Reading everything into Riyadh

The response to the Saudi bombings shows al-Qaeda's hold on the Western imagination.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Everyone seems to agree that the suicide bomb attacks on Western living compounds in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, which killed at least 30 people and injured many more, were the work of al-Qaeda. One report argues that ‘bin Laden is back’, and that this latest assault could be the start of a new international campaign.

The bombings may well have been carried out by remnants of al-Qaeda or contacts. But nobody has claimed responsibility, and most of the bombers died in the bombings. The rush to blame a ‘bolstered’ al-Qaeda, and to claim that bin Laden is ‘renewing his war on the West’ (1), seems to reveal more about a certain Western mindset than about the Riyadh bombings.

The claims that al-Qaeda is refreshing its war against America and the rest contradicts recent US intelligence, which suggested that al-Qaeda is down and out, ‘seriously wounded’ if not defeated.

Two months ago, on 13 March 2003, US officials claimed that after a year-and-a-half of the war on terror ‘the tide has turned’ for al-Qaeda (2). As CBS News reported: ‘The training tapes they left behind still look scary and the voice of Osama bin Laden has never been more threatening, but privately several senior US officials conclude that al-Qaeda has effectively been defeated.’ (3)

After Riyadh, some claim that al-Qaeda is kickstarting a new round of international terrorism. One British tabloid even wonders whether Britain might be next. Yet for al-Qaeda (if it was al-Qaeda) to launch an attack in Saudi Arabia could just as easily be seen as evidence of its isolation, rather than of its international capacity.

Saudi Arabia is effectively the original home of al-Qaeda. Saudi leaders funded the mujihadeen fighters in the Afghan/Soviet war, which gave rise to bin Laden’s network; 15 of the 19 hijackers who crashed jets into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September were Saudi citizens; bin Laden hails from Saudi Arabia, and he only broke links with the state after it allowed US troops to launch attacks on Iraq in the first Gulf War of 1991.

Returning home to launch attacks is not usually taken as a sign of global strength. According to the Financial Times, ‘the al-Qaeda network has been severely damaged, increasing its dependence on its core support in Saudi Arabia’ (4). The terrorists’ focus on the familiar territory of Riyadh could be a consequence of al-Qaeda’s military losses in Afghanistan and the recent spate of arrests in Pakistan.

Indeed, for all the reports about ‘another 9/11’, there have been no major terrorist attacks in the West since that fateful day. Instead al-Qaeda – or its networks or its individual members or whoever – have launched attacks in Bali, Mombasa, Yemen, Karachi, parts of the world where al-Qaeda networks already have a presence and where violence and instability are commonplace.

After the Mombasa attacks, carried out by persons unknown, in November 2002, one British journalist wrote: ‘For al-Qaeda to run a terrorist campaign in East Africa is akin to a man knocking down a gnome in his own garden.’ (5) By the same token, for al-Qaeda to launch attacks in Riyadh would be akin to a man smashing up his own living room.

Some of this morning’s reports claim that bin Laden himself directed the Riyadh attacks. Yet bin Laden has been notable by his absence in recent months. He hasn’t released one of his dodgy video recordings since December 2001, and his last purported audio recording was sent to the press seven months ago, in November 2002. Notably, bin Laden said nothing during the war on Iraq, and his network did not launch any attacks during that period.

For all today’s ‘Return of bin Laden’ headlines, complete with old photos of him holding a Kalashnikov, many in the West have been speculating for months that bin Laden may be dead. Perhaps he has come back from the dead, to haunt the West a little bit more.

Last week, news networks claimed that al-Qaeda might have a whole new personnel. Following an email interview published in a London-based Arabic paper with one Thabet bin Qais, who claimed to be the new spokesman for al-Qaeda, CBS News reported widespread ‘claims the terror network has completely reorganised’, and that ‘old operatives have been replaced by new ones’ (6).

For all this uncertainty about al-Qaeda’s strength, personnel and plans, many argue that the Riyadh bombings were definitely the work of al-Qaeda, and interpret them as a sign of worse to come. There seems to be a disparity between the unknown and uncertain reality of al-Qaeda, and the fearful response to purported al-Qaeda attacks.

The response to Riyadh captures the place that bin Laden and his men now hold in the Western imagination – where every attack around the world is instantly linked to al-Qaeda, a grouping which, if anything, is seen as becoming more dangerous the more amorphous, disparate and unknowble it is.

Al-Qaeda may be weakened, it may be in disarray – but there is no shortage of politicians and commentators in the West who rush to claim responsibility for attacks on al-Qaeda’s behalf, talking them up as part of a terrible threat to the West.

Read on:

A house of cards, by James Heartfield

spiked-issue: War on terror

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) ‘Bin Laden is back’, Sun, 14 May 2003

(2) US reported close to dismantling Al Qaeda, Boston Globe, 17 March 2003

(3) Al-Qaeda in disarray?, CBS News, 13 March 2003

(4) ‘Bin Laden may have directed attacks in Saudi capital’, Financial Times, 14 May 2003

(5) The attack in Kenya is al-Qaeda’s cry for hype, The Times (London), 29 November 2002

(6) Report: new threat from al-Qaeda, CBS News, 8 May 2003

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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