EYE Why al-Qaeda is winning By Pepe Escobar
Three years after September
11, President George W Bush's crusade is a failure. "War
on terror" is a meaningless myth: you can't combat a
supple attack machine like al-Qaeda with shock and awe.
What should have been a long, meticulous police
operation was turned by Bush - instigated by his foreign
policy adviser, God - into an illegal, preemptive
attack on a nation that had nothing to do with terror.
This policy has actually increased
terror attacks around the world. Last year in Cairo, on the
eve of the invasion of Iraq, Sheikh Yamani, a man who
knows one or two things about Arabs, violence and oil,
said the invasion would produce "one hundred bin
Ladens". They are here, and they have no one else but
Bush to thank.
Bush's mission from God
Bush's key perceived strength - apart from his
dynastic family name and extra-profitable connections -
is his carefully polished image of a strong,
straight-shooting, tough-talking commander-in-chief
during times of war.
It should be very easy for
the slumbering John Kerry campaign to smash that armory.
Before Iraq turned into a quagmire - before the 1,000th
dead American soldier, the 7,000th wounded American
soldier, the 14,000th or maybe even 22,000th dead Iraqi
civilian - Bush kept insisting that Iraq was "the new
front in the war on terror". Now Bush and Vice President
Dick Cheney are doing everything in their power not to
make the connection - because a majority of Americans
seem to view Bush as relatively strong on terror, but a
failure in Iraq.
Two related facts are
undisputable: more Americans are facing death and
destruction in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was captured
than before; and now there are increasingly more global
terrorist attacks than when Bush proclaimed his
"crusade", or "war on terror". The Bush administration
always sold the war on Iraq as part of the "war on
terror". Reminding Americans about it is to fully
certify Bush's overall failure.
acceptance speech at the Republican convention in New
York, Bush said that "the government of a free
Afghanistan is fighting terror; Pakistan is capturing
terrorist leaders; Saudi Arabia is making raids and
arrests; Libya is dismantling its weapons programs; the
army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom; and more
than three-quarters of al-Qaeda's key members and
associates have been detained or killed".
consider this: Osama bin Laden, his deputy Dr Ayman
al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar have not been
"smoked out" or captured - "dead or alive", or otherwise
- and most likely are still very much active in
Afghanistan. And now al-Qaeda, in its delocalized
mutation, is thriving around the world. There's nothing
"free" about Afghanistan: the Taliban are back,
controlling vast areas of the country, in the south and
southeast, and the rest is controlled by warlords. In
the Afghan presidential election next month, Hamid
Karzai will be certified, at most, as the mayor of
Kabul. In Pakistan, President General Pervez Musharraf - known
as "Busharraf" - barely survives multiple assassination
attempts as dictator-in-charge.
nothing "free" about Iraq. Shi'ite leader Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - who wants direct elections -
and the militant Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr - who
wants the end of the occupation now - are the most
popular figures in the country. Former US asset turned
American-imposed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi barely
controls a few Baghdad neighborhoods. The 1,000th dead
American soldier pales in comparison with the Bush
administration losing the whole Sunni triangle to the
Iraqi nationalist resistance. This loss is proof that
the war is unwinnable. It also reduces the January 2005
Iraqi elections - if they ever happen - to a joke.
line: since Bush proclaimed his "crusade" or
mission from God against terror, the United States,
the Middle East and the world are immensely less safe.
Bush-Cheney '04 are afraid US voters will
start making these connections as the November elections
draw closer. For the apocalyptic Cheney - as on the
campaign trail in Iowa - there's nothing left but the
language of fear: "It's absolutely essential that eight
weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right
choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the
danger is that we'll get hit again." So this is how it
works: If you vote Bush, al-Qaeda won't strike. If you
vote Kerry, al-Qaeda will strike. Kerry, therefore, is a
threat to the US. The problem is, bin Laden votes Bush.
