"The most significant thing about Islamic terrorism today is that it is a politicosocial phenomenon among apparently self-motivated individuals and small groups," writes historian William Pfaff.  --  It's a pity that the Observer (UK) chose to take an off-handed and rather dubious opinion dropped in passing toward the end of this article and made it the title and sub-title of an otherwise sensible series of observations, the most of important of which is comparable to the thesis of Adam Curtis's three-part BBC documentary, "The Power of Nightmares"  --  that al-Qaeda as a global "organization" is a most dubious notion, and that at present, "Ayman al-Zawahiri, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush . . . exist in a symbiotic relationship." ...


By William Pfaff

** These British bombers are a consequence of a misguided and catastrophic pursuit of multiculturalism **

Observer (UK)
August 21, 2005


There is damaging confusion over the real nature of the terrorist threat and where it is located. Is it global or local? It undoubtedly is both, but the former is a distraction from the most serious problem, which lies in Europe.

In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the American government called terrorism centrally directed and international, motivated by hatred of the West. It was waging a 'war' against the West, so the West must go to war against it. Many or most in Britain and Europe accepted this.

Al-Qaeda, identified by Washington as international terrorism's central authority, was said by the U.S. and British governments to be linked to Saddam Hussein's Iraq and certain other Middle Eastern governments. This was untrue. The evidence linking the London, Sharm el-Sheik (so far as we know), and Madrid bombings to the surviving al-Qaeda leadership remains tenuous at best.

It is unclear whether al-Qaeda remains a group with a disciplined structure and the organizational capacity for international action. Thanks to the internet, it communicates, but what is behind the communication?

The most significant thing about Islamic terrorism today is that it is a politicosocial phenomenon among apparently self-motivated individuals and small groups. They are volunteers in a loose international movement of religious revival and radicalization that offers alienated young Muslims an explanation for the unsettling forces at work in their lives and a mission.

The argument that terrorism is an organized global menace continues to be put forward in Washington, although with fading conviction. It is necessary as the justification for the Bush administration's war in Iraq. It is essential for Bush and Blair to be able to say that staying the course in Iraq can disable or end the terrorism practised by young Muslims in Europe and elsewhere. The argument ignores or implicitly denies the cultural and social sources of Islamic extremism in the West.

Few today would seriously deny that the war in Iraq generates terrorist sympathies among members of Western Europe's Muslim communities, as the Palestinian intifadas did. The war clearly provides a continuing obstacle to the integration of these communities into the larger society, in Britain as elsewhere.

Ending the war would remove the obstacle, but today would, quite rightly, be interpreted as defeat for the coalition. Despite the fact that the Iraqi resistance seems predominantly nationalist in motivation, the radical Islamists would claim credit for forcing the coalition's withdrawal.

Military withdrawal none the less is perfectly possible, since the evidence is overwhelming that foreign military occupation and the resistance are in symbiotic and symmetrical relationship, each reinforcing the other. In any case, American public opinion has taken a sharp turn against the war, and finding a plausible exit is now the Bush administration's priority. Without one, the government will eventually confront the dire choice between conscription, politically ruinous to the Republicans, and a smokescreen-covered defeat, as in Vietnam.

This 'defeat', however, would transfer the problem of Islamic fundamentalism back to where it belongs, inside Islamic society itself. There, the myth of a return to a glorious past will eventually be discredited.

The primary aim of the Islamic extremists is to radicalize Islamic society in order to purify it. Their main concern with the West is to expel it and its influences from the Islamic world. The radical leaders have no imaginable reason to want to conquer and try to rule the infidel West, even if they could.

The notion of al-Qaeda as a global force is mainly the result of America's obsession with it. The 11 September attacks gave a conservative American government just the challenge it wanted, having already a malevolent eye on the defiant Saddam Hussein and an ambition to establish new Middle Eastern strategic bases.

The attacks were immediately called a new Pearl Harbor, the start of a war more dangerous than the Cold War, waged by militants acting out of 'hatred for freedom' -- creating an emergency that required mobilization of all the democracies under American leadership. You are with us or against us.

The U.S. reorganized its government to defend the 'homeland,' drastically revised its security and immigration legislation, set up military courts of exception, denounced the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners and the use of torture as 'no longer relevant,' and suspended habeas corpus in certain security cases. It attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. Blair's Britain followed, contributing to the forces that eventually produced the London bombings.

British police investigation presumes the London bombings on 7 July were carried out by young, British-born citizens, using materials easily obtained in supermarkets, hardware shops, and beauty parlors. The second round of attempted explosions still seems the work of young amateurs and their friends and family, intended 'to scare people.'

Police asked of the first group: 'Who supported them? Who financed them? Who trained them? Who encouraged them?' On the evidence of previous bombings in Europe, it is reasonable to think that they supported, encouraged, and financed one another, took their training from the internet, or from radicalized friends, and were inspired, one might say, by the zeitgeist. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who says he is second in command of al-Qaeda, appeared on television to claim credit for it all and warn that worse is on the way. But that is his practice.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush also exist in a symbiotic relationship. All have a vested interest in terrorism as a centrally directed international threat (an Islamic Comintern), at war everywhere with the West.

However, many have already seen in it an international network of people with a common ideology and access to the internet; some with, but most without, experience of Afghanistan under the Russians or Iraq under the coalition; and some committing copycat crimes motivated by unarticulated motives of political-religious protest and moral dislocation.

A half-century of a well-intentioned but catastrophically mistaken policy of multiculturalism, indifferent or even hostile to social and cultural integration, has produced in Britain and much of Europe a technologically educated but culturally and morally unassimilated immigrant demi-intelligentsia.

Like the anarchists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these people have no realisable goals and make no meaningful political demands, only Utopian ones. Thus, like the anarchists, they must be called nihilists.

For that reason, they present a profound problem to governments accustomed to dealing with rationally manageable threats, enemies and demands. Reason has no answer to nihilism.

--William Pfaff's most recent book is The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, published by Simon & Schuster.