The latest atrocious murders committed by Al Qaeda raise a number of thoughts for me, as does the swift killing/capture of those apparently responsible for the murder of Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia.
First, however bad the crimes that have been committed in our name, nothing that has yet been revealed comes close to the gratuitous evil of Al Qaeda. That shouldn’t be taken as an excuse, or a reason for playing down such crimes; in the presence of such an enemy its more necessary than ever to keep our own hands clean and to be seen to do so. But nothing should be taken to mitigate the guilt of the Al Qaeda terrorists or to suggest that there is any possible compromise that can be made with them.
Second, as I’ve pointed out previously, the fact that Al Qaeda is committing crimes within Muslim countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia is a sign of self-defeating weakness. Much as the Saudi authorities, and much of the Saudi public, would like to sit on the fence, they’re being forced to choose sides.
Third, although the evil displayed by Al Qaeda is inexcusable that doesn’t mean it’s inexplicable or comes out of nowhere. There’s always a supply of angry young men, but it takes both motivation and training to convert angry young men into effective terrorists. Both are provided by participation in holy wars like the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. The current generation of Al Qaeda leaders came up through the fighting in Afghanistan and the training camps there. This group has been taking heavy casualties, mostly as a result of effective police work around the world. Quite a few attacks have been prevented, and in most cases where an attack has been carried out, those responsible have been killed or captured.
This leads me to conclude that, if the world community, led by the US, had followed through effectively in Afghanistan, putting substantial resources into restoring order and reconstructing infrastructure there, and had worked together against terrorism, Al Qaeda would have been gravely weakened by now.
Unfortunately, while some of the necessary things have been done, any benefits have been largely offset by the war in Iraq. Among the many negative consequences of the war, the one that will have the most direct consequences for us is the boost it has given to terrorism. Until recently, the main effect has been to stimulate terrorist recruiting by inciting anti-American feeling. But it’s looking increasingly clear that places like Fallujah are going to be the 21st century equivalent of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The bloody and futile assault by US forces in May, in retaliation for the earlier killing and mutilation of private military contractors there, has solidified public hostility to the US among the people of the city. The recent US missile attack on a house allegedly used by terrorists only reinforces the point that Fallujah is a no-go zone for ground forces loyal to the US, and will undoubtedly remain so after June 30. If we are dealing with a new bin Laden in ten years time, he will probably have come from Iraq.