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Bin Laden and the threat of peace

Once again, a masterfully worded statement, using images that simultaneously exploit the psychological vulnerabilities and political faultlines in the US, even as they send out a powerful message to radical Muslims everywhere, has been released by Osama bin Laden. The audio tape, first played out on Al Jazeera, addresses its message to “the people of America” — as did earlier messages of November 2002, October 2003 and November 2004 — and plays on the American disenchantment with the course of the war in Iraq, with President Bush’s policies, with American guilt and with the American horror of “bodybags”.

At the same time, it holds out a threat and an “option” for peace. The US has not been spared another attack after 9/11 because of any “failure to break through your security measures”. The Al Qaeda’s capacities have been demonstrated by the jihadis who have “repeatedly penetrated all security” in European capitals to execute attacks; “the delay” in mounting another attack in the US is because “the operations are under preparation and you will see them in your homes the minute they are through (with their preparations)”. There is, on the other hand, an offer of “a long-term truce on fair conditions that we adhere to” since, “We are a nation that God has forbidden to lie and cheat”. The message also has evocative images of the American soldier in Iraq who “has no solution except to commit suicide”; of a war the Bush administration has already lost; and of American “criminality” that is no different from “Saddam’s criminality”.

But for all its eloquence and iconography, this latest message adds little to the hard intelligence available on the state of the Al Qaeda, the location and capacities of its leadership, and the real threat of imminent attack — or, indeed, the potential for “truce”. Indeed, with natural variations relating to developments in the situations in various theatres — such as the references to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the terrorist attacks in Europe — the core message is fairly consistent with the past. The November 2004 message, for instance, also offered a scathing review of US policies, and threatened to continue the policy of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy”, even as it recommended the “ideal way to prevent another Manhattan”.

There are widely divergent assessments regarding Al Qaeda’s surviving capacities, and a tendency to conflate the many groups currently operating with almost complete autonomy, but that claim affiliation with the Al Qaeda, such Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s outfit in Iraq, and a number of South Asian affiliates: the remnants of the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba in Pakistan, or Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami in Bangladesh. It is necessary to distinguish these groups from the Al Qaeda core over which bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahri exercise direct operational control. The latter group is almost certainly located in the border areas of Pakistan, and continues to supervise a small number of cells in Europe and America — and these will be the core of any future catastrophic attack. The larger “Al Qaeda movement”, however, has now been tactically fragmented into a large number of independent organisations and constituent cells, the discovery and neutralisation of any one of which has little impact on the others.

Some Western scholars have concluded that this imposes a necessary diminution in operational capacities, but the reverse is, in fact, the case; there has been a dramatic expansion of capacities and geographical reach through the “global jihad movement” after 9/11. The Al Qaeda was never a large and integrated global network, but a conglomerate of loose associations, with the central organisation planning and executing a small number of extrardinarily dramatic operations on its own. Not even its closest affiliates have ever been part of these operations. There is no reason to believe that this core network has been destroyed, and its objective will be to mount, at an indefinite time in the future, another catastrophic attack on America or on an American ally, which would help catalyse a further and exponential mobilisation of Islamist terrorism in theatres across the world — as did 9/11 in the past.

There’s been a great deal of talk, again, of the loss of capacities as a result of US and Pakistani action against the Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and the over 600 “Al Qaeda terrorists” handed over to the US are ordinarily cited as proof. But with rare exception, the bulk of “Al Qaeda terrorsts” arrested and killed in Pakistan have been zero-value targets, and many of those in US custody have been or will be released without charge. Most high-value targets neutralised have been the result of unilateral US action — such as the January 13 air attack at Damdola village in the Bajaur Agency — or of action forced upon Pakistan as a result of US intelligence and pressure. Despite the assassination bids on General Musharraf in December 2003, which have been linked to the Al Qaeda by Pakistan, there is reason to believe that Pakistan continues to seek to “manage” the larger Islamist extremist enterprise. Even if Pakistani intentions were to destroy the Al Qaeda, the presence of tens of thousands of sarkari jehadis create a context and environment within which the isolation and targeting of a specific group becomes an operational impossibility.


(Published in Indian Express, January 21, 2006)





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