Revenge of the Mahdi

Hey, how about those Pakistanis! They’ve captured more Al Qaeda operatives than all agencies of the U.S. government combined, and, in doing so, have probably done more to prevent new terrorist attacks in the U.S. than Tom Ridge ever dreamed of. Their latest coup: the capture of "computer geek" Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a key link in Al Qaeda’s communications network. Khan’s collection of laptop computers, CD-ROM’s, and other goodies contained a treasure trove of information on the terrorists’ plans. This haul includes diagrams of at least 10 buildings in New York City, and even – yikes! – one of the Transamerica pyramid right here in San Francisco.

Amid the heated brouhaha of a presidential election year, as every action on the part of this administration is viewed through a partisan lens, warnings of an impending terrorist attack on the home front are routinely disdained by the antiwar, anti-Bush forces as simple scare-mongering.

This is a grievous error, one which they may come to regret in the not-so-distant future. It is true that George W. Bush’s reelection campaign is helped, to a certain extent, by the perception of imminent danger, and that it makes Americans more reluctant to change horses in mid-stream. But that doesn’t mean the terrorist threat isn’t imminent, and that it’s all a cynical ploy engineered by Karl Rove, the Machiavelli of the new millennium. One doesn’t preclude the other. That the anti-Bush (and generally antiwar) camp has made such an obvious logical error underscores the unfortunate reality that election season fever is practically ubiquitous: otherwise well-meaning people just aren’t thinking straight.

This error is further encouraged and compounded by the news that the recent uptick in terror alerts was motivated, at least in part, by "intelligence" that may be three years old. As the New York Times reports:

"Much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old, intelligence and law enforcement officials said on Monday. They reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terrorist plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way."

The Washington Post chimes in with more details:

"Most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and authorities are not sure whether the casing of the buildings has continued, numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.

"More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older. ‘There is nothing right now that we’re hearing that is new,’ said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. ‘Why did we go to this level? … I still don’t know that.’"

But the proclivity of journalists to color their reporting with the petty resentment of officials kept out of the loop is bound to produce a distorting effect, one that could prove to be dangerously disorienting. Because in a matter of hours fresh reports cited multiple credible sources that were much more specific:

"More financial institutions than previously disclosed may be at risk of attack, and an al-Qaida operative has told British intelligence that the group’s target date is early September, intelligence sources said yesterday. The operative, described as ‘credible’ by British intelligence, told his debriefers that the attack would take place ’60 days before the presidential election’ on Nov. 2, according to a former senior National Security Council official."

No one doubts for a moment the willingness or ability of the War Party to manipulate public opinion in an election season by ratcheting up its system of color-coded terror alerts. But seeing everything through this particular prism is typical Western "it’s all about me" narcissism. It is blind to the reality that some people are not entirely focused on American politics, and that the terrorists come from a different mindset – one which recalls a long history of grievances against the West.

Al Qaeda is the spearhead of a movement that is still seething about the Muslims’ loss of Spain, which Bin Laden refers to as "the tragedy of Andalusia." It is reactionary in the essential meaning of that much overused term: Bin Laden seeks vengeance for wrongs that, to any Westerner, seem ancient, and laughably archaic. We are faced with an invasion from the past, as 12th century Islamist warriors utilize 21st century technology to devastate the symbols of modernity.

The image of George W. Bush addressing the Republican national convention on Sept. 2, just as a few more "iconic" American buildings go up in flames, is more fodder for the kneejerk scoffers, who see everything in terms of the election. But that date has significance other than in terms of American politics: September 2 is also the 106th anniversary of the Battle of Omdurman, which marked the triumph of the British in the Sudan over an army of Islamic fundamentalists known as Mahdists. It is an anniversary fraught with significance for Osama bin Laden and his followers worldwide: the history behind it illustrates both the nature of the threat we face and the inability of the U.S. to effectively confront it.

Although greatly outnumbered, Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener and his army of 25,000-plus Egyptian, Sudanese, and British troops, used superior technology to massacre the army of Khalifa Abdullah, the fundamentalist leader, and led to the sacking of Omdurman, the Mahdist capital. While the British and their allies were outfitted with gunboats, machine-guns, and the latest long-range rifles, the Mahdists, with their swords, spears, and banners elaborately proclaiming texts from the Koran, were described by Winston Churchill – then a young war correspondent – as a "twelfth-century Crusader army."

