Three years after September 11, President George W. Bush’s crusade is a failure. “War on terror” is a meaningless myth: you can’t combat a supple attack machine like al-Qaeda with shock and awe. What should have been a long, meticulous police operation was turned by Bush – instigated by his foreign policy adviser, God – into an illegal, preemptive attack on a nation that had nothing to do with terror.

This policy has actually increased terror attacks around the world. Last year in Cairo, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Sheikh Yamani, a man who knows one or two things about Arabs, violence and oil, said the invasion would produce “one hundred bin Ladens.” They are here, and they have no one else but Bush to thank.

Bush’s mission from God

Bush’s key perceived strength – apart from his dynastic family name and extra-profitable connections – is his carefully polished image of a strong, straight-shooting, tough-talking commander-in-chief during times of war.

It should be very easy for the slumbering John Kerry campaign to smash that armory. Before Iraq turned into a quagmire – before the 1,000th dead American soldier, the 7,000th wounded American soldier, the 14,000th or maybe even 22,000th dead Iraqi civilian – Bush kept insisting that Iraq was “the new front in the war on terror.” Now Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are doing everything in their power not to make the connection – because a majority of Americans seem to view Bush as relatively strong on terror, but a failure in Iraq.

Two related facts are undisputable: more Americans are facing death and destruction in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was captured than before; and now there are increasingly more global terrorist attacks than when Bush proclaimed his “crusade,” or “war on terror.” The Bush administration always sold the war on Iraq as part of the “war on terror.” Reminding Americans about it is to fully certify Bush’s overall failure.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in New York, Bush said that “the government of a free Afghanistan is fighting terror; Pakistan is capturing terrorist leaders; Saudi Arabia is making raids and arrests; Libya is dismantling its weapons programs; the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom; and more than three-quarters of al-Qaeda’s key members and associates have been detained or killed.”

But consider this: Osama bin Laden, his deputy Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar have not been “smoked out” or captured – “dead or alive,” or otherwise – and most likely are still very much active in Afghanistan. And now al-Qaeda, in its delocalized mutation, is thriving around the world. There’s nothing “free” about Afghanistan: the Taliban are back, controlling vast areas of the country, in the south and southeast, and the rest is controlled by warlords. In the Afghan presidential election next month, Hamid Karzai will be certified, at most, as the mayor of Kabul. In Pakistan, President General Pervez Musharraf – known as “Busharraf” – barely survives multiple assassination attempts as dictator-in-charge.

And there’s nothing “free” about Iraq. Shi’ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – who wants direct elections – and the militant Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr – who wants the end of the occupation now – are the most popular figures in the country. Former US asset turned American-imposed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi barely controls a few Baghdad neighborhoods. The 1,000th dead American soldier pales in comparison with the Bush administration losing the whole Sunni triangle to the Iraqi nationalist resistance. This loss is proof that the war is unwinnable. It also reduces the January 2005 Iraqi elections – if they ever happen – to a joke.

The bottom line: since Bush proclaimed his “crusade” or mission from God against terror, the United States, the Middle East and the world are immensely less safe.

Bush-Cheney ’04 are afraid US voters will start making these connections as the November elections draw closer. For the apocalyptic Cheney – as on the campaign trail in Iowa – there’s nothing left but the language of fear: “It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again.” So this is how it works: If you vote Bush, al-Qaeda won’t strike. If you vote Kerry, al-Qaeda will strike. Kerry, therefore, is a threat to the US. The problem is, bin Laden votes Bush. Here’s why.

The al-Qaeda makeover

Al-Qaeda is more of a multi-headed hydra than ever: the “global” head plus the “local” heads. “Global” al-Qaeda includes groups of multinational operatives striking in the US (as in September 11) or in Western Europe (Madrid’s train blasts). These are above all Arab-Afghans, remnants of the jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. “Local” al-Qaeda on the other hand strike in their native countries against Western targets (for example in Casablanca, Bali and Istanbul): these are all part of the big al-Qaeda franchising.

