Blowing al-Qaeda out of proportion
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
America is now afraid of its own shadow. That was the mocking verdict passed by Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, last week, angry at the haste with which the US issued a terrorism warning against travel to his country.
Not exactly the image of strength and conviction that the White House had hoped to project after victory in Iraq, is it? The West’s fearful response to each new threat or attack is acting as an open invitation to every little terrorist cell. The message is, ‘We are scared, so why not scare us some more?’ All it takes is a few zealots with home-made bombs in Africa or Asia to have the Western world pressing the panic button.
Since the bloody bombings in Casablanca, there has been much talk of a new global crisis. Yet in truth the world cannot be changed by the blowing-up of a Spanish social club and a Jewish community centre in Morocco, any more than by last week’s attacks on petrol stations in Pakistan. Only our overblown reactions to these local incidents can create a crisis.
It is worth asking to what extent al-Qaeda now exists more in the West’s fevered imagination than in the real world. Only a few weeks ago, American intelligence officials were boasting that al-Qaeda was all but defeated.
Now, after the bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Morocco and alerts in East Africa, top strategists and tabloid headline writers seem to agree that ‘Bin Laden is back’. Yet there is nothing of substance linking these local attacks to any al-Qaeda central command. Not a word has been heard from Osama bin Laden since the audiotape he allegedly authored six months ago. But all it takes are a few scattered bombs in vulnerable outposts, and everybody appears convinced that al-Qaeda’s leadership is once more organising a worldwide conspiracy that threatens Western civilisation. Alive or dead, the spectre of bin Laden is haunting the top minds of Europe and America.
Since September 11, there has been a tendency to exaggerate the strength of al-Qaeda and to imagine its influence everywhere. Last year American international studies experts complained that Washington had created ‘the myth of al-Qaeda’ as a structured, coherent movement, by turning it into ‘the top brand name of international terrorism’.
In his response to the recent terror attacks, President George W. Bush only reinforced that myth, announcing: ‘It’s dangerous in the world. And it’s dangerous so long as al-Qaeda continues to operate. The best way to secure the homeland is to get them before they get us.’
His listeners might have been left with the impression of Osama bin Laden as a Bond movie villain, almost single-handedly threatening world peace and hunting down America at the same time as it hunts him. But as one terrorism expert argued yesterday, ‘al-Qaeda, conceived of as a tight-knit terrorist group with cadres and a capability everywhere, does not exist in that form’. For him, ‘al-Qaeda can only be understood as an ideology, an agenda’. In fact, even that gives it far too much credit. Al-Qaeda is less an ideology than the ultimate in contemporary nihilism. It stands for nothing, to the point where it has never claimed responsibility for September 11, or explained what cause those attacks were supposed to further. Such nihilism can bring down some buildings and planes, but it cannot bring down democracy or civilisation – unless we allow it to.
Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been blown out of all proportion as a symptom of the West’s insecure state of mind. Fear prompts our leaders to magnify every threat, however small, and to forget that terrorist attacks have happened many times before.
Today the reported sighting of a man with a beard can cause us to cancel flights to East Africa; a few envelopes of white powder can close down the machinery of US government; two snipers with one rifle can bring Washington DC to a standstill; and a limited health problem such as Sars can send entire cities and economies into quarantine. It is hardly surprising that others should see the West as scared of its shadow. Or that a few fanatics should take up that open invitation to terrify us some more.
The irony is that, since September 11, most Americans and others caught up in terrorist attacks have shown admirable resilience and courage. Yet our official culture seems always to focus on our fear and vulnerability. It is a policy which one top Downing Street adviser last week characterised as ‘organised paranoia’, a risk-averse ‘better safe that sorry’ approach that is likely to leave us no more safe, but much more sorry.
Who wants to live under a system of organised paranoia? And who needs al Qaeda, when we seem perfectly capable of scaring ourselves to death?
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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