A Signal Honour

4 May 2012

A Signal Honour

By Gwynne Dyer

I wanted you to be the first to know. It has just been revealed by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy in the United States that I am on a very short list of journalists (eight in Western countries, and seven others in India, Pakistan and Arab countries) to whom Osama bin Laden wanted to send “special media material” on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. To what do I owe this honour?

I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the letters that the American forces seized when they raided bin Laden’s house in northern Pakistan a year ago, but according to the CTC’s translation the plan was to send these carefully selected and named journalists a site address and password “at the right time” so that we could download his “special material”.

That never happened, because bin Laden was killed before the anniversary rolled round, but it does raise an interesting question. None of the people he named (me, Bob Fisk of the “Independent” in Britain, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in the United States, and independent journalist Eric Margolis in Canada, for example) has actually written in favour of al-Qaeda and its goals – so what did he think he would gain by sending us the stuff?

The answer, I suspect, is that he had been reduced to grasping at straws. He had been on the run for ten years, and trapped in that rather bare house in Abbottabad (now bulldozed) for six. He had no real-time communication with anybody in the rest of the world, because if he used telephones, the internet, indeed anything electronic except the TV and Playstation, it would almost certainly lead the Americans to his lair within weeks.

He tried to go on directing al-Qaeda by sending numerous letters, but they would have taken weeks to reach their destinations, and in any case by last year the organisation was in an advanced state of disintegration. As an ideology and a franchise it lives on, but even in that attenuated form its ability to attract recruits and popular support has been gravely damaged by the events of the “Arab Spring”.

In other words, Osama bin Laden no longer had much relevance in the world, and he had a lot of time on his hands. But he certainly went on reading his clippings. Terrorists always read their clippings.

Terrorists are a recently evolved subset of the grand old category of “revolutionaries.” Their deeds, however ugly, are not “senseless”: their ultimate goal is almost always to change a government somewhere. They cannot achieve it by peaceful means, and the population whose interests they think they serve is not ready to revolt, so they resort to terrorism in an attempt to motivate and mobilise the masses.

I’m using the word “terrorist” here not in its pejorative sense, but its professional one. When somebody seeks to achieve political goals by using violence, and is not operating under the protection of a sovereign state, we call him a terrorist. And since the amount of violence a terrorist can bring to bear, as a non-state actor, is usually quite limited, he depends on its psychological impact more than its sheer destructiveness.

The point of terrorism isn’t just to frighten people, but to stampede them (or rather their governments) into some ill-considered action that will actually benefit the terrorists’ strategy. In the post-colonial context, the violence is usually meant to make the target government behave very badly, “cracking down” in ways that will drive people – maybe its own citizens, maybe a different group entirely – into the arms of the revolutionaries.

In the case of al-Qaeda, the goal of 9/11 was to terrorise and enrage the American people, but not so that they would overthrow their own government. They obviously weren’t going to do that. However, their outrage would probably make the US government send massive military forces into the Arab world to “stamp out” the terrorism. That, in turn, would outrage the Arabs – who were the real object of bin Laden’s revolutionary ambitions.

Well, it worked, in the sense that the West has not been so unpopular in the Arab world since the time of the Crusades. But the revolutions, when they finally started happening in Arab countries in 2010, rejected the leadership of jihadis like bin Laden and sought democracy instead. He probably died a deeply disappointed man.

As a professional revolutionary, however, he would have retained his interest in the strategies and methods of terrorism down to the end. Since there was not much informed analysis of those issues available in the Arabic-language media, he would have followed it in the English-language media instead.

As did all his colleagues, probably – I always assumed that al-Qaeda’s leadership was getting at least a precis of the article every time I wrote about their strategy and tactics. But for bin Laden, locked up in his house in Abbottabad, it could easily have become an obsession. I think it did, because the one thing that I and the other journalists named in his letter have in common is that we all dealt in analysis, not mere invective.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure I know where he was seeing my stuff. “Dawn”, the leading paper in Pakistan, has run this column for the last thirty years.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“He tried…Spring”; and “Terrorists…masses”)