The arrest and extradition of a fourth suspect in the July London bombings, the jailing of a Syrian in Madrid for organising terrorism in connection with the 9/11 bombings, the excruciating delays caused by increased security in airports, all mean that we are taking effective measures against Al Qaeda. Wrong. Essential, yes, effective, no.
The twin dangers of “battle fatigue” among security services and fading public memories of atrocities increase by the day. Add that to our ignorance of the nature of the problem facing us, and we are simply sitting ducks waiting for the – inevitable – next atrocity.
The Al-Qaedaist threat is to us all and is unique for four reasons.
The first is that it is not just a terrorist threat. It is a belief system, a movement, what Jason Burke has termed “Al-Qaedaism”. This belief system sees conspiracies everywhere, particularly by the West, starting with the Crusades over a thousand years ago and continuing up to the present. The unique element of this Al-Qaedaism is the unfortunate fact that many of the young men who act out of this belief system think that they are acting out the wishes of God and that when following the orders of their leaders they are following the instructions of God. Adding this religious justification to their “me generation” attitudes produces a lethal cocktail where the death of innocent civilians and of the alienated terrorist is actually seen by them as an act of homage to God.
The second reason why this is a unique challenge is the desire of the Al-Qaedaists to cause mass casualties. Al-Qaedaist spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith has said “We have not reached parity with them. We have the right to kill four million Americans – two million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons in order to inflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of the [American’s] chemical and biological weapons”. This threat is not just to Americans. The twin attacks in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224, of whom 12 were American, and wounded 4,574, of whom 15 were American. The vast majority of those killed and injured were Africans – many of them Muslims.
Most terrorist campaigns carefully avoid causing mass casualties to avoid the loss of support for their objectives. Not so the Al-Qaedaists. The strategy promoted on their websites and used by them is guerrilla warfare targeted directly against civilians. This is on the understanding that mass casualties will eventually force the West to withdraw from all Islamic lands. To inflict such mass casualties Al-Qaedaist spokesmen have repeatedly stated their desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction – particularly nuclear and biological weapons. In October 2004, it was reported that Osama Bin Laden had sought religious justification from a senior Saudi Arabian theologian for mass casualty attacks. This resulted in the publication of a fatwa called “Rules for the Use of WMD Against the Infidels” by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Fahd. We may think this is crazy but they are serious in their intention and tactically very astute.
The third reason why this threat is unique is that the demands of the Al-Qaedaists are non-negotiable. How could European governments negotiate for the return of what the Al-Qaedaists consider occupied territory in Al-Andalus in Spain, southern France up to the Loire, the south of Italy, and significant parts of Eastern Europe. Nor would anyone countenance the addition of those parts of Europe to all the existing Islamic states to turn it into one great Sunni Islamic Caliphate. Negotiating with people who believe that democracy is an evil ideology, that the separation of church and state is a form of mental illness and that most women’s, human, civil and other rights are an affront to God is an impossibility. The historic examples of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the GIA controlled areas in Algeria show that their beliefs differ fundamentally from ours. In both countries Al-Qaedaists considered capital punishment appropriate for even visiting the hairdresser or reading national newspapers.
The fourth reason why this threat is unique is the difficulty of identifying where it comes from. The 9/11 hijackers were in the main well educated, familiar with Europe and middle to upper class. French authorities now monitor three groups very closely – Muslims in the French penal system, those newly converted to Islam and those radicalised by Iraq or Afghanistan. In the UK, the latest significant recruitment ground is in the universities. These young men can literally come from any background, class or social milieu, making their identification in advance almost impossible and making over-reaction, with all its negative consequences, likely.
The appropriate reaction to this threat must deal with these unique features.
A key factor in that reaction is to ensure that we do not fall into the trap set by the Al-Qaedaists. They have deliberately structured their campaign to try to provoke a clash of civilisations. Only with such a clash between Islam and the West will they succeed in hijacking Islam for their own ends – despotic power. In every century since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, more Muslims have been killed at the hands of fellow Muslims than by any external enemy. Al-Qaedaism is simply the most serious such threat and one that is not so recognised.
Our response should be a mixture of hard and soft power. Hard power to defeat and demobilise militant Jihadists but more importantly, soft power focussed on winning the hearts and minds of the worldwide Muslim community – the umma. This will require a comprehensive programme including political control on globalisation, a Marshall Plan focussed on Muslim states, and encouragement over the next two decades of the expression of Muslim hopes and grievances in a democratic fashion. It will also include negotiating with militant Al-Qaedaists outside the original core Al-Qaeda group itself. These comprise about 90% of the militant activists and are mainly energised by regional/national issues – not “Jewish Crusader conspiracies”. Bin Laden convinced them to focus on the international struggle. Reversing that by solving local and national grievances would be a major victory.
The world must help Islam defeat this cancer within itself. If the world reacts as though this is a threat from Islam, rather than from a self-confessed tiny minority of power-hungry fanatics who actually detest true Islam in all its traditional glory, Osama Bin Laden will be well on his way to victory.