Kim Sengupta: Official hype on terrorism will only stoke Islamic resentment

The arrested men were a "bomb gang" intending to "commit jihad" by shooting down planes and blowing up synagogues, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the television cameras in New York. His force was praised by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for preventing a "terrible event". America has been saved from another 9/11, it seemed, in the nick of time. But is that what really happened? The suspects were Muslim converts who had talked loosely about carrying out attacks. But they were also petty criminals who had no links with known terrorists and had no expertise or weaponry to carry out such acts. The C-4 plastic explosive "bombs" they placed outside the synagogues in the Bronx were duds, as were their Stinger missiles. They all were supplied by the FBI, who monitored the "plot"throughout.

This kind of official hype regarding terrorism is hardly confined to the other side of the Atlantic. Last month, the arrest of 12 terror suspects in the north of England took place amid massive media coverage and the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, declaring that Britain faced a "very big" threat. All that unravelled fairly swiftly and embarrassingly with the admission that no evidence of terrorist plotting had been found.

What these cases do, however, is heighten public fear about Islamist terrorism. They also come at a time when Western leaders are stressing the imperative of better communication with the Muslim world.

President Barack Obama will make this point in a landmark speech in Cairo next month. And yesterday, Foreign Secretary David Miliband talked of the need to be careful when "using the labels 'moderate' and 'extremist'" about the Muslim community. He also acknowledged how "the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath aroused a sense of bitterness, distrust and resentment".

The four men arrested in New York have been charged with, among other things, conspiracy to use "weapons of mass destruction" – ironic in the context of the falsehoods used to justify the Iraq invasion, which a senior British diplomat called "a recruiting sergeant" for insurgents.

Commissioner Kelly described the FBI sting operation as showing "Our concern about homegrown terrorism". Compared to Britain and Europe the US has, in fact, faced little threat from American Muslims – the 9/11 bombings, for example, were carried out by foreigners. By treating the hapless New York plot as a huge domestic chapter of global jihad, the authorities risk fuelling the sense of resentment which may, indeed, help create the homegrown terrorism they say they are seeking to counter.