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As our dear leaders keep trying to persuade us of a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, here is a warning against over-simplification from Jason Burke, chief reporter with The Observer newspaper. ( see also: http://www.observer.co.uk/worldview/page/0,11916,715400,00.h tml ) best wishes Cathy Aitchison ---------------------------- http://www.observer.co.uk/worldview/story/0,11581,891962,00.html Powell doesn't know who he is up against ---------------------------- Jason Burke warns that the US focus on al-Qaeda ignores the many hues of Islamic militants - and underplays the danger of men such as al-Zarqawi Sunday February 9, 2003 The Observer For three days we drove across Afghanistan. Overhead American planes laced the wintry sky with vapour trails. Around us the 'Jihad International' was falling apart. In Jalalabad we watched fighters from the Pakistani Harkat ul Mujahideen group captured. In Gardez we saw Taliban soldiers rounded up. The bombers above us were on their way to pound the northern cities where militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were holding out against American and Afghan soldiers. To understand who they were, and what they were doing in Afghanistan, is to understand why US Secretary of State Colin Powell's rhetoric last week was rooted in a fundamental misconception of the nature of modern Islamic terrorism. Powell linked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an experienced and committed Jordanian militant, with both Osama bin Laden and Baghdad. To grasp the truth about al-Zarqawi, and thus the truth about contemporary Muslim militancy, a major revision of the conventional wisdom is needed. Powell, like many strategists, seems to think he is fighting a war against a single enemy or an identifiable group. He is not. He is fighting a war against a political religion. None of the men I saw as I bounced across the rutted tracks that pass as roads in Afghanistan were members of 'al-Qaeda'. Nor indeed were many of the fighters from Chechnya, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria and, of course, Iraq who were scattering through the mountains and deserts in an attempt to escape the US-led onslaught. They were certainly militants, full of hatred of the West and the 'Crusader-Zionist' Alliance that they blamed for the problems of their homelands and those of the Islamic world more generally. They were all undoubtedly committed to the violent holy struggle that they saw as their duty of jihad. That is why they were in Afghanistan. But, though they may have admired bin Laden, they were not his operatives. Indeed many had been in Afghanistan long before bin Laden returned to the country, after a seven-year absence, in 1996. They had come to fight the Soviets and, unable to return to their own countries for fear of incarceration and execution, had stayed on after Moscow pulled its troops out in 1989. Over the next decade many continued their activism, organising violence against Middle Eastern regimes and, increasingly, against the people who they felt were supporting those regimes: America and its allies. In the late Eighties, bin Laden, because of his wealthy background and clever media projection, was one of the more prominent among the various men leading the volunteers who flocked from all over the world to fight the Soviet Union. Al-Zarqawi, who led his own little group of Jordanians, did not fight for him or with him. There were scores of groups of Arabs in combat. Bin Laden led one. Al-Zarqawi led one too. Bin Laden spent from 1989 to 1996 in his native Saudi Arabia and in Sudan. He had contact with many radicals, including some of those who had remained in Afghanistan. But many more militants had nothing to do with him. They had their own resources. They did not need him. From 1989 to 1998, when al-Qaeda pulled off its first big attack, there were scores of bombings. Bombs exploded in France, under the World Trade Centre in New York, in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East. None was the work of bin Laden, but of the diverse groups who formed a new wave of Islamic militancy washing across the world. Al-Qaeda was part of that wave. But al-Qaeda was not a large part of it. There were dozens of independent operators with their own funding, their own contacts, their own ambitions and agendas. The violence that extended the jihad against the Soviets into cities from Yemen to the American East Coast was their work, not bin Laden's. Al-Zarqawi was one of these men. Even after their bombing of the American embassies in east Africa and Dar-es-Salaam, al-Qaeda still remained nothing more than primus inter pares. The Taliban made alliance with dozens of different organisations during their five years in power. As the number of Afghan recruits dropped and Pakistani government support diminished, the mullahs turned increasingly to overseas groups for manpower. That was why my drive across Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 had been so cosmopolitan. Groups from dozens of countries - with Pakistanis, Egyptians and Uzbeks most prominent - concluded pragmatic and mutually beneficial alliances with the hardline Islamic militia. So, of course, did al-Qaeda. So too did al-Zarqawi and his little band of Jordanians. All lived and worked together in Afghanistan, co-operating on some things, arguing over others. Afghanistan, with its security and the facilities that bin Laden and others were able to develop, saw a temporary coalescing of different radical groups. In all they represented the full range of modern Islamic militancy. All had their own agendas and their own backgrounds. And when the bombers came some fought, temporarily united by a common enemy, and some fled. Al-Zarqawi, injured in March 2002, escaped to Iran, which expelled him. He ended up in northern Iraq, the nearest safe haven. It also had the advantage of being close to Jordan, his homeland and primary target for over a decade. He was not alone of course. More than 100 other men who had been with various groups, or in training in camps run by al-Qaeda or other organisations, had arrived in Kurdistan too. Together they infused the Ansar-ul-Islam group, which has roots going back to the late Eighties, with a new violent and fanatical edge. Then, so we are told, al-Zarqawi headed to Baghdad for medical treatment where, apparently, he still is. Al-Zarqawi is not an al-Qaeda operative. If there is a link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein he is not it. His story is the story of modern Islamic militancy. It is also the story of why the American-led 'war on terror' risks backfiring badly. Al-Zarqawi is not even, on close examination, an 'al-Qaeda associate', as Powell claimed. Primarily, al- Zarqawi is part of a broad movement of Islamic militancy that extends well beyond the influence and activities of any one man. This is a movement that is rooted in broad trends in the Middle East, in the economic, social and political failure of governments, both locally and in the West, to fulfil the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people. Islamic militancy is a multivalent, diverse and complex phenomenon. Focusing on individuals, even bin Laden, is a ludicrous oversimplification. Desperately trying to paint all Muslim militants as 'al-Qaeda' is wrong and counter-productive. Eliminating one man, or one group, will not make much difference. Nor will concocting spurious links between very different threats. If Powell believes his own rhetoric then he has simply not understood the nature of his enemy. -- Cathy Aitchison _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. 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