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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Battling the al-Qaeda franchise
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

The idyllic resorts of Bali have once again been attacked.

Funeral procession in Bali
The latest Bali bombings have reignited debate about al-Qaeda

Another group of innocents has been slaughtered or maimed for a set of half-understood prejudices and principles.

And, of course, we are presented with another series of headlines blaming al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Most newspaper reports encourage us to visualise al-Qaeda as an army, with a high command; or perhaps as a multinational organisation, with bin Laden as its chief executive officer and men like Ayman al-Zawahri as his senior management.

We are told that the Bali bombings, like those in London, Madrid and half a dozen other places since the attacks of 11 September 2001, "bear all the hallmarks of" al-Qaeda - formulaic language that has not varied since the days when the violence of the IRA and ETA was at its peak.

The implication is that its senior figures order these attacks, and that local operatives carry them out.

We are threatened, in other words, by a worldwide organisation which can strike anywhere it chooses; the ocean-front restaurants of Bali, a Madrid train, a London bus.

There is a master-mind at the back of it all, and he has his faithful henchmen who will stop at nothing.

Al-Qaeda franchise

Globalisation has encouraged us to think along these lines, but it does not help us to a greater understanding of what is going on.

In fact, like most sloppy journalism, it simply encourages us to throw up our hands and say that such things are beyond our comprehension.

Al-Qaeda speaks to the disaffected, the people who feel that the empty materialism of life has nothing to offer them

My friend and colleague, the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, who was lucky to escape with his life when he was fired on in Riyadh (his cameraman, the charming and able Simon Cumbers, was murdered), presented us with a rather different commercial simile for al-Qaeda soon after September 2001.

He popularised the notion that, far from being a clear-cut organisation with executives and an international membership, al-Qaeda was like a franchise.

Just as you can buy the franchise for, say, a Holiday Inn or an Intercontinental hotel, so you can adopt the principles of Osama bin Laden and set up your own deadly group, murdering those you identify as the enemies of the faith - and anyone else, of course, who happens to be passing at the time.

There was clear evidence last year that this is indeed what happens, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian insurgent leader based in Iraq, announced that he was giving his allegiance to al-Qaeda, long after his group had become infamous for the disgusting beheadings of its unfortunate prisoners.

(Interestingly, one of the best academic experts on day-to-day events in Iraq, Professor Juan Cole of Michigan University, now questions whether al-Zarqawi even exists; he certainly seems to have gone remarkably quiet in recent months.)

Beguiling ideology

So if you share, no matter how confusedly, Osama bin Laden's stated aims of driving the "Christian" powers out of the Middle East, destroying Israel, and overthrowing the moderate, pro-Western regimes of the region with Islamic ones, you qualify as a supporter of al-Qaeda.

Sometimes you will establish links with people who are genuinely in contact with the group associated with bin Laden, but this is not essential.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Pakistan

It is the ideology that counts; and accepting it makes you a franchise-holder.

"Al-Qaedism", a new book by an Irish expert on the subject, Richard Whelan, argues that the real threat is not so much from individual groups of al-Qaeda supporters who bomb and kill people in Western countries.

Any society can sustain those losses and survive them. Even Bali will soon start attracting tourists again.

The real danger posed by al-Qaeda's ideology is not to New York or Madrid or London, but to Muslim governments around the world.

Al-Qaeda speaks to the disaffected, the people who feel that the empty materialism of life has nothing to offer them, who are affronted by what they see as the arrogance of the US and Britain.

And it encourages them to hit back.

The ideology is a beguiling one, and it is more likely to attract the educated and semi-educated than the poor and down-trodden.

Mid-East battleground

If Richard Whelan is right, then neither fighting a war against the resistance movement in Iraq nor introducing new and fiercer restrictions on individual freedom at home is going to work.

The battleground is not New York or London, but Cairo, Riyadh and half a dozen other Middle Eastern capitals.

And the only way forward is to support and encourage moderate Muslims in their own ideological struggle with al-Qaedism.

Al-Qaeda grew up in the first place because there was a black hole on the world's map where it could operate safely, Afghanistan.

And it had a clever, charismatic leader who thought in big terms.

Osama bin Laden is now almost certainly in Pakistan, somewhere on the North-West Frontier, and he is forced to keep a very low profile indeed.

No doubt one day he will be caught. But al-Qaeda will not vanish as a result. It has grown far beyond the man himself and his ideas.

And we certainly can not understand it properly if we think that the bomb attacks its supporters carry out around the world are the most dangerous thing about it.

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