The “historic” al-Qaeda is itself split in two: bin Laden’s faithfuls, who have followed him since the Peshawar, Pakistan, days for more than two decades; and the new breed who “graduated” in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001. Many of bin Laden’s faithful have been killed or captured – in essence by Pakistani, not US, forces: they include Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubayda, Suleiman Abu Graith and the alleged mastermind of September 11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

For a long time Western intelligence was prone to propagate the myth of al-Qaeda as a pre-September 11 organization with many heads, with sleeping cells occasionally galvanized into action. This is false. Al-Qaeda as a rule waits for no one – unless technical glitches occur, and these usually involve delays in recruitment, research, team-assembling and elaborate counter-security measures. The delays also prove that al-Qaeda is much less of a well-oiled organization than the Bush administration would like the world to believe.

Al-Qaeda subscribes to no political strategy, other than the strategy of total opportunism: as any kind of attack can happen any time, anywhere, it rules by fear – while at the same time demonstrating it is immune to any large-scale US war, from Afghanistan to Iraq. The rule-by-fear tactic also serves the Bush administration well, as fear is constantly used as a powerful political argument to justify the administration’s policies (“Be afraid, be very much afraid, but you can count on us to protect you”).

Unlike the Bush administration’s spin, European intelligence experts in Brussels assured Asia Times Online that the Madrid bombing was only accidentally tied to Spain’s national elections. It was not the case that “Spaniards had bowed to terror”  (Washington’s version), but that Bush ally Jose Maria Aznar’s conservative government was mendacious enough to lie to the country, blaming Basque separatists when it already had evidence to the contrary.

The avant-garde brigades

The members of al-Qaeda’s new elite were either born in Western Europe – many hold a legitimate European Union passport – or came to the West while still very young and then became radicalized. As Bush is a born-again Christian, they are sort of born-again Islamists. The most important fact is that this “return of the repressed” (Islam) is above all a political radicalization. The new breed’s brand of political Islam is much more “political” than “Islam.”

Very few of these new brigades come directly from Islamic countries. And their exile is one-way: they never come back to where their families come from. The classic itinerary was to sharpen the knives at a peripheral jihad – Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya – to become widely respected mujahideen, and then go back to Western Europe. They never went to fight in the Maghreb or in the Middle East – although the war in Iraq started to change this pattern.

In 1997, bin Laden obtained from his friend and admirer Mullah Omar monopoly control over the Arab-Afghan training camps in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis and the Uzbeks maintained their own training camps. This means that every single jihadi who was not Pakistani or from Central Asia who went to Afghanistan between 1997 and 2001 was trained at an al-Qaeda camp.

Unlike the faithful, none of the new breed of Arab-Afghans is close to bin Laden. But they definitely inherited a legendary al-Qaeda esprit de corps. The best and the brightest were trained to come back to Western Europe, wait and then raise hell. But the majority stayed behind fighting alongside the Taliban: among these were the hundreds captured by the forces of commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, before he was assassinated exactly three years ago, on September 9 – al-Qaeda’s “signal” for September 11.

The best and the brightest of this new al-Qaeda elite form the current backbone of bin Laden’s organization – the people who have masterminded and carried out global attacks for the past two years. They remain a very tight bunch, although now thoroughly globalized; treason – and squealing – is out of the question; and most astonishingly, there’s nothing to it of a secret society. They work as a band of brothers, sharing everything – apartments, bank accounts – even in the open. Al-Qaeda’s joint chiefs, the command and control structure, the base cells and the complex networks, everything works like some family enterprise in northern Italy, based on personal relationships, be they nurtured in Afghanistan or in any other country. But then a complex process of deterritorialization sets in, and the virus spreads.

