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LiberalOasis Interviews Jason Burke
"Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror" is an important new book that reaches American bookstores on September 6, 2003.
The book's author is Jason Burke, chief reporter for The Observer of London who, in his own words, "has spent much of the last five years investigating the details of how Islamic terrorism works and what is behind it."
"Al-Qaeda" does an immense public service by debunking many of the myths surrounding Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, chronicling how the murky world of Islamic terror functions, and explaining in vivid detail the historical forces that have brought us where we are today. You can order the book here.
On August 31, 2003, Jason Burke joined LiberalOasis for a one-on-one interview.
LiberalOasis: Talk a little bit about what got you involved in covering Islamic militancy.
Jason Burke: I first started covering Islamic militancy and related issues when I was working as an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times in London in the early to mid-90s, when I was looking a lot at the number of Islamic militants who were coming to the UK to be based.
I had a previous interest, not so much in Islamic militancy, but in the Middle East, which was in 1991, when I was at university, I went on a slightly, ludicrous expedition with a friend to northern Iraq to fight alongside the peshmerga guerillas, which is one of those insane things you do when you're 21.
We didn't do any fighting, but I spent a lot of time down there that summer.
LO: Did that experience with the peshmerga help you in interacting with militants, and help you get better information than the average reporter could?
JB: It certainly helped me. The Kurdish peshmerga I was with were resolutely secular. So doesn't give any great advantage in terms of playing on any kind of credentials as a former activist.
What it has done is given me an idea of...how many of the people who are going into militant organizations see themselves.
Because they are often 19, 20 year-olds, quite frequently from good families and educations, who see their involvement, at least to some extent, in terms of adventure and a different life...the sort of things that people, young men, all over the world look for at all times. That's clearly only one reason among many.
But it's given me some kind of an understanding, how that might have been the case for some of them.
It was a long time ago, mind you.
I also spent some time in Pakistan and India in the early 1990s. Some was reporting, some was holiday.
The main thing that took me into it was in '98. I left the Sunday Times and went to work, from Islamabad, first for the independent newspaper here, then for the Observer.
And 1998 was a critical period for the Taliban, for bin Laden, for the Pakistani government, a whole variety of different issues that was coming to a head at the time.
And it became very clear to me very quickly that this was the big story and would be the big story.
LO: Were you in the region on September 11?
JB: I was not. I was in London...I had just gotten back from a trip to Algeria, and had been back in London a few days when September 11 happened.
[I then] went straight off back to Pakistan...a country I knew very well having lived there for two and a half years. I was in Pakistan by September 14...and I was then in Pakistan for most of the air war, then into Afghanistan, smuggled myself into Jalalabad the day it fell.
And then was in Afghanistan for the rest of the war, leaving shortly after Tora Bora where I sat on a hillside and watched what was going on for a week.
LO: Turning to your book "Al-Qaeda," what would you say was the biggest misconception the Western public has about Al-Qaeda?
JB: There's an understanding among the Western public that Al-Qaeda is a coherent, organized terrorist network with a hierarchy, a command and control structure, a degree of commission and execution of terrorist acts by a few individuals.
That simply isn't the case.
The biggest myth is that all the various incidents that we are seeing are linked to some kind of central organization.
One of the reasons the myth is so prevalent is that it's a very comforting one.
Because if you clearly get rid of that central organization, if you get rid off, particularly bin Laden...and a few score, a few hundred people around him...then the problem would apparently be solved.
Unfortunately, that idea is indeed a myth and bears very little resemblance to what's happening on the ground.
LO: So if you did get rid of bin Laden and his broad inner circle, what would happen?
JB: If you look at the broad mass of Islamic militancy, one word that's a really useful one is nebulous...because, coming from Nebula, as in a star system, it gives a kind of good image of how modern Islamic radicalism works.
Al-Qaeda, which I'd say can only be defined as a small number of people who are with bin Laden from 1996 to 2001 in Afghanistan, can be seen as one planet.
You get rid of that planet, a large planet, with a large gravitational pull, but still just one planet or one star.
You get rid of that planet, you still got everything else left. You still got thousands of other stars. Some big, some small. You got other planets and all the rest of it.
To my mind, if were talking about the phenomenon of modern Islamic militancy, within which the threat that we all face is rooted, you have to look beyond bin Laden.
You have to look at all the other stars and planets and ask who they are, why they're there, how they interrelate. All those reasons are entirely independent of bin Laden or his supposed Al-Qaeda group.
LO: Would you at least minimize the ability of terrorists to execute the spectacular kind of attacks, such as September 11, if you took away bin Laden, and his money and his planning abilities.
JB: Yeah, don't get me wrong...
...the first acts are and have been, military. And I don't have a problem with that.
The war on terror needs a strong military component. Traditional counter-terrorism methods need to be employed.
From 1996 to 2001, bin Laden and those around him had created something that was a very significant threat to the security of...billions of people. That had to be removed.
What happened in Afghanistan was a very effective display of how that part of the threat can be removed. And there is a time and a place for military action, and often only military action will...complete the task.
The Americans currently, for a whole variety of reasons, not least political will, are militarily incredibly effective, and that's a very useful tool that is an inherent...critical part of a general package to address the war on terror.
My argument is that...it can't be the only one.
The thing about bin Laden and Al-Qaeda that needs to be understood is what bin Laden was able to do was temporarily draw together a variety of strands within modern Sunni Muslim, Salafi [defined in the book "Al-Qaeda" as the belief "that society should emulate that of Mohammed"], jihadi militancy.
Those strands had often existed previously. They were pulled together [and] offered a series of resources that were very attractive to them.
That centering effect, that focus, that pulling together was ended in 2001.
So you can see the period from 1996 to 2001, when bin Laden was in Afghanistan, as a temporary phase in modern Islamic militancy, during which bin Laden and those people around him -- who have been dubbed Al-Qaeda, even though they themselves rarely use the phrase -- were preeminent.
That preeminence is now over. We're into a post-Al-Qaeda phase. And that needs to be recognized, and the current situation understood, if we are to counter the threat.
LO: Presidential candidate Bob Graham has said that Al-Qaeda was "on the ropes," but since we diverted our resources to Iraq, they have been able to "regroup." You would disagree with that?
JB: I disagree with his definition of Al-Qaeda...The label "Al-Qaeda" is thrown around with abandon. I'd ask Bob Graham: who is he talking about when he talks about Al-Qaeda?
Is he talking about bin Laden, [Ayman] al-Zawahiri, [and] a few senior militants who were with them in Afghanistan?
Is he talking about all those people who went to Afghanistan and may have gone through camps connected to bin Laden in a certain period?
Or is he talking about anybody in the world who feels strongly that it is their religious duty to violently resist what they see as a Western bid to subordinate and humiliate Islam?
LO: Is there any aspect of what you have described that is regrouping and strengthening its position?
JB: Yeah. My argument would be this.
Define Al-Qaeda in two ways, and I'm quite happy with either definition as long as we're aware of what we're using.
You can either have Al-Qaeda as this small group I'm talking about, this hardcore around bin Laden, that evolved very late on in the development of modern Islamic militancy, and to my mind has now disappeared.
Since 2001, I would say that their role in what is happening today, or their role in the threats and various bombs there have been, is negligible.
Bin Laden is peripheral. His practical ability to commission or organize terror has been minimized. Many of those operatives who were drawn to him in the late 1990s have been killed or imprisoned.
Others have had their efficiency vastly curtailed by the hugely enhanced monitoring by various secret services and cooperation between security authorities.
So the hardcore Al-Qaeda...defined in that narrow sense, is over effectively as a really powerful force in modern Islamic militancy.
But if you're talking about Al Qaeda as in a general phenomena, as in something far broader, something that involves groups all over the world, many of which predate bin Laden's involvement in Islamic militancy by decades. Others that have sprung up subsequently to the end of 2001. Others that can be seen as individuals who are attracted by bin Laden's ideas and bin Laden's tactics.
If you're looking at Al Qaeda in that sense...then it's immeasurably strengthened, and has been by the war on terror.
