The reappearance of Osama bin Laden has, at least, answered one question: why
the dramatic increase in communications traffic among al-Qa'ida ranks, which in
turn has set off Tony Blair's warning earlier this week that "something big is
about to happen"? The text of Bin Laden's message has also confirmed why the British,
in particular, have become so nervous. Contained in it is the clear warning that
it will be a European country that will be targeted as a "punishment" for supporting
So what have we done about it? The blunt answer is play straight into his
hands. Terrified of being blamed for not having acted on warnings, politicians
on both sides of the Atlantic have resorted to generalized warnings that do nothing
to tell the public what to do but everything to enable ministers to cover their
backs come the next terrorist outrage.
"Thank God this lot weren't in charge in the last war," as a retired senior
civil servant put it this week. "They'd have had the entire populations of the
cities streaming out to the countryside, the factories unable to work and the
tubes and trains all shut down for fear of an air attack."
The comparison is not entirely fanciful. It was not that the general population
weren't nervous of air raids in the war, nor that they did not have every reason
to be. Indeed, Winston Churchill (rather distrustfully I've always thought) had
teams going out to give regular reports on civilian morale. They did not bring
back heroic answers.
Most people feared for their lives and took a dim view of toffs and politicians
whom they thought (rightly to some extent) were looking after themselves rather
better than their poorer fellow citizens. Evacuating children was unpopular and
rationing was approached with anything but a spirit of fair play. But in the end
the best approach was felt to be one of a stolid determination that life should
go on as normally as possible, coupled with a peppering of humor.
Compare that with today, when Mr Blair and George Bush have actually increased
the air of unease by talking of generalized threats and intelligence traffic without
detailing what it amounts to. Worse, they have tried to give the impression that
they are doing something by upping the ante on the entirely unrelated issue of
Iraq, and they have globalized fears by giving credence to the idea that the explosions
in Bali and Moscow are all outpourings of a single worldwide campaign.
We don't know that. We don't know how strong al-Qa'ida is, or indeed, how it
is really run now. We don't even know for certain that Bin Laden, should he be
alive (which we should probably assume he is), is in charge or capable of running
a worldwide terror network.
What we do know is that Bin Laden would very much like to create an air of
general fear in the West and that he would like to wrap up every local Muslim
dissatisfaction in a general conflict between Islam and the West. He would also
want America and Britain to invade Iraq and Israel to continue ever more violent
"incursions" into Palestinian territory in order to prove his point.
He doesn't have to try too hard, the way we're behaving. It is astonishing
that, having cornered Saddam Hussein and forced him to give in to a ferocious
UN resolution, both Washington and London are saying that they don't believe him
and that the war plans are still on, for all the world giving the impression that
the object is forced regime change whatever he does. How do we think this goes
down in a Muslim world that is already convinced that President Bush is pursuing
a plan that has nothing to do with peace and everything to do with oil?
What do we think we're doing when we indicate that we support President Putin
in Chechnya, when we pretend not to notice what the Chinese are doing with the
Turkomans, or when we support the worst of regimes in Uzbekistan and Jerusalem?
"Ah," said the political editors before Tony Blair's Mansion House speech this
week, "the Prime Minister has some very important initiatives on the Middle East.
He had no such thing. What he gave us was a broad sense of threat that was
bound to set off fears that anyone with a beard and reading the Koran could be
about to let off a biological bomb .
It needn't be like this. And it shouldn't be. The first duty of a responsible
government should be to keep the temperature down. The second should be to brief
the public on what it thinks the threat is and what it knows of al-Qa'ida and
other terrorist organizations. The third, and most important, thing is to do everything
it can to deprive al-Qa'ida of any legitimacy in the Islamic or the Third World.
My own feeling is that the al-Qa'ida threat is greatly exaggerated. It has
money. It has a hard core of loyal devotees. And it has relations with a host
of Islamic groups of one sort and another round the world. But it doesn't control
them and it can only succeed with them in so far as their individual causes are
Deprive the group of its funds (as we have so far been singularly unsuccessful
in doing) and you remove its influence. Deprive it of its cause, and you leave
it without its justification. If Bin Laden becomes a champion of the Muslim downtrodden,
it is only because we will have made him so.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd