Visions of Osama bin Laden; Terrorism
(The Economist) Al-Qaeda’s leader returns and foresees victory in Iraq
LIKE a seer of antiquity, Osama bin Laden has returned from the wilderness to cast his curse against the evildoers. America, he predicts, will fail in Iraq just as the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan. Capitalism and democracy are the worst form of “polytheism”, causing war, global warming, poverty and costly mortgages.
The solution to such wickedness, says al-Qaeda’s leader, is for Americans to “embrace Islam”. Then war would end and Americans would be richer, because Islam (he claims) has no income taxes except the 2.5% tithe known as zakat. The call to convert is no rhetorical flourish; Islamic jurisprudence requires that non-believers be given a chance before they are attacked.
These are mostly familiar themes, though intelligence analysts will search the sermon (and a second internet message) for clues about his intentions, whereabouts (thought to be Pakistan’s border region) and state of health. Is it a sign of confidence that his beard is dyed and neatly trimmed, and that he has forsaken his camouflage jacket and gun?
Mr bin Laden’s return to the public eye, ahead of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, was his first video appearance since America’s 2004 presidential election. It coincides with a resurgence of his movement. Despite six years of America’s “war on terror”, and in part because of its blunders, al-Qaeda and its offshoots have regrouped, replaced lost commanders and built up a stronger following around the world. Two large bombings in Algeria earlier this month (one of which killed more than 20 people in a crowd waiting to see president Abdelaziz Bouteflika), and the arrest of three suspects believed to be plotting attacks on American targets in Germany and perhaps Frankfurt’s airport, are just the latest reminders of violent jihadism inspired, if not directed, by al-Qaeda.
Experts debate whether al-Qaeda is as dangerous, or more so, as in 2001. America’s latest National Intelligence Estimate says al-Qaeda has “protected or regenerated” much of its ability to attack the American homeland. After the loss of Afghanistan, it has recreated a safe haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, alongside its strengthened Taliban allies. Above all, it says, Iraq, where al-Qaeda is most active, serves to “energise the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.”
British intelligence agencies, which once thought that al-Qaeda had been so broken up that little was left but its brand name, have also revised their view. Most of the actual or attempted attacks in Britain appear to have direct links back to al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Other European governments are alarmed by the rebranding of Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French initials GSPC) as al-Qaeda’s branch in the Maghreb. It has so far concentrated on attacking symbols of the Algerian state and foreign workers. If it exploits links to the large North African diaspora in Europe, targets there may be next.
Al-Qaeda’s ideology, if not the movement itself, has become more globalised. In Britain, those involved in plots include citizens of Pakistani origin, east Africans and Iraqis. Those behind the Madrid bombings of 2004 were of Moroccan extraction. Last year in Germany, two men of Lebanese origin planted bombs on commuter trains (they failed to explode). The latest arrests there were of a Turkish migrant and two German converts. The parents of their alleged leader, Fritz Gelowicz, are a businessman and a doctor. The three plotters are alleged to have trained in Pakistani camps run by the Islamic Jihad Union, an originally Uzbek-based outfit. The group later promised more attacks, and demanded that the German air force stop using a base at Termez in Uzbekistan.
The plot underlines concern about home-grown terrorism across Europe. Much of al-Qaeda’s propaganda, as well as its military training manuals, are spread through a large network of jihadist websites. Muslims anywhere can become radicalised and join the fight, with little or no involvement from al-Qaeda’s leaders. In Britain, and now in Germany, some converts to Islam appear to be particularly prone to extremism. The German Islam Archive, a think-tank and lobby group, estimates that some 4,000 people converted in the year to June 2005, more than ten times the annual average in the past decade; other experts question the figures.
Turks in Germany have until recently seemed disinclined to violent Islamism, in part because their community had close ties to the secular Turkish state. That may be changing. Markus Kaiser, a specialist with the intelligence service of Baden-Württemberg, says that Turkish-language jihadist material on the internet is growing markedly. Turks have joined the fight against Russia in Chechnya, and German-born veterans may now be helping to radicalise Muslims at home.
Though training is much easier abroad, such home-grown cells may need no direction from overseas and can act faster, making it harder to detect them. The German plotters were caught thanks to American electronic snooping which uncovered their e-mail exchanges with Pakistan. Future terrorists will learn from that.
Al-Qaeda has experienced some broader setbacks, however, notably in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, where violent jihadist campaigns have been largely squashed. Palestinian leaders have tried to keep al-Qaeda away from their fight with Israel (though it has won followers in refugee camps in Lebanon and maybe Gaza). Still, Iraq is stoking the cause. Osama bin Laden says George Bush, by prolonging the war in Iraq, is repeating the errors of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in Afghanistan. And Western spooks fear that, like Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat, Iraq too will start exporting hardened terrorists.
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