Osama bin Laden's 50th birthday on 10 March 2007 was an occasion for much media reflection on the persistence of the al-Qaida movement. One attempt to counter this was the Pentagon's release of transcripts of what were said to be confessions from its highest-ranking Guantànamo detainee, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. These confessions included his involvement in thirty al-Qaida operations over a decade, going right back to the first bombing of the World Trade Centre in February 1993.
The publicity was certainly widespread within the United States, including a marked "spin" on the main news channels to the effect that the transcripts showed just how important this figure was. As such, it served to suggest that the United States had had some real successes in its war on terror, and that the capture of this mastermind was a key example. Some of the more experienced journalists were far more sceptical, with some very good analysis of the persistent influence of al-Qaida coming in the non-US press (notably Jason Burke's assessment, "Al-Qaeda: the second coming", Observer, 11 March 2007).
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly Column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001
It never went away
An obvious consideration is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been in US custody for four years and there has been no decrease in the activities of the al-Qaida movement in that time. Even leaving Iraq and Afghanistan aside, this is a movement - now dispersed and multifaceted - that has been involved in numerous attacks across the world. Since his capture in February 2003, these have included attacks in Casablanca, Djakarta, Riyadh, Istanbul, Sinai, Madrid, London, Aqaba, Bali, Karachi, Damascus and elsewhere, as well as many more completed or attempted operations.
This list alone points to the flaw in the argument that al-Qaida had somehow "gone away" only to make a subsequent comeback. It is certainly the case that the current development of the movement is aided by its ability to operate with little interference in western Pakistan, but this is only one aspect of its evolution (see Mark Mazzetti & David Rohde, "Signs of Qaeda resurgence", International Herald Tribune, 19 February 2007). Its developing influence in Iraq adds to a picture of increased potency; but this does not imply that the network was ever under real threat of disappearing or even diminishing (see Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy", 18 December 2006).
Moreover, as the US "surge" gathers pace in Iraq, there are firm indications that one part of the wider movement, often termed "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" has actually become increasingly important in that specific insurgency, especially in Anbar province. What is really significant is that this group has undergone a subtle internal change in that it is able both to utilise paramilitary recruits coming to Iraq from other countries and increasingly to attract Iraqis into its membership (see Michael Gordon, "Sunnis prove to be most dangerous foe", International Herald Tribune, 18 March 2007). While Iraq may still be a great attraction for jihadists from elsewhere, the fact that an al-Qaida affiliate is gaining strength internally is an added bonus for the movement.
At the same time, Iraq serves as a crucial combat-training zone for radical paramilitaries across the region. It is one of the Bush administration's great if unintended achievements to create such as zone. As a US national-intelligence estimate ("Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States", April 2006) stated: "The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement".
A window on destruction
Yet in all of this there remains one aspect of the conduct of the US war on terror that remains difficult to understand. Why are major political figures and their close advisers on both sides of the Atlantic unable or unwilling to admit that the very conduct of the war is actually proving to be consistently counterproductive in relation to their own security interests?
Even some independent commentators have trouble explaining why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are causing a radicalisation among Muslim communities in western Europe, let alone the middle east, south Asia and elsewhere. The explanation must include consideration of at least four factors: casualties, detentions, the media and occupation.
▪ casualties The most robust direct counting of the death toll in Iraq, IraqBodyCount is now estimating a figure of up to 65,000 civilian deaths in four years. The reliance on corroborated press reports (and consequent likely underreporting, especially in the current volatile situation in much of Iraq) means that the true figure is likely to be much larger. In addition to the deaths there have been many tens of thousands of serious injuries, many people being maimed for life, and close to 4 million refugees.
▪ detentions Those held without trial, principally in Iraq and Afghanistan but stretching across the world, exceed 100,000 over the past five and a half years. Many of the inmates have been held for a year or more and some for five years, 15,000 are in prison at any one time and there are innumerable examples of torture and abuse.
▪ media In relation to these aspects - deaths, injuries, detentions and abuse - the media dimension is far more important than is commonly realised. One aspect of this is the huge range of purely propagandistic offerings coming from radical groups through the net and DVDs. Much more significant is the evolution of the now-established regional satellite TV news channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, whose audiences number tens of millions and which give a news representation and an analysis which is just about as far removed from Fox News as it is possible to get.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
Paul Rogers's new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 ( Pluto Press, November 2006)
This media revolution has given a voice to the Islamic world in ways that are still hugely under-appreciated by western politicians. In the latter stages of the Vietnam war, there is little doubt that the newly developing domestic TV coverage in the United States did much to undermine government policy as viewers received some insight into the reality of the war and its impact. The al-Jazeera station provides coverage of issues in a way that has simply not been available before, and on a near-global twenty-four-hours-a-day basis. The al-Jazeera phenomenon is likely to prove even more important than Vietnam-era media in determining the development of the war on terror in the coming years.
▪ occupation Beyond even these elements is one underlying element that, even now, gets too little recognition: occupation (see Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation: War and Resistance, Verso, 2006). Some circles in Washington may still express the belief that the heart of the Iraq war has been about deposing a despotic regime and replacing it with a western-style democracy. Across most of the majority world, and especially in the middle east, this is regarded as nothing less than laughable. Instead, the deep-seated view is of a "crusader" occupying force, aided by Israel, which has taken over a previous centre of Islamic civilisation for its own ends, one of the most important being the control of Arab oil.
The extent to which this portrait is accurate might well be disputed in Washington and London; but the further away from these centres of power, the more it is taken as read. One element of this is particularly important in the view of al-Qaida and its affiliates and sympathisers among many of the world's Muslims: the control of the three "holy places". At present, the "crusader forces" are occupying Baghdad, a key city of the Islamic world and the previous centre of the Abbasid caliphate; Mecca and Medina are controlled by the House of Saud, widely regarded as little more than an offshoot of Washington; and Jerusalem is in the hands of the Zionists.
This is a worldview that is diametrically opposite to that in Washington and London, but is deeply embedded and unwavering. Whether or not Osama bin Laden survives to his 60th birthday, he can be secure in the knowledge that the greatest assets to the al-Qaida movement are not the developments in Afghanistan or Pakistan, useful though they may be, but the policies of George W Bush and his closest allies.