War in Afghanistan

Was Bush al-Qaeda's best friend, after all?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 January, 2009, 12:00am

President Barack Obama's inauguration increases the likelihood of a major terrorist attack in the US. That was the stark message of the South Waziristan Institute for Strategic Hermeneutics (Swish), a think-tank that offers strategic advice to some of the leading players in global politics.

Swish warned in its mid-December report to Mr Obama's transition team that al-Qaeda 'will attempt a 9/11-level attack, probably within the United States, at some point between now and mid-2010. If and when that happens, your country will require exceptional levels of political leadership if you are to avoid yet another misguided military response.'

Unfortunately, the institute only exists in the fertile brain of British academic and strategic analyst Paul Rogers, who publishes its reports on the website of Open Democracy.

The Swish phenomenon began as an attempt to educate western analysts in the thinking of their Islamist enemies. The reports mimicked the format used by the think-tanks that advise the US government and the Pentagon, but came from the mythical South Waziristan Institute, supposedly also hired by al-Qaeda.

The Swish reports, however, were based more deeply in reality than most of what passed for political analysis in Washington over the past eight years. Professor Rogers assumed (correctly) al-Qaeda leaders were intelligent and had coherent long-term strategies.

In particular, he assumed that a primary purpose of the September 11 attacks was to lure the US into invading Afghanistan (and other Muslim countries), as that would radicalise Muslim populations and generate waves of recruits. Once George W. Bush did that, he was al-Qaeda's man, and its main interest was keeping him in power.

So, in its first report to al-Qaeda in 2004, Swish said it could not recommend a further large terrorist attack on the US, since its impact on American public opinion was unpredictable. It might strengthen support for Mr Bush in the November 2004 election, but equally it might turn opinion against him.

The notion that the US could be a pawn in somebody else's game has gradually been making headway among US analysts. Former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge conceded, a couple of years ago, that his success in 'preventing' further al-Qaeda attacks after September 11 might have been due to the fact that it wasn't actually planning any.

But, by the same token, Mr Obama's arrival may make a new September 11 desirable. While he is not proposing a US withdrawal from Afghanistan or a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq, he seems less persuaded than Mr Bush that invading and occupying Muslim countries is a good idea.

So, if there is any way that al-Qaeda can organise a major attack on US soil in the coming 12 to 18 months, it will do so. Its main goal must be to stampede the American public back into the fearful mindset that allowed Mr Bush to launch his wars in the first place, and hope that Mr Obama will be swept along by it.

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