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[casi] Powell doesn't know who he is up against - Jason Burke warns against oversimplification of Al-Qaeda

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:,11916,715400,00.h
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best wishes
Cathy Aitchison

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

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

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

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