For al-Qaeda, this poses a tremendous problem. It’s easy for Western intelligence (or for the Pakistanis, when they’re up to it) to grab a bunch of operatives after identifying a single one of them – as with the recent arrests in Pakistan timed to coincide with the Democratic convention. And with no al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan anymore, there are no places left to meet: Chechnya is too dangerous, the tribal areas in the Pakistan-Afghan border are teeming with US troops, and the Shawal region that straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan is too remote and under constant satellite surveillance.

Brand recognition the name of the game

This is a key reason al-Qaeda mutated still further. To survive and prosper, it needed more converts, and it needed to strike an array of strategic alliances. An additional problem was that al-Qaeda was never a political movement: it is basically an attack machine. Jihad yes, always. But the local objectives involved could not be more disparate – from Chechens fighting Russian occupation to Iraqis fighting US occupation.

Franchising, anyway, worked wonders. As more people in more countries – and the Bush administration – started blaming al-Qaeda for any attack, the desired cumulative effect was the same: al-Qaeda is everywhere.

Local al-Qaeda alliances now include everybody and his neighbor: Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia (the Bali bombing) and Southeast Asia; warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyr’s jihadis in southeastern Afghanistan; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (responsible for the Tashkent bombings in July); and perhaps even the mysterious, one-legged jack-of-all-trades, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, configured by the Bush administration as the new bin Laden in the Iraqi Sunni triangle.

Old-style al-Qaeda might well be pulverized by the Pentagon any time. But “al-Qaeda,” the brand, lives, whatever the Bush administration spin. Zarqawi is the best example: he may not even be directly linked to bin Laden anymore, and he is now the sole boss of his own terrorist cottage industry.

Like a multinational product, “al-Qaeda” suits everybody. For President Vladimir Putin in Russia, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, even President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Philippines, “al-Qaeda” is the ideal excuse for any repressive or inept regime presenting its credentials as a full-fledged member of the “war on terror.” For al-Qaeda’s purposes, bin Laden remaining the supreme evil is an invaluable propaganda coup. And for al-Qaeda franchises – free to pursue their own initiatives – using the brand means guaranteed media impact.

“Al-Qaeda” the brand has now embarked on an inexorable logic of expansion – in flagrant contradiction to Bush’s assertion that the world is safer. Al-Qaeda will keep deepening its alliances with ethnic and nationalist movements – with Shamil Basayev, the emir of the mujahideen in Chechnya and trainer of the Black Widow squadrons of female suicide bombers, or with sectors of the Iraqi resistance in the Sunni triangle. “Global” al-Qaeda in all these cases works and will continue to work as a sort of “Foreign Legion,” as French scholar Olivier Roy puts it, a capable military vanguard that is useful for local purposes for a determined period of time.

“Global” al-Qaeda may also even profit from the fact that national liberation movements, in desperation, decide to go on an all-out offensive, improving their alliances of circumstance with al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda brand is also becoming attractive to scattered sectors of the extreme left, because more than appealing to radical Islam, al-Qaeda has succeeded in branding its image as the revolutionary vanguard in the fight against American imperialism. The cross-fertilization between radical Islam and disfranchised Muslim youth born and raised in the West is also performing wonders: when young people convert to Islam in a dreary suburb of Brussels, Paris, Hamburg or Madrid, it all has to do with political anger rather than discovering a direct line to Allah.

A nihilistic big business

At the Republican convention, while the Republicans were harping on September 11, Bush said the Iraq war was “his” war, part of a mission from God to bring freedom to the repressed. “Terrorists hate America because they hate freedom.” Wrong: “terrorists” (in fact national resistance movements) hate America because America’s imperial policies are the antithesis of freedom.

As nihilistic as it may be, al-Qaeda, from a business point of view, is a major success: three years after September 11, it is a global brand and a global movement. The Middle East, in this scenario, is just a regional base station. This global brand does not have much to do with Islam. But it has everything to do with the globalization of anti-imperialism. And the empire, whatever its definition, has its center in Washington. Bin Laden is laughing: Bush’s crusade has legitimized an obscure sect as a worldwide symbol of political revolt. How could bin Laden not vote for Bush?

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