First published March 2004 in South Africa’s Sunday Times
It’s a safe bet that Osama bin Laden has no significant following in Mexico.
So there was something incongruous about hundreds of soccer fans from that overwhelmingly Catholic country recently urging on their national under-23 team with chants of “Osama! Osama!”
The Jihad is but a T-shirt away
Their chant was not, however, an expression of loyalty to the self-styled “sheikh” of global jihad; it was simply an ugly attempt to intimidate their opponents on the night the US under-23 team.
And that incident tells us that the flesh-and-blood Osama bin Laden is no longer nearly as important as the iconic Osama, the symbol of an idea.
Bin Laden has become to global terrorism what Colonel Sanders has long been to consumers of Kentucky Fried Chicken a signifier of content, a symbol of the brand.
That explains the apparent disconnection in the past month’s headlines: on the one hand, we’re told that al-Qaeda’s leadership is cornered in the wilds of western Pakistan and will be caught within months; on the other hand, we learn that al-Qaeda bombed Madrid and has Europe and the US braced for more.
It’s a safe bet Bin Laden will be apprehended sooner or later. But as long as he’s not taken alive and humiliated like Saddam, his demise is unlikely to bring an end to the war he started.
Senior Bush administration officials have long been warning as much. Their concern, however, is obvious. America’s Hollywood imagination requires the existence of a single diabolical mastermind behind the terror of September 11 and the subsequent outrages from Bali to Istanbul, Casablanca to Madrid.
It’s far more difficult to comprehend the reality of al-Qaeda as a loose association of networks and cells spanning the world, feeding off rampant and growing anti-American sentiment to garner funds and recruits to wage a war that may last a generation or more.
A number of terror attacks in the past three years in Indonesia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe have been carried out under the “al-Qaeda” rubric.
But those responsible may have had negligible, if any, contact with the structure that planned 9/11. “Al-Qaeda” has become a symbolic association that functions as a force-multiplier for local Islamist terror cells all over the world.
When a Turkish Islamist organisation bombs a synagogue in Istanbul, the magic words “al-Qaeda” transform the event from a terror attack by one group of Turks on another into another episode of the jihad of our times.
And that builds both the power of the al-Qaeda brand among those who fear it and those who love it, and also the appeal of the perpetrators to local youths whose imagination has been captured by Bin Laden’s attacks on the US.
An OBL desktop cigarette lighter
But in terms of building al-Qaeda’s mass appeal, the movement’s own actions have been dwarfed by those of its enemy. Even the authoritative and staunchly pro-Bush International Institute of Strategic Studies in London has concluded that the US invasion of Iraq has substantially boosted al-Qaeda’s ability to attract recruits.
Ironically, the impact of the war in the Muslim world has been to generalise the al-Qaeda perspective that the US is a hostile power whose actions must be resisted. The al-Qaeda idea of global jihad is stronger than ever, and Iraq has amplified rather than stifled it.
The casual observer might expect the combination of bracing for new terror strikes, and the revelations of the 9/11 inquiry that the administration’s fetishistic obsession with Iraq detracted from its campaign against terrorism, to be bad news for a president seeking re-election.
Don’t be too sure. Republican strategists have stressed that Bush’s re-election prospects hinge on making the war on terror the principal issue believing, not without good reason, that a more fearful electorate is more likely to re-elect their hawkish president than to follow the Spanish in pursuit of a more rational response.
Just in case Bin Laden is eliminated before the election and US voters incline to the (false) hope that they’re any safer as a result, administration officials have reportedly made a conscious decision to portray the Iraq-based Jordanian Musab al-Zarqawi, to quote one magazine, “as the Next Bad Guy in the war on terror, possibly the successor to Osama bin Laden”.
That idea gets little credibility among longtime al-Qaeda watchers, for a variety of reasons.
Not least is the fact that there won’t be a successor to a man whose function today is equivalent to that of Che Guevara’s face on a T-shirt. Hollywood-minded US voters may need a “Next Bad Guy”, but for the jihadis themselves, a “martyred” Bin Laden will suffice to personify the al-Qaeda idea.