Owen Bennett-Jones

The College of Art and Design in Lahore is one of the most cultured institutions in Pakistan’s most cultured city. When I visited a couple of months ago, it was surrounded by sandbags: a department for traditional music had been opened and al-Qaida, which considers music un-Islamic, had threatened to blow it up. Despite this, both teachers and students told me that the real problem they faced was America. ‘It’s true there are some misguided boys,’ the principal said, ‘and they may be the ones threatening us, but it is America that has bombed their homes.’

The list of grievances against America is long: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the civilian death toll in Iraq, Afghanistan and increasingly in Pakistan itself. I am writing this in Islamabad, where the papers this week have reported four US attacks on targets in Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of 41 civilians. But ever larger numbers of Muslims nevertheless see al-Qaida as malign and barbaric. It is in a trap: to win followers it needs media coverage, but to secure headlines it has to mount ever more spectacular attacks which almost invariably involve civilian casualties and undermine its support, especially when the victims are Muslims. Al-Qaida’s popularity in Jordan, for example, plummeted after it blew up a wedding party in a big hotel in Amman late in 2005.

At the US military academy at West Point, researchers are studying thousands of captured al-Qaida documents, CDs and hard drives and putting them on a publicly available online database. One of their prized possessions is a letter written in 2005 by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the then leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. ‘Among the things which the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable,’ Zawahiri wrote, ‘are the scenes of hostages being slaughtered. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men who describe you as the sheikh of the slaughterers etc. They do not express the views of most people who admire and support the resistance in Iraq.’

Earlier this year al-Qaida supporters in Jordan told me that not only were they finding it more difficult to get recruits for Iraq but that some of the fighters already there were so sickened by the number of Muslims being killed that they were heading for home. Zawahiri tried to confront this problem in April when he participated in a webcast in which he took questions online. More than 2000 were submitted and many raised this issue. Zawahiri answered: ‘If any innocents were killed in the mujahedin’s operations then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity.’ It’s the same reply the Pentagon gives.

The most damaging attack on bin Laden to date has come from a Saudi cleric, Sheikh Salman ibn Fahad al-Oadah, who once supported al-Qaida. Oadah went on an Arabic TV station last year: ‘I say to my brother Osama,’ he began, ‘how much blood has been spilled? How many innocent children, women and old people have been killed, maimed and expelled from their homes in the name of al-Qaida? Are you happy to meet Allah with this heavy burden on your shoulders?’

While al-Qaida and the US are both having problems with their propaganda campaigns, the Islamists seem to have the upper hand in one of the battlefields initially picked out by Bush: finance. A few days after 9/11, Bush boasted that with a stroke of a pen he had starved the terrorists of funding: freeze the money and al-Qaida would go under. There is no such thing as a free insurgency. The men who plant roadside bombs in Iraq charge al-Qaida $200 a go, and another $100 if they manage to film it going off. But US efforts to stop funds flowing have failed. When al-Qaida was at its strongest in Iraq a couple of years ago, foreign suicide bombers were encouraged to bring their life savings and any other donations they could raise. For a while al-Qaida ran its operations there at such a profit it could cross-subsidise the central leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

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