Patrick Cockburn: Al-Qa'ida, and the myth behind the war on terrorism

The atrocities against America created the image of Osama bin Laden as the leader of a global jihad upon the West. It was a fantasy that governments willingly, and disastrously, helped to perpetuate

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What was the most devastating attack by al-Qa'ida in the past few months? Despite all the pious talk this weekend about combating "terrorism", few will have heard of it. It happened on 15 August when bombers killed 63 people in 17 cities up and down Iraq in the space of a few hours.

Such carnage is ignored because the US and Britain see al-Qa'ida only in relation to themselves, and because all the victims were Iraqis. The real motives of al-Qa'ida, often rooted in local struggles between Palestinians and Israelis or Sunni and Shia, are disregarded and replaced by fantasies about clashing civilisations.

As the arch-exponent of "terrorism", al-Qa'ida is both less and more than the picture of it presented by governments, intelligence agencies, journalists and commentators. As an organisation, it has always been small and ramshackle, but, if it appears larger, it is because it has the ability to tap into fierce local disputes. Osama bin Laden may have wanted to launch global jihad, but the majority of those who claimed to be al-Qa'ida since 9/11 have had a different and more immediate agenda.

In Iraq, al-Qa'ida in Mesopotamia, the local franchisee, though never under the control of Bin Laden, was always more interested in butchering Iraqi Shia than in killing American soldiers. The Pakistani Taliban, closely linked to al-Qa'ida, still devotes part of its energies to sending suicide bombers to blow up Shia villagers and city labourers, even when it is facing offensives by the Pakistan army.

Al-Qa'ida's sectarianism is fortunate for the West. Many of the attacks attributed to al-Qa'ida since 9/11 have failed because those carrying them out could not build the simplest explosive device. Why this has happened is something of a mystery since such expertise is all too widespread in areas of al-Qa'ida strength, in central Iraq, north-west Pakistan and even parts of southern Yemen. But the knowledge is not passed on because the bombmakers in these areas fortunately remain absorbed in seeking to murder their Muslim neighbours and show limited interest in spreading mayhem to Chicago or New York.

Al-Qa'ida as a global organisation has always been something of a fiction. Bin Laden may have wanted international reach but, aside from 9/11, seldom achieved it. His propaganda has been accepted as reality by self-interested governments and intelligence agencies with an interest in exaggerating the al-Qa'ida threat to enhance their own authority. Even the most botched and amateur bombing attempt has been portrayed as if it were the Gunpowder Plot revisited. Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula commented derisively that it did not matter if its plots failed or succeeded, because even failures disrupted world air traffic and created chaos.

Al-Qa'ida appears to have tentacles all over the world because groups, often with different agendas but using similar tactics, became its franchisees. This notion has also taken hold because autocracies everywhere have an interest in pretending that their opponents are all Islamic fundamentalists, hand-in-glove with al-Qa'ida. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi did this with great success in his relations with the CIA and MI6, partly because the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was led by veterans of the Afghan war, such as Abdel Hakim Belhaj. India in Kashmir and Russia in Chechnya, battling what were essentially widely supported separatist movements, could claim to be fearless fighters against Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida.

On 9/11, al-Qa'ida's great success was to publicise its own existence and to spark an American overreaction that played straight into its hands. It provoked the US to overthrow the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and become entrapped in civil wars of great complexity. It has become easy in retrospect to blame George W Bush and his lieutenants in Washington and on the ground for such errors as dissolving the Iraqi army and the Baath party. But at the time – though they have remained very quiet about it since – the Shia and Kurdish leaders were all in favour of eliminating these two main instruments of Sunni power and letting America take the blame.

The Iraq war relaunched al-Qa'ida in another way. From the beginning, US military spokesmen thought it was a smart idea to claim that insurgent attacks, whoever had made them, were the work of al-Qa'ida. The aim was to win support for the war in the US, but in Iraq, where the US occupation was increasingly unpopular, it gave the false impression that al-Qa'ida was leading the guerrilla attacks on the US army. Local children started waving black al-Qa'ida flags at US soldiers. Sunni Arabs thought they might be a useful ally and the movement found it easier to raise money across the Arab world.

Al-Qa'ida has proved so elusive and difficult to eliminate mainly because it has never existed in the form that governments and intelligence agencies pretend. Its membership, even before 2001, was always small and it had to hire local Afghan tribesmen by the day to make propaganda videos. But scarcely a month passes without the CIA announcing that its drones have killed operational planners of al-Qa'ida, as if the group were the mirror image of the Pentagon. Self-declared experts on "terrorism" appear as "talking heads" on television, declaring that the elimination of some al-Qa'ida figure is a body blow to the organisation, but, such is its resilience, that the threat to us all remains undiminished.

Could any US government have reacted differently after 9/11? Was not the popular desire for retaliation so strong that Washington could not avoid walking into the al-Qa'ida trap? There is something in this, but the reason this form of "terrorism" is so effective is that political leaders are tempted to use the opportunity to expand their power by highlighting the threat. They can portray critics who do not go along with this as naive or unpatriotic. Necessary reforms can be dumped amid a general call to rally around the flag.

This overreaction to "terrorist" attacks is not quite inevitable. In Northern Ireland after the start of the troubles in 1968, the Provisional IRA became expert at provoking the British Army and government into overreacting. When a British soldier was killed, the collective punishment of a Roman Catholic district would follow and young men rushed to join the Provisionals. It took a dozen years before the British Army realised that it was reacting as the IRA hoped it would react.

Has the US learned a similar lesson? It looks doubtful because no US president can admit that he has fought unnecessary wars in pursuit of an enemy that barely exists.

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