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Mon. August 08, 2022
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IA-Forum Interview: Jason Burke
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IA Forum: What do you make of Osama Bin Laden's new video? Jason Burke: Bin Laden says nothing very new in the most recent video. The main significance is to show that he is alive and relatively well. It may be that that was his primary aim too. It is a way of rallying his troops while making a few political points at the same time. One interesting element is his dress: once again he has chosen the 'elder global statesman' look rather than the 'mujaheddin' image with his trademark combat vest and Kalashnikov. He recognizes that this is a global battle of ideas as much as anything, and that his words may carry more weight if he can pose as, more or less, the president of the world Islamic community or at the very least, the sort of leader that he feels the world's Arabs and Muslims currently lack. IA Forum: A recent survey conducted by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress found many experts believe the U.S. is losing the so-called `War on Terror`. Is that a fair assessment? Burke: The fact that America has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2001, in fact any attack since 2001, is clearly a victory. The fact that a significant number of senior, experienced operational militants have been taken out of circulation, either by being apprehended and incarcerated or by being killed, is equally a significant achievement. It is easy to underestimate the importance of individuals such as Mohammad Atta, for example, who was killed in late 2001 and who was Bin Ladens military commander. Or people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was picked up in the spring of 2003, and was not only the mastermind of the September 11 attacks in many ways, but also a key radical operator throughout the 1990s, and an extremely dangerous man. There have also been very significant advances made in the counter-terrorist effort that has increased coordination between intelligence agencies and, very importantly, has seen a considerable enhancement of what was a very slim base of knowledge about Islamic militancy and the threat that it poses. None of these things are to be slighted. Having said that, it is clear that the fundamental aim of the war on terror, i.e. to bring down the level of threat to one that can be seen as, if not negligible, then certainly one that poses no real dangers to our way of life, if you like, has not been attained. And indeed it can be argued with a, to my mind a fair degree of accuracy, that the threat has been enhanced. Certainly at the very least we've swapped one type of threat for another. That early type of threat in 2001 was posed by a relatively tight knit organization that had links into a range of other groups and individuals which themselves were part of a broad militant movement with a varied ideology. The threat now is posed not by a single group, but by the ideology itself and its ability to appeal to, and to motivate and mobilize, actors around the Islamic world and beyond. There is no evidence that that threat is in any way less of a threat than that posed by what was known as Al Qaeda in 2001, and indeed those committed to fighting that threat will admit, privately at least, it is considerably more dangerous. So, has America, and those directing the war on terror, lost? Clearly not. Have they won the war on terror? Clearly that isn't the case either. Just as a final point there, I would say that the aim of Bin Laden and other militant leaders has always been to radicalize and mobilize Islamic populations using spectacular terrorist violence as their primary means. Those aims have to an extent been fulfilled. Again though, the victory or achievements behind the September 11th attacks and other events has also been mitigated. Yes, there has been a net increase in radicalization and mobilization of the Islamic world over the last 5 years. But the global uprising that Bin Laden hoped to provoke, and that others hoped to provoke, has not happened, and it looks far from happening. So I think were in a difficult phase where 5 years in, nobody is winning, nobody is losing and were settling down for a longish struggle. IA Forum: The term `War on Terror` itself has come in for a great deal of criticism. What do you think of it? Burke: The war on terror is an absolutely ridiculous term. It is grammatically nonsensical, it is profoundly counterproductive in that it plays into the very pseudo-military rhetoric and logic that the militants want to propagate, and it sends a signal to those who want to fight the war on terror through committing human rights abuses themselves, that they are justified in pursuing that course. The term `the war on terror` itself has cost those fighting radical Islamic militancy an enormous amount. If, instead of taking a military perspective as a reflex action, the Bush administration had taken a criminal justice perspective backed up by the judicious use of force when necessary, a significant amount of effort would have been saved, a significant amount of progress may have been made, and certainly a large amount of very significant errors would have been avoided. The British government, for example, has for a long time been trying to distance itself from the term `war on terror` and has now done so. You will not hear senior British politicians or officials referring to the `war in terror.` IA Forum: Would you say the threat from Al Qaeda has evolved since the September 11th attacks?? Burke: Yes, enormously. I always talk about Al Qaedas, rather than Al Qaeda. You have to look at the role of certain individuals and certain groups that compose Islamic militancy - you have to consider things in the broader context and never lose sight of the fact that what we're dealing with is not the work of one man or one group, but it is a dynamic, evolving complex phenomenon with roots that go back decades if not centuries in the Islamic world, and with the Islamic world's interaction with the West. Having said that, if we want to use Al Qaeda to define the activity of a few score men around Osama Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri since the late 1980s, then we can see various different phases. There is an early phase - from the end of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan through to the mid-90s, which is a preparatory phase. Bin Laden did not even refer to himself or his group as Al Qaeda at that stage, he was not known very broadly - he was not on the radar of western intelligence services until very late in that period. He was not a particularly important actor in the wave of Islamic militancy that followed the war against the Soviets and various developments in the Middle East - I'm thinking there for example about violent insurgencies in Egypt and Algeria for example, in which Bin Laden's own direct influence was minimal. Similarly in the rise of the Taliban, or indeed with Pakistani or far eastern groups. In the late 1990s Bin Laden is able to form Al Qaeda into something that is a far more coherent organization with a strategic direction, with a relatively coherent ideology, and with a physical infrastructure in Afghanistan, which was extremely important for him to provide him the means to allow the group to make its name, which it really does with the 1998 bombings in East Africa. 