Al-Qaeda’s appeal - Thursday, May 05, 2011

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Al-Qaeda is the most successful terrorist organisation in history. By destroying the World Trade Centre in New York on 9/11 it provoked the US into launching wars damaging to itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Qaeda aimed to destroy the status quo in the Middle East and it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.

Its success has not been all its own doing. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number two and chief strategist, wrote at the time of 9/11 that the aim of the group was to lure the US into an over-reaction in which it would “wage battle against the Muslims.” Once the US was committed to a ground war, and no longer exercised its power primarily through local surrogates, the way would be open for Muslims to launch a jihad against America. By over-reacting, President Bush, aided by Tony Blair, responded to 9/11 very much as Al-Qaeda would have wished.

In the decade since the attack on the Twin Towers ‘terrorist experts’ and governments have frequently portrayed Al-Qaeda as a tightly organised group located in north-west Pakistan. From some secret headquarters its tentacles reach out across the world, feeding recruits, expertise and money to different battlefronts.

Al-Qaeda has never operated like that. The closest it ever came to being a sort of Islamic Comintern was when it had several hundred militants based in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in 1996-2001. Even at that time, when it could operate more or less freely in the Afghan mountains, its numbers were so small that it would hire local tribesmen by the day to be filmed for Al-Qaeda propaganda videos, showing its men marching and training.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies were criticised after 9/11 for failing to pick up on the threat posed by Al-Qaeda early in the 1990s. But in practice it barely existed before 1996 when Laden moved to Afghanistan from Sudan and, even then, he was only one among several players leading Islamic jihadi groups. Since 2001 Al-Qaeda has continued to exist organisationally mainly as a series of local franchises.

Al-Qaeda had the advantage post 9/11 that it did not have to do much to have an impact in the US.

No US government can afford to have another 9/11 take place without devastating retaliation from the voters. Washington had to be seen to be doing something successful to restore American confidence in its own strength. One of the reasons why George Bush’s administration had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq rather than devoting all efforts to hunting down Bin Laden, was that the first two options seemed easy and the third was not.

Osama’s demise will have some impact on Al-Qaeda itself, in so far as it exists as an organisation but its main impact will be on American self-confidence. Of course, there will be jihadi groups who will want to restore the balance of terror by making new attacks, but none are likely to have the same impact as 9/11.

The collapse of the old order in the Arab world may play against Al-Qaeda: it will no longer be the beneficiary to the extent it was in the past of the hatred felt towards local dictators allied to or tolerated by the US.

Al-Qaeda’s appeal will be diluted. But already its significance was mainly confined to the world of perceptions rather than real threats. This is why it is of such real importance that Bin Laden, the symbol of so many American fears, is dead.

Courtesy: www.counterpunch. org

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