Al Qaeda’s delayed release

Extremist websites are abuzz this week with barely contained rage at the delayed online release by A

Since the atrocities on 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda hasn't missed the opportunity of an anniversary to celebrate their murderous attacks. Usually a video is released like clockwork on 11 September. It inevitably features an array of Al Qaeda stars like Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri who celebrate the advance of their global jihad to a backdrop of Arabic nasheeds (Islamic songs) and footage from battlefields around the world. The purpose of the release, this year entitled “The Results of Seven Years of the Crusades,” is to show the world and supporters that Al Qaeda is alive and well seven years after its biggest achievement.

This year, however, it has proved to be a far more problematic affair – in part because it seems as though many of the main forums through which As-Sahab released these videos were knocked down on 10 September, and in part because once someone did get the thing online, they failed to attach the right passwords to it. There are stories circulating cyberspace that Al-Jazeera has already received its allotted selection of clips and is sitting on them, while others ascribe the delay to online activists who it is claimed hacked and blocked the release in some way. What is most likely, however, is some combination of all of the above with even the possibility that this is further evidence of Al Qaeda’s weakening in some way – a tangible example of human error.

The real question, however, is what is the actual importance of this (or any other) video release by Al Qaeda? On the one hand, security analysts have expressed some eagerness to see this specific release to see if it features the recently silent American Al Qaeda Adam Gadahn, aka Azzam al-Amiriki, who has not been seen in an As-Sahab release since January of this year. There have been news reports that he was killed by one of the US’s many Predator drones, but there has not as of yet been any confirmation from Al Qaeda (which is unusual, as the deaths of prominent leaders are usually accompanied by videos hailing their martyrdom).

More strategically important than this, however, is that these videos serve to reinforce the Al Qaeda single narrative and provide an opportunity for extremist fires around the world to be stoked. Such videos provide fodder for individuals straying down the path of radicalization by giving them footage of successful mujahideen operations or pictures of Muslims around the world suffering, all overlaid with a narrative that places Al Qaeda as the group at the forefront of the ramparts defending Muslim lands against the infidel invaders. With slick production values and computer graphics, nasheeds extolling the virtues of jihad, the productions are not grainy videos buried in the deeper recesses of youtube, but rather peer competitors to western network news coverage.

It remains unlikely that anyone watching these videos will suddenly decide to radicalise after watching a few, however, when one blends this in with a personal grievance of one sort or another, along with discussions which reinforce this narrative in closed chatrooms where they tend to circulate, one starts to see the role that such videos can have in the broader Al Qaeda strategy. It is not so much that video provides a way of training terrorists around the world – while such videos do exist, it is still hard to really transfer the skills to manufacture a bomb through watching a film alone. Some physical training and testing is also usually necessary before someone is able to manufacture an effective device.

The real value of these films is their ability to project the maxim that “terrorism is theatre” onto everyone’s computer and into everyone’s home. This gives terrorist groups the ability to reach a massive audience around the world of potential supporters. It remains an open question about how they go about then tapping this well of possible recruits, though the recently rolled up international online conspiracy centred around Bradford-born Aabid Khan offers one possible vision of the future.

Al Qaeda has proven itself to be the ultimate anti-globalizing agent that has harnessed the ultimate globalizing tool – the internet – to its full advantage. By repeatedly proving its ability to produce high quality videos that reinforce their nihilistic message, and disseminating them effectively to its global audience Al Qaeda is showing that it remains a force to be reckoned with. There may be a growing narrative in the West that Al Qaeda is on the decline, but it is still too early to completely count them out.

Raffaello Pantucci is a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State