The al-Qaeda makeover Al-Qaeda is more of a multi-headed hydra than ever:
the "global" head plus the "local" heads. "Global"
al-Qaeda includes groups of multinational operatives
striking in the US (as in September 11) or in Western
Europe (Madrid's train blasts). These are above all
Arab-Afghans, remnants of the jihad of the 1980s against
the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. "Local" al-Qaeda on the
other hand strike in their native countries against
Western targets (for example in Casablanca, Bali and
Istanbul): these are all part of the big al-Qaeda
The "historic" al-Qaeda is
itself split in two: bin Laden's faithfuls, who have
followed him since the Peshawar, Pakistan, days for more than
two decades; and the new breed who "graduated"
in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001. Many of bin
Laden's faithful have been killed or captured - in essence
by Pakistani, not US, forces: they include Mohammed
Atef, Abu Zubayda, Suleiman Abu Graith and the alleged
mastermind of September 11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
For a long time Western intelligence was prone
to propagate the myth of al-Qaeda as a pre-September 11
organization with many heads, with sleeping cells
occasionally galvanized into action. This is false.
Al-Qaeda as a rule waits for no one - unless technical
glitches occur, and these usually involve delays in
recruitment, research, team-assembling and elaborate
counter-security measures. The delays also prove that
al-Qaeda is much less of a well-oiled organization than
the Bush administration would like the world to believe.
Al-Qaeda subscribes to no
political strategy, other than the strategy of total opportunism:
as any kind of attack can happen any time, anywhere,
it rules by fear - while at the same time demonstrating
it is immune to any large-scale US war,
from Afghanistan to Iraq. The rule-by-fear tactic also serves the Bush
administration well, as fear is constantly used as a
powerful political argument to justify the
administration's policies ("Be afraid, be very much
afraid, but you can count on us to protect you").
Unlike the Bush administration's spin, European
intelligence experts in Brussels assured Asia Times
Online that the Madrid bombing was only accidentally tied
to Spain's national elections. It was not the case
that "Spaniards had bowed to terror" (Washington's
version), but that Bush ally Jose Maria Aznar's
conservative government was mendacious enough to lie to the
country, blaming Basque separatists when it already had
evidence to the contrary.
brigades The members of al-Qaeda's new elite
were either born in Western Europe - many hold a
legitimate European Union passport - or came to the West
while still very young and then became radicalized. As
Bush is a born-again Christian, they are sort of
born-again Islamists. The most important fact is that
this "return of the repressed" (Islam) is above all a
political radicalization. The new breed's brand of
political Islam is much more "political" than "Islam".
Very few of these new brigades come directly
from Islamic countries. And their exile is one-way: they
never come back to where their families come from. The
classic itinerary was to sharpen the knives at a
peripheral jihad - Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya - to
become widely respected mujahideen, and then go back
to Western Europe. They never went to fight in the
Maghreb or in the Middle East - although the war in Iraq
started to change this pattern.
In 1997, bin
Laden obtained from his friend and admirer Mullah Omar
monopoly control over the Arab-Afghan training camps in
Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis and the Uzbeks
maintained their own training camps. This means that
every single jihadi who was not Pakistani or from Central
Asia who went to Afghanistan between 1997 and 2001 was
trained at an al-Qaeda camp.
Unlike the faithful, none of the
new breed of Arab-Afghans is close to bin Laden. But
they definitely inherited a legendary al-Qaeda
esprit de corps.
The best and the
brightest were trained to come back to Western Europe,
wait and then raise hell. But the majority stayed behind
fighting alongside the Taliban: among these were the
hundreds captured by the forces of commander Ahmad Shah
Masoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, before he was
assassinated exactly three years ago, on September 9 -
al-Qaeda's "signal" for September 11.
and the brightest of this new al-Qaeda elite form the
current backbone of bin Laden's organization - the
people who have masterminded and carried out global
attacks for the past two years. They remain a very tight
bunch, although now thoroughly globalized; treason - and
squealing - is out of the question; and most
astonishingly, there's nothing to it of a secret
society. They work as a band of brothers, sharing
everything - apartments, bank accounts - even in the
open. Al-Qaeda's joint chiefs, the command and control
structure, the base cells and the complex networks,
everything works like some family enterprise in northern
Italy, based on personal relationships, be they nurtured
in Afghanistan or in any other country. But then a
complex process of deterritorialization sets in, and the
this poses a tremendous problem. It's easy
for Western intelligence (or for the Pakistanis, when they're up to it)
to grab a bunch of operatives after identifying a
single one of them - as with the recent arrests in Pakistan
timed to coincide with the Democratic convention. And
with no al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan anymore,
there are no places left to meet: Chechnya is too
dangerous, the tribal areas in the Pakistan-Afghan border
are teeming with US troops, and the Shawal region that
straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan is too remote and
under constant satellite surveillance.