The Mahdist movement was founded by an Islamic preacher by the name of Muhammad Ahmad, who set up his headquarters on an island in the Nile. From there he launched a nationwide rebellion against Egyptian troops, who had occupied the country with the complicity of the British. Calling himself Mahdi – "he who is guided in the right way" – he declared a holy war against the occupiers. Using primitive weapons and without much of a real military organization, the Mahdists drove the Egyptians out, and set up an independent Islamic state.

The Battle of Omdurman finished a chapter in the history of the Islamist movement that may have its sequel in the history of the post-9/11 era, as suggested in this synopsis of an article by a Swedish academic. Bin Laden is the heir to the Mahdist legacy, determined to re-fight the Battle of Omdurman – only this time with a different outcome.

The 9/11 massacre, seen from the neo-Mahdist perspective, was merely running the historical film in reverse; this time, the infidel invaders saw their own superior technology turned against them. Like all irredentists, and other would-be restorers of past glories, the Ladenites seek not to rewrite but to reenact history, with a view to setting it back on the right path.

The popular idea that the 9/11 date was chosen because “911” is the common U.S. emergency response number is typical of the ethnocentric mindset of Western universalists. That it is also the anniversary of the day Britain seized Palestine, in 1922, with the complicity of the League of Nations, would seem a bit more relevant. Anniversaries are a big deal to these fighters for antiquity: the August 7, 1998 simultaneous bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya took place on the eighth anniversary of the entry of foreign troops onto Saudi soil. With targets in Britain as well as the U.S. apparently in Al Qaeda’s sights, the September 2 date follows a similar pattern.

Rather than trashing everything that comes labeled as U.S. government "intelligence," opponents of this administration’s policy of perpetual war will nonetheless be well advised to keep their eyes focused on the real issue here, which is: what are U.S. troops doing in Iraq when they should be here at home, examining every bit of cargo coming into our ports? Why are U.S. troops stationed at Iraq’s border with Syria, when they should be guarding our borders with Mexico and Canada? The former is especially problematic, according to recent reports, and one would hope that the recent capture of a Pakistani woman trying to sneak into the U.S. via Mexico would force U.S. government officials to change their strategic perspective:

"Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, 48, was arrested on July 19 while boarding a flight at McAllen Airport, near the US-Mexico border, with an altered passport. She was charged four days later with illegal entry into the US and falsifying a passport. She was denied bail yesterday. … Ahmed was arrested as she tried to board a flight for New York and couldn’t provide a visa. She provided a South African passport that was missing four pages. She said that her visa was in New York.

"Authorities searched Ahmed’s bags and found a pair of wet and muddy pants and plane tickets and flight schedules. They said she later told them she was smuggled into the US from Mexico.

"’I did come here illegally, I came through the bush,’ Ahmed told FBI agents in a voluntary interview."

I haven’t heard much about this particular case, but the details that came out in court as Ms. Ahmed was arraigned are enough to raise the hair on the back of even the sturdiest skeptic’s neck:

"Government sources tell FederalNewsRadio.com that capturing this woman could be comparable to the arrest of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11. It was revealed in court Tuesday that she was on a watch list and had entered the U.S. possibly as many as 250 times."

This time, Ms. Ahmed was headed for New York.

Forget the Iraqi insurgency: the real enemy is coming at us through the bush. Instead of securing the Euphrates river, U.S. troops need to start defending the Rio Grande.

Instead of protecting us, the actions of the U.S. government have put us all in grave danger, to the point that the revenge of the Mahdi – another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 – seems almost inevitable. If and when it comes, opponents of the President’s war policies don’t want to be caught off guard, and vulnerable to accusations that they’ve been living in denial.

The Iraq war was a huge diversion of resources and attention away from the real threat that is now looming over us like a poisonous cloud. How many more terror alerts are going to be issued before the American people wake up to the fact that they are less safe now than they were before 9/11? I don’t care how Karl Rove is going to spin it, that can’t be good for this White House.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].