Feeding off our fears

Is bin Laden plotting a comeback attack - or just making the most of Western insecurities?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Al-Qaeda has relaunched itself’, declared the New York Times on 15 November 2002, describing a bin Laden-led ‘rebranding that presages a second phase in its war against the West’ (1). ‘It has chosen war against all “the Crusaders”’, the paper claims, ‘not just Americans’.

Since al-Jazeera TV aired the latest audiotape purporting to be from the al-Qaeda leader on 12 November 2002 – complete with croaky threats to kill the ‘criminal gang in the White House’ and all who support it – article after article has declared bin Laden’s second coming. ‘It is almost certain that there is a comprehensive strategy for a long-term campaign against the United States’, said British military expert Charles Heyman (2).

‘It is him’, wrote Independent columnist Robert Fisk on 14 November 2002. ‘The Saudi billionaire, the man in the cave, the “Evil One”, the bearded man whom the greatest army on Earth has sought in vain, is with us still’, wrote Fisk, almost excitedly (3). Under the headline ‘Al-Qaeda’s dangerous metamorphosis’, the Los Angeles Times warned us not to ‘overlook the historical breadth of the group’s agenda’, claiming that al-Qaeda ‘take two’ may be an even ‘greater threat’ (4).

So is bin Laden plotting a comeback attack that will put 11 September to shame? US intelligence officials are ‘fairly certain’ that the man on the al-Jazeera tape is bin Laden – and the man on the al-Jazeera tape does threaten to attack the West. ‘You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb’, he says (5), warning ‘Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia’ to stop supporting the ‘butcher of Vietnam’ (Donald Rumsfeld) and the ‘butchers of Baghdad’ (Colin Powell and Dick Cheney).

For some, the scariest bit of the alleged bin Laden tape is where it praises recent terrorist attacks. The voice cheers ‘the killing of Germans in Tunisia and the French in Karachi, the bombing of the giant French tanker in Yemen, the killing of marines in Kuwait and the British and Australians in the Bali explosions, the recent operations in Moscow and some sporadic operations here and there’. Many see this as evidence at last that bin Laden had a hand in recent atrocities around the world.

But is all of this a sign that al-Qaeda is gearing up for a new war? As one commentator points out, ‘A grainy cassette with a gravelly voice does not equal big terrorist threat’. Others have pointed to the latest method of communication – an audio message dictated over a phone line as speedily as possible because apparently the tape recorder’s batteries were running low – as evidence that bin Laden (if it’s him) is far less cocky than in the days when he made video messages complete with amateurish editing and voiceovers.

The truth is, no one knows what bin Laden and his henchmen are up to. Despite Robert Fisk’s David Brent-style use of the word ‘Fact’ (‘Bin Laden survived the bombing of Tora Bora. Fact’), recent claims of an al-Qaeda comeback have been driven more by speculation than by facts. US intelligence officials have spent a year listening to al-Qaeda ‘chatter’, warning of imminent al-Qaeda attacks, while failing to locate leading al-Qaeda members – so why should one tape now be seen as proof that al-Qaeda is ‘refocusing its war against the West’?

Some experts argue that we in the West have seriously exaggerated al-Qaeda’s size, influence and reach. Earlier this year Kimberley McCloud and Adam Dolnik of the Monterey Institute of International Studies urged us to ‘debunk the myth of al-Qaeda’ (6). ‘In the quest to define an enemy, the US and its allies have helped to blow it out of proportion’, they wrote. McCloud and Dolnik argued that the West’s overblown reactions to al-Qaeda helped to transform it from a ‘loose, incoherent collective’ into a ‘structured organisation’:

‘Posters and matchbooks featuring bin Laden’s face and the reward for his capture in a dozen languages transformed this little-known “jihadist” into a household name and, in some places, a symbol of heroic defiance…. By allowing al-Qaeda to become the top brand name of international terrorism, Washington has packaged the “enemy” into something with a structure, a leader, and a main area of operation.’ (7)

One FBI official gave an anonymous interview in July 2002 to express his concerns about America’s exaggeration of al-Qaeda’s size and strength. ‘Everyone tries to tie everything into 9/11 and al-Qaeda’, he said. ‘There has even been a report suggesting that al-Qaeda is 5000-strong. It is nowhere near 5000-strong.’ (8) According to the official, ‘Al-Qaeda itself is less than 200-strong’, which ‘includes al-Qaeda members who are now in custody at Guantanamo Bay’.

