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    South Asia
     Feb 8, 2008
The ever-changing faces of terror
By Sreeram Chaulia

NEW YORK - The recently expressed view of Nigel Inkster, the former deputy chief of Britain's secret service (MI6), that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud is now the world's "deadliest Islamist threat and public enemy number one" reveals the puerility of the so-called "war on terror". As it enters its seventh year, the massive American effort to root out al-Qaeda and its allied organizations around the world faces a credibility problem with few successes and several mishaps.

On commencing his costly misadventures in 2001, US President George W Bush confidentially delivered bad news to his military generals that "this will be a long campaign". As the vague and drifting campaign reached the limits of temporal stretching with no end in sight, a psychological strategy that found favor with the US and its allies was to personalize and simplify the problem for the imagination of skeptical publics.

If victory is redefined as eliminating individual personalities rather than defeating a complex network or ideology, the bitter pill of failure can not only be sweetened but also showcased as a sweetmeat for citizens' consumption. This carefully crafted ruse of selling defeat as success begins with lionization of an al-Qaeda-affiliated leader through relentless coverage of his dreaded activities in the state-browbeaten media. The next step is to keep releasing stories that a hunt is on for the high-value target and that US/North Atlantic Treaty Organization intelligence is closing in on the star figure.

Since warfare is mortiferous, the likelihood of an operational commander being killed in combat is not far-fetched. After months or years of media buildup about the significance of a particular jihadi leader and the extent of havoc he has caused, when the subject does meet his maker, the event will be hailed by American spokespersons as a major milestone and feather in the cap for the "war on terror". The reality on the ground is likely that a replacement for the slain leader has already slipped into his new shoes, but Western media will be asked to raise a toast and self-congratulations will resound in Washington and London that they are one step closer to extinguishing the Islamist threat.

Bin Laden was a relatively unknown commodity in the Western world until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but the profile upgrade he subsequently received generated widespread astonishment at the evil he represented. By painting him as the supreme patriarch of jihad incorporated, the message was conveyed that nabbing or killing him would be the finest moment that would mark the beginning of the end, if not the end, of al-Qaeda. The frequency of "Osama the phenomenon" stories gradually thinned in the news media once the war-makers realized that he was proving impossible to trace.

The focus then shifted to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two of al-Qaeda, who was copiously written about as the real power behind the throne. The Egyptian doctor was portrayed as even more lethal than bin Laden because of his acumen in managing actual terrorist missions. Some commentators went to the extent of opining that bin Laden was a puppet figure and that the "real brain" was Zawahiri. Speculation that US raids may have killed or fatally wounded Zawahiri has been appearing for many years now, only to be eventually disconfirmed.

Every time there is a report that he was targeted with a missile or an aerial bomb, Western publics are made to visualize the desired eventuality and feel that the "war on terror" is on track. If Zawahiri is truly terminated, there would be a series of statements and press releases from the US and its allies to the effect that "we are winning and here is the proof",

In 2004 and 2005, as the quagmire of Iraq deepened, the personality of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was ratcheted up in Western governmental and media outlets as the biggest threat. Gory details of the Jordanian's massacres and cruelty were discussed with awe and biliousness. Depicted as a "terror mastermind" and "target number one", few were aware that Zarqawi was not an organic member of al-Qaeda and even opposed al-Qaeda's aims of unifying Sunni and Shi'ite terrorists under a single Islamist banner.

Zarqawi's assassination in June 2006 was reported with relief and glee as President George W Bush claimed that his troops had "delivered justice to the most wanted terrorist". It was another public relations blitz that made the war look less of an unmitigated disaster and more of a mixed outcome with reasons to smile.

Abu Laith al-Libi and Baitullah Mehsud are the latest terrorist leaders to receive excessive biographical attention and price tags on their heads. The former's death in January was applauded as a "major blow" to al-Qaeda, even though neutral sources were warning that the network is going from strength to strength. If and when Mehsud is obituarized, it will be the same shebang all over that al-Qaeda is losing its top guns one by one and that the war is being won.

For those who see through the game, it is obvious that the personalization trick covers up huge foreign policy fiascoes hatched by Washington and London. Fewer and fewer people are willing to buy the comic book super villain version of the "war on terror". The typical cowboy folklore of chasing down the "bad guys" and ending up winner on a happy note has taken a beating.

Sreeram Chaulia is an analyst of international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, New York.

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Taliban take a hit, but the fight goes on (Feb 2, '08)

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3. Pakistan taken to task over al-Qaeda

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6. Intrigue takes Afghanistan to the brink

7. India's Suzlon catches wind in China

8. Another blow for 'headless' India-US deal

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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Feb 6, 2008)


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