inspiration from him. Another usable term is ‘Islamic Jihad’, which is actually an early name that bin Laden once used for his organisation. This is perhaps vague enough to cover almost all branches of militancy, but contrary to Western myth, the term ‘jihad’ does not necessarily imply militancy or war, but merely a ‘struggle’ or ‘task’, and so many in the Middle East object to it being used in such a negative way. The final name, which is probably becoming the most commonly-used among Middle East commentators, is a prosaic English term, ‘Political Islamism’, referring to implementation of the government and law of a whole country according to the word of the Qu’ran. This again is not an ideal term, partly because it is just as awkward to pronounce as ‘Islamic militancy’, but also because, again, ‘Political Islamism’ does not have to involve militancy, and so peaceful and moderate reform groups end up getting tarred with the brush of terrorism when they do not deserve to be.
Bin Laden’s organisation – assuming it still exists, which is by no means a certainty – is a Wahabbist group. Its primary purpose is difficult to explain simply, but as briefly as I can manage, it wishes to rouse the Muslim population of the Middle East to holy war against the West. Bin Laden sees almost the entire second millennium as an ongoing conflict between the noble forces of Islam and the imperialist oppressors of the ‘Judaeo-Christian alliance’ (which is an enormous and simplified exaggeration rather than a complete untruth); eight hundred years on and he and his allies even refuse to accept that the Crusades ever ended.
To a worrying degree, Wahabbists have been increasingly successful, at least over the last eight years, in rallying people to this aim. Islamic activism throughout the Middle East has become increasingly militant and hard-line, supplanting in ever greater numbers the far more moderate majority, and often looks to more literal and precise interpretations of the Qu’ran in the search for a life free of Western bullying and plundering.
The simplistic logic being followed by the extremists is that the great domination of Western power has become most pronounced during the last century, at exactly the time that the Middle East began its darkest era of poverty; whereas the Middle East was by far the most advanced and powerful region on Earth up until the European renaissance of the fifteenth century. If Western ways cause such poverty of the type we can now see in the Arab world, then a move away from that, back toward the days of precise and devoted Islamic worship, must be the way to revive the Golden Era of the Middle East.
It is hardly necessary to point out that this vision is over-simplistic by far, but enough angry and frustrated young men across the Islamic world are vulnerable and desperate enough to need a scapegoat to fight against. The Wahabb vision gives them a doctrine that makes just enough sense to appeal to them, and to convince them that it is a way to end the centuries of humiliation and poverty through violence.
But what should be understood is that, although the recruits need leaders to bring this vision to them, it is rarely bin Laden who takes on that responsibility. It was never possible for various practical reasons, the two most important being, one, he cannot be everywhere, and two, there are plenty of local activist groups in most countries across the Middle East for would-be terrorists to join, so there has rarely been a reason for them to go all the way to Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan just to join up. Further, the great majority would probably never have been aware of bin Laden until the last few years anyway.
It also needs to be recognised that, for all the similar characteristics that the various militant groups have, their own aims will usually be very specific and parochial, far more so than bin Laden’s, and will frequently bear no relation to, or even flatly contradict, those of other militant groups in the region.
But above all, it must be realised that in the great majority of cases, the militant groups were or are essentially independent, and not in any way answerable to Osama bin Laden. It is another example of the super-human capacities Western Governments choose to credit him with that he is talked of as the grand leader and mastermind, who rules Islamic Jihad wherever it is fought on Earth. The great majority of atrocities committed over the time of ‘al-Qaeda’s’ prominence, he had nothing directly to do with – in many cases, nothing at all.
The whole idea of a network was invented in January 2001 by a deserter Islamist, a former friend and ally of bin Laden, called Jamal al-Fardal, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for the sake of legal convenience, nothing more. The FBI had captured a group of Islamists who had supposedly taken part in the Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998. They wanted to try and implicate bin Laden in the crime as well, in hopes it would lead to increased intelligence funding for pursuing him. But the FBI had no evidence linking him to the bombings, so they decided to try and manipulate Federal organised crime laws to convict him in absentia ‘by association’, as it were. So in the same way that a Florida mob-boss can be implicated in a bank robbery committed by a very remote member of, say, the Chicago Mafia, the FBI hoped to establish the notion of a coherent international Islamist organisation led by a figurehead – bin Laden himself – who could thereby be implicated in attacks by any Islamist group.
