Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, August 18, 2006

M K Bhadrakumar, "Be skeptical ... be very skeptical," Asia times Online, Aug 18, 2006.

One of the significant contributions to the "war on terror" by Britain's home secretary David Blunkett before his abrupt departure from the Tony Blair cabinet last year was his statement on terrorism in the House of Commons that specifically flagged the possibility of a "dirty bomb" being planted in Britain by terrorists.

That was in November 2002, when preparations were already in an advanced stage for the march to Baghdad. We are still waiting for the dirty bomb and its lethal radiation. The dirty bomb genre, however, provoked two years later a brilliant television series on BBC2 by acclaimed documentary producer Adam Curtis, titled
The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear.

Curtis's argument was that much of the threat of international terrorism turns out to be in actuality "a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians ... In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power."

Curtis placed al-Qaeda terrorism in a long line of dramatic panics in Britain's checkered history since the Elizabethan era, which included the arrival of Spanish raiding parties, French revolutionary agitators, anarchists, Bolsheviks, and Irish republicans.

Naturally, Curtis comes readily to mind a week after British authorities arrested some two dozen Muslims on August 10 for plotting to blow up trans-Atlantic flights from United Kingdom to the United States. Not a shred of evidence has since seen the light of day in this Mother of all Dastardly Plots.

Meanwhile, wild stories of new plots in the making are in circulation. The latest was the "breaking news" regarding the emergency landing of an aircraft in Boston on Wednesday due to the tantrums of an "unruly" woman passenger. Last weekend, Michigan police locked up three hapless Palestinian-Americans for allegedly plotting an act of terrorism. The three "terrorists" were caught red-handed purchasing 80 cell phones from a Wal-Mart store.

Michigan police concluded that the cell phones could be used as detonators to blow up the Mackinac Bridge, which connected the peninsula's upper and lower parts. Subsequently it transpired that the three detained "terrorists" bought and sold cell phones to make a living.

The London plot itself is becoming curiouser and curiouser. Reports have appeared that the British security agencies were feeling increasingly uncomfortable that their American counterparts rushed to make out that the alleged plot was linked to al-Qaeda. More importantly, it appears that sources in London have begun distancing themselves from the plot by claiming that the British side was pressured from Washington to go public with the plot despite a lack of evidence and clear and convincing facts whether any conspiracy in fact existed at all.

Not surprisingly, the loudest voices of skepticism about the alleged plot are heard in Pakistan, where of course the public is habitually cynical over anything that goes to the credit of the establishment. This despite the insistent claim that the UK, US and Pakistani security agencies had actively coordinated in thwarting the plot - a scenario that cast Pakistan as a plucky, feisty partner in the "war on terror", quite contrary to the prevailing impression that Islamabad is possibly indulging in doublespeak.

The skeptics in Pakistan feel that the entire plot is a crudely executed hoax by the Bush administration. It was not only the so-called "jihadi" circles in Pakistan that ridiculed the plot but even sections of opinion, which usually put primacy on reasoning. The Pakistani newspaper Daily Times commented editorially, "There is a horrible war going on in Lebanon and it is not unfolding in favor of Israel, US and UK. Iraq has gone bad; Afghanistan is getting worse.

"The Bush-Blair duo is in trouble at home and both need something really big to happen to justify their policies and distract attention from their losses ... the past record of intelligence agencies everywhere suggests they are quite capable of blowing up or underplaying things for better media management of their respective governments' performance. So a bit of skepticism is in order."

Adam Curtis had an explanation for the dilemma facing the saner sections of opinion in times of public hysteria. As he explained two years ago, such plots, when blown up in larger-than-life terms and whipping up an atmosphere of hysteria, have a way of trapping us. In the process, we get "trapped by a fear that is completely irrational".

Indeed, in a poll after the plot story broke, 55% of Americans voiced approval of Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security. A beaming Bush promptly promised his nervous nation that the terror fight may last for "years to come". Democrats are beginning to accuse the Republicans of using the scare to political advantage ahead of the November elections to the US Congress.

Former US president Bill Clinton said: "They [the Bush administration] seem to be anxious to tie it to al-Qaeda. If that's true, how come we've got seven times as many troops in Iraq as in Afghanistan? I think that Republicans should be very careful in playing politics with this London thing because they're going to have a hard time with the facts."

All the same, it is extraordinary that the mainstream media in the US could so willingly suspend their disbelief over the patchy official claims that the plot was a "real idea" of cosmic significance. Furthermore, they dutifully ran "expert opinions" by commentators on the alleged plotters' al-Qaeda connections. Not a single mainstream newspaper in the US challenged the plot theory as such - leave alone pointed out the patent gulf between the London plotters' ambition and their ability to pull it off.

It could be that they have succumbed to the "suspiciously circular relationship between the security services and much of the media" (to quote Curtis) in which official briefings become the stuff of dramatic press stories and prompt further briefings and further stories.

At any rate, terrorism thrives on bluff. Think of the horrific bomb blasts in Mumbai last month. Unlike the ethereal London plot, it was tangible; it was verifiable. It was of a piece, by all indications, with the cycle of violence ripping apart India's composite society for the past decade or so since the Babri Mosque was pulled down by vandals incited by Hindu fundamentalists.

Yet, in the wake of the Mumbai blasts, an attempt has been made to link the abhorrent violence to al-Qaeda. As if al-Qaeda is an organized international network. As if it has members or a leader. As if it has "sleeper cells". As if it has corporate-style affiliates and subsidiaries. As if it has a strategy towards India.

Indian media people seem to be unaware that al-Qaeda barely exists at all and that it is more an idea about cleansing the impure world of Islam corrupted by the al-Adou al-Qareeb (Muslim apostates) and al-Adou al-Baeed or the "far enemy" (Israel and the Western powers), through violence sanctioned by religion explicitly for such extraordinary times.

Indian opinion makers seem to believe that countering al-Qaeda justifies a national security objective. Some among them no doubt fancy that a closer "strategic partnership" with the Bush administration becomes possible if only India were to assertively stake claim to be a frontline state in the "war on terror". But there is no way that India can hope to gain entry into the exclusive, charmed circle that comprises the US Central Intelligence Agency, Britain's MI6 and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

The so-called Islamic terror network is the trinity's fabrication. It has become what would be known in intelligence parlance as an "asset" or an "instrument". The "intelligence assets" do enjoy a certain measure of independence and autonomy vis-a-vis their sponsors but that is part of the art of dissimulation. Al-Qaeda has incrementally become then a situation or a chain of events in politics that can arouse a particular emotional reaction instantaneously.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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