Saturday, August 07, 2004

What If We Win?

The Al Qaeda has been hit hard by a number of arrests radiating from the capture of their communications post in Pakistan. The capture of 25-year old Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, who used the Internet to speed messages between terrorist cells led to the rollup of major cells in Europe and possibly Saudi Arabia. The Christian Science Monitor summarizes what is publicly known.

The capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghaliani, a Tanzanian indicted by the US for his role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa, and a Pakistani computer expert identified as Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, provided US intelligence agents with their greatest leads, reports the AP. Maps, photographs and other details of possible targets in the US and Britain were found on computers belonging to Mr. Ghailani.

As a result of his arrest in Pakistan, Mr. Khan was "forced to take part in an undercover 'sting' operation to help the authorities in Britain and the US track down key Al Qaeda agents," reports the Times of London.

The terrorist cell architecture revealed by the arrests has proved surprisingly shallow. The European head of Al Qaeda was said to have received his orders directly from Osama Bin Laden through Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan. "The key Pakistani operative has been identified as Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan. He is believed to have been in direct contact with Abu Eisa (the AQ European head) about plans for an attack at Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world. Khan is believed to have traveled to Britain at least six times in recent years and is a said to be a link between European cells and Osama bin Laden."

Collateral confirmation of the extent of the penetration came indirectly with the arrest of Faris al-Zahrani, described as a top Al Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia, who had until Khan's arrest eluded security officials. "Both suspects were detained 'swiftly and efficiently' and were not able to use the weapons they were carrying, the Saudi press agency added. Al-Zahrani was No. 12 on the kingdom's list of 26 most-wanted terror suspects and has been described as an al Qaeda recruiter." The stated circumstances of his arrest suggest he was taken while asleep or in a place he believed secure.

Far from being the shadow behind every disturbance in the "Arab street", the short operational chain suggests that the Al Qaeda is a relatively small and narrowly based organization. Its key ideological leaders appear to be holding out deep underground in their traditional strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, communicating with a limited network through an intelligent but by no means world-class computer technician and developer. Dangerous men, but much diminished.

The spotlight on Al Qaeda's true stature is complemented, atmospherically at least, by the fearful drubbing that Moqtada Al Sadr's "militia" received at the hands of the US Marines. Up to 400 militiamen were killed and 1,200 were captured after the uneasy truce between Sadr and the US military fell apart. Hit hard in Baghdad, Najaf and Basra, the normally combative Sadr has been reduced to pleading for a ceasefire. With Iran yet untamed, and strong pockets of resistance in Lebanon, North Africa and Southeast Asia, no one should think that the War on Terror is going to be over soon. But the enemy is clearly and palpably losing ground. Although still in possession of large residual forces, they seem unable to reverse or even slow the juggernaut that is hitting them from all sides. They are facing a problem to which they can find no solution. Even those who were licking their lips at the prospect of driving the Jews into the sea two years ago are gripped by despair as they stare defeat in the face.

It's not so much what Zakariya Zubeidi, the fugitive leader of the West Bank Aksa Martyrs Brigades, says, but how he says it. Zubeidi speaks in the vacant tones of a ghost. ... If anyone embodies the intifada on the eve of its fourth anniversary, it is Zubeidi. The 28-year-old Aksa chief boasts a pedigree of martyrdom: Zubeidi's mother was shot dead in the battle of Jenin, as was one of his brothers. Two other brothers are in Israeli prisons. His father died of a skin cancer that the family says went untreated while he served a prison term for political activism against Israel during the first intifada. "The intifada is in its death throes. These are the final stages – this I can confirm," he said on Wednesday.

Not imminent defeat, but slow lingering defeat, bereft even of heroic defiance. Yet before anyone reserves a bottle of champagne against the day, British historian Karen Armstrong warns that we may have been fighting for the wrong side or at least for a cause we never fully understood. In their own perverted way, Armstrong argues, the Al Qaeda have been fighting to assert the existence of God in world that has forgotten Him.

So what is fundamentalism? Fundamentalism represents a kind of revolt or rebellion against the secular hegemony of the modern world. Fundamentalists typically want to see God, or religion, reflected more centrally in public life. They want to drag religion from the sidelines, to which it's been relegated in a secular culture, and back to center stage.

If so, the victory discernable as a thin line on the horizon really represents the final triumph of secularism over the last religion. And while Armstrong has publicly said many foolish things this particular accusation at least deserves serious examination, not in the least because other writers, like Sam Harris affirm it from an opposite point of view. The Amazon review of Harris' book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason summarizes his thesis as follows:

Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind's willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify harmful behavior and sometimes heinous crimes. He asserts that in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer tolerate views that pit one true god against another. Most controversially, he argues that we cannot afford moderate lip service to religion—an accommodation that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism.

Harris claims that if we seriously subscribe to God in any form we will eventually wind up settling accounts with WMDs; hence we must abolish God. Armstrong asserts that unless we accept all gods, any religion left out will eventually resort to weapons of mass destruction. "Now more and more small groups will have the capability of destruction that were formerly the prerogative of the nation-state ... The way we're going -- and Britain is just as culpable as the United States -- we're alienating Muslims who were initially horrified by Sept. 11 and we're strengthening al-Qaeda, which has definitely been strengthened by the Iraq war and its awful aftermath." She argues that we should simply recognize that many people "just want to be more religious in some way or another."

The cure to religious extremism, according to these arguments, is a choice of two elixirs: believing in nothing particular or classifying all religious belief as madness. Yet on closer examination both these arguments are so close to each other that despite apparent differences they are virtually identical. Both require the abolition of belief as the price of survival, the latter by maintaining there is nothing worth arguing over and the former asserting there is nothing to argue about.

That will be good news to those who feel that the Global War on Terror is really about making the world safe for homosexuals, metrosexuals, MTV and the United Nations: that it is really about using the US Armed Forces to impose the "End of History" on 8th century holdouts; that its function is to restart the music that inconveniently stopped on September 11. But there is another possibility: that fundamentalism is created by the very vacuity Karen Armstrong recommends. Camus in The Rebel believed that man could find the courage to live under a dark heaven swept clean of stars. But then he was Camus: he uncharacteristically forgot that in that vasty night false beacons would almost instantly spring up, the sort that Vladimir Ilich Lenin, anticipating Sam Harris, lit to the destruction of millions. In one thing Armstrong is almost certainly correct: Islamic fundamentalism is twinned to relativism of the West. In one thing she is almost certainly wrong: that its antidote is even more relativism.

It would be absurd to conclude that the war on terror is waged to make the world safe for nihilism. That would almost equal Robert Fisk's declaration, upon being beaten by a Muslim mob that "if I had been them, I would have attacked me." For where the mind can find no purchase it must ground its postulates in the simplest of things.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

We fight in the end not to disbelieve but for the right to believe again -- and trust that we may find our way.