In reality, Osama bin Laden’s role in radical Islam is perhaps the most misunderstood and overestimated single element in modern politics. To be fair, it is quite hard to define, but what can be stated with some certainty is that it is far more mundane and far less authoritative than what the likes of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld would have us believe. Bin Laden was certainly never a recruiter, nor a world leader. If anything, he was more an investor. It would not be altogether fanciful to call Osama bin Laden the world’s first merchant banker of terrorism, a description that will be explained shortly.
His camp in Afghanistan was not some heavy gear military headquarters, from which powerful masterminds would despatch agents all over the world on cunning schemes of infiltration and violence. It was, again, far less dramatic; no more than a primitive academy in some empty, out-of-the way, hillside caves. It was an open school to which anybody belonging to the Islamic faith, and harbouring feelings of hostility toward the West, could travel and receive instruction in the arts of urban terrorism and guerilla warfare. None of the students who received tuition from bin Laden and his cohorts in the camp in Afghanistan were under any obligation to take orders from them. Some of them would swear an oath of loyalty to bin Laden, but they were neither very numerous nor compelled to do so.
As mentioned above, bin Laden’s personal role was not even one of tuition especially, so much as one of finance. He is the wayward seventeenth son of one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men, and thus has access to large funds – or at least he used to – that Middle East terrorist groups desperately need. It was his money and his undoubted charisma that led him, briefly, to a position of pre-eminence in the world of Islamic radicalism. But pre-eminence and authority are not quite the same thing. Bin Laden’s practise appears to have been to sit back and let militant leaders from all across the Islamic world – and beyond – come to him and suggest ideas to attack the West with. If bin Laden liked the ideas, he would invest a certain amount of money to help them see it through; if he was not impressed, he would advise them to go back to the drawing board, and then show them the door.
Either way, he never took command of these plans or the groups implementing them in any way. The cadres that the West habitually refers to as ‘al-Qaeda sleeper cells’ are all independent terrorist groups.
Indeed there is no evidence to suggest, from the time he was exiled from Saudi Arabia in 1991, that bin Laden has ever commanded anyone who was not actually ‘garrisoned’ (for want of a better word) at Tora Bora. Hardly any of the terrorist attacks committed by Islamic militants throughout the 1990’s were conceived by the ‘al-Qaeda’ leadership. And even those that had been, no one from outside Tora Bora was under any obligation to implement, or even to listen to. Until as late as 1998, bin Laden was no more prominent a figure in terrorist circles than dozens of other leaders – an astounding number of militants had never even heard of him until 2001 (like most people in the West, in fact). Further, it is even open to debate whether bin Laden was ever truly in command in Tora Bora. His mentor and right-hand man, a veteran Egyptian fanatic called Ayman al-Zawahiri, appears to be the true brains of the outfit, even manipulating bin Laden – not so much for his personality or influence, but just for the money he can provide.
Now on the mention of 2001, it seems fairly probable that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon was a brainchild of ‘al-Qaeda’, but even there, it does not appear that bin Laden offered much input. Another of his contacts, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was probably the one who suggested using commercial jets as missiles to the group who carried it out, whereas bin Laden does not appear to have been fully aware of what the plan involved until just a couple of months before it unfolded. It is not even entirely clear whether he invested any funds in it, although it seems likely that he did. And even in the case of 9/11, the group that planned out and executed the operation were not actually members of ‘al-Qaeda’. They could have refused to do it and walked away at any time.
A subsequent misapprehension about ‘al-Qaeda’ is in trying to identify the nature of what it is now. Because people do not understand what it was, they are unable to calculate what it has become. In political circles, it is a spent force. As mentioned before, the allied attack on Afghanistan was generally successful in destroying the power base Osama bin Laden and his cohorts had there, especially the destruction of their most crucial physical asset; their training camp. Nowadays, there are very few of bin Laden’s cohorts still alive, and he and the few other survivors are on the run, entrenched and effectively trapped, probably in the mountain ranges on the unpoliced border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Beyond probable short-range supply lines, there is no detectable link between this hideout and the outside world, while the facilities for training new recruits, or for negotiating with and funding the strategies of other militant groups, no longer exist. It is even doubtful that bin Laden has much money any more, to say nothing of whether he can still access any of it. It is therefore arguable, though probably not accurate to say, that the group wrongly referred to as ‘al-Qaeda’ no longer exists.
