Karachi, Djerba, Yemen, Bali, Moscow – and now Amman, where an American diplomat has been assassinated. Al-Qaeda is back – with a vengeance. But is it al-Qaeda? Guesswork flies from the US to Western Europe to Southeast Asia and back. Al-Qaeda is a portmanteau code word to define anything from a terrorist attack to virtual threats, dormant cells, alleged conspiracies, axis of evil-related states and even deranged serial killers such as the Washington sniper.
In a sense, Osama bin Laden – now “resurrected” in his ancestral tribal land in north Yemen – has already won. His strategy of fear has proved to be a tremendous success. Al-Qaeda may have changed its name to Fath-e-Islam since early September. It may have started concentrating on soft targets. It may have subcontracted tasks to indigenous groups everywhere. And although al-Qaeda is still an ideology – even a cosmology – it’s not an organization or a movement any more. It’s now a mutant virus, an invisible international jihad spreading its tentacles, like a real McDonald’s of terrorism.
Al-Qaeda has been widely blamed for the Bali disco bombing and the Chechen-orchestrated hostage-taking operation in a Moscow theater. Yet there’s no proof of direct al-Qaeda involvement in either.
British writer and documentarist John Pilger was one of a few who stressed that Bali should rather be blamed on Indonesian state terrorism – which ran rampant for 40 years, backed by Britain, America and Australia. “It is hardly surprising there are resentments and tensions, and support for extreme religious groups.” Pilger notes correctly that “in West Papua, the army openly supports an Islamic group, Lashkar Jihad, which is linked to al-Qaeda. This is the same army which the Australian government trained for decades and publicly defended when its terrorism became too blatant.” Pilger adds that Australia’s “long complicity with state terrorism in Indonesia … makes a mockery of the self-deluding declarations last week that the nation had ‘lost its innocence in Bali’.” Sources have confirmed to Asia Times Online that a group of Indonesia’s generals with connections to General Prabowo – married to one of former dictator Suharto’s daughters – could have been behind Bali. The general’s supreme interest is to destabilize the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
President Vladimir Putin’s Soviet heavy metal response to the Chechen operation in Moscow was sold by the Kremlin as the best response against ultra-radical Islam. But this is an insult to the intelligence of informed international opinion. The Kremlin is serving the same rhetorical soup being cooked by the White House – according to which the “war against terror” justifies anything. Now Putin adds the gassing of innocent civilians. The corollary of this policy is an absolute refusal to even try to examine the explosive regional conflicts – such as Kashmir, Chechnya or the Middle East – which generate resentment in the first place. This would be the only way for the West to win this “war.”
Saddam Hussein may have been guilty of crimes against humanity when he gassed 8,000 Kurds. Nobody – US or Europe – raised a peep at the time. Putin – the ultimate unscrupulous autocrat – may be guilty of crimes against humanity on account of his massacres in Chechnya. Nobody – US or Europe – has raised a peep in the past three years.
What if al-Qaeda developed a network in Java? And what if al-Qaeda is still networked in Chechnya? It’s not the point, because the strategic objective – to instill fear in the West – has been achieved. Forget Afghanistan and Pakistan; al-Qaeda has relocated to northern Africa and it has reactivated its network in Southeast Asia. This subcontracting now implies a much larger role for regional groups in terms of how to study a soft target, how to attack it, employing which techniques and when.
The objective is to kill Americans and other Westerners (like Australian tourists in Bali), to embarrass leaders of Muslim countries toeing the US line – like Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf or Jordan’s King Abdullah, for instance – and to try to subvert the global network of transport and tourism. Among the victims so far we find a cross-section of Pakistani Christians, French engineers, Australian tourists. But neither the Pakistanis nor the Indonesians – assisted by Westerners – have so far found a clear al-Qaeda connection. The fruits that al-Qaeda is now allegedly collecting in the Philippines and Indonesia had their seeds sown in the early 1990s. The most wanted man in Southeast Asia right now is Riduan Isamuddin – aka Hambali, believed by the US to be the regional Osama bin Laden. Hambali is a mix of managing director and field operator; he fought the anti-USSR jihad in Afghanistan, moved to Malaysia, and was a key figure in setting up al-Qaeda’s first base in the Philippines in the early 1990s.
Hambali was very close to Abu Bakar Ba’asyir – the Muslim cleric accused of being the head of Jemaah Islamiyah – who has just been transferred from his hospital bed in Solo, central Java, to Jakarta to be questioned on the Bali bombing. Ba’asyir approves of bin Laden’s methods – but this does not mean that he is able to implement them.
In 1996, Ba’asyir and Hambali founded the Indonesian Council of the Mujahideen, whose objective is the creation of a Muslim state uniting Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Philippines, southern Thailand and Brunei: 250 million people living in lands that once were Islamicized sultanates before the arrival of the Dutch and Spanish colonial powers. Hence the name Jemaah Islamiyah – Islamic community.
In the mid-1990s, al-Qaeda maintained a training camp in remote central Sulawesi in Indonesia. Hundreds were trained there, including at least 200 Arabs. Jemaah Islamiyah – with the backing of al-Qaeda – moved on to plot in, of all places, fortress Singapore. Nothing happened. More recently, a group of at least 200 Indonesians, Malays from Malaysia and Singapore, and Filipinos moved on to concentrate in Bangladesh. All of them trained near Lahore, in Pakistan, and fought against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. It’s practically certain that Hambali is among them. The objective of these radical Islamists is to perpetrate a series of attacks against the US and its immediate allies – such as Australia – in different latitudes, and so preempt Washington’s obsession with attacking Iraq.
There was never any proof that Ba’asyir was involved in a terrorist operation – inside or outside Indonesia. But only three days before October 12 in Bali, Ba’asyir threatened to launch a jihad against the Indonesian government. He basically said that Megawati had to choose between the US and the defenders of Islam.
The cat-and-mouse game between the West and the franchises of terror remains open. Mohammed Jamal Khalifa – Osama’s brother in law, active in the Philippines since the early 1990s – has vanished. Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti who established a base in Solo in the mid 1990s, was turned over to the Americans in Indonesia last June. But Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, alleged leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah, remains, at least for the moment, free. Protests in central Java against his removal to Jakarta could spiral out of control.
Meanwhile, in London, Omar Abu Othman, alias Abu Qatada, a 41-year-old Palestinian born in Jordan who later moved to London as a political refugee, has finally been formally arrested. He had been in a safe house by British police for the past few months somewhere in northern England. Under a new anti-terrorist law he couldn’t be arrested or expelled from the UK because absolutely nobody really knew where he was.
Abu Qatada is believed by European intelligence agencies to be the spiritual leader and the key controller of al-Qaeda operatives all over Europe. He is arguably the biggest fish so far caught in a 13-month-long secret anti-terrorist investigation spanning the whole of Western Europe. Muslims in Britain are enraged. A protest rally is scheduled for Friday in front of 10 Downing Street in London. Abu Qatada is considered to be one of the most respected Islamic scholars in Britain – on a par with Sheikh Abu Hamza (leader of the Supporters of Shariah) and Sheikh Yasir Al-Siri (head of the Islamic Observatory Center), who will both attend the protest rally.
The arrest of Abu Qatada and the possible arrest of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in Jakarta may contribute to inflaming even more moderate Muslims’ attitudes toward what they increasingly regard as a war by the West against Islam. Both clerics’ connections with al-Qaeda are at least debatable – but that’s not the point. The point is the mutant virus will grow stronger and stronger from the ensuing radicalization.