“If you don’t stop your injustices, more blood will flow and these attacks are very little compared with what may happen with what you call terrorism.”
– Abu Dujan al-Afghani, purported military spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe, claiming responsibility on video for the Madrid bombings.
The “al-Qaedization” of terrorism in Europe is a political “big bang.” According to intelligence estimates in Brussels, there may be an invisible army of up to 30,000 holy warriors spread around the world, which begs the question: how will Western democracies be able to fight them?
The Madrid bombings have already produced the terrorists’ desired effect: fear. Cities all across Europe fear they may be targeted for the next massacre of the innocents. On his October 18, 2003 tape, Osama bin Laden warned that Italy, Britain and Poland, as well as Spain – all staunch Washington allies in the invasion and occupation of Iraq – would be struck. Sheikh Omar Bakri, spiritual leader of the Islamist group al-Mouhajiroun, said in London he “wouldn’t be surprised if Italy is the next target.”
Social paranoia inevitably will be on the rise – and the main victims are bound to be millions of European Muslims. Racist political parties like Jean Marie le Pen’s National Front in France and Umberto Bossi’s Northern League in Italy will pump up the volume of their extremely vicious anti-Islamic xenophobia. For scores of moderate European politicians, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain their support for a solution to the Palestinian tragedy – as the Sharon government in Israel spins the line that both Israel and Europe are “victims of terrorism.”
This Wednesday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, will ask the EU to name an expert to be in charge of “coordinating” the action of the 15 countries (soon to be 25). Belgium’s Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has proposed the creation of a European Intelligence Center to combat terrorism. Currently, each national intelligence service acts on its own, not always connected with Europol, the continent’s police body in The Hague. A special cell in Brussels, for instance, conducts its own, separate investigations.
The new al-Qaeda virus
The special cell in Brussels considers that the Madrid bombings required “minute preparations, money, experience and cohesion.” This has led European specialists on Islamist movements, like Antoine Basbus, director of the Observatory of Arab Countries, and Olivier Roy, a research director at the French Center of Scientific Research, to agree that al-Qaeda is now operating on three layers: the originals, or Arab-Afghans who were part of the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s; the franchised local groups; and the recent “converts” who provide the crucial link between the “base” and the local outfits.
The anti-terrorist experts in Brussels tell Asia Times Online they had known for some time that the original “base” of the al-Qaeda was greatly depleted. After all, Mohammed Atta, the leading military planner, and Mahfouz Ould, one of the leading ideologues, have been killed. Abu Zubaida, in charge of recruiting, and Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi, in charge of training, are in jail. But unlike the Americans roughly a year ago, the experts in Brussels did not assume that al-Qaeda was broken. They stress that al-Qaeda’s real danger is “their persistent capacity to incite and collaborate with local groups” – they estimate there may be around 40 of these – to act in their own countries. “But we are even more concerned about groups that we don’t know anything about.”
The Moroccan arm of al-Qaeda, for instance, is the little-known Moroccan Islamic Combatants Group. The experts in Brussels now confirm that Saudis and Moroccans came to Madrid to plan the bombings alongside Islamist residents of Spain. But al-Qaeda is not only active in the Maghreb: it is very well connected in sub-Saharan Africa, in places not yet fully investigated like the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.
For months now, ever since the Istanbul bombings in November 2003, different European intelligence services have been afraid they would have to confront a mutated enemy. Most services were in fact sure that Istanbul represented the first attack on Europe. The possibility of further use of chemical and bacteriological weapons, and even nuclear “dirty bombs,” was not, and now more than ever is not, discarded.
Roy says that recruiting is now being conducted locally because “mobility is more difficult; there is not a place anymore where one goes to meet the chief or to get training.” Recruiting campaigns continue all over the EU. For instance, one of the perpetrators of the bombing of the UN office in Baghdad in August 2003 was recruited in Italy. Other recruits in Spain, Germany and Norway ended up in Iraq via Syria. Global jihad, of which al-Qaeda is the leading exponent, is above all an idea. It thrives on spectacular terrorist attacks. Targets may have no strategic interest: what matters is terror as a spectacle – like bombing a nightclub in Bali. Madrid represented something much more sophisticated because in the Western collective consciousness it was the link between an American ally and the war on Iraq.
