James Harkin: Al-Qa'ida aren't behind these bombings

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The Independent Online

At least within the media and the security services, al-Qa'ida is now firmly back in business, and there is no longer any patience for dissent. In the first instalment of his series The New al-Qaeda last week, BBC journalist Peter Taylor particularly criticised those who had argued that the terrorist threat was a nightmare cooked up by politicians. We told you so, the journalists and spooks seem to be saying. If only you had believed us.

But what did they tell us, exactly? No one doubts the terror threat from extremist groups or individuals but, at least in the first instalment, Mr Taylor produced no evidence whatsoever of the global presence of al-Qa'ida. Instead, he fronted a solid reporting job examining how young Muslims in Western countries are attracted to the solitary pleasures of watching propaganda and execution videos from militant Islamists in Algeria, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq.

Al-Qa'ida, Taylor seemed to be suggesting, has morphed into a "virtual" organisation which consists chiefly in internet chat-rooms and a few gory websites. Which is another way of saying that it is no organisation at all.

While it would be foolish to speculate before the police have completed their interrogations, nothing that has happened in the last month has disproved the thesis that the threat posed by al-Qa'ida has been exaggerated out of all proportion. Instead, and despite the efforts of the media to internationalise the problem, the evidence points radically in the other direction. The London bombers used homemade and extremely crude nail bombs, probably knocked up in the kitchen sink.

Everything about them suggests that they were enthusiastic freelances and rank amateurs - internet nerds, misfits and petty criminals - rather than sleeper cells awaiting the instruction of an al-Qa'ida mastermind.

Despite all those plaintive trips by journalists to Pakistani madrasas in an effort to understand how young minds could have been led so astray, it soon became apparent that the plot for the 7 July bombings was firmed up in a very British bonding exercise - while on a whitewater rafting holiday in rural Wales.

And despite the continued hunt for the al-Qa'ida Mr Big, initial leaks from interrogation of the alleged Shepherd's Bush bomber, Osman Hussain, suggest a different story. His group, Hussain has apparently informed his Italian interrogators, had no contact at all with the Bin Laden organisation or with any Pakistanis, but drew most of its inspiration from surfing the world wide web.

It would be unfortunate if the idea of al-Qa'ida as a global conspiracy with tentacles in every Western capital were to be rehabilitated as a result of the July bombs. Most serious research into radical political Islam in Europe - the work done by French sociologists such as Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, for example - draws attention to the home-grown and highly individualised creed of militant Islam, one which has its roots not in the injustices of the Middle East but in the fractured and confused identities of young Muslims at home.

Turning the spotlight on al-Qa'ida is a convenient lie. It helps us to avoid the uncomfortable truth that the London bombs were only the most poisonous fallout from the pallid recipe of multiculturalism, and its failure to inspire our ethnic young.

But the focus on al-Qa'ida is not only bad politics; it also makes for poor strategy. If our media and security services were not so attracted to the idea of sleeper cells staffed by foreign jihadis, they might have been better at keeping tabs on the disaffected young British boys who, faced with problems of identity and direction, take the fruitless path of self-immolation.

One piece of news which went largely unreported last week was the White House's announcement of an overhaul of its propaganda strategy. In future, it seems, the Americans are to downplay the "war on terror" and the al-Qa'ida bogeyman and focus instead on several dozen real militant Islamic groups in different countries around the world.

We would do well to follow their lead. Only in their most lurid fantasies did the British suicide bombers and attempted suicide bombers imagine they were paid-up jihadis in an orchestrated global insurrection called al-Qa'ida. The rest of us should have more sense.

The writer is director of talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London