Patrick Cockburn: If al-Qa'ida really want to hit the West, they can

International Studies: The original al-Qai'da led by Osama bin Laden did not controlits franchisees post-9/11

The ability of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, now based in Yemen, to smuggle sophisticated bombs concealed in ink cartridges for printers on board planes is even more ominous than it sounds. This is because Western governments have so often exaggerated the threat from the most amateur and ineffective conspirators since 9/11 that they do not have any rhetoric left to describe the development of new and more serious threats.

The failure of al-Qa'ida to stage a second round of attacks on the scale of 9/11 is often attributed to the arduous work of Western security services, eliminating al-Qa'ida leaders and isolating or destroying their strongholds. But there is another more significant reason why there has hitherto been no repeat of the 9/11 attacks in the west. In Iraq and north west Pakistan, where al-Qa'ida has its most important regional franchises, the organisation and its local allies are far more interested in murdering non-Sunni Muslims, or Christians where they are available, than in killing American troops.

Last Sunday al-Qa'ida gunmen slaughtered at least 52 people during mass in a Christian church in the centre of Baghdad. The following day the same organisation exploded 12 bombs near cafes and restaurants in Shia districts of the capital, killing a further 60 people and injuring 280.

The Iraqi government and US generals keep crowing about their successes in eliminating al-Qa'ida in Iraq, leading to the fury of people of Baghdad who grimly wait for the next bloody onslaught. Imagine, for a moment, that the same al-Qa'ida fanatics in Iraq who butcher non-Sunni Muslims in such numbers were to turn their attention to attacking Western targets abroad in the air and on the ground. This would not be the work of a Nigerian student stuffing explosives into his underpants in an abortive attempt to blow up a plane over Chicago, as happened last Christmas, or an American-Pakistani more recently planting a car bomb which failed to explode in Times Square in New York. In contrast bombs constructed by al-Qa'ida in Iraq, or similar Jihadi organisations in Pakistan, almost invariably go off with horrendous results.

Why hasn't al-Qa'ida tried harder against the US and western Europe? One reason is that it was originally a tiny organisation even when it could operate more freely in Afghanistan and north west Pakistan before 2001.

Its militants were so few in number that when it made a publicity video it had to hire local tribesman by the day to pretend to be members in training. It swiftly achieved its chief post-9/11 aim. Osama bin Laden had said that his strategy was to "provoke and bait" the US into "bleeding wars" throughout the Muslim world. Thanks to George Bush and Tony Blair he succeeded far beyond his dreams. Given the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan it is extraordinary to hear US pundits suggest dispatching hunter-killer groups under the control of the CIA or the US military to Yemen.

The original al-Qai'da led by Osama bin Laden paid a certain price for its rapid expansion post 9/11. It did not control its franchisees. In Iraq, al-Qa'ida began to put down roots in 2003 but it was much more interested in killing Shia than Americans. This remained true after the US was able to persuade the more secular Sunni insurgents, who were the one who had been blowing up Americans, to change sides in 2006/7. The Iraqi variant of al-Qa'ida have relentlessly continued their war against the Shia to this day.

The same is true in Pakistan. The US and British Governments repeatedly point to the Pakistan-Afghan border areas as the source of Jihadi plots against them. It is here that potential "terrorists" supposedly got their training, though fortunately few of the trainees seemed to know how to make a bomb after living for weeks in areas where this is common knowledge.

Hitherto the most powerful franchisees of al-Qa'ida have been more interested in fighting their local enemies than blowing up planes but this could always change. If it did then these groups have suicide bombers in their hundreds and experienced cadres ready to direct and equip them with sophisticated devices. Yemen might just be the first signs of this.

Listening to expertscan be a mug's game

The most enraging moment for any correspondent writing about Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen is to turn on the television and see some "talking head" pontificating about the conflicts. The self-declared expert is always glib, self-assured and irredeemably ignorant about what is going on. They are usually supportive of whatever line the government, American or British, is trying to sell. There is no health check on their credentials. Bookers who engage them for appearances on TV and radio never seem to run a simple check on their knowledge by asking when they were last in the country they claim to know so much about.

It is worse in the US than in Britain, where the best of American reporters are supposed to amplify their descriptions and justify their analysis by quoting some purportedly independent expert. When missiles were falling on Baghdad in 1999 I remember watching a highly experienced correspondent crawl through falling shrapnel to use a satellite phone. He told me: "My paper insists I call a think tank in Washington to find out what is happening."