recognition the name of the game This is
a key reason al-Qaeda mutated still further. To
survive and prosper, it needed more converts, and it needed
to strike an array of strategic alliances. An
additional problem was that al-Qaeda was never a
political movement: it is basically an attack machine. Jihad
yes, always. But the local objectives involved could not
be more disparate - from Chechens fighting
Russian occupation to Iraqis fighting US occupation.
Franchising, anyway, worked wonders. As more
people in more countries - and the Bush administration -
started blaming al-Qaeda for any attack, the desired
cumulative effect was the same: al-Qaeda is everywhere.
Local al-Qaeda alliances now include
everybody and his neighbor: Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia
(the Bali bombing) and Southeast Asia; warlord
Gulbuddin Hekmatyr's jihadis in southeastern Afghanistan; the
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (responsible for the
Tashkent bombings in July); and perhaps even the mysterious,
one-legged jack-of-all-trades, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
configured by the Bush administration as the new bin
Laden in the Iraqi Sunni triangle.
Old-style al-Qaeda might well be pulverized by the Pentagon
any time. But "al-Qaeda", the brand, lives, whatever
the Bush administration spin. Zarqawi is the best
example: he may not even be directly linked to bin Laden
anymore, and he is now the sole boss of his own terrorist
Like a multinational product,
"al-Qaeda" suits everybody. For President Vladimir Putin
in Russia, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, even President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Philippines, "al-Qaeda"
is the ideal excuse for any repressive or inept regime
presenting its credentials as a full-fledged member of
the "war on terror". For al-Qaeda's purposes, bin Laden
remaining the supreme evil is an invaluable propaganda
coup. And for al-Qaeda franchises - free to pursue their
own initiatives - using the brand means guaranteed media
"Al-Qaeda" the brand has now embarked on
an inexorable logic of expansion - in flagrant
contradiction to Bush's assertion that the world is
safer. Al-Qaeda will keep deepening its alliances with
ethnic and nationalist movements - with Shamil Basayev,
the emir of the mujahideen in Chechnya and trainer of
the Black Widow squadrons of female suicide bombers, or
with sectors of the Iraqi resistance in the Sunni
triangle. "Global" al-Qaeda in all these cases works and
will continue to work as a sort of "Foreign Legion", as
French scholar Olivier Roy puts it, a capable military
vanguard that is useful for local purposes for a
determined period of time.
"Global" al-Qaeda may
also even profit from the fact that national liberation
movements, in desperation, decide to go on an all-out
offensive, improving their alliances of circumstance
with al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda brand is also becoming
attractive to scattered sectors of the extreme left,
because more than appealing to radical Islam, al-Qaeda
has succeeded in branding its image as the revolutionary
vanguard in the fight against American imperialism. The
cross-fertilization between radical Islam and
disfranchised Muslim youth born and raised in the West
is also performing wonders: when young people convert to
Islam in a dreary suburb of Brussels, Paris, Hamburg or
Madrid, it all has to do with political anger rather
than discovering a direct line to Allah.
nihilistic big business At the
Republican convention, while the Republicans were harping
on September 11, Bush said the Iraq war was "his" war,
part of a mission from God to bring freedom to the
repressed. "Terrorists hate America because they hate
freedom." Wrong: "terrorists" (in fact national
resistance movements) hate America because America's
imperial policies are the antithesis of freedom.
As nihilistic as it may be, al-Qaeda, from a
business point of view, is a major success: three years
after September 11, it is a global brand and a global
movement. The Middle East, in this scenario, is just a
regional base station. This global brand does not have
much to do with Islam. But it has everything to do with
the globalization of anti-imperialism. And the empire,
whatever its definition, has its center in Washington.
Bin Laden is laughing: Bush's crusade has legitimized an
obscure sect as a worldwide symbol of political revolt.
How could bin Laden not vote for Bush?
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