A rage unquenched: AfPak, Iraq, and the west

A pattern of attacks in the United States and Europe by individual jihadists is deeply connected to both the effects and the perceptions of a decade's war across the greater middle east.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 December 2010

The attempted attack on shoppers in central Stockholm on 11 December 2010 by the Iraq-born Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly has yet to be fully investigated, but it may have involved this individual undertaking an operation on his own initiative.

If this proves to be the case (evidence is still being examined), the Swedish incident may take its place among a recent pattern:

* the attempt of the young Nigerian, Omar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, to destroy an aircraft on an Amsterdam-Detroit flight on 25 December 2010

* the arrest on 12 October 2010 of a young construction worker and convert to Islam, Antonio Martinez, on a charge of planning to blow up a military-recruitment centre in Baltimore, Maryland

* the arrest on 26 November 2010 a Somali-born youth, Mohammed Osman Mohamud over a bomb-plot in Portland, Oregon.

In the last two cases, the FBI had been tracking the suspects in ways that may amount to an effective entrapment at the supposed decisive moment. In any event, a notable aspect of these incidents in the United States and western Europe in 2009-10 is that individuals from various diasporas seem to be acting with little if any connection to the putative “al-Qaida central”.

In the sense that al-Qaida has never been a unified and narrowly hierarchical movement even at the height of its activities in the early-to-mid 2000s, this is nothing new. Many of its attacks in this period - in (among other places) Tunisia, Indonesia, Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Jordan, Britain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan - were only loosely linked to the al-Qaida leadership, or even more decentred and local. A feature most had in common, though, was coordination among a defined group. In this respect the trend towards self-motivated extreme behaviour is a departure.

Al-Qaida remains a viable franchise, and continues to evolve (see “Al-Qaida: condition and prospect”, 14 October 2010). The continued influence of its associates in Yemen and Iraq, as well as in western Pakistan, is a signal both of its implantation in several societies and its enduring ambitions (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Al-Qaeda braced for a war without end”, Asia Times, 15 December 2010).

But actions by dislocated individuals (often of diasporic origins) do appear to be becoming more common. The roots of their radicalisation are complex and variable; the process may include a transformation of religious identity, a measure of indoctrination, a perception of marginalisation (or some mix of these). The clear context of this process, however, is often a bitter opposition to western policies and actions (especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) as well as to America’s consistent support for Israel.

The other reality

This animosity was already evident in late 2001 as details of civilian casualties in Afghanistan began to emerge (see “A third phase of war”, 31 December 2001). It became much more intense in 2003 as the war in Iraq began to be reported in detail by channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, which focused consistently on the war's impact on civilians.

Most western sources in this period tended to emphasise coalition successes, but some also highlighted the human impact of the wars (see “The harvest of war: from pain to gain”, 28 October 2010 ). Iraq Body Count, for example, recorded 2,000 civilian deaths within a month of the start of the Iraq war (see “Permanent occupation?”, 24 April 2003); Associated Press noted civilians being killed directly by US marines (see “Aftermath: Afghan lessons, Iraqi futures”, 10 April 2003); and a year into the war, the Washington Post's Pamela Constable reported a “reprisal” air-raid on part of the city of Fallujah which destroyed six blocks (see “Between Fallujah and Palestine”, 22 April 2004).

Such accounting of civilian casualties, meagre as it was, had only a small impact on western public opinion. This contrasted markedly with the daily reporting by regional channels with their huge audience reach. Al-Arabiya was in 2005-06 reporting viewing audiences of 26 million for its main evening news bulletin, and the figures have grown since; al-Jazeera claims audiences of 40-50 million for its main Arabic service, and its newer English service can be received in over 100 million households (many of them in diaspora communities).

The important point here is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reported very differently to various audiences - and this is even more the case when the innumerable propaganda streams (such as via video) are included.

