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Beware al-Qaeda watchers
By B Raman

Remember the Kremlin Watchers of yore during the height of the Cold War and their bestsellers on the "evil empire"? And the scary stories on communism they used to disseminate, and how the newspaper columns of those days were filled with their analyses. And the so-called classified documents of the Soviet state and the Communist Party to which they managed to have access and which they used liberally in their writings and books.

And remember a statement made by John Major, the then British prime minister, in the House of Commons in response to a question in the early 1990s shortly after the USSR had collapsed and the Cold War had ended. He admitted that many of these best-sellers of the so-called Kremlin watchers had been supported by the British Foreign Office.

What Major did not admit was that many of these Kremlin watchers and their articles and bestsellers had been sponsored and encouraged not by the British Foreign Office , but by the disinformation divisions of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS -MI6) and the US's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These Kremlin watchers, who were the equivalent of today's embedded terrorism analysts, lapped up whatever was fed to them by the disinformation divisions and made it the focus of their analyses.

Since September 11, we have witnessed the similar emergence of a core of al-Qaeda watchers, whose writings and scare stories remind you disturbingly of the Kremlin watchers of yore. If you carefully examine their writings and books, you notice that there is a sameness in their analyses marked by: "I scare you; you scare me; and let us scare the world together." The more scary the writings, the greater the number of readers and the greater the sales of their books. They are making hay while al-Qaeda shines.

They quote and cite each other and it is evident that many of them use without the least qualms of conscience details of interrogation reports of terrorists in the custody of the US in Guantanamo Bay, Diego Garcia and Afghanistan. They are not disturbed by the thought that if the intelligence agencies of the US and the UK were capable of misleading the world with carefully disseminated disinformation regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Saddam Hussein's alleged links with al-Qaeda in order to achieve their strategic objective, they should be equally capable of misleading the world through scary stories on terrorism in order to achieve their strategic objectives in different areas, which are often unrelated to the so-called "war on terrorism".

As I read their analyses replete with references to information obviously obtained from interrogation reports, I am reminded of an experience in 1992. On the orders of the then government in New Delhi, analysts of the intelligence community prepared a detailed collation of intelligence relating to Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism against India.

When we presented our dossier to senior officials of the US and the UK, they rejected it without even properly examining it, on the ground that much of the information included in our analyses was based on reports of interrogation of suspected terrorists in Indian police custody. They told us self-righteously: "Interrogation reports are no empirical evidence. The terrorists could have been tortured in police custody." When we produced intelligence gathered from electronic intercepts, which corroborated the interrogation reports, they asked: "How do we know the intercepts are genuine?"

Take the writings and bestsellers on al-Qaeda coming from these al-Qaeda watchers and delete all information which appears to be based on interrogation reports as shared by the US with the writers or as carried by Western media. What remains which one could call empirical evidence or the insights, results from independent inquiries and personal experience of these watchers? Almost nothing.

Their writings are significant not for the questions they pose, but for those they don't pose. How come so many so-called al-Qaeda documents, tapes, video recordings etc were discovered from different places in Afghanistan at the height of the US air strikes in 2001-02 by so-called intrepid Western journalists and not by the security forces? When the security forces reached the spots after the bombing, they did not discover any documents etc, but when the journalists went there they found a treasure trove of documents, video-recordings etc. Were these really of al-Qaeda, or were these planted by the disinformation division of the CIA and discovered through compliant journalists in the hope that they would enjoy greater credibility if "discovered" and disseminated by journalists than if they were by the intelligence agencies.

The world knows the kind of torture used by the Americans on suspected terrorists in their custody. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross has reportedly referred to the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay. We have seen with our own eyes on our TV screens the kind of methods used in Iraq. How can we uncritically accept information obtained by the Americans through such methods?

In respect of all the captures of terrorists after September 11 - whether of senior al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan or of Hambali of the Jemaah Islamiyah in Thailand or of others in the rest of the world - the Americans or other Western intelligence agencies arrogated to themselves the right of first interrogation, though they were wanted for investigation and prosecution in other countries. In many of these instances, what the world has is the American or British version of the interrogation. How can we accept it without questioning and independent verification? Is it not the duty of these al-Qaeda watchers to caution their readers on the need to treat the information with reserve in view of their origin?