Even Hafez Al-Mirazi – head of al-Jazeera TV, which has made an international name for itself as the station that al-Qaeda uses to communicate to the world – accuses America of ‘exaggerating al-Qaeda’s capabilities’. Al-Mirazi reckons that all the talk of impending al-Qaeda attacks and comebacks reminds him of ‘weather forecasters predicting a coming ice storm that never arrives’ (9).

If it is bin Laden or some other al-Qaeda type on the latest tape, then they seem to be feeding off Western fears. One thing we do know about al-Qaeda and other nihilistic terrorists is that they live off Western insecurities, playing on the West’s fear of attack to make their impact. Lacking anything approaching a war aim or any traditional means of attack, terrorists exploit the anxiety of their opponents. This may be one reason why the voice on the latest tape says: ‘Why should fear…continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot?’ (10)

The latest tape seems to fit the pattern of terrorists turning our fears against us. The fact that the alleged bin Laden voice praises recent attacks from Yemen to Kuwait and from Moscow to Bali is seen by some as evidence of al-Qaeda’s reach and ambitions. But it wasn’t bin Laden who first tied all these disparate events together – it was politicians and commentators in Europe and America, who assume that bin Laden is behind everything bad that happens around the world.

A week before the latest tape reached al-Jazeera, Richard Noble, head of the international intelligence agency Interpol, declared that bin Laden was alive and that al-Qaeda was ‘allowing middle-ranking terrorist groups to carry out attacks, such as the bombing in Bali and the theatre siege in Moscow’ (11). For Noble, ‘recent operations in Bali, Yemen and Moscow showed that terrorist groups were sending a message to Western governments: “Your war against terrorism is far from over.”’

Noble isn’t alone in this line of thinking. Since the Bali bombings of 12 October 2002, commentators everywhere have tried to link al-Qaeda to local and diverse attacks around the world, making giant leaps between the Chechen attacks on Russia and the unclaimed nightclub bombings in Bali. It now appears that whoever is on the latest tape is making the most of al-Qaeda’s reputation for being involved in clashes around the world – a reputation that seems to have been created more by Western fears than by realities on the ground.

Indeed, some reports point out that the taped voice lists the recent attacks ‘energetically’ and ‘speedily’, as if trying to squeeze in as many as possible. It is surprising that the man on the tape didn’t add ‘with apologies to any terrorist action we may have left out’ to the end of the list – though he did add a reference to ‘some sporadic operations here and there’, just to cover every possibility.

Also, it wasn’t the voice on the tape that first claimed that the Bali bombings, which killed scores of young Australian tourists, were punishment to Australia for supporting the war on terror. The voice says: ‘We warned Australia before not to join in [the war] in Afghanistan, and [against] its despicable effort to separate East Timor. It ignored the warning until it woke up to the sounds of explosions in Bali.’ (12)

Where could bin Laden (or whoever) have got an idea like that? Many Australian and international commentators have been floating the idea of Bali-as-punishment over the past month. Philip Adams, a columnist with The Australian newspaper, wrote in the days after Bali: ‘I’d tried to remind Australia that rushing to America’s colours was, as demonstrated in Vietnam, a health hazard. Before we signed up for the war against terror…I thought it important to remember that the US has been the most trigger-happy of nations. It is now my sad duty to say…I told you so.’ (13)

So the Bali bombings, for which no one claimed responsibility or explained why they carried them out, were turned into another sign of al-Qaeda’s anger with the war on terror. Now it seems that someone in al-Qaeda is relishing in that description of the Bali atrocity and throwing it back at the West.

