William Shawcross: There will be more attacks. And they will get worse

In its fragmented state al-Qa'ida has become more dangerous, not less
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The Independent Online

Last week Tobias Ellwood, who comes from Aldbury in Hertfordshire, flew to Bali to identify his brother Jon's remains. He gave a poignant cry that summed up the horror of the new world in which we now all live. He said his family came from a tiny village in England where the biggest discussion focused on the ducks in the pond. "Now we are confronted with bombs, terrorism and al-Qa'ida. It simply doesn't fit."

The awful truth is that this is the new reality into which we must fit our lives. That is the underlying horror of the terror, and the war that has to be fought against it. In this new world, talk about ducks has been replaced by discussion of how to avoid being murdered by criminals whose aims and motivations few people can understand.

I have wonderful memories of Kuta beach in Bali in 1972, which was before modern tourism began at all. There were no hotels, no bars, no shops to speak of – just a few tiny guesthouses built around courtyards, where the hosts brought you fruit and rice with delicate and disarming smiles. There were miles of empty beaches and country lanes where rice paddies tumbled in layers down the hillsides. The people seemed among the nicest I had ever met. Since then, Bali had somehow retained much of its serenity – particularly in the interior – despite the fact that about a million tourists a year had brought the cheap commercial trash to Kuta and other beaches that mass tourism creates everywhere.

Last weekend's bombing brought a criminal end to the paradise that was Bali. Now, instead of idyllic visions of the island, the world will, for a long time, associate it with horror. My generation was able to create much happier memories than the young of today can. Now those memories are defiled, and the joy of living is once again cruelly cut back. That is one of the worst aspects of what is happening now.

In 1972 I had come to Bali from Vietnam where the battlefields were classic – awful but defined. In his study The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, J Glenn Gray found "a spirit of evil" in battlefields, "a radical evil which suddenly makes the medieval images of hell and the thousand devils of the imagination believable ... men who have lived in the combat zone long enough to be veterans are sometimes possessed by a fury that makes them capable of anything ... from the Homeric account of the sacking of Troy to the conquest of Dien Bien Phu, Western literature is filled with descriptions of soldiers as berserkers and mad destroyers."

Now the evil and the anger are not aroused by combat, or confined to a battlefield. Those who bomb kids on beaches will bomb anybody, and anywhere. They suffer from an anger with Western, Christian culture that is in a sense more clinical, or at least more studied, than that of soldiers driven mad by fear and exhaustion. It is for that reason also more terrifying.

Until now, many Europeans (and, perhaps, Australians) have tended to see this war on terror as a largely American problem. Bali brought home the fact that "we are all Americans now" in the sense that we are all vulnerable to the nihilistic vengeance of the bombers. They make no distinction between Australian and British kids, the Balinese Hindus serving them on holiday, and American office workers a hundred floors above the streets of Manhattan.

Many people, perhaps most Americans, thought that 11 September was the beginning of the new war of terror. It was not, of course. This war has been going on for at least a decade. In 1993, Islamic terrorists – almost certainly with an Iraqi connection – made the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Centre. In 1998, al-Qa'ida blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, with massive loss of life (mostly African); in 2000 the USS Cole was attacked off Aden, with the death of 18 American sailors.

One of the most alarming features of these attacks is that they were planned over long years. In his excellent book Holy War, Peter Bergen points out that one of the characteristics of al-Qa'ida is its patience. The African bombings were plotted over five years; the USS Cole attack was two years in the making, and Mohammed Atta began planning his flight into the twin towers in Germany in 1998. "It is quite possible that another catastrophic, anti-American attack was in the pipeline before 9/11 and may only surface a year or two from now." Perhaps Bali was one such long-term plan. We do not yet know.

What we do know is that there will be more, and that they will get worse. After Kabul was liberated from the Taliban, rough plans showing al-Qa'ida's interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction were found in houses they had occupied. Osama bin Laden himself has said: "We don't consider it a crime if we tried to have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons."

Since then, al-Qa'ida has been weakened and changed by the attacks upon it. Its base has been destroyed and its leaders scattered, if not killed, by the attack on Afghanistan, and its finances have been at least partially disrupted. It has metamorphosed into a hydra-headed, loose coalition rather than a tightly knit terrorist group functioning around a core.

South-east Asia has been plagued with bombings in recent years. But the Bali attack was very much bigger and more sophisticated. The target was international, not local or even just regional. It now looks as if the recent attack on a French-registered tanker off Yemen on 6 October was indeed the work of suicide bombers on a small boat – just like the attack on the USS Cole in Aden two years before. Whether it was the work of an al-Qa'ida-inspired group is not yet known, but it seems likely.

It is not clear whether Bin Laden is alive or dead. On 7 October Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV station in Qatar which has specialised in broadcasting al-Qa'ida communiqués, transmitted an audiotape purporting to be the voice of Bin Laden, in which he made more threats against the US. The next day his top aide, Ayman Zawahiri, was apparently heard praising the attack on the French tanker, and advising America's "deputies" that they would "lose everything" unless they left the Middle East. There appears to be little doubt that the Zawahiri tape was genuine, but there are more doubts about the Bin Laden one.

The final, and perhaps most daunting, feature of this war is that there are no deals that can end it. Understanding and trying to alleviate popular discontent in the Islamic world is important. But with such people as al-Qa'ida there are no maps to be redrawn, no coalitions to be created, no compromises to be hammered out, no complicated treaties that diplomats can devise. We are faced with enemies who know that they are fighting for God and whose divine, irreducible aim is the destruction of Western society. They will not parlay that ambition away.

We should not underestimate the depth of the change that 11 September wrought on American society and the extent to which Americans are now ready to fight back. Nonetheless, despite some US rhetoric and the cartoon criticisms it has aroused, America's reaction to 9/11 has so far been cautious and restrained. Its pressure on Iraq has forced Saddam Hussein finally to contemplate obeying international laws on weapons of mass destruction that he has flouted for so long. Should we not be relieved and pleased? And though George Bush's talk of "pre-emption" is much criticised, it is a centuries-old part of self-defence. If the US could have "pre-empted" 9/11, it would have, and should have. In fact, the threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qa'ida should have been dealt with in the 1990s. So should that posed by Iraq. They were not, and now the US is in for a long war. So are we all.

William Shawcross is the author of 'Deliver Us From Evil' (Bloomsbury)