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Analysis: The Phantom of Osama Bin Laden

Three years after the Sept. 11, the terrorism map has spread and the threat has become transparent and harder to ferret out. Nor have we tackled the roots of the problem: poverty and oppression in many Muslim countries.

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Where are they now: 20,000 trained in al Qaeda camps.

If you include Iraq and Afghanistan in this count, for some time now, not a single day has gone by in which a terrorist attack has been carried out somewhere in the world against innocent victims: passersby, tourists, hotel guests, airline passengers, train passengers, the pious or children on their first day of school.

The world map of terrorism has grown and the targets have scattered even further over the continents, but the phenomenon is the same: political demands are executed through violence against innocents who have nothing to do with politics. Governments are extorted, citizens are frightened and terrorized.

The Myth of al Qaeda

Taking stock of the war against terror three years after Sept. 11 and its terror attacks can be an equally sobering and depressing exercise. Under the leadership of the United States, an international alliance has formed that includes Western democracies as well as countries that formerly sponsored at least some forms of terrorism. But a victory over terrorism is still far from sight.

Osama bin Laden in Al Dschasira

Osama bin Laden: the world's most elusive cave-dweller

In some respects, it could even be farther from sight than it was three years ago. At least back then we knew the enemy's address. At least the most important enemy: Osama bin Laden and the leaders of his al Qaeda terror network mostly lived in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan -- and even if they weren't captured, they were at least real characters. Whereas after the fall of the Taliban leadership, the terrorists fled underground, transforming themselves into phantoms. But such phantoms live longer and appear to be more effective than real and detectable people. After all, Osama bin Laden is still considered by wide circles in the Islamic world to be a hero because he's the only person who has stood up against the world's only superpower and he has dictated the negotiating terms.

Indeed, al Qaeda has already found a replacement for the regimes that once supported it, and it's an extremely reliable substitute: bin Laden's organization has the support of close to 20,000 alumni who received training in terrorist camps operated by al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Long ago, these international terror trainees returned to their homelands, where many are operating as sleepers who could be activated at any time.

Geiseldrama Video-Still Nord-Ossetien gerettete Kinder

Two men carry young hostages who managed to escape from the school building after special forces entered the school in Beslan, North Ossetia, on Sept. 3.

The growing opacity is also making al Qaeda more enigmatic: Wherever a terror attack is carried out now, the name al Qaeda is quickly raised and it is almost always asserted that bin Laden has played a role in it. But that's almost certainly not always the case. But what is often true is that the attackers follow the example of al Qaeda. And that holds true in Indonesia, Turkey, Morocco and Ossetia. The list of terrorist targets are growing and all too often they include world regions where disaffected and the frustrated allow themselves to become fanatics and consign themselves to violence.

In that sense, it would be wrong to consider al Qaeda a sort of tightly organized "Terrorism Incorporated." The "Network of Terror," and even this term may go a bit too far, already relies heavily on the existence of oppression and poverty in the world for its own survival. Those seeking to counteract the effects of poverty and oppression often use terms like “freedom,” “democracy” and “human rights.” But people in the Islamic world often accuse the west of double morals because of their strong feeling that Muslim countries are economically and politically disadvantaged in comparison to the West. Many interpret this as a kind of religious discrimination against Muslims.

Fighting the roots of terror

USA erhöhen Terroralarm auf Stufe Zwei Washington

A guard with an automatic rifle protects the capitol building in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, the West – especially the USA – does too little to address these disillusioned people. Instead it is moving mostly to protect itself through greater vigilance and an increasing number of civil rights violations. By doing so, the West is failing to recognize that those moves may also be strengthening terrorists’ arguments against the West. Additionally, further violence is not going to eradicate terrorism.

The conclusion in the end is that terrorism must be fought at its roots – and not just the symptoms. Nor can there just be one method of treatment – otherwise every attempt will be futile. And there have been many efforts. Of course, a good number of participants in the coalition against terror or not democratic countries. But they have at least disavowed themselves of their previous support for terrorist groups. That’s a first success. But now we must work on getting these states, like Pakistan and Libya, to make the complete transition to freedom and democracy. Only then can we increase the chances the terrorism will be diminished over the long-term.

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  • Date 12.09.2004
  • Author Peter Philipp (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5YiC
  • Date 12.09.2004
  • Author Peter Philipp (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5YiC