Don't overplay the importance of terrorism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am

The latest US National Intelligence Council report on global trends predicts that the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda 'may decay sooner' than many experts expect because of its 'unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support and self-destructive actions'.

Hot on the report's heels came the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last week, which killed more than 190 people. Is the National Intelligence Council wrong?

Not at all. There is no evidence that al-Qaeda had anything to do with the attacks in India's financial capital, nor does it seem very likely. Besides, this event will be forgotten within a year by everyone who was not actually there - as it should be.

Fifteen years ago, there was a much worse attack in Mumbai. Thirteen bombs exploded all across the city, killing 257 people and injuring 713 others. Although the September 11, 2001, atrocity in the US has come to overshadow all other terrorist attacks in terms of loss of life, the Mumbai bombings of 1993 remain the third-worst incident in the history of terrorism. Yet who remembers them today?

I do, because I was in the city with a film crew at the time, and they barely escaped with their lives. The stock exchange was bombed only 20 minutes after they finished filming there. For hours afterwards, the city centre's streets were full of people who had evacuated their offices, and I still recall how calm and disciplined they were.

I was in central London during the 2005 bombings that killed 52 people, and the mood was the same. Given a story like this, the media will always try to depict it as the apocalypse, but the general public didn't buy it. The attacks were a tragedy for a few hundred people and an enormous nuisance for hundreds of thousands of others, but they didn't change anything important. How could they?

Terrorism is only as important as you let it be. The perpetrators, whatever their goals, are by definition few, weak and marginal. If they were many, strong and central, they would be a major political force or a government, and they wouldn't need to resort to terrorism.

All good anti-terrorist strategies deny the terrorists the status of a legitimate enemy. Maybe you have to get the army's help occasionally when the police are overstretched, but dealing with terrorists should remain primarily the job of the police and the ordinary courts. Don't pass any special laws, and never set up special courts and detainment camps. The terrorists are marginal; keep them that way.

The response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks, by contrast, provides a horrible example of the cost of overreaction.

For seven years, George W. Bush served as al-Qaeda's most valuable (though unwitting) ally. The fact that it is still in decline despite having him in charge of US foreign policy is proof of what a marginal outfit it is. As the National Intelligence Council said, its strategic goals are unrealistic, and its actions are so brutal that they alienate most of the people whose support it wants.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries