BANGKOK – Pentagon spin, via Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, has it that “Iraq now is the central battle in the war on terrorism.” Al-Qaeda’s No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, aka The Surgeon, has proved Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s No 2, wrong.

Al-Zawahiri had warned “the American people” that what they had seen so far were only the “initial skirmishes” of a war. Two days later, a devastating bomb at the Marriott Hotel in southern Jakarta killed at least 16 people and wounded about 150, most of them Indonesians, not Westerners.

The International Islamic Front, or call it the al-Qaeda global franchising business, was just waiting for an opening. The Bush administration’s logic in its “war against terror” is that security does not exist unless martial hygiene is fully imposed. Security is arguably much tighter in the United States and Europe after September 11, 2001. But how do you secure a huge archipelago like Indonesia, spread out over the sea like a string of pearls for more than 5,000 kilometers? Pressure on the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri is useless. The United States cannot have it both ways. After faithful military servant Suharto had outlasted his usefulness, Washington said it wanted democracy in Indonesia – but with no resurgence of Islamist sentiment. But there are various degrees of Islam in Indonesia, from the tolerant, tropical, soft Southeast Asian version to the kick-out-the-foreigners-let’s-bring-the-caliphate-back brand of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Everybody for the moment seems to agree that Jemaah Islamiyah is behind the Jakarta bombing as it was behind the Bali bombing of last October 12. The timing of the Jakarta bombing may be related to the fact that this Thursday an Indonesian court is to deliver its verdict on Amrozi, the first person to go on trial over the Bali bombing. And the trial of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the alleged leader of JI, is also due to reopen. But the most important fact is that Hambali, aka Riduan Isamuddin, is still on the loose. Hambali is the de facto, No 1 in JI. He is No 1 on Southeast Asia’s most-wanted list. And he is also a senior al-Qaeda operative.

The administration of US President George W Bush still has not understood that jihad – this worldwide anti-American jihad – is not an enterprise. Jihad is based on individual commitment. It operates as a nebula. It spreads like a virus. Al-Zawahiri sends a signal on tape and a cell somewhere with strike capability seizes an opportunity. Intelligence agencies repeat that dozens of plots have been foiled these past few months. But not all of them. Indonesia will always be a prime target – a fragile link in security terms, crammed with US interests.

In his tape, al-Zawahiri says something crucial: “We are saying to America one thing: What you saw with your eyes so far were only initial skirmishes, for the real battle hasn’t even started yet. Therefore it is upon the American people whose armies have killed our women and children, if they care about their future and their future generations to come, to start relying on their mind and logic before it is too late to repent.”

European intelligence sources in Brussels have told Asia Times Online that the US strategy in Iraq is something like a Spanish bullfight. By showing a red rag – in the form of an occupation force – the Bush administration expects to attract all manner of hard-to-find Islamist bulls. According to this logic, it would be easier for the Islamist bulls to attack American soldiers than to attack Americans around the world.

The problem is, the bulls are not playing the game. There’s no hard evidence up to now – and not a single arrest – of jihadis attacking the Americans in Iraq. Of course, as the occupation drags on there’s a strong possibility of Afghan-trained jihadis increasingly relocating to Iraq. But the jihadi virus is global. It manifests itself in attacks in Africa, in porous Indonesia, in the daily attacks in Afghanistan, in the capacity of JI to strike sooner or later in Thailand, Malaysia or even fortress Singapore.

Paul Wolfowitz and the Pentagon will have to revise their logic. Martial hygiene is not working. The Bush administration’s first reaction to September 11 was to try to destroy al-Qaeda. But Osama bin Laden could not be captured. Ayman al-Zawahiri could not be captured. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, could not be captured. So the screenplay had to be changed, to Wolfowitz’s original idea: smash Saddam Hussein. Evil metamorphosed from Osama to Saddam. Saddam may be gone, but al-Qaeda remains, and on top of it the US now faces a national liberation struggle in Iraq that is led neither by remnants of the Ba’ath Party nor by al-Qaeda, but by Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites alike.

Only a long-term, carefully elaborated political strategy would be able to contain this worldwide anti-US jihad. There’s no possible military solution. You can’t kill a virus with a barrage of TOW missiles. And, according to al-Zawahiri, “The real battle hasn’t even started yet.”

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