Slaughter in Riyadh, massacre in Casablanca, fear in Nairobi. Reports of the death of al-Qaeda, as issued by White House and intelligence sources, have been greatly exaggerated. Any hope that Osama bin Laden, or his acolytes, are shocked and awed into submission were crushed in the ruins of the Saudi expatriate compounds, along with children's toys, mahogany dining chairs and other sitcom props of ordinary lives.
The result of conquest in Iraq has been delivered. On last week's evidence, the war against terror has failed. The very term has been proved nonsensical. War does not stop terrorism. President Bush's assertion that the removal of Saddam Hussein had bequeathed to bombers 'the short, unhappy life of the fugitive' is demonstrably untrue. As Bob Graham, the Democrat presidential hopeful, has said, al-Qaeda used the Iraq war as regeneration time. The group, with 18,000 operatives in 90 countries, is as dangerous as it was before 9/11, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Or maybe more so. The exiled Saudi dissident, Saad al-Fagih, wrote, on the day before the Riyadh attacks, that Saddam's downfall reinforced the bin Laden doctrine of asymmetric assault and underpinned his argument that Baathism and Arab nationalism don't work and that Islam and jihad do.
If the Iraq war was a gift to bin Ladenites, then Riyadh was the thank you note. In the same way, Bali offered a postscript to Afghanistan, and the bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie came two years after the US military strike on Libya in 1986. As Andrew Silke argues in Terrorists, Victims and Society, the politics of vengeance ratchet up hatred, and kneejerk retaliation is based on false psychology. When the benign grow more determined under attack, it is illogical to expect the malign to do otherwise.
Besides, why would al-Qaeda give up? The world is frightened, economies are dented, and war has eroded global solidarity. The Le Monde editorial of 12 September 2001, proclaiming ' Nous sommes tous Americains ', sounds peculiar now. The Spanish have fallen out with their leader. The British remain so mistrustful of the French as to wonder whether the birthday wine sent to Tony Blair from Jacques Chirac was the good stuff or £2.99 paint-stripper. The United Nations is marginalized, and the international goodwill essential to counter globalized terrorism is fractured. If this is victory, then spare us failure.
But political shortfalls are not the only boost to al-Qaeda, now the subject of a strange mythology. The humanizing of terror began when Bush, understandably, demanded bin Laden 'dead or alive' and so conjured up a structured army headed by a Bambi-eyed fanatic with a busy TV schedule. The purpose was to show the magnitude of the threat, but somehow the launch of the war on terror achieved the converse result.
Even the label fails totally to shock. There is something euphemistic about 'terror', with its connotations of illicit frissons and Disney World rides, rather than mutilated bodies and the dour business of loss and mourning. Thinkers analyzing terrorism add, however inadvertently, to the sanitized image. In his polemic Al-Qaeda: And What It Means To Be Modern, John Gray disputes the view that the group is a medieval throwback. He's right. A global network with technical and media skills is a brand whose packaging bears little relation to its objective of recreating a seventh-century caliphate. Its soldiers fly planes, commit cyber-crime and go to prep schools. Al-Qaeda, commercially acute and offering an elastic franchise, is the Starbucks of terrorism. Modernity makes it more graspable but also more terrible.
Maybe we're the old-fashioned ones, in thrall to the nineteenth-century rationalism that blotted out totalitarian terror. It's true that some liberals lauded Stalin and failed to grasp Hitler's design, but denial over millions of starved Ukrainian farmers, or an ethnically cleansed Utopia, is different from a failure to believe that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were primed to kill his foes at 45 minutes' notice. This time, the gainsayers were right.
That does not let liberals off the hook. In the American commentator Paul Berman's view, they want a simple story of cause and effect. Believing that persecution leads to suicide bombings is more palatable than the possibility of acknowledging an apocalyptic mass movement whose prime obsession is to die and kill. Maybe al-Qaeda is that nihilistic. Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that the founding gurus of Islamist extremism, would have seen the Palestine road map as an excuse to retire to the golf course.
But the threat posed by implacable fanatics does not make those who oppose conventional wars naïve. Nor does it legitimate despair. It just means that the sane world doesn't yet know how to fight. Tackling an enemy as invasive and invisible as a virus demands first-rate intelligence and security. Instead, intelligence briefings are either ignored, as they were in Riyadh, or so inaccurate that one may as well consult a horoscope.
Containment needs better friends than the Janus-faced House of Saud. It requires policies designed to starve hatred rather than to incubate a loathing infecting the bedsits of Hounslow and the slums of Gaza. It demands proper policing and justice, not the Guantanamo kind. As for how not to calm moderate Muslims and unite the world against fanaticism, there is no clearer template than the Iraq war.
Squirming ministers downgrading their faith in finding WMDs from 'knowledge' to 'belief' to Jack Straw's verdict of 'not crucial' are bad enough. The Prime Minister's attempts to justify conflict by citing Saddam's mass graves is even worse. Britain did not go to war to discover 12-year-old corpses, but now that it has found them, it could honor their memory in two ways. The first is to help ensure that the bodies are identified and the relatives allowed to repossess their dead. The second is to protect Iraq's children, in whose name more thousands have been killed.
But the bodies were bulldozed up in lumps of bones, and the latest Unicef reports say that one in 12 of Baghdad's under-fives is literally wasting away. Acute malnutrition has doubled in a year. The group of children blown up last week in southern Iraq was typical of the victims of one of the biggest loads of unexploded ordnance the charity has seen. Many are youngsters scavenging bomb crates for firewood.
It is vital, for all our sakes, that promises of a better life are fulfilled and internal security restored. In Afghanistan, where the pledges have not been met, Taliban militia are already reforming. To fail in Iraq would give al-Qaeda hope and, in the eyes of some, legitimacy.
Let us drop the pretense that the Coalition fought to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, or for morality, or for a democracy transplant, or for glamorous impact, or even for strategic interests and for oil. Our leaders went to war because they couldn't think what else to do. Al-Qaeda, by contrast, has no lack of ideas. Destroying the wishlist of such murderous fanatics means confronting our errors as well as their pathology.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003