Search Wednesday April 21, 2004

Philip Bowring: Blaming Al Qaeda for everything
War on terrorism
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Thursday, April 8, 2004

HONG KONG: My enemy's enemy is my friend. It is a siren call which has led the West into all kinds of trouble in Afghanistan (against the Soviets) and Iraq (against Iran). Now Al Qaeda seems to be demonstrating that this is a tactic which suits them better than their enemies.

From Uzbekistan to Mindanao, from southern Thailand to Chechnya, from Iraq to Xinjiang, government responses to local insurgencies are creating a climate whose chief beneficiary is Al Qaeda.

At their roots, these insurgencies have almost nothing in common with Al Qaeda, a movement whose core is tiny and particular to a strand of Arab Islam. It has few natural allies, and its pretensions to being a global movement can be fulfilled only if it can use other movements, other frustrations, as its proxy fighters.

It does not necessarily even have to try to co-opt them. The recruiting is often being done by its enemies. Every time the West associates itself with claims that Al Qaeda is behind bombings and other insurgent and terrorist acts in nations with long histories of such activity, it extends the reach and prestige of Al Qaeda. It enables Al Qaeda to be associated not with the violent nihilism of its own ideology but with sympathy for oppressed Muslims all over the world.

I do not pretend to know who was behind recent bombings in Uzbekistan, Thailand and elsewhere. There have been some contacts between Al Qaeda and Islamic or separatist groups in Uzbekistan, Thailand, the Philippines and Chechnya, and Chechens and others have served as foot soldiers for terrorist activities devised by Al Qaeda. But when the governments of the countries concerned lay the blame for homegrown terrorism at Al Qaeda's door, they are trying to excuse their own failures. Muslim violence in southern Thailand may well result from an increase in religious identity among Muslims that is linked to international events. But it also has a lot to do with the arrogance of Bangkok administrators and the military, and the extrajudicial methods that have flourished under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Likewise, there are plenty of reasons for people in Uzbekistan, especially devout Muslims and the Tajik minority, to rebel against the Soviet-era dictator Islam Karimov. With friends like these, the West is exposed to wider Muslim resentment. It is right to condemn bomb throwers but counterproductive to accept assertions that Al Qaeda is the root of this particular evil. The same applies to violence in China's western colony, Xinjiang, the home of an oppressed Muslim minority, the Uighurs.

The Philippines presents another example. The main threat there is the MILF insurgency, which long predates Al Qaeda. The higher profile but less significant Abu Sayyaf terrorist gang has been linked to Al Qaeda and is happy to return the compliment by claiming to be fighting for oppressed Muslims everywhere. Hyperbole breeds hyperbole. Government credibility is now so low that a recent claim by Manila to have thwarted a Madrid-style bombing has been widely treated as an election stunt. The Philippines has a history of political violence, some the work of agent provocateurs. Whatever the truth on this occasion, the Philippines problems are home-grown and can be resolved only in a national or regional context.

None of this is to argue that separatist bombing campaigns have justification. Some are as ruthless, as devoid of concern for innocents, as Al Qaeda's operations. But unless they are accepted and treated as homegrown terrorism, they will not be properly addressed and the prestige of Al Qaeda among the discontented will rise. By turning the war on Al Qaeda into a global war on terrorism, the West is giving Osama bin Laden and his followers a global presence, real or imagined, that they could not otherwise claim.