A basic argument in Washington's war on terror, an argument that one might think settled by now, concerns whether al-Qaida is the powerful global organization the Bush administration says it is or whether it has been, since its retreat into the Pakistan tribal areas, mostly an Internet phenomenon.
This is a serious debate in American academic terrorism circles, featuring Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, who insists that al-Qaida today is more dangerous than ever. That is the conventional belief in the U.S government and among the academic and think-tank specialists favored by the Bush administration-which has been, after all, al-Qaida's greatest publicist, regularly announcing alerts against a terrorist outrage which then doesn't take place, doubtless because of the American warning.
This definition of al-Qaida also carries the clout of American and European bureaucratic interest. If it is false, a lot of official money is being wasted.
On the other side of the argument, according to a recent New York Times report, is Marc Sageman. In agreement with him is a significant part of the West European domestic security community.
Sageman is a Polish-born psychiatrist, sociologist and consultant to the New York Police Department. He sees al-Qaida in Europe and the United States largely as "a bunch of guys hanging out," looking for drama, excitement and something to do with their lives.
This proved to be the case in the Madrid train bombings of 2004 and the London subway attack in 2005. Both initially were assumed to be the work of organized international terrorism, but it was soon found that the bombers were self-organized, found their own funds and bought their own explosives. In the case of planned but aborted London region attacks in 2004 and 2005, individuals among the planners were subsequently found to have been to the Pakistan camps.
The French police, who have experience going back to the Algerian liberation war as well as to three bombing attacks by Algerian fundamentalist militants in Paris in 1995, were convinced, following the Afghanistan war, that young European Muslims who went abroad to join the jihad would come back as a serious security threat to Europe.
More recently, the same officials have reported that the training mechanism they feared isn't working. Young Muslim volunteers are lacking, discouraged by their families and by the experience of those who had left earlier to wage war in Iraq. The latter found that the insurgent groups in Iraq had little use for them since they didn't know Arabic or the local terrain and political situation, or even possess military skills, and the employment offers that the volunteers got were mostly to become suicide bombers, which was not the heroic role they had in mind.
A recent report on Islamist extremism in Algeria emphasizes al-Qaida's promotional value. In 1991, an Islamist party won parliamentary elections, which then were annulled by the military government. A peculiarly brutal terrorist campaign followed, and in 1995 the insurgents bombed Paris because of its support for the military government.
The nature of the extremists' campaign in Algeria turned civilians against them, and eventually the militant movement faded, with some of its more enthusiastic members going off to Iraq to join the global jihad.
They linked up with militants there who already had gained worldwide publicity by calling themselves "Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" and taking advice (to stop attacks on civilians) from the original al-Qaida in Pakistan. The Algerian militants were impressed. According to the account of a former member, they "lacked enough weapons; the people didn't want to join, and money -- we didn't have enough money."
So they decided to declare themselves "Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb." This won them financial contributions and a new identity as members of the global jihad, rather than mere enemies of the Algerian government. They were inspired to arrange a series of suicide bombings during the past year, attacks on foreign workers, including Russians and Chinese, and upon tourists, and last December they carried out a spectacular suicide truck bomb attack on U.N. and Algerian government offices in Algiers.
Some connected with the group attribute this new energy to the United States government's designation of them as a global terrorist organization. Before 9/11, the U.S. had been of no particular concern to the Algerians, who were focused on their own campaign inside Algeria, and American government analysts also categorized them as a mere regional insurgency.
However, the Bush administration likes to dramatize the numbers of its enemies so as to bulk up its propaganda about the global threat to Americans, so it put the Algerians on its list of enemies of freedom -- although, according to American military sources, the Algerians even today are thought to number only 300 to 400 fighters, with an additional 200 or so supporters throughout the country.
The current head of the radical movement, a university mathematics graduate named Abdelmalek Droukdal, told The New York Times, in an audiotape responding to questions sent to him, "If the U.S. administration sees that its war against the Muslims is legitimate, then what makes us believe that our war on its territories is not legitimate?"
What all this seems to add up to is evidence of the power of advertising and public relations, even in terrorism.
Visit William Pfaff's Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
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