In this light, it can clearly be seen that bin Laden is yesterday’s man, and that capturing or killing him will make practically no difference in the wider war to destroy terrorism. Thus, fear of ‘al-Qaeda’ is not only hugely overblown, it is also an anachronism. This is not to say that bin Laden should not be hunted down, for he has invested in numerous crimes and so should be brought to justice for the blood that has, directly or indirectly, washed over his hands. But at the same time, even if Western forces do succeed in catching him, they must keep in mind that his demise will bring the world no more than a bare inch nearer to ending the threat of Islamic militancy. This is one of the crucial facts that few people in the West seem able to grasp.
There are various other myths about ‘al-Qaeda’ that need blowing out of the water, many relating to Iraq; –
1} Ba’athist Iraq and al-Qaeda are allies.
This one has of course been done to death, but it is worth summarising it here just to demonstrate its place in the wider pattern of propaganda. There was never anything realistically describable as an alliance between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, nor between the two factions they represented. Government officials in the USA and the UK, when trying to justify pedaling this untruth, point to a brief pact of sorts that was established between Iraq and Islamic Jihadists, a mutual non-aggression treaty signed in 1992. This was not an actual alliance, however, merely an agreement not to attack one another, and there is even some doubt as to whether bin Laden was directly involved in it. In any event, the treaty only held for approximately two years before mutual distrust brought it to a frosty end, and any subsequent attempt on bin Laden’s part to form a real alliance with the Ba’athists was rebutted with cold contempt by Saddam.
2} Al-Qaeda is responsible for insurgent activity in post-war Iraq.
No evidence whatsoever has been put forward to link bin Laden and his allies with the terrorism in Iraq, even remotely. Indeed, with the cave-in of bin Laden’s power base in 2001, and his almost total cutting off from the outside world since his retreat to the Pakistan border, it seems impossible that he and his surviving cohorts can have any influence on events in Iraq at all. This point leads directly on to; –
3} The Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
This is patently absurd for reasons of personality. Al-Zarqawi was often assumed to be an ally of Osama bin Laden, as they were both based in Afghanistan at the same time, and al-Zarqawi even ran another training camp for Islamic militants there. However, what is never admitted by most Western commentators is that they were never allies at all; otherwise al-Zarqawi would almost certainly have joined up with bin Laden in Tora Bora. They were actually bitter rivals, and al-Zarqawi’s training camp was merely created as an alternative, while the terrorist cadre he formed after retreating to Iraq in 2003 had no links whatsoever to bin Laden’s. Having said all that, again I must stress that this did not make it wrong that he was hunted down and eliminated. He was still a fanatical killer who needed to be stopped and brought to justice. I mean merely that we should not try to make him out to be what he was not.
4} The Shia militia is in league with al-Qaeda.
Again, this can only be possible under the assumption that ‘al-Qaeda’ actually has a presence in Iraq, of which there is no indication. Further, the aims of the Shi’ites’ clerical leader, Moqtada al-Sadr – the formation of an independent Shia republic – do not really coincide with those of bin Laden – to begin a world war to destroy all traces of Westernism in the heartlands of the Islamic world. As much as anything else, whether they are right or wrong, al-Sadr’s aims are quite feasible, down-to-Earth, and achievable, whereas bin Laden’s are clearly a mad dream. Further, most Wahabbists tend to be Sunni. Therefore, even if ‘al-Qaeda’ did have a presence in Iraq, an alliance with the Shia militia would be unlikely.
5} Al-Qaeda was responsible for the bomb attacks in Spain in 2004 and London in 2005.
Again, there is no plausible indication that bin Laden and his cohorts had sufficient links to outside Afghanistan at the times these attacks happened. Further, evidence about the bombers involved shows that they were again independent groups – the London bombers, for instance, were all from Leeds, and the militant tuition they received appears to have been given while they were in Pakistan, and after the destruction of Tora Bora. There is little to suggest that they might even have visited Afghanistan, let alone received training there or acted on bin Laden’s instructions.
6} Tighter border controls will combat most al-Qaeda terrorism.
This is unlikely to make much difference at all, as the majority of terrorist attacks around the world are committed by natives of the countries they are attacking.
7} Al-Qaeda always targets the West.
If, by ‘al-Qaeda’, this means bin Laden’s cadre, it is quite untrue as the cadre only existed to train terrorists, and rarely got involved in actual attacks. If, on the other hand, it is meant to refer to militant Islam as a whole, it is even more untrue, as the overwhelming majority of atrocities committed by terrorist groups in the Middle East are aimed at their own national Governments and societies.
8} With new anti-terror legislation on their side, the British and American Governments have prevented numerous terror attacks since 9/11.
The anti-terror legislation has merely allowed police forces in Western countries to arrest and investigate people who have not been guilty of acts of terrorism, or even of planning any. Numerous cases of defeated terror plots that Bush and Blair have boasted about, it has since come to light, had nothing to do with terrorism at all, and a great deal to do with paranoid security services jumping at shadows e.g. the four Arabs ‘targeting Disneyland’ who were really just on holiday, and the ‘crazed fanatic training up bombers for Jihad’ in London, who was really just giving bodybuilding lessons to someone who was trying to get a job as a bouncer in a nightclub. In both of these cases, and a number of other red herrings, neither Bush nor Blair have subsequently admitted that the accused were innocent.
9} The threat of terrorism faced by the United Kingdom is new, unprecedented, and far higher than ever before.
It hardly needs pointing out that people are required to ignore over thirty years (arguably a century) of Irish Republican terrorism in order for them to believe this. The threat of a terrorist attack happening in this country is somewhat lower than it was, say, fifteen years ago. It is higher than it was around five years ago, but then that was the inevitable down-side of supporting the US invasion of Iraq. The militants who may target the UK will be far madder, far less chivalrous, and more indiscriminate in their tactics than the IRA were, but they are less likely to make an attack in the first place.
10} Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO are all part of the al-Qaeda network.
These are all independent militant groups with very specific regional aims in Israel, Palestine, and the Lebanon. Although they probably have had dealings with ‘al-Qaeda’ at certain times in the past, they are certainly not answerable to it, and do not really have compatible aims.
11} Al-Qaeda wishes to destroy the Western way of life in its entirety.
As a matter of fact, bin Laden could hardly care less about that. He has a gross distaste for Westernism, true, but the signs are that as long as it is kept in Europe and the USA he is happy to leave it alone. What he objects to – violently objects to, is prepared to plunge the world into war over – is the growing Westernisation of the Middle East, Islamic lands which he believes should remain inviolate. This is why his hatred for the West pales before his hatred for Governments like the House of al-Saud in his homeland, and the Government of Turkey, who have, in his eyes, allowed the sacred soil of the Islamic homelands to be tainted by the Western Imperialists.
Going back to myths 2) and 3); the only way one can say that al-Zarqawi is head of ‘al-Qaeda’ in Iraq, or that ‘al-Qaeda’ is even present in Iraq, is to switch meanings of the term ‘al-Qaeda’, giving it a vaguer, more philosophical sense, and thus taking it away from the meaning that the West falsely imposed on it in the first place. Going over to a more accurate meaning is not a bad thing in itself, of course, but it is this very tendency to change the meaning according to what is convenient at any given moment that is so dangerous and objectionable. (Of course, many would argue that the meaning of the term is vague anyway, and that is what makes it possible for the flexible use of it, which is true of course, but just because it is possible, that does not justify the cynical way it is manipulated – this mentality is much in keeping with the right wing tendency to regard success and opportunism as their own justification.)
The question that remains in all this is always the most difficult one to answer; Why? Why do Western Governments put forward such a blatant and unrealistic fantasy vision of Islamic terrorism? Although in the cases of many politicians it probably does stem from genuine ignorance, it seems implausible to suspect that, if I know all this, the entirety of the US and British Governments and Intelligence services do not. So why do they choose to keep it secret? To my mind, there are three reasons, two of which appear at first glance to be somewhat at odds with each other, but I will come to them later.
