Thu, May 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Al-Qaeda's old strategy may hasten its end

By Peter Preston  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Deeds, as ever, speak more eloquently than words, Blofeld or blowhard. Al-Qaeda isn't finished. Its structure -- devolved, barely organized by conventional standards -- can survive any number of strikes at individual bases. There's no command and control system to disrupt: just loose groupings of the desperate and the deluded with lorries full of explosive or grenades strapped to their waists, ready to die from Casablanca to Riyadh. Blood brothers of the Israeli bus bombers.

You can't cut off the head, because the manic heart still beats on regardless.

Afghanistan, we may guess, gave the guys some pause. There was, at least, a brief pause once it was over. By contrast, Iraq seems to have had no impact whatsoever. Our flag-waving boys are barely back from the Gulf before terror carries on its dismal way. It is killing business as usual -- the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam business of yesteryear replicated from Morocco to Saudi Arabia.

Yet these deeds, in their brutal banality, also tell an interesting story. Nuclear weapons, dirty bombs, weapons of mass destruction? They may be part of the long-term planning, part of the dreaming. Scary sketches and formulae scribbled in pencil. But they are not, for the moment, part of the reality. That is relentlessly low-tech, as basic as a bad day on the West Bank, or an outrage in the Algeria of 30 years ago. Synchronize watches, light the blue touch paper and self-destruct immediately.

The targets, time after time, are relentlessly soft. A nightclub of young Aussies in Bali; sleepy western compounds in Saudi; Jewish center and Spanish social club in Casablanca -- where the man with the bomb arrived with a long knife. You can't defend yourself against threats like these. They're no-brainers, picked for no particularly cogent reason. They don't even single out the enemies of Osama for particular treatment. Most of those who were maimed or murdered in Casablanca on Friday were ordinary Moroccans.

So collect the clues. Will this agglomeration of terror come to central London or, again, to Manhattan? Perhaps. But it's rather likelier to visit downtown Cairo or Kuala Lumpur first. That, strategically, is the PR boon left over from Sept. 11: you don't need to take big risks to garner big headlines any longer. More ordinary mayhem as usual will serve just as well. One unspecified threat to Kenya blanks out east Africa for the duration.

Worse, there's no shortage of recruits, human fodder for annihilation. Western terrorist threats like the ETA or the IRA can mount continuing campaigns using very few active fighters; maybe a hundred or two max. If either had lost 20 men in a couple of attacks, that would have been disaster. But not for al-Qaeda. It, seemingly, has volunteers to spare. It can lose one to kill one. It doesn't need to husband resources. It thinks it has tens of thousands to spare.

Yet there is some frail reason for hope in such conclusions. Who will really suffer most after Casablanca, for instance? Moroccans.

One lifeline of progress there -- tourism -- lies snapped for the moment. It is the same in Kenya, where a new democratic government has to muster its resources.

Closed, claustrophobic societies like Saudi are pressure cookers when the heat comes on. Open or half-open societies are programmed to respond very differently. They know how much they have to lose. The message of bin Laden has scant relevance to their daily lives. It is a maverick howl, not a call to revolution. And here, for the west, is the essential dislocation.

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