By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
When confronted with acts of seemingly incomprehensible barbarism as took place in London, it is easy to see the perpetrators as nothing more than murderous thugs.
There is some truth to that. But for Al-Qaida, and its followers, terror is a tool used for clear political ends.
The aim in London was not to attack the transit system -- it was to humiliate the British government and the West precisely at the moment of the gathering of the heads of state of the eight great economic powers in the world. Similarly, the murderous assault on Madrid trains in March, 2004 was timed two days before the Spanish elections to undercut support for Spain's participation in the Iraq war.
The larger goal -- as with the murder of the Egyptian Ambassador to Iraq -- is to isolate the United States and compel its withdrawal in defeat from Iraq. The model is Afghanistan, where the war against Soviet occupation gave birth to Al-Qaida and allied Islamist movements.
Al-Qaida has laid out this political agenda with remarkable bluntness. Last October, in a video prepared for broadcast just before the American election, Osama bin Laden spoke gleefully about making Iraq into a new Afghanistan.
"We gained experience in guerilla warfare and in conducting a war of attrition in our fight with the iniquitous, great power -- that is, when we conducted a war of attrition against Russia with jihad fighters for 10 years, until they went bankrupt, with Allah's grace. As a result, they were forced with withdraw in defeat ... We are continuing the same policy -- to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy."
Al-Qaida honed its strategy as the insurgency in Iraq took hold. A September 2003 Al-Qaida planning document found by the Norwegian intelligence service argued that rather than go after the U.S. directly, it would be more effective to attack its European allies, forcing their withdrawal from Iraq and leaving the U.S. with the burden of the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula.
The document, cited by University of Chicago scholar Robert A. Pape, author of an important recent book on suicide terrorism, explicitly targeted Spain and its upcoming elections as a propitious moment. The withdrawal of Spanish forces would in turn put pressure on Britain, the document predicted.
The Madrid attack was spectacularly successful in triggering a Spanish withdrawal. Afterward, bin Laden issued a statement offering a "truce" with those European countries that "do not attack Muslim countries."
The London bombings probably encouraged Al-Qaida in its belief that they will succeed in their ultimate aim, Pape wrote, "causing the United States and its allies to withdraw military forces from the Persian Gulf." The announcement at the close of the G-8 Summit that Italy would begin withdrawal of its troops in September suggests that is already happening.
Al-Qaida portrays Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan as one common insurgency, said Graham Fuller, longtime former CIA analyst of this region and Islamic politics. Through this political terror campaign, "they see a way by which they can defeat the United States in Iraq," Fuller told me. "I hate to say it, but I think they are succeeding."
They are not only isolating the U.S., but gaining political sympathy in the Muslim world. "Bin Laden has managed to inspire the belief that 'we are not helpless, even against the world's sole superpower,' " Fuller observed. Among Muslims, as evidenced in numerous opinion polls, there is little outrage over acts such as the London bombings.
"It is this moral and political ambivalence on the part of the Muslim world that I find most frightening of all," he said. "There is a whole generation of Muslims who are now socialized to an extraordinary degree of anti-Americanism." The Bush administration rightly forged a political response in proclaiming its support for democracy and political liberty in the Arab and Muslim world. Unfortunately, by resorting to the sword to impose this transformation, the United States has undermined what little credibility it had as a agent of reform. American motives are viewed with cynicism and suspicion.
The United States cannot be the instrument of political change in the Muslim world, if that was ever possible. In the political struggle with Islamic extremism, the best it can do is to assist, from the outside, those in the Muslim world who are prepared to bring change from within.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.