The first reason is the obvious one, which is that it gives Governments a convenient excuse for heavy-handed policing. Any intrusion into people’s private lives, any bullying of peaceful public demonstrations, any attack on another country in order to tap resources; they will speak out about "the perilous, omni-present threat of al-Qaeda", and knowing as they do that there is a worldwide consensus of paranoid hysteria about Islamic terror, they can be confident that objections will soften at the mere mention. This has led to many a doubtful justification, some even less plausible than the attempt to link ‘al-Qaeda’ to the invasion of Iraq e.g. the Government of Russia has on occasion tried to justify oppression in Chechnya by claiming, preposterously, that the rebels there have links to the super-powerful and insidious Islamic network. (Many Chechen rebels are Islamists, but links to bin Laden would be so remote as to be impractical.)
The second reason is an extension of the first one. A war situation is a good way to justify, not just heavy policing, but also greater control over the flow of information. It also provides an external enemy to unite a nation against, drawing attention away from poor domestic Governmental performance. It goes without saying that the more powerful and fearsome that an enemy is made to appear, the more solidly the nation’s populace are liable to unite against him, and the more intensely they will focus their attention on him and, more crucially, away from what the Government wants to keep them from noticing. Further, successful military campaigns against discredited opponents even give poor Governments the chance to dress themselves up as ‘heroic’. Thus, bin Laden has been built up into some kind of mighty demi-God, an Islamic Goldstein you might say, generating an enormous public hysteria. Then various other factions are dressed up as allies of his – which on first sight appears plausible ("Osama bin Laden is a Muslim, Saddam Hussein is a Muslim, ergo ‘al-Qaeda’ and the Ba’ath party are one and the same!") – and then the USA and the UK can invade and conquer said ‘allies’ and make themselves look like heroes. On analysis of this, one can deduce that, in the longer term, bin Laden is more useful so long as he remains a free man than he would be if he were hunted down, and the super-human status that has been attached to him further justifies the ‘failure’ to capture him. Such a strategy was probably not premeditated on the part of the West, but the usefulness of it has likely been realised during the course of the struggle.
The third reason appears at first glance to contradict the second one – although in fact they complement each other very neatly – and that is that the West needs to make the threat seem limited. For all of how powerful they have made ‘al-Qaeda’ appear, Western Governments do not actually want the threat to seem insurmountable. They need the hysterical fear to be tempered with genuine hope, for otherwise it might make themselves look incompetent, or might even trigger unrest. This hope takes the form that, no matter how many agents and sleeper cells bin Laden has at his disposal round the world, no matter how intelligent, disciplined, fanatical and driven his followers might be, his network is still totally dependent on his mind and cunning in order to function. Therefore, the common delusion is that militant Islam is just one casualty – bin Laden himself – away from destruction. It is assumed, rightly or not, that this illusion of being so close to total victory can keep the Western public on-side for years to come.
One might well ask whether all these details truly matter. Does it make that much difference whether the phenomenon of militant Islam is far more fractured than it is made to look? Does it really change anything whether bin Laden is really the leader of the whole show, or if it has a thousand different leaders? So what? Surely all that really matters is that we fight it, rather than fuss about the minutiae.
Unfortunately, yes, these things do matter. They do make a difference. It will be the difference between survival and death for many. What people are missing is that the first rule of fighting a war effectively is that you must know your opposition. The West needs to recognise that Islamic militancy is not just a single entity, but is in fact multi-faceted to the degree of thousands of entities, and furthermore that each different group has its own particular aims and its own particular targets. Without recognising all this, it will never be possible to work out where most of the threats will really come from, or what they will aim at. Nor will it ever be possible to say with any accuracy if and when the threat is gone, and so should bin Laden ever fall, the West may make the overconfident mistake of assuming that Wahabbism has fallen with him, when instead there may still be hundreds of militant groups out there.
But above all, allowing the Governments of the West to persist in this fantasy is to let them justify taking powers to which they have no right whatsoever. That, of course, is where the truest and greatest threat of all lies. And if it is allowed to continue, the people of both East and West will be much the poorer for it.
Appendix: In response to requests I have received from some people who doubt the validity of the above claims, I have decided to offer some sources for the information summarised here.
First I must stress that my sources are varied, including numerous internet sites and a number of books. But the four main sources are as follows; –
The Power Of Nightmares, by Adam Curtis (BBC TV documentary).
Al Qaeda And What It Means To Be Modern, by John Gray.
Al Qaeda, by Jason Burke.
Web Of Deceit, by Mark Curtis.