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David Miller: Raising the Spectre of Terrorism

David Miller Online

Raising the Spectre of Terrorism

The revelations from Pakistan that al-Qaeda might be planning to attack targets in South Africa have suddenly brought the war on terrorism very close to home for New Zealanders. Although New Zealand forces are serving in Iraq and have operated in Afghanistan this country has not faced any threat from al-Qaeda or its associated groups until the weekend. However, the decision by the players and the Rugby Union to continue onto South Africa is the correct one. It is not a question that the outcome of the Tri Nations is still undecided but the fact that it is unclear as to the strength of this new menace. This decision is an important step in ensuring that countries such as New Zealand are not going to be intimidated into changing its policies, even sporting ones and falling victim to the culture of fear that the terrorist movements are so effective at creating.

The word from the rugby camp is that the threat is minimal and therefore not enough of a reason to cancel the South African part of the Tri-Nations. Why South Africa is suddenly being mentioned as a possible target is unclear given that it has not featured in any suspected al-Qaeda plans until now and the government there has been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. Although the possibility of an attack cannot be discounted it must be questioned as to whether there is an al-Qaeda cell operating in the Republic and one would have assumed that the All Blacks or any other New Zealander are more at risk travelling through in London, the United States or even Australia. It is unlikely that it is the All Blacks themselves are the primary targets despite their worldwide profile and the threat appears to stem from the report that two of the men arrested in Pakistan were South African rather than any attempt to bring harm to the team.

The threat to the All Blacks tour and targets in South Africa is another indication that the reputation of groups such as al-Qaeda is built on fear of what they can do as much as their actual capabilities. This column has dealt with terrorism on numerous occassions and each time has stressed that fear and threats are two of its greatest weapons. There is so much debate over what constitutes terrorism and who or what group falls into this bracket but as anyone who has studied terrorism will know there can be no denying that the psychological element features strongly within their tactics. The United States and Britain in particular are often on terror alert due to threats and warnings from their intelligence agencies as to an alleged al-Qaeda plot rather than a specific incident. The world has witnessed the scale of devastation that an organisation such as al-Qaeda is capable of yet having studied terrorism I believe that fear is their most powerful weapon.

The al-Qaeda name generates this fear more than any other within conflict or within the field of terrorism at present. From what the media reports are saying at the moment, the two South Africans arrested were accompanied by an al-Qaeda linked operative and there has been nothing to suggest that they were part of the bin Laden movement themselves. Throughout the past decade, the term al-Qaeda has been linked to almost every terrorist incident, group or threat. This trend, fuelled by the paranoia of the White House and large western media agencies, has meant that the percpetion of al-Qaeda’s influence, reach and capabilities has grown. It has reached the point now where a local group, be they based in indonesia or southern Africa just has to be mentioned as a supporter of Osama bin Laden or have one of their members linked to a suspected al-Qaeda operative and the fear around both the local movement and bin Laden intensifies. I do not believe that the true strength of al-Qaeda is known even by American and British intelligence agencies and I have doubts as to the solidity of the movement as a whole. However, this point is so often overlooked yet it is so important to this subject as without a firm understanding of the movement and its operating system, citizens and their governments are left to speculate as to the risk it poses and this speculation and conjecture heightens the fear.

There will always remain the possibilty that al-Qaeda or another group either with similar aims or not could strike a New Zealand target or one that involves our nationals. The threat to South Africa has demonstrated this yet this situation is not a new one. Terrorism has been a weapon of choice for groups for centuries and will continue to be so. The question is how much of a threat we perceive it to be.

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