But the media impact of reportage of civilian suffering could have its effect only because it was based on an ineluctable reality, capable too of being made into a narrative of western aggression and injustice that linked the occupation of Iraq in particular to the interests of Israel and Zionism.

This narrative drew on developments that too were little reported in the west. When, for example, the United States was becoming acutely hard-pressed in Iraq in late 2003 - facing an intense urban insurgency with inadequately trained troops - it turned to the ally with most experience in this form of combat: Israel. An in-depth cooperation developed (see “After Saddam, no respite”, 19 December 2003); this was to see the US army corps of engineers building an entire mock-Arab town in Israel's Negev desert for US and Israeli forces to use in counterinsurgency training (see “A tale of two towns”, 21 June 2007).

Al-Qaida propagandists and sympathisers were skilled in weaving such details into a highly effective portrayal of the two wars as a “Crusader-Zionist plot to occupy the heart of the Islamic world”. This was also adaptable to new circumstances, as in the description of civilian deaths from Israeli strike-aircraft and helicopter gunships in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-09 as “American planes with Israeli markings” (see "Gaza: the wider war", 13 January 2009).

The delayed impact

Such propagandistic claims had enough basis in realities and perceptions to win a considerable following. Their reverberations continue in many parts of the “greater middle east” and beyond. After all, in three major areas - even after the withdrawal of most western forces from Iraq - this remains an era of war and conflict:

* Iraq has suffered at least 120,000 civilians killed and is still deeply violent; the legacy of the tragedies inflicted there will last for years

* The Israel-Palestine conflict shows no early prospect of a peaceful settlement; it remains a source of anger and tension across the middle east

* The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is continuing - even intensifying, notwithstanding President Obama's claim of "significant progress" in the annual strategy review published on 16 December 2010. The main trends (discussed in a recent column in this series) include the increased use of armed-drones in both countries, more special-forces “night raids” in Afghanistan, and the policy of blowing up houses and farm-buildings to deny access to Taliban paramilitaries (see “The road to endless war”, 25 November 2010).

These trends are reinforced by the development of armed resistance in previously quiet parts of Afghanistan (see Alissa J Rubin, “Taliban Extend Their Reach to North, Where Armed Groups Reign”, New York Times, 15 December 2010); and by official documents that outline major problems facing coalition forces (see Elisabeth Bumiller, “Intelligence Reports Offer Dim Views of Afghan War” [New York Times, 14 December 2010] and Patrick Cockburn, “CIA report undermines Obama’s upbeat assessment of Afghan war” [Independent, 16 December 2010]). 

The key imbalance in coverage of such events must again be borne in mind. When, as now, western military sources on both sides of the Atlantic recycle a “good-news” narrative of the Taliban in retreat, an overall analysis of the AfPak theatre needs to take multiple sources into account; the latter include the routinely more detailed (and often very graphic) coverage of the region’s conflicts in well-resourced channels such as al-Jazeera, where the everyday human cost of the conflict is registered in ways closed to most western audiences.

Another individual example may illustrate the point. In February 2008 it was revealed that the enlisted younger son of the heir to the British throne, Prince Harry, had been serving in Afghanistan for ten weeks. The country’s defence ministry took the opportunity to highlight this royal contribution as an example of a young man (previously depicted as something of a playboy) doing his duty “for queen and country”.

A key part of this duty was calling in air-strikes when his fellow soldiers were under attack. The image of a responsible young professional protecting his mates, however, can also be seen (among people in the Pakistani diaspora, for example) as a leading member of the British royal family killing fellow Muslims in an illegal war. The difference in perception is real and fundamental.

These considerations can help to explain, if they cannot remotely justify, the actions or attempted actions in Stockholm, Portland, Baltimore and elsewhere. A greater appreciation in the west of both the consequences of its military actions and the way they are seen elsewhere would aid understanding of the ability of al-Qaida - as movement, cause and idea - to continue to gain recruits. That in turn would begin to offer a prospect other than endless war.

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