I name the four powers who are behind the al-Qaeda conspiracy

By Matthew Parris 

07/23/05 "The Times"
- - AT TIMES of national emergency, the habit of the news media to drop a story or a lead in mid-air when it seems to be going nowhere unsettles the public. The media betray a sort of sheepish wish to “move on” from an erroneous report, hoping that their audience will not notice. Rather than acknowledge this, they publish a new report, leaving us to compare it with what had previously been said — and draw our own conclusions. Or they start barking up a different tree, the inference being that the last tree may have been the wrong tree. 

The habit is more disliked by listeners and readers than I think editors appreciate. Perhaps the first item on each day’s news agenda should be “matters arising from yesterday’s news”. News editors would then do us the courtesy of explaining where some of those stories went. 

Immediately after July 7 it was prominently reported that the explosions “bore all the hallmarks” of the use of a type of high-grade military explosive whose presence would indicate a sophisticated international dimension to the bombings. We were alerted to a likely al-Qaeda link. 

Then the news went silent. Then it was announced that tests showed the explosive to be of a home-made (or home-makeable) kind that al-Qaeda were known to know about from the internet. Then that story, too, seemed to fizzle out. 

I have seen no explanation of how the initial assessment of the type of explosive could have been the reverse of the truth, and no acknowledgement of error from those who made it. Nor has the al-Qaeda/internet angle been followed up. The most recent assessments (Kevin Toolis in The Times yesterday) have suggested that there was nothing special or “hallmarked” about the explosive at all. 

Immediately after the first bombing, a report was splashed that two people had been arrested trying to leave Heathrow. The later report that they had been released without charge appeared as little more than a footnote. 

A few days after that, much was made of the arrest in Egypt of a British Muslim whom the less-scrupulous news reports called a “chemist” (he is a biochemist). There was talk of British agents attending (or joining) his interrogation in Cairo. A statement from the Egyptian authorities denying that they had linked him to the bombing or that he was on their list of al-Qaeda suspects, did receive momentary attention — and then the story seemed to die. I do not know what has happened to it, or him. 

Then there were some big headlines about an alleged “al-Qaeda operative” who had “slipped” into Britain, and slipped out — just before the bombings. But it transpired that he was low on our counter-terrorist services’ lists of security threats — and that story, too, has disappeared. 

Then there was an arrest in Pakistan of an alleged “al-Qaeda mastermind”, about which reports have become increasingly confused, dropping from their early position as leading news items. I do not know where we are now on these reports. If I understood them correctly, what helped to trace this mastermind were records of calls made to him by all, or some, of the four July 7 bombers from their mobile phones. 

If anyone has asked (or answered) a question that surely occurred to millions of us, then I have yet to hear of it: why did the bombers not take the elementary precaution of phoning the mastermind from a telephone box? Just how master was this mind? Is it not a curious way of operating a terrorist network, if the terrorists are to call their mastermind on their mobile phones, then take the phones with them on their bombing spree? 

This is only a small sample of the deadends (or possible deadends) in the July 7 and July 21 stories. You will have noticed many others. You will notice, too, that every one tends in the same direction. Each report, when first we read it, accentuated the impression that we face a formidable, capable, extensive and well-organised terrorist movement, with important links abroad, and that is almost certainly being masterminded from abroad. 

And indeed we may. Nothing — I repeat, nothing — I write here is meant to exclude that possibility. Some of the scares that grip our headlines and imaginations do later turn out to have been every bit the threat we thought they were. I have not the least idea what may be the size, shape and competence of al-Qaeda and would not dream of suggesting (and do not believe) that they are uninvolved. 

Nor do I mean to downplay the horrors that have hit London: death and destruction are death and destruction, whoever causes them. 

Nor do I want to imply doubt about the scale of the horrors that may lie ahead. Home-grown or foreign-born, at whatever level of competence, and whether a concerted campaign or demented craze, this kind of thing is deadly and difficult to combat. 

My purpose is more limited. To alert you to the enormous, insidious and mostly unconscious pressure that exists to talk up, rather than talk down, the efficacy of al-Qaeda. When all the pressures are to talk up a lethal characterisation of the forces at work, we need to be supercool in the way we look at these reports.

You have read much about the threat of one particular conspiracy. Here is another. There is an unwitting conspiracy between four separate powers to represent the worldwide al-Qaeda network as fiendishly clever, powerfully effective and deeply involved in the London bombings. 

First, the news media. Al-Qaeda is a “narrative” and a gripping one. Everybody loves a mystery story. Everybody loves a thriller. Everybody needs a plot. All journalists have an in-built tendency to make links between things and find unifying forces at work. A series of random and unrelated facts makes for a shapeless account. Report without implicit explanation is baffling and finally boring. No British journalist I know would invent or consciously distort a report in order to exaggerate the involvement of al-Qaeda; but most of us are drawn to explanations that, well, explain. 

Secondly, the Government. I would not be so rude or stupid as to suggest that ministers take any sort of satisfaction from terrorist atrocities. But leadership is made easier if there is a visible, tangible threat; and easier still if it can be represented as completely alien. Us v Them is the narrative a politician is most at home with. The BBC’s The Power of Nightmares made an important point: fear silences opposition, and governments walk tallest when an external threat can be identified and they can lead us against it. “Evil” is a more convenient opponent than stupidity, inadequacy and human dysfunction. We hold our leaders’ hands a little more tightly in the dark. 

Thirdly, the security services. The police, British Intelligence, and our counter-terrorism apparatus, are all flattered in their work by headlines that suggest that the enemy is formidable, incredibly sophisticated and hard to catch. Any failure on the part of our security services to detect in advance or prevent a terrorist outrage, or to catch the terrorists afterwards, is easily explained if the terrorist movement is widely agreed to be fiendishly clever and well organised. It is not flattering to a counter-terrorism chief to suggest that his quarry is a muppet. The tale of a police mastermind calls for a criminal mastermind, too. 

Finally, of course, the terrorist himself. A reputation for fearsomeness and sophistication is nothing but a boon not only to his self-esteem, but also to his efforts to recruit others to his cause. Never think that speeches about the wickedness and cruelty of al-Qaeda do other than burnish the legend. 

From a certain point of view, the journalist, the politician, the police chief and the terrorist can be seen as locked in a macabre waltz of the mind, no less distorting for being unconscious. We should not to join that dance.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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