Look at the way many of these al-Qaeda watchers have shifted stance since September 11. Al-Qaeda was initially projected as a monolithic organization with a massive strength of 42,000 spread in many countries of the world. Then they started gradually downplaying its strength till they came down to 500. Now we are told that it has franchised or outsourced its tasks to indigenous organizations in a number of Islamic countries, providing them only with ideological support. We were told that al-Qaeda was the name of the organization. Then we were told it is actually the name of the pan-Islamic ideology propagated by bin Laden and accepted by the indigenous organizations.

When acts of jihadi terrorism continued despite US claims of success in neutralizing many of the so-called senior operatives of al-Qaeda, we were told by these al-Qaeda watchers that a new generation of terrorist leaders, more dangerous than the past leadership, has emerged. Nightmarish scenarios of maritime terrorism by al-Qaeda were projected before the international community. Such projections, consciously or unwittingly, served the American strategic objective of bulldozing the reluctant countries of the world to accept the intrusive proliferation security initiative and the container security initiative.

When it was pointed out that till now there had been only two instances of maritime terrorism attributable to al-Qaeda - the 2000 attack on the US naval ship USS Cole and the 2002 attack on Limburg, the French oil tanker, both off Aden - we were told by the watchers that just because al-Qaeda has not so far indulged in a strategic act of maritime terrorism to disrupt world trade and oil supplies, it does not mean it would not do so in future. Does it require a great intellectual or analyst to say this? Even a schoolboy in one of the lower forms would have known this. We are now told that al-Qaeda plans its strikes months, if not years, in advance and should, therefore, be presumed to be planning a September 11 on the high seas.

I listened with utter amazement and disbelief in 2002 when, at an international seminar, a famous American watcher projected bin Laden in terms which would have made him blush. Many of the things, which are being written about bin Laden and al-Qaeda by these watchers, must be news to them. We were told that al-Qaeda was run by bin Laden on the basis of the principles of corporate house management and that he himself acted like a modern chief executive officer of a private company. My foot.

I have expressed my doubts whether bin Laden himself called his organization al-Qaeda. The only name which he once used in February,1998, is the International Islamic Front (IIF). He has since stopped using that name too. He refers to his followers in different countries simply as the mujahideen. Recently, however, terrorists in Saudi Arabia and Iraq have identified themselves as members of al-Qaeda.

Once I asked a well-informed Pakistani whether bin Laden called his organization al-Qaeda. He replied: "No. The Americans first called it al-Qaeda. It sounded sexy and made an impact on the minds of the Muslim masses. So they, too, started calling themselves al-Qaeda."

To my knowledge (I would be happy to stand corrected, if wrong) most of the jihadi terrorist organizations, which have been active for many years now, came into existence long before bin Laden made his appearance in Afghanistan in 1996. They did not owe their existence or their following and capability in their respective areas of operation to him. His contribution was to bring them together in the IIF and make them accept his pan-Islamic ideology and focus their campaign against the Americans and the Jewish people, whatever be their national objective.

Al-Qaeda, by whatever name it is called, exists. Bin Laden and his followers and the jihadi terrorist organizations supporting him continue to pose a serious threat to peace and security and to the lives of millions of innocent civilians all over the world. They are ruthless and prepared to use any means to kill and disrupt normal life.

While continuing to be on guard against them and counter their activities, we should avoid over-projecting them, which would only play into their hands. We should maintain the independence of our judgement and should not allow it to be distorted by the analyses and projections of analysts playing the American game.

Beware of al-Qaeda, but equally beware of al-Qaeda watchers.

B Raman is additional secretary (retired), cabinet secretariat, government of India, New Delhi, and, presently, director, Institute for Topical studies, Chennai, and distinguished fellow and convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. Email: corde@vsnl.com

(Copyright 2004 B Raman.)


Dec 14, 2004
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