Likewise, the voice on the tape warns the West against bombing Iraq. ‘What President Bush, the pharaoh of this age, was doing in terms of killing our sons in Iraq…was sufficient to prompt the sane among your rulers to distance themselves from this criminal gang.’ The taped message threatens that if Iraq is attacked, we in the West can ‘expect more that will further distress you’, including a jihad through ‘words and weapons’ (14).

This defence of Iraq, even against the West, is a bit odd for al-Qaeda – considering that bin Laden and Saddam are, in the words of Alex Standish of Jane’s Intelligence Digest, ‘absolutely, diametrically opposed’ (15). Perhaps the alleged al-Qaeda voice is playing off widespread Western concerns that invading Iraq will cause al-Qaeda to rise up and launch new attacks, which has been repeated by almost every anti-war writer and campaign around.

The tape tells us little about al-Qaeda itself – but the response to the tape reveals much about the position that al-Qaeda now holds in the Western imagination. Every problem or attack around the world now seems to be instantly traced back to al-Qaeda, a grouping that is said to become more dangerous the more amorphous and disparate it is. This is an organisation that can bring parts of New York to a standstill when one of its imprisoned members rants on about the attacks on a city in the movie Godzilla – which then gets interpreted as code for yet another potential attack.

Some commentators responded to the latest tape by talking up the virtual threat from al-Qaeda, claiming that this could be even more dangerous and unsettling than any real or predictable threat. Writing in the LA Times, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, claimed that ‘as it metamorphoses into a virtual network, depriving its enemies of a geographic target, al-Qaeda may become a greater threat than it was before its leadership melted away at Tora Bora’ (16).

Peter L Bergen, author of Holy War Inc, says in the New York Times: ‘Al-Qaeda had only a partial return address in Afghanistan. Now it lives on as an organisation as much virtual as it is real, releasing videotapes and audiotapes while its members communicate with one another from untraceable Internet cafes. Truly al-Qaeda 2.0.’ (17)

This focus on the virtual threat of al-Qaeda – the unknowable, untraceable and indefinable threat – captures how our imaginings about al-Qaeda have taken over from what we know about it. The more al-Qaeda seems to disappear into the shadows, the fewer statements it makes and the fewer direct acts it carries out, the more we seem to fear its threat. The danger that al-Qaeda poses to the West is fast becoming a projection of our own imagination more than anything else.

Of course al-Qaeda may launch an attack at some time, and it may even try another spectacular. But it seems that bin Laden or some other al-Qaeda member is now playing to our imagined perceptions as if they were real. Al-Qaeda is a nihilistic organisation that didn’t even claim responsibility for the 11 September attacks, much less explain its grievances or the root of its campaign against the West.

It would be ironic if we in the West were now to provide al-Qaeda with the mission it has always lacked, by allowing it to collate our fears and turn them into something approaching an agenda.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

In pursuit of the unknowable, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Al-Qaeda’s new tactics, New York Times, 15 November 2002

(2) Al-Qaeda: what are they doing?, Jane’s Intelligence, 12 November 2002

(3) Robert Fisk on bin Laden, Mirror, 14 November 2002

(4) Al-Qaeda’s dangerous metamorphosis, LA Times, 11 November 2002

(5) Bin Laden’s message, BBC News, 12 November 2002

(6) Debunk the myth of al-Qaeda, Christian Science Monitor, 23 May 2002

(7) Debunk the myth of al-Qaeda, Christian Science Monitor, 23 May 2002

(8) FBI: just 200 hardcore Al-Qaeda, Palm Beach Post, 27 July 2002

(9) Newsman doubts al-Qaeda’s capabilities, The Oregonian, 26 July 2002

(10) Bin Laden’s message, BBC News, 12 November 2002

(11) Bin Laden alive, says Interpol, CNN, 8 November 2002

(12) Bin Laden’s message, BBC News, 12 November 2002

(13) Quoted in So this is what it’s like on the other side, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 2002

(14) Bin Laden’s message, BBC News, 12 November 2002

(15) ‘A link between Saddam and bin Laden? No way’, by Brendan O’Neill

(16) Al-Qaeda’s dangerous metamorphosis, LA Times, 11 November 2002

(17) Al-Qaeda’s new tactics, New York Times, 15 November 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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