With politicians and the media working us all into a panic about the threat of global terror, it is worth remembering that terrorism is still largely a local affair. Nearly all the incidents we now call terrorism happen in a handful of places, such as Chechnya, Kashmir, Colombia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Israel. In more sober times, the violence afflicting these countries was called guerrilla warfare or civil insurrection. "Global terrorism" had not yet been invented.
The 11 September changed all that. Acts of violence that would once have been considered normal - if regrettable - responses to intractable local conflicts were lumped together. The Moscow theatre siege and the bombing of tourist facilities in Bali were not atrocities in faraway places that might easily have occurred independently. In the lurid visions conjured up by George Bush and Tony Blair, they were episodes in a global campaign of terror.
The trouble with this picture is not that it is entirely false, but that it contains a grain of truth. The attacks on New York and Washington demonstrated that - unlike any other terrorist organisation - al-Qaeda is global in its reach. But what actually is al-Qaeda? Is it in fact an organisation? As the journalist Jason Burke notes, "al-Qaeda" does not appear in a British newspaper before 1998. Politicians and commentators talk as if the term had a single meaning that denotes a single entity persisting throughout the past five years or so. Yet in what must be the definitive deconstruction of the media myths and political hype surrounding al-Qaeda, Burke shows that the reality is extremely elusive and continuously changing.
From one angle, he observes, al-Qaeda resembles the anti-globalisation movement - a fractious coalition of diverse groups with competing strategies and objectives. From another perspective, it is a venture capitalist firm, sponsoring projects submitted by a variety of entrepreneurs. From yet another, al-Qaeda does not involve membership of any kind, but simply a way of thinking about the world and responding to events. The reality ranges from what Burke calls the "al-Qaeda hard core" - 100 or so men who appear to have remained close to Osama Bin Laden from the end of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan to the present day - to an amorphous, constantly mutating "network of networks" involving many strands in radical Islam.
The difficulty we face in understanding this protean phenomenon does not come only, or perhaps even mainly, from the secrecy in which it tends to operate. It arises from the crudity of our concepts. Part of the trouble comes from our simplistic ideas about modernity. It may contain references to the distant past but, as Burke notes, "the discourse associated with al-Qaeda is very contemporary". By no means confined to indigenous Islamic traditions, this discourse draws extensively on western revolutionary thought - especially Leninism. Propagated via satellite television, it is accessible to a large audience, much of which is illiterate. So successful has it been that its symbols have spread far beyond any Islamic context. In Thailand, Hell's Angels sport Bin Laden's portrait on their bikes and helmets as an icon of dissent.
As an image recognised by billions of people across the world, Bin Laden is as unmistakably contemporary as David Beckham. Al-Qaeda's hypermodern qualities have been missed because its apocalyptic brand of religion runs counter to the modern myth of secularisation. In a subtly drawn vignette, Burke recalls buses halting on the road between Kabul and Kandahar so that the passengers could spread their blankets in the dust and kneel in prayer. After spending the night in a roadside inn, the men took up their blankets again and lined up for dawn prayers - the equivalent, Burke writes, of guests in a motel congregating for an outdoor service at 5am.
From a contemporary western perspective, this is an unfamiliar scene; but the secular world-view prevalent in a few western countries is not a good lens through which to view Islam today. Practically without exception, western social theorists treat secularisation as an integral component of modernity. A secular world-view, they insist, goes with the unstoppable spread of science; sooner or later it will be universal. In global terms, however, the decline of religion that has occurred in a few western countries looks distinctly anomalous. Religion is a potent factor aggravating conflict in politics and war throughout much of the world - not least in the US, where biblical prophecies of Armageddon in the Middle East helped rally Christian fundamentalists behind Bush's war in Iraq. In the case of al-Qaeda, Bin Laden has been able to fuse western revolutionary traditions - themselves secular versions of Judaeo-Christian eschatological beliefs - with Islamic ideas of a cosmic war between good and evil.
An inability to grasp how religion continues to shape the lives of billions of human beings hugely distorts our view of al-Qaeda. Burke's goal is comprehensively to demythologise the phenomenon. He has given us an indispensable guide to the multidimensional reality of "al-Qaeda", but the upshot of his analysis is to affirm the centrality of religion in its ongoing evolution. The core of the book is a richly detailed narrative of Bin Laden's early life and development and a close analysis of al-Qaeda's operations. At each point, historical contingency is evident. It was not any clash of civilisations that produced al-Qaeda. Geopolitical competition, rivalry among warlords, struggles between different currents of Islamist radicalism and popular movements against social injustice all played a part.
"Al-Qaeda" originated in a plethora of localised conflicts whose upshot was in no way inevitable. Yet the vast array of networks and the way of thinking into which it has evolved has acquired a formidable global momentum. As Burke summarises this process: "Bin Laden is winning . . . Helped by a powerful surge of anti-Americanism, by Washington's incredible failure to stem the haemorrhaging of support and sympathy prompted by the attacks of 2001 and by modern communications, the language of Bin Laden and his concept of cosmic struggle has now spread among tens of millions of people, particularly the young and angry, around the world."
If western thinkers have difficulty in understanding al-Qaeda, it is mainly because it has no place in their view of history. Sooner or later, they believe, the secular societies of the west will spread throughout the Islamic world - an unlikely prospect that the war in Iraq has made even more remote. By demolishing the Soviet-model secular regime of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has increased the likelihood of some version of Iranian-style theocracy emerging in the ruins of the Iraqi state. Western opinion still seems not to understand that in much of the Middle East theocracy and a kind of democracy go together.
Al-Qaeda differs from other terrorist networks because it is able to make use of a global web of institutions, such as informal banking systems through which it is able to transmit funds. It is unique in being able to exploit the militancy of a universal religion. At some point in the future, al-Qaeda may give way to other, non-religious varieties of terrorism. For the time being, the hundreds of thousands of young men who log on to jihadi sites every day are a reminder of the persistent power of religion, which the west - in thrall to its own secular myths - has yet to comprehend.
John Gray is the author of Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (published by Faber & Faber)