Now the link here is...what the Islamic militants -- and it's not just bin Laden, but a whole range of other ideologues -- set out to do.
It's a myth that they set out to bring the American nation, or any western nation...to its knees through military attack [or] asymmetric warfare.
The aim of attacks is to radicalize and mobilize those people in the Islamic world who have so far ignored or rejected their message.
The attacks are propaganda. That's why they're so spectacular, that's why they're designed to be mediatized so heavily. The deaths, tragic atrocious deaths, are for bin Laden, a bonus.
What he's really interested in is rousing, radicalizing and mobilizing people in the Middle East. And in that he's the same as any political activist.
LO: Is that mobilizing the end itself, or is there a larger political end that he or others are looking for?
JB: There are various aims.
At one level, there's the cosmic level, which is the profound belief that if all Muslims adhere to the strict Wahhabi style, literal interpretation of the Qu'ran and its injuctions on human behavior, then through this there will be an almost mystical transformation to a just society.
In which, in the militants' view, the Islamic world is restored to its position of parity, if not dominance, in cultural, political, social terms.
Further down the scale are more specific grievances. Bin Laden comes from a long tradition of Saudi dissidents. His early statements in '96, '97 were very strongly directed at the Saudi state and what he felt was wrong within the Saudi state.
Al-Zawahiri, his partner, is an Egyptian who was involved with Egyptian militancy long before bin Laden was involved in anything serious.
It's interesting that in many of his recent writings, al-Zawahiri has returned to an earlier theme of attacking local regimes, particularly the Egyptian regime.
So in terms of an end, there are different ends. Some are tactical, some are strategic, some are cosmic and religious.
They all will be achieved, in the view of the militants, if the world's 1.2 billion Muslims accept their ideas and act thereon...
...The call is addressed very specifically to Muslims. [It's] not saying directly to the West, "Back off. Go away. We're going to bomb you until you go away."
The call is direct to Muslims, "Rise up and together we will be able to free ourselves, liberate ourselves, have a just society."
LO: How important is the Saudi money connection in all of this?
JB: If you look at the funding of the Afghan war [against the Soviets in the 1980s], some of it came from America. Some of it came from the Saudi government. But much of it came from private sources within the Islamic world, particularly the Gulf...
...You've got lots of people that want to donate...all over the Islamc world, [including] collections in mosques.
The idea that it was all funded by America or the Saudi Arabian government is simply wrong.
Apply the same logic now. Yeah, there are a few people possibly in Saudi Arabia, some of who are likely to be princes or connected to the royal family, who are giving money, some of which may find itself via circuitous routes into the pockets of terrorists.
But, the Islamic...extremist movement as a whole draws its funds from innumerable sources, from rich private donors, from mosque collections, often money that is given unwittingly, from a huge raft of different places.
So you're not going to get to the end of it just by sorting out a few princes in Saudi Arabia.
LO: So what do Americans need to take from all of this to formulate an appropriate policy?
JB: The greatest weapon that we have in the war on terrorism is not Apache helicopters or Hellfire missiles or Navy Seals or British FAS or surveillance techniques.
It's the goodwill, and the essential moderation of humanity, of 99.9 percent of the Islamic world.
The battle that's being fought is actually a battle for hearts and minds, and it is on that battlefield that the war on terror will be won or lost.
Bin Laden is well aware of this. On the 27th of December 2001 he said Osama's death does not matter, or whether armies are dead or alive does not matter. The awakening has started.
What we have to do is address that process of radicalization or mobilization and curtail it.
The fundamental point on which that process is based is that the West wants to keep the Islamic world in a state of poverty, and disunity and of overall weakness.
Now that isn't the case, clearly isn't the case.
We have to somehow convince people in the Islamic world, who are increasingly convinced that it is the case, that they're wrong.
How do you that?
One way to do it would be to make sure Afghanistan is sorted out, [so] it's turned into a place which we can point to and say, "Look, we invaded it. We killed people. We caused the death of people.
"But it was a justified act of self-defense. Look what we have built, look what we have left. How can you call us anti-Muslim when we have created this in Afghanistan?"
