“When did al-Qaeda begin?” a panel at the Frontline Club was asked during a symposium on the group a few weeks ago. Various pundits gave different version of a conceptual answer, about the mujahadeen, 1979, Al-Qutb, etc, etc, and then it came the final speaker’s turn. “When did al-Qaeda begin?” said Noman Benotman, “about the second week of April 1988”.

Benotman, a sharp-faced man in a sharp suit, had been introduced as a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al-Qaeda affiliate formed by former mujahadeen. He’d left the group after 9/11, and later became part of Quilliam, an anti-violent Islamist think tank. The rather wonkish evening suddenly got a lot more interesting.

The gist of Benotman’s argument was that the idea that al-Qaeda was a loose conceptual movement, with anyone picking up the name as a flag of convenience, was false. “They [bin Laden et al] know who everyone is running these things, and no one starts one up without them.” But the most important part of his contribution was to remind everyone that much of what was said about al-Qaeda was projection based on surmise. Despite the occasional audio tape, the organisation was so secretive that it became a black hole around which the constellations of Western power could circulate.

The process has continued with the killing of bin Laden at a compound near the Pakistani capital several days ago. There is no reason to disbelieve it — though the idea that anyone who doubts it is a loony conspiratorialist is a bit rich. There is, after all, no prisoner and no body. One can see why the US would not want either on hand, although presumably there are photographs — yet even releasing these would be provocative in the extreme.

Yet in the absence of anything, what sort of event is this? There is a hole in the middle of it, and there was something empty and forced about the American gatherings to celebrate the mission. There was no Brandenburg gate to plant a flag on, no Mussolini hanging from a rope — just a speech and footage of a compound.

Nor really, was there any demonstration of Western power. By far the most pathetic claim was that this was somehow an assertion of renewed Western purpose. No intelligent person could believe that. It takes a special form of needy self-delusion to claim that killing a man longing for martyrdom 10 years after he landed a killing blow on the American psyche represents an exercise of power and purpose. Bin Laden had won by surviving three months beyond 9/11, let alone 10 years. The rest was detail.

Yet if there is delusion in the assessment of the importance of bin Laden’s demise, it is simply the counterpart to the overestimation of the threat presented by al-Qaeda per se. For an outfit that was supposed to present an existential threat to the West, it didn’t get very far. Three or four big bombings in Africa in the ’90s, then 9/11, the Madrid train bombings, a couple of others, and a possible connection with 7/7 in London.

A half-dozen other botched or busted operations, usually conducted by young men that other terror outfits would reject as too unstable to carry on. In the Arab world of course, it has been far more lethal — although by far its most lethal areas were those it could not have created, such as Iraq. Only Western state actors could do that.

Indeed, compared to efficient and focused terror groups — the IRA, the Irgun, November 17 in Greece — it is stunning how ineffectual al-Qaeda managed to be in the “crusader heartland”, when you factor in the ruthlessness they were willing to apply in their methods, a lethality far beyond any terror group yet known.

Indeed when you look for parallels for the murderousness of al-Qaeda, you have to leave behind non-state actors altogether. What makes al-Qaeda so terrifying is that it applied the levels of death and destruction that had previously only been in the hands of the state.

Morally speaking, 9/11 was no worse than a B-52 run over Vietnam, for example, and far less worse than both the initial act and eventual consequences of the 1970 US invasion of Cambodia. 9/11 employed a weird symmetry — what had most terrified those subject to imperialism in the post-WW2 years had been the lethal, amoral might of a territorial power.

What terrified us most in the West was al-Qaeda’s territorylessness, its apparent ability to strike anywhere, and to leave an image trace — the burning towers — in the public archive, and the occidental consciousness. 9/11 was singular because at its apex was a man — Mohammed Atta — who had the burning hatred of other suicide operatives, yet lacked the mental disorganisation. Yet what was most remarkable about 9/11 was not its occurrence but its rarity.

For a decade the West is Best club and al-Qaeda have defined each other, caught in an orbit of mutual need. Yet as is always the case in such situations, the real of it was not a variation on the fantasy, but something entirely at odds with it. The “real” of the past 10 years has been Pakistan, simultaneously a strong state, and no state at all, one of the few regions of the world whose outlying areas shade off into political indeterminacy, medieval tribal fiefdoms outside of the world state system.

It has long been obvious that Pakistan’s nature as a state with multiple and conflicting power apparatuses ruling over territory it does not actually control is not simply a mockery of the official version of the war on terror, but its antimatter — the ally that spread nuclear technology far and wide while we were fighting the “dirty bomb” threat, whose ISI created and nurtured the Taliban, often with Western cash, a country that has been effectively bankrupt for a decade but cannot be allowed to fail.

One might say that the discovery that Bin Laden was not deep in a cave in Tora Bora — i.e. in an unmapped place, off the grid of being — but in a compound A QUARTER OF A KILOMETRE from the country’s military officer training school, would make people finally understand the fantasies being served over the past decade, but the opposite may be the case. The absurdity of it makes any consideration of real geopolitics or strategic action with regard to the region impossible. Pakistan is the gateway of the Matrix.

The ability to see the opposite of what is there is, after all, essential to the carriage of modern meaning in the West. The crowds that gathered at Ground Zero to celebrate American forcefulness could by definition not remark on the fact that its continued existence as a hole was a testament to the spirit of can’t-do — what sort of hollowed-out state can’t rebuild in triumph where it has been most keenly attacked.

No, bin Laden won this one, every year since 2001, a shelf of premierships, the phantom West versus the phantom al-Qaeda. If he lost in the Arab heartland, where it matters, it’s because, as a conspiracy rather than a movement, it was always going to, as a real historical process took over there. By the time bin Laden died, he had already died.

No matter how many sabre-rattling triumphalist pieces the frayed neocons fill the papers with, the emptiness of the occasion will mock any attempt to give it a transcendental meaning. No one really feels safer, or more endangered, or freed, or vindicated, or revenged, and no amount of retrochic nostalgia — which is what this is — will hold back a future taking us far beyond the neocons, al-Qaeda and Charlie Wilson’s war, one petty conspiracy after another, building stone pillars in the desert of the real.

Peter Fray

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