NEW YORK -- Osama bin Laden has become the modern version, the evil twin, of
the Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy's rescuer of French aristocrats from the
guillotine. Lately, not a bomb explodes without it being blamed on bin Laden's
al-Qaida organization. In recent weeks, Washington has accused al-Qaida of an
attack on a French tanker, the killing of a U.S. Marine in Kuwait and the frightful
bombing of a Bali discotheque.
Given these alarms, one would imagine al-Qaida to be a vast, octopoid organization
whose tentacles span five continents. But this view, heavily promoted by the Bush
administration and the U.S. media, is as wrong as George Bush's claim that terrorists
are "on the run."
Al-Qaida, to repeat what this column has been saying since 9/11, is a small,
tightly knit organization of about 300 hardened jihadis, or holy warriors, created
as a role model, rallying point and ideological beacon for militant Islamic resistance
movements around the globe.
The U.S. has been unable to destroy al-Qaida because of its small size, secretive
nature and mobility. According to Pentagon reports, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan
last October actually proved counter-productive because it scattered al-Qaida
operatives far and wide, making it harder to locate or monitor them.
Only one senior al-Qaida figure, Mohammed Atef, has been killed. The alleged
al-Qaida fighters so far arrested are either not al-Qaida, or mid-ranking members
and small fry.
Osama bin Laden remains in hiding, probably on Pakistan's wild northwest frontier.
So, too, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's chief operating officer, the real power
behind the organization. Zawahiri was a doctor in Egypt until wrongfully arrested,
jailed and savagely tortured. After being released, Zawahiri formed Islamic Jihad,
a murderous underground organization that battled to overthrow the U.S.-backed
regime of Gen. Hosni Mubarak.
A small number of al-Qaida-run paramilitary camps in Afghanistan served as
a training ground and social center for thousands of young Muslim men from many
nations who came to fight for the Taliban or in a variety of jihads, or holy struggles,
against what they viewed as oppression. All these groups were branded "al-Qaida
terrorists" by U.S. government and media, though they were not part of al-Qaida
and had nothing to do with the 9/11 outrages. The largest group was some 5,000
jihadis being trained by Pakistani intelligence for combat in the Indian-ruled
portion of Kashmir, and a similar number of volunteers who had joined the Taliban
to fight the Northern Alliance, which was the old Afghan Communist party under
a new name.
There were 3,000 Uzbek fighters battling to overthrow Uzbekistan's brutal,
communist dictatorship, and smaller numbers of jihadis from Indonesia, the Philippines,
Muslim western China, North Africa, Bangladesh and other Islamic nations. They
were either killed, captured, or scattered by U.S.- and Russian-backed forces.
During the 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia organized and financed 100,000
young Muslims from across the Islamic world to go fight in the Great Jihad in
Afghanistan. I came to know many of these mujahedin, or holy warriors, both in
Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1986, Sheik Abdullah Azzam, the spiritual and political
mentor of Osama bin Laden, told me, "Once we have driven the Soviet imperialists
from Afghanistan, we will go and liberate Saudi Arabia, and then Palestine, from
After the Soviet defeat, the mujahedin scattered. They became known as "Afghani,"
and were held in high esteem for their valor and faith. But when some of these
veterans decided to try to overthrow the dictatorial regimes of the Muslim world,
the U.S. and its regional allies branded them as "terrorists." Most of these "Afghani"
kept in touch, creating an informal network of like-minded militants. While there
is no formal linkage between al-Qaida and militant Islamic groups in Asia and
Africa, an old-boys' network of war veterans allows for secure and effective communication,
as well as occasional co-operation.
Black and white
Washington would like to blame all violent anti-western incidents on al-Qaida.
Doing so is convenient and affords Americans a simple black-and-white image. Bin
Laden and al-Qaida reinforce this erroneous view by applauding every anti-western
attack, no matter how heinous or ineffective.
In reality, the U.S. now faces scores of violent anti-American groups from
Morocco to Indonesia, inspired by Osama bin Laden's defiance, and enraged by the
suffering of the Palestinians and Iraqis. President Bush's invasion of Afghanistan
and his impending war against Iraq have spurred radical groups to violent action
against western targets. The Bali bombing, for example, may well have been the
long-threatened retaliation by Indonesian Islamic radicals against Australia for
sending its SAS special forces to Afghanistan. The bombing was a horrifying, cowardly
act, but so is dropping 1,000-kg bombs on villages and apartment buildings.
Due to increased security measures in North America and Europe, the "soft"
targets of choice, as this writer has warned since last fall, may increasingly
be western tourists, diplomats and businessmen.
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