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October 25, 2001

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Ajoy Bose

Osama's evil genius

Osama bin Laden's plan to bring down the global establishment under its own weight appears to be working with frightening precision. One month ago, America's own planes were plucked out of the skies and directed against its economic and military citadels. Today, the bombs raining down on Afghanistan to flush the terrorist leader out are fast becoming lethal weapons in his hands. In the much-vaunted US-led war against terrorism, it is Osama and his diabolical vision that have been the chief beneficiaries so far.

The remarkable skill with which the terrorist leader has turned the campaign against him to his advantage must be seen in the context of what he and Al Qaeda really hoped to achieve through the September 11 terror attacks.

This stupendous humiliation of American might have had two main objectives. The first was to provoke the US leadership into a fierce military counteroffensive whose momentum would whip up unprecedented public frenzy in the Arab and the Islamic world against America and its allies. At the same time, the new sense of dread amongst the hitherto sheltered American populace and the unfolding scenario of an uncertain and lengthy war was calculated to unhinge the societies and economies of the developed world.

Clearly, Osama and his cohorts have already had palpable success in achieving these objectives. Regardless of whether Osama is ultimately captured or killed or whether the Taleban regime is ousted in the military campaign, efforts by leaders of the anti-terror alliance to isolate the terrorist leader have already been badly dented. Each cruise missile or bunch of cluster bombs unleashed on Afghanistan has furthered his mission to divide the world into two camps, Muslims and non-Muslims, true believers and infidels.

For a man steeped in mediŠval mores, Osama has shown remarkable ability in manipulating a modern communication instrument like television. Repeated television images of the twin World Trade Centre towers crashing down elevated him overnight to a cult figure in Muslim ghettos across the world even as they traumatised the rest of us. Similarly, the relentless procession of images on the small screen over the past week showing violent demonstrations by Muslims protesting against the air strikes on Afghanistan is spreading Osama's message at devastating pace.

Indeed, television may turn out to be a far more effective weapon than the array of planes and missiles in the US arsenal in the present war. Consider the impact on the collective Muslim psyche of these images showing the explosion of solidarity by the community with Osama and the Taleban from Pakistan to Nigeria, from Indonesia to Palestine. Television anchors do explain that these demonstrations reflect the views of only a volatile minority, but viewers usually retain just the graphic coverage of Muslim anger against the US and its allies.

Old men wearing skull caps and beards burning effigies of Bush, tiny tots waving toy rifles and Osama posters, Muslims of all ages and ethnic lineage brandishing their faith to declare jihad cannot but have a cascading effect on the community. Even moderate and liberal Muslim friends in India who otherwise despise Osama and the Taleban confess that in the past few weeks they have suddenly become more aware of their religious identity. Make no mistake, the line has already been drawn dividing Muslims from the rest of the world quite oblivious of the unending pleas by Bush and other Western leaders that their war is not against Islam.

The flip side of the picture is equally frightening. The same television images that draw Muslims together like a magnet are bound to spread fear and loathing against the community in other sections of society. In America xenophobic outbursts against Arabs and Muslims in particular and all non-white immigrants in general are waiting to erupt. In fact, all countries with Muslim minorities are in danger of being enveloped by communal conflagrations as the war frenzy mounts. Such catastrophes are, of course, an integral part of the Al Qaeda script.

To add to the growing tension is the deepening shadow of more terror attacks on the US and its allies. The anthrax scare has already chilled America to its bones with more and more people petrified about the dreaded white powder arriving by mail. Just like flying for business or pleasure, yet another innocuous activity like opening a letter has become fraught with danger. Obsessed with safety, Americans are particularly susceptible to Osama's mind games.

This overwhelming sense of dread in the heart of the developed world will inevitably derail the global economy, which has started showing signs of strain. Industry can hardly be upbeat when the only purchases attracting American consumers today happen to be antibiotics, gas masks and condoms (if reports of heightened libido after the September 11 attacks are to be believed). It may not be unduly alarmist to predict an escalating economic recession across the world.

The Osama gang has fuelled these fears of impending doom with its own propaganda war. The videotaped statement of the terrorist leader released to the Arab television channel Al Jazeera just after the air strikes on Afghanistan began was not only a show of defiance but a message calculated to strike terror in the heart of America.

This has been followed by several videotaped statements by Al Qaeda threatening America and its allies with, among other things, a "fresh storm of planes" and "the ground burning under their feet". But the most chilling line of all has come in the shape of an exhortation that thousands of Muslims are as eager to die as Americans look forward to living. In just a few words the terrorist network has underlined why it is so confident of winning the war.

Unfortunately, the web spun by the evil genius of Osama is going largely unchallenged. His principal opponent, US President George Bush, has increasingly behaved like a small-town sheriff rather than a global statesman. The counter-offensives on the military and diplomatic fronts are confused and faltering. With the military campaign in Afghanistan creating more problems than they have solved and crucial Muslim allies in the anti-terror alliance tottering under pressure from their own peoples, Osama bin Laden, alive or as a martyr, may well be on the verge of turning the millennium upside down.

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