Debunk the myth of Al Qaeda

Its size and reach have been blown out of proportion

News reports indicate that Al Qaeda, ousted from its camps in Afghanistan, is now on the loose, spreading terror around the world.

Several recent attacks have been claimed by or attributed to the terrorist network, including an assault on a Jewish synagogue in Tunisia, multiple explosions in Yemen last month (including one at the US Embassy compound), attacks in the Philippines, and a fire in the Milan metro.

But is Al Qaeda really behind all these attacks? Analysts cite differences in modus operandi compared with alleged past attacks, as well as more probable perpetrators in those recent incidents. Still, Al Qaeda is likely to be the top suspect in future incidents. Victims, including states, may even blame Al Qaeda for political reasons, namely to gain US sympathy and support.

Would-be terrorists the world over may be inspired to perpetrate attacks, seeking to feel they are part of what they perceive as a large, powerful terrorist movement. The public perception that Al Qaeda is running wild is likely to increase fear, especially among Americans.

Such concern, when translated into a heightened vigilance about one's surroundings – particularly in light of this week's warnings about future attacks in the US – may not be a completely bad thing. But unchecked public fear, taken to an extreme, could immobilize citizens, jeopardize civil liberties, and lead America into too many fights abroad.

The United States and its allies in the war on terrorism must defuse the widespread image of Al Qaeda as a ubiquitous, super-organized terror network and call it as it is: a loose collection of groups and individuals that doesn't even refer to itself as "Al Qaeda." Most of the affiliated groups have distinct goals within their own countries or regions, and pose little direct threat to the United States. Washington must also be careful not to imply that any attack anywhere is by definition, or likely, the work of Al Qaeda.

This phenomenon of "exaggerated enemy" is not new.

In 1983, three spectacular suicide bombings in Beirut were claimed by the previously unknown "Islamic Jihad." Numerous subsequent attacks were attributed to the group. And while the intelligence community concluded that "Islamic Jihad" was a nom de guerre for the Lebanese Hizbullah, it was clear that many of the subsequent attacks were unrelated to the militant Shiia organization.

Still, the campaign succeeded in creating the image of an invincible force, and "Islamic Jihad" became a symbol to follow – much as Al Qaeda is today.

The US must be careful about its use of the term "Al Qaeda." Meaning "the base" in Arabic, it originally referred to an Afghan operational base for the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation in the '80s.

In the current context of Osama bin Laden's terror network, this name was imposed externally by Western officials and media sources. Mr. bin Laden has, in fact, never mentioned "Al Qaeda" publicly.

In the quest to define the enemy, the US and its allies have helped to blow it out of proportion. Posters and matchbooks featuring bin Laden's face and the reward for his capture in a dozen languages transformed this little-known "jihadist" into a household name and, in some places, a symbol of heroic defiance.

By committing itself to eradicating terrorism, the Bush administration has put itself in a difficult position, especially if "Al Qaeda" begins popping up all over the map. While the US government must be diligent in protecting its citizens, it cannot try to extinguish every terrorist flame that appears without further encouraging the phenomenon as well as exhausting its resources. America must choose its battles wisely.

Resisting immediate attribution of attacks to Al Qaeda is the first step in defusing the enemy. While the Bush administration has not necessarily been blaming all post-9/11 attacks on Al Qaeda, it has passively allowed others to claim themselves as Al Qaeda or to blame it.

By allowing Al Qaeda to become the top brand name of international terrorism, Washington has packaged the "enemy" into something with a structure, a leader, and a main area of operation.

An invisible, amorphous enemy may be even more frightening. But we must be honest with the facts in order to construct a viable long-term strategy to combat terrorism.

• Kimberly A. McCloud and Adam Dolnik are research associates at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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