Jul 21, 2003

Perceptive Review of Jason Burke’s excellent new book on al Qaeda

Who is the real enemy? Jason Burke's study of Al-Qaeda could be the most reliable and perceptive guide to the rise of militant Islam yet published, says William Dalrymple Sunday July 20, 2003 The Observer Buy Al-Qaeda at Amazon.co.uk Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror by Jason Burke IB Tauris ?10.95, pp304 It has become increasingly clear since 11 September that Western intelligence agencies have completely failed to understand or to penetrate successfully the networks of Islamist ultra-radicalism. No intelligence agency predicted the attacks on New York or Washington. Nor were there any warnings of the attacks since then in Kenya, Bali or Morocco. Intelligence briefings linking Saddam to anthrax attacks in the United States, or to a nuclear and chemical weapons programme at home, have all proved wildly inaccurate or, in the case of the documents detailing Saddam's search for nuclear materials in Africa, were simply made up. Meanwhile, Tony Blair's neo-conservative chums in Washington, immune to the justifiable fears of the Muslim world, talk blithely of moving on next year from Iraq to attack Iran and Syria. To add petrol to the flames, they then invite Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist who has branded Islam a 'very wicked and evil' religion (Christianity and Islam, he writes, are 'as different as lightness and darkness') to be the official speaker at the Pentagon's annual service - and this immediately prior to Graham's departure to Iraq to attempt converting the people of Baghdad to Christianity. All the while, the paranoia and bottled-up rage in the Muslim world grows more uncontrollable, queues of angry young men volunteer for suicide bombings and attacks by Islamic militants gather pace, with ever wider global reach and technical sophistication. No wonder we feel scared. In this mess - alarmingly - the most accurate information about Islamic extremism is coming not from governments nor intelligence agencies, but from specialist journalists and scholars. Writers such as Robert Fisk and the former CNN journalist Peter Bergen, both of whom have interviewed Osama bin Laden, and scholars such as Gilles Kepel, Malise Ruthven and John L Esposito, have proved to be more reliable guides to what is going on in al-Qaeda than any number of Downing Streets dossiers or CIA briefing papers. To that list should now be added the name of The Observer's Middle East expert, Jason Burke. His new study, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror is possibly the most reliable and perceptive guide yet published to the rise of militant Islam, the threat it poses and the best way to tackle it. At university, Burke spent his summer vacations fighting with the Peshmerga guerrillas in Iraq. Since then, he has lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan, learnt Urdu and Arabic, and interviewed an amazing range of Islamic militants, from Morocco to the Philippines. His book is well written and well researched and full of new and important information, much of it gathered on the ground. His obvious knowledge of, and affection for, the people of the region gives his grim message a credibility lacking in the ranting of so many other commentators on 'Islamic terror'. Burke's thesis is that a basic misunderstanding about the nature of al-Qaeda is hampering efforts to deal with it. In Arabic, al-Qaeda is simply an abstract noun, meaning network or base. Far from being a disciplined, structured terrorist organisation, Burke believes it barely exists. It is merely a very small, amorphous hard core of violently nihilistic Islamists who have married bin Laden's financial resources with an ability to tap the skills and support of a vast and diverse network of freelance Islamic radicals. Burke says this broader Islamist radical movement, consisting of thousands of militants trained in the Afghan camps, spans much of Asia; but, significantly, three countries that barely appear in Burke's narrative are Iraq, Iran and Syria. None of the governments of these countries has any connection with bin Laden; indeed, they all have major ideological and theological differences with him: in 1991 bin Laden actually tried to form a group of Arab Mujahideen to take on Saddam. In view of this, Bush's claim that the capture of Baghdad marked a 'turning of the tide' in the war against terror, is - to put it charitably - misleading. The war on Iraq was the wrong war against the wrong enemy. It was far more likely, as President Mubarak said, to create '100 [new] bin Ladens' than to affect the operational capacity of al-Qaeda or any other group. Ironically, the country which has played by far the greatest role in advancing the spread of global Islamic militancy was not listed in Bush's 'axis of evil' speech, and is a major US ally. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 11 September. Ever since the Thirties, the Saudi regime has vigorously exported Wahhabi Islam, the most severe, puritanical incarnation of a religion which historically has been remarkable for its tolerance and syncretism. The Saudis have used their oil wealth to try to kill off tolerant forms of Islam. Saudi money financed the most extreme Jihadis fighting in Afghanistan and the camps in which they were trained. It was these camps that produced the Afghan Arabs who form the hard core of al-Qaeda as well as a myriad of other similar organisations. As Burke shows, prior to Clinton elevating bin Laden to mythic status by firing cruise missiles at al-Qaeda bases, few in the Islamic world had ever heard of him. Yet America, dependent on Saudi oil, continues to ignore the culpability of the Saudis, and allows them to suppress human rights as brutally as the Taliban. More damaging still, the Americans continue to permit the Saudis to export their Wahhabism unchecked. The Saudis now dominate as much as 90 per cent of Arabic language newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, radio and TV. They have also promoted the mass radicalisation of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kurdistan by funding the hard-core Wahhabi, Salafi and Deobandi schools that now dominate education there. Another myth that Burke knocks firmly on the head is that 11 September had nothing to do with US support for Israel. This is clearly shown by Burke to be little more than wishful thinking by the Israeli lobby. The plight of the Palestinians and American support for Israel have always been the central grievances of the Islamic world against the West, and was the all-consuming obsession of bin Laden's spiritual and political guru, a dispossessed Palestinian named Abdallah Azzam. From bin Laden's first public statement, 'A Declaration of War Against the Americans', issued on 23 August 1996, he has made it clear that his grievance was not cultural or religious, but political. He was fighting against US foreign policy in the Middle East, in particular American support for both the house of Saud and Israel. Burke shows how bin Laden's world view is haunted by the idea of a 'Zionist-Crusader' plot to take over the Islamic world, of which the creation and expansion of Israel, the massacres of the Bosnian Muslims and the wars against Saddam are only the beginning. In his interviews and broadcasts, bin Laden keeps returning to this theme: 'The people of Islam have suffered from aggression and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusader alliance and their collaborators... [Muslim] blood is spilled in Palestine and Iraq.' The liberation of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem and Mecca is another favourite theme. In 1998, bin Laden stated: 'To kill Americans and their allies - civilian and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca]'. As Burke correctly comments: 'All terrorist violence, Islamic or otherwise, is contemptible. But just because we condemn does not mean we should not strive to comprehend. We need to keep asking why.' If al-Qaeda is far more diffuse than anyone has previously realised, it follows that it is far more difficult to tackle. Bin Laden and his associates may be captured, but others will take their places. As Burke says, while military action might may play a part, the real war that must be won is the battle for public opinion among the ordinary people of the Middle East: 'The greatest weapon in the war on terrorism is the courage, decency, humour and integrity of the vast proportion of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. 'It is this that is restricting the spread of "al-Qaeda" and its warped world view, not the activities of counter-terrorism experts. Without it, we are lost. There is indeed a battle between the West and men like bin Laden. But it is not a battle for global supremacy. It is a battle for hearts and minds. And it is a battle that we, and our allies in the Muslim world, are currently losing.'