TOPICS: Al Qaeda is now an idea

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian militant, is Osama bin Laden’s partner for the past 15 years. He is not saying much these days that is new. The recent London bombs are an opportunity to restate what is, with certain variations, the standard Islamist extremist argument: that the West is oppressing Muslims around the world, America and its allies are set on the humiliation, subordination and division of the lands of Islam and that this justifies self-defence by many different means, including suicide bombings. The only real difference with what has gone before is the explicit focus on the UK. This does not indicate any direct link with the London bombs. Whenever there has been an attack there has been a knee-jerk search for overseas links or for some kind of overall mastermind. No investigations into almost all of those attacks committed in recent years have revealed any such connections. Instead, we need to face up to the simple truth that Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri et al, do not need to organise attacks directly. They merely need to wait for the message they have spread around the world for the others to follow. Al Qaeda is now an idea, not an organisation.

The focus on the UK might also concentrate the minds of those in government who, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, deny a link between the attacks and Britain’s role in Iraq. The UK has ascended the list of preferred jihadi targets in the past two years. A threat against the UK existed before 2003, but British involvement in Iraq made it much worse.

Propaganda has always been the mainstay of al-Zawahiri’s, and thus, Al Qaeda’s strategy. Al-Zawahiri is only a little older than Bin Laden but, when the two met in Pakistan in the late 1980s, he was a far more experienced militant. He had been imprisoned and tortured in his native Egypt and had thought deeply about the tactics that would bring the militant group success. He recognised that activists were in a minority and blamed the “false consciousness’’ of the Egyptian masses for their failure to rise up.

The Al Qaeda’s attacks had two aims. One was wounding the enemy, America and its allies, but another was to use carefully choreographed acts to impress, amaze and inspire those in the Islamic world who had yet to heed the call to arms. In a book published in 2002, al-Zawahiri laid out his aims. “We must mobilise the nation in the battle of Islam against unbelief.” The bombers of Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul, Riyadh and London have heeded their call. We now have a situation where autonomous cells carry out attacks, at times out of their own choice, which are applauded by Al Qaeda leaders. This is exactly as al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden had hoped.

In 2001, Bin Laden said his “life or death did not matter’’ because “the awakening has started.’’ There may have been no mass uprising in the Islamic world but there are an increasing number of angry people who have answered their call. — The Guardian