Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, October 15, 2004

Is Al-Qaeda a myth?
The BBC commences this week with a documentary series entitled "The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear" which builds the premise that Al Qaeda is not the global strategic terror network that the world's media (and administrations) are suggesting. The Guardian reports:

The Power of Nightmares seeks to overturn much of what is widely believed about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The latter, it argues, is not an organised international network. It does not have members or a leader. It does not have "sleeper cells". It does not have an overall strategy. In fact, it barely exists at all, except as an idea about cleansing a corrupt world through religious violence.

Curtis' evidence for these assertions is not easily dismissed. He tells the story of Islamism, or the desire to establish Islam as an unbreakable political framework, as half a century of mostly failed, short-lived revolutions and spectacular but politically ineffective terrorism. Curtis points out that al-Qaida did not even have a name until early 2001, when the American government decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named criminal organisation.

Curtis also cites the Home Office's own statistics for arrests and convictions of suspected terrorists since September 11 2001. Of the 664 people detained up to the end of last month, only 17 have been found guilty. Of these, the majority were Irish Republicans, Sikh militants or members of other groups with no connection to Islamist terrorism. Nobody has been convicted who is a proven member of al-Qaida.

It's a controversial look at the use of Al-Qaeda as a political tool to keep the population's fear directed under a particular name. Bush has little hope of crushing terrorism in his limited four year term(s), but he can show what he is achieving in crushing the Al-Qaeda network in particular, something that is a lot more tangible to the public.

The debate loses its relevance in the real world of terror, as Al-Qaeda or not, terrorism occurs around the world almost daily at present, and the terrorists do not need to hide under a name to achieve their aims of maiming and killing. But it does seem to represent a logical argument as to how it is easier for the media and for governing powers to funnel an intangible ideological behavior such as terrorism into a specifically named identity that can be the focus of the world's fear. Whilst I would not agree, as some claim, that Osama bin Laden is a 'patsy', some sort of latter-day Lee Harvey Oswald, I do think that it is expedient for political leaderships to place much of the war against terrorism under Al-Qaeda, based in convenience as opposed to fact. The media tag along as it is easier for them to communicate under this methodology, naming various Islamic extremist groups as "affiliated to Al-Qaeda". I also believe that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many young terrorists become drawn to the aura and idealism that Al-Qaeda represents, and go on to undertake terrorist activities under the loose banner of Al-Qaeda. The documentary would surely make an interesting evening's viewing, though I doubt we will get to see it in South Africa.

In any case, I would just be grateful if we could agree on Al-Qaida/Al-Qaeda/Al-Quaeda's spelling?