Spain may have become a new symbol of the clash between the jihadis’ version of Islam and the “Jews and Crusaders.” But as far as global jihad is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether a European democracy like Spain is governed by conservatives or socialists. Al-Qaeda is an apocalyptic sect betting on the clash of civilizations: Islamic jihadis against “Jews and Crusaders.” It is the same with the Bush administration spinning a “war on terror”: James Woolsey, a former Central Intelligence Agency head, believes this is the Fourth World War and conservative guru Samuel Huntington bets on, what else, a “clash of civilizations.”
Al-Qaeda’s biggest problem is that it has no legitimacy in the Middle East as far as the key issues, Palestine and Iraq, are concerned. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s No 2, were never interested in the Palestinian struggle. In Roy’s formula, “Al-Qaeda represents the globalization of Islam, not of the Middle Eastern conflicts.”
The Osama factor
Al-Qaeda is a nebula in total dispersion, locally and globally. Take Osama’s audio-video productions: they are always delivered to the world via Islamabad, but the distribution chain is so fragmented that no one can go back to the source. Tribal chiefs protect bin Laden all over the Pakistan-Afghan border for two reasons: because he is a Muslim and because he fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s. This has nothing to do with September 11 – which for tribal leaders is something akin to a trip to the moon – and it goes beyond the US$25 million bounty on bin Laden’s head. Most Afghans don’t like Arabs and blame them for every disaster in the last 25 years. But every tomb of an Arab killed by an American bomb in 2001 is honored like a holy place.
The experts in Brussels consider that the possible capture of Osama in the upcoming spring offensive may not change anything, because in the current global jihad modus operandi the “base” retains all the initiative.
Roy insists military muscle simply does not work: “We are able to fight al-Qaeda with police operations, intelligence and justice. On a political level, one must make sure that they don’t have a social base: already they don’t have a political wing, sympathizers, intellectuals, newspapers or unions. They must be isolated. There’s only one way for this to happen: full integration of Muslims,” That’s the exact opposite of the stigma privileged by conservative governments and racist, xenophobic parties.
According to the experts in the Brussels anti-terrorist cell, proving al-Qaeda’s responsibility in the Madrid bombings will lead to three important conclusions:
1. Al-Qaeda is back in the spectacular attack business, even if the attack is perpetrated by affiliates.
2. Cells remain very much active around Europe, and the West as a whole remains a key target.
3. Global jihad has achieved one of its key objectives, which is to strike against one of Washington’s allies in Iraq.
The repercussions of all these conclusions are of course immense – from Washington to all major European capitals and spilling to the arc from the Middle East to Central and South Asia.
Brussels also alerts that this happens independently of other al-Qaeda objectives which remain very much in place: the departure of all American soldiers from Saudi soil; the fall of the House of Saud; and the expulsion of Jews from the Middle East. Al-Qaeda’s ultimate objective is a caliphate. As far as the absolute majority of Muslims in the world are concerned, the global jihad’s most seductive appeal undoubtedly remains its struggle to end the American imperial control of Islamic lands.
Romano Prodi, head of the European Commission, says that force is not working against terrorism: “Terrorism now is more powerful than before.” Most European politicians and intellectuals – apart from Blair, Berlusconi, Aznar and their friends – consider that the Bush administration’s response to asymmetric warfare has only served to increase the threat. It’s a classic reductio ad absurdum. Increasingly lethal American military muscle deployed all over the Islamic world has led to more lethal terrorist attacks, in the Islamic world and also in the West. More muscled defense of hard targets, or strategic targets, has led to more indiscriminate attacks on so-called soft targets (like the Madrid trains). Madrid is a tragic mirror of Baghdad and Karbala: more than 200 innocent workers and students died in Madrid, more than 200 innocent pilgrims died in Iraq.
Not only in Brussels or the European Parliament in Strasbourg is there practically a consensus that the beginning of a solution for the terrorism problem is the end of both the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the American occupation of Iraq. Madrid once again proved that terrorism practices the ultimate in nihilist politics. There’s no possible diplomacy. No possible negotiation. It does not bend when attacked by military power. It has no territory and no population to defend, and no military or civil installations to protect. Al-Qaeda is not a Joint Chiefs of Staff: it is an idea. It commands faithful servants, not soldiers. It has nothing to do with war – as the Bush administration insists – and much less with a war on Iraq. One of the reasons invoked for the war on Iraq – the link between Saddam and al-Qaeda – was turned upside down: more al-Qaeda infiltration in the West is a consequence of the war, not less.
In the corridors of Brussels, and in the streets of Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, London and Paris, Europe was given a rude awakening. All the evidence now screams that reshaping the Middle East from a base in occupied Iraq is not leading to less terrorism: it is leading to hyperterrorism.