“Al Qaeda is on the run,” the president of the United States announced earlier this month. “That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated … They’re not a problem anymore.” Last week, after the blasts in Riyadh but before the bombings in Casablanca, he sounded a more cautious note: “The enemies of freedom are not idle and neither are we.”
The latter clause was, perhaps, superfluous – “the enemies of freedom” is a description that fits all those who claim innocent lives in the pursuit of their objectives.
The Saudi and Moroccan cities, meanwhile, haven’t been the only targets. The past week has also witnessed bloodshed in Chechnya. Shell petrol stations in Karachi have been targeted. Shortly after the first meeting between Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas at the weekend, a suicide bomber killed eight people in Jerusalem. Lebanese authorities claim to have foiled a plot to attack the US embassy and other American interests in Beirut. And six African countries have been cited as possible venues for terrorism, with Kenya the likeliest contender.
Al Qaeda has been named as the probable perpetrator of the outrages in Riyadh and Casablanca – a series of coordinated blasts, including suicide bombings, that caused dozens of fatalities in each case. The charges are speculative but, in the circumstances, not exactly unreasonable, particularly in the Saudi case, where the authorities reportedly failed to pay sufficient attention to weeks of warnings from Western intelligence services.
If the speculation is correct, then George W. Bush ought to acknowledge that these are hardly the actions of an organization “on the run” that is “not a problem anymore”. Hosni Mubarak – who is not generally known for his opposition to Washington’s foreign policy – had remarked at the outset of the Iraq war that the US aggression would give birth to a hundred bin Ladens. As Mary Riddell commented in The Guardian last week, “If the Iraq war was a gift to bin Ladenites, then Riyadh was the thank you note.”
US vice-president Dick Cheney is quoted as having said in a speech, post-Riyadh: “The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it. There’s no treaty can solve this problem. There’s no peace agreement, no policy of containment
or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists.” There is plenty of potential for disagreement with the implication that the terrorist trends in Islam are unrelated to past and present American actions. However, even if one ignores, for the moment, the wider context, the obvious question his contentions raise is: Well, why not go and find the terrorists instead of mucking about in Mesopotamia?
Although the war on Iraq was posited initially as a campaign within the broader so-called war on terror, that fiction became progressively harder to maintain. It’s been a month since the Ba’ath administration withered away, but no weapons of mass destruction have been unearthed, nor any evidence of links with Al Qaeda.
Worse still, no coherent plan for Iraq’s reconstruction exists, and the inability of the occupation forces to restore the basic infrastructure and to maintain law and order prompted a second regime change within weeks of the first one. Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld has made clear that, no matter what the majority of Iraqis want, an Islamist government is out of the question. So much for democracy.
While it’s clear to all but the wilfully blind that the assault on Iraq was completely unrelated to the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent hunt for terrorists (“Our leaders went to war because they couldn’t think what else to do,” writes Riddell. “Al Qaeda, by contrast, has no lack of ideas.”), it is widely assumed that the earlier war against Afghanistan was a more or less legitimate response to Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington.
The Taliban, predictably, weren’t hard to dislodge. (Installing them in power hadn’t proved all that hard either for Pakistan’s military intelligence, with Saudi connivance and tacit American support.) Tracking down Al Qaeda’s command structure proved to be a much trickier proposition.
Notwithstanding the Torah Borah firefights, this objective was largely to be a failure from the American point of view. The hundreds of captives shipped out to Guantanamo Bay were, it would appear, mostly foot soldiers at best. When Bush warned last week that the Riyadh terrorists would feel the full weight of American justice, it was hard not to think of Camp X-Ray – although American injustice has, since 9/11, also acquired bizarre new forms in the continental United States.
Virtually all significant successes against Al Qaeda have been recorded on Pakistani soil, through police action rather than military manoeuvres. Had that been the main tack adopted from the outset – not just in Pakistan but also in the Gulf, in North Africa, wherever there was evidence of Al Qaeda activity – it is likely to have yielded much more substantial results in terms of curbing terrorism, with negligible “collateral damage”.
But within the constraints of a sensible course of action along those lines, it would hardly have been possible for the neo-conservative clique that surrounds Bush to keep alive their dream of world domination, through conquest if necessary. Afghanistan was effectively a practice run. Iraq was set up as more of a challenge, and the fall of Baghdad undoubtedly has struck fear in the hearts of neighbouring states (although neither the mullahs in Iran nor the Ba’athists in Damascus can be expected to crumble to their knees in awe or shock).
As far as the votaries of violence are concerned, however, the wars have had the opposite effect. Recruitment has become simpler than before, as US military aggression has encouraged fanatical tendencies among the devout. Besides, as Western intelligence agencies are now beginning to fathom, Al Qaeda, for what it’s worth, appears to differ substantially from terrorist groups they have sought to tackle in the past. Rather than the tight centralised control that characterises the IRA in Northern Ireland or the ETA in Spain, it seems to be a loose conglomeration of affiliates scattered throughout the world, with substantial room for local initiative.
It’s akin to a multinational franchise like McDonald’s or Starbucks, willing to outsource “martyrdom” operations wherever possible. It is such aspects of the organization that lead John Gray, in his recent book Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, to describe it as a modernist phenomenon. Be that as it may, it certainly cannot be construed as a modernizing influence: if it had its way, we’d be travelling back in time hundreds of years. But it is a product of its times: of globalisation, of imperialism, of the corruption and decay in the Arab world.
Which brings us, naturally enough, to the Saudi kingdom. It has lately been alleged that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the Saudi administration and its security and military forces at all levels. Whether or not that is true, the brutal attacks on three elitist residential compounds in Riyadh suggests that the bin Ladenites are not going to be placated by the gesture of US troops formally exiting the kingdom. Nor is there any reason to believe that the House of Saud can reform the state structures to an appreciable extent without signing its own political death warrant.
Although some of the Washington neo-cons wouldn’t be averse to US-propelled regime change in Riyadh, the fear of bin Ladenism infecting the majority of Muslims ought to suffice as a restraint. But should the House of Saud begin to crumble, it is likely that the US will throw caution to the wind. In such circumstances, oil will inevitably take precedence over Muslim sensitivities; after all, the Americans didn’t assume control of Iraqi resources with the intention of letting the world’s largest proven crude reserves slip out of their grasp.
Morocco, too, will feel some pressure, but can expect to be left largely to its own devices. After all, no Americans died in Casablanca, although the violence was chiefly directed against Westerners and, equally reprehensibly, against Jews. Although the regime in Rabat opposed the war in Iraq on account of its possible consequences, it remains staunchly pro-Western and has for a long time been on good terms with Israel.
Experts suggest that the killings in Casablanca didn’t boast as many Al Qaeda hallmarks as the bloodshed in Riyadh, which points to a franchise operation. A large number of Muslim leaders have unreservedly condemned both incidents. That is unquestionably the correct response to acts of madness. Let us also in keep in mind, though, the fact that Al Qaeda and its affiliates draw sustenance from US actions and intentions.
John Gray veers close to the truth when he describes radical Islam as “a symptom of the disease of which it is pretending to be the cure”. Unfortunately, the same description also more or less fits those who have sworn to eliminate this symptom, but whose chosen remedies keep exacerbating the disease.