Iraq, similarly. And it's too early to tell what's happening in Iraq. But it's not looking good.
LO: Is it happening in Afghanistan?
JB: No, it's not happening in Afghanistan. They've managed to maintain a vague degree of stability.
In a sense, what's happening is a reversion to previous patterns of control and rule.
You have a...Pashtun monarch effectively in power in Kabul, ruling through patronage, the money for which is being supplied by an external power that needs Afghanistan for strategic reasons, with largely autonomous powers in the provinces who feel, at the moment, that it is mutually beneficial for them to be relatively compliant.
That is a situation that has persisted in Afghanistan on and off for 300 years.
What's critical at the moment in Afghanistan, and this is a great achievement that is often overlooked, is that the regional powers are staying out.
Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Russia...who previously have helped to create the violence within Afghanistan that has caused so many problems post-Soviet era, are at the moment staying away.
As long as that overall situation persists, then you will get stability.
You will not get massive improvement. Massive improvement involves a lot more interest and a lot more money.
LO: Is that what America needs to do? Infuse these countries with more funds and create more economic development?
JB: It's partly that. That would be one thing.
What's amazing about America is, it's won the military war so well, and it's lost the propaganda war so badly.
There needs to be at a senior level, throughout those who are making key decisions, an understanding that this has to go well beyond just a purely military campaign.
There has to be a realization [that the] absolute critical part of the war on terror -- it will be lost unless this is done -- involves winning hearts and minds.
Through propaganda. Through making very big physical statements like resurrecting Afghanistan.
Through possibly more -- and I say this with an understanding of how practically difficult it can be -- working with multilateral bodies.
Given what underlies the militants' hate and fear is the idea that America and the West, in general, is set on pulling them down, denying them -- what they see given the history of the Islamic world -- as their rightful position.
Not dominance. They don't actually want to conquer the world...They talk about the Islamic world being free...
That has to be cut from under them [the sense that America wants to keep them down]. The various things that make their message resonate with many, many, many people has to be taken away from them.
And that involves tackling a whole raft of very thorny, very difficult issues.
But people have to start looking at this...how they can do this and how the propaganda war can be won.
LO: But can this be done with just words or do you need to show something tangible to the Islamic public?
JB: It has to be borne into every single policy decision...How will this play? Are we just cutting off our noses to spite our face? Will this be counterproductive?
How do we use "soft power," the power to achieve policy aims without coercion, rather than "hard power," i.e. the big stick.
This would work on everything. This would work on development decisions, trade decisions, foreign policy decisions, military decisions.
And it does work, in a sense, in military decisions already.
Look what the Americans are doing in Iraq. They're doing their best to avoid unnecessary civilian causalities...there's an awareness of it that transmits. But...that needs to be carried forth elsewhere.
Another main thing to realize is that straight democratization doesn't necessarily work. And isn't necessarily appropriate. And isn't necessarily wanted by people in the Middle East or in other countries.
They need to be empowered to choose their own governments and do so in a way that is authentic and satisfying to them.
One problem in policymaking...is this idea that Islam is bad, and that anything that smacks of Islam, even moderate Islam, is a problem and a threat.
That isn't the case, and moderate Islamic leaders need to be reached to, need to be strengthened, in so far as one can, need to be engaged with, need to be listened to.
And that doesn't appear to be happening much either.
LO: Was it happening with Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, the Islamic leader that was recently killed by a car bomb?
JB: Yeah, to an extent.
[But] the immediate reaction of [Defense Secretary Don] Rumsfeld, when the Shias...started agitating, was: we're not having anything that is Iran-style in Iraq.
Well this is a country that is next door to Iran. I mean, of course it's going to be Iran-style. Sixty percent of the population is Shia.
Just because it's a bit like Iran, and some of the guys in power have beards, and prayer caps and so forth, isn't necessarily a problem.
There have been a series of elections annulled in Najaf and Karbala and sundry other Iraqi cities on the basis that fundamentalists, so-called, might seize control.
In a sense, if people want to have moderate Islamic governments, then they should be allowed to have them.
Anything otherwise is going to stymied with the print of "Made In USA," and that's...never going to work.
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