2001 was the culmination of that process of consolidation of Al Qaeda. You then enter a third phase which sees the scattering of that physical presence, the infrastructure of Al Qaeda, but with a simultaneous broadening of the broadcasting of the ideology of Al Qaeda. And since then, we have seen a continuing trend towards independent actors with broad ideological similarities to Al Qaeda, but with no direct links to them, or few direct links to them. The situation has been nuanced in the last two years I'd say by the re-composition of an Al Qaeda hardcore in Pakistan and tribal territories along the border with Afghanistan, which have particular elements specific to the UK and to attacks in the UK. But largely over the last 5 years, we have seen the limiting of the ability of the hardcore leadership to commission and execute terrorist attacks, the limiting of the physical capabilities of anything that could be called Al Qaeda, and the explosion of the ideology and of non physical elements of Al Qaeda, such as its presence on the Internet. IA Forum: So is Al Qaeda still interested in spectacular attacks? Burke: The fundamental aim of the Al Qaeda hardcore has not changed. it is to raise the consciousness of the "Islamic masses". They are well aware that they are a minority. They clearly believe they are right, and they are a vanguard, as was Muhammad and his followers 1300 years ago. And they must spread the word, radicalize and mobilize, they must make sure there is a situation that leads as many as their co-religionist as possible to fight what they see as a last ditch battle of survival for their faith and way of life, against a belligerent aggressor. That is their fundamental aim. They do that through spectacular violence relayed by the new media we have. At the same time, there is a subsidiary effect, which is welcomed, that in fighting this war of faith, of media and propaganda of which the violence is an integral part, they get to kill unbelievers, damage the economy of the West and prove their own superiority in terms of moral courage. IA Forum: You've mentioned the East Africa bombings and September 11th, and there were the recent attempted attacks in London and Glasgow. Do you see Al Qaeda broadening the number of countries it hopes to attack? Burke: What I want to say is not necessarily a direct answer to the question. Of course there are priorities, there are strategic directives that Bin Laden and others would like to see followed, for example Britain, because of its close support of America, has risen up the list of targets. However, it would be an error to focus on the hardcore. The vast proportion of the bombings and other militant activity we've seen has not been directed from above, but has been built from the bottom up. It is the young activists who feel the Al Qaeda ideology is right, is the only explanation for what is going on in the world - it is they who are driving the violence. For the last 15 years, we have seen the same thing repeated - young men seeking out the means to execute their own programs and ambitions - often of a violent nature. One reason Britain is being targeted is because America is harder to hit now. What we saw in Britain recently was a relatively amateurish attack because those involved had not been able to reach the camps and get themselves trained as they would have done 5 or 6 years ago perhaps. However, others have managed to get themselves trained, with devastating results. With Madrid, the Madrid bombers had no direct links with Al Qaeda - you do not need Al Qaeda in this equation. It is a phenomenon of which Al Qaeda is a part, but which goes far beyond it. It has profound economic, cultural, historical and religious roots that determine the attraction of this ideology to a small number of individuals. But it is those small number of individuals who are driving the violence, not strategic direction by any one individual. That means that whenever a certain set of facts are reunited, there is a threat, and that is not necessarily a threat that is determined by Bin Laden pointing his finger at a map. IA Forum: Are you optimistic that Al Qaeda's brand of Islamic militancy can be overcome? Burke: I am optimistic. I think it is a generational struggle that will take 20 or 30 years. But two things make me more optimistic, both coming from my own travels in the Middle East and Islamic countries. The first is that wherever people are exposed to the reality of terrorist violence they shy away from it, they turn away from it. It happened in Algeria, it happened in Egypt and it is happening now in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East, where they have seen the hideous face of terrorist violence, whether Islamically motivated or otherwise, close-up. There is nothing intrinsic in Islam or in the Muslim world that leads to this kind of activity. The second thing is that the West, and all that goes with the West, still holds a very, very powerful pull on populations in the Islamic world. Indeed it is that pull that is at the root of the violence. It is that attraction that the West holds that means there are people that want to fight it, who want to fight a rearguard action against increasing Westernization, increasing globalization. As long as the West has that attraction, and that attraction is still powerful enough to mean that most people want to live in a liberal democracy and in economic, political and social security, then the attraction of radicalized religious faith will be small. And I don't see any reason why the situation will not resolve itself over a fairly lengthy period. Jason Burke is chief foreign correspondent for the Observer newspaper and author of the books Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam and On the Road to Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict in the Islamic World

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