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

Share
Related Topics

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."

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice