Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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The bomb and the ballot - continued

22 March 2004

The Spanish people were always against the war in Iraq, and they still are, but their consistency has not stopped U.S. Republican Congressman Dennis Hastert accusing them of appeasing terrorists. He could not be more wrong.

Views similar to the congressman's had already been widely aired.They have prospered because they are easy to grasp whereas the contrary view is complicated. Even commentators who celebrated, on principle, the arrival of a government of the left in Spain still seemed slightly embarrassed by the means of its coming to power.

So the argument still needs to be made as to why the result did not give comfort to the terrorists or further their objectives. To understand this it is necessary to consider why al-Qaida-linked groups might have wished to place these bombs in Madrid in the first place.

Although it is possible to construct a conspiracy theory according to which the bombs were designed to cause precisely the sequence of events that actually occurred, such an approach is both implausible and unnecessary. An attack like this does not depend for its "success" upon a specific, calculated outcome. The success lies in the strength of the political reaction, both domestically and, more importantly, in the international sphere.

So how might a win for a government forming part of the aggressive military alliance against Iraq be positive for al-Qaida? The answer lies in the asymmetrical nature of the "war on terror". It is not only the forces of the two sides that have nothing in common. The western world may wish to defeat terrorism, but this is not a military war that al-Qaida can hope to win. What it seeks is to sow discord and undermine thereby the open principles upon which western society is constructed. That way the western world defeats itself.

If Aznar's People's Party had won, their reaction would have thrust them still deeper into the Bush-Blair axis. Tensions with the more independent-minded governments of France and Germany would have been reawakened, with the difference that Spain could now lay claim to the sort of "moral certainty" that characterised the United States after September 11 2001. If this contributed to a more hawkish policy generally in the "war on terror", the objective of al-Qaida and its associates of driving a wedge between western governments and ordinary Muslims would also be advanced.

From this point of view the second communication sent to the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade is revealing. The first message claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings; the second offers a cease-fire in Europe while the new Spanish government pulls its troops out of Iraq. This is pure mischief making, possibly designed to make it politically impossible for the Spanish government to do just that. But the message also comments on the U. S. presidential election. "We are very keen that Bush does not lose the upcoming elections" the statement is quoted as saying, because Bush's "idiocy and religious fanaticism" would "wake up" the Islamic world.

The credibility of this group is highly questionable. But, whether or not its claims are true, it makes a telling point. The thing al-Qaida needs more than anything is enmity, and George Bush has been nothing if not helpful in this respect. He has given al-Qaida the status that goes with being America's number one enemy and he has extended his forces in ways that make them vulnerable to attack. His divisive use of language, the crude "us or them", "either with us or against us" rhetoric, has polarised attitudes. A recent opinion poll suggesting that 13 per cent of British Muslims considered al-Qaida attacks on the United States to be justified indicates precisely how this works. Either you support the George Bush global view, or you oppose it. If you oppose it, it is but a short step to a feeling of association with those who oppose it actively, even violently. This does not make 13 per cent of British Muslims into potential terrorists. But it does mean that they identify Bush's America as antagonistic to their interests.

Following this logic, the victory of the Spanish socialists, like a victory for John Kerry in the U.S. presidentials, is the last thing that al-Qaida wants. It tends towards the winding down of the language of polarisation and division towards a far greater rôle for the United Nations in Iraq and a subtler engagement with the underlying issues of terrorism. Spain, like Great Britain, has much experience of terrorism. It knows that it cannot be defeated by force alone but requires a process of political engagement. When this process happens terrorist groups generally split into realists and fundamentalists, and it is significant that one of the things that characterises militant opinion in, for example, Palestine, is the willingness to negotiate. Negotiation is not on al-Qaida's agenda.

With Aznar and his party gone, Bush threatened electorally and both Blair and Berlusconi weakened by their association with the unpopular Iraq adventure, the next twelve months could see the collapse of the political axis that gave the war on terror its early spin. Whether or not al-Qaida is cheering will depend upon the mood music that follows. If a multi-lateralist, U.N. -centred approach emerges that carries credibility with ordinary Muslims, then al-Qaida may be pushed back to the margins from which it came. This won't stop terrorism in its tracks but it should make it less effective politically since it relies very largely on the power to provoke. That the people of Spain have reacted so maturely to their recent provocation is a pointer to this future. If it goes that way, al-Qaida will be far from pleased.

©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004