We have al-Qa’eda on the run,’ President Bush was reported to have said in April. In May, al-Qa’eda and its associated groups masterminded a week of bombings which left more than 100 people dead. It looked like a deliberate riposte to the President’s triumphant optimism. There were two explosions in Chechnya on 12 May, which killed 59 people and injured 200. There were three in Morocco on 16 May; the toll was 27 dead and more than 100 injured, not counting the blowing to smithereens of the 12 suicide bombers who had jointly detonated the bombs. And in the same week, there were the bombs in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which killed 34 people, as well as the 19 bombs which exploded in Shell petrol stations in Pakistan.
The attacks were noticed for a few days in Western countries – and then more or less forgotten. Ten Americans died in the Riyadh attacks, but the majority of the victims in all the bombings in May were from Third World countries. Most of the reporting in Britain and America did not even manage to identify the fact that the bombings had been co-ordinated, and were ultimately dictated by al-Qa’eda. The attacks did little to puncture the mood of complacency that the war on terror was being won. After all, hadn’t Osama bin Laden boasted that he would create havoc if the Americans invaded Iraq? And what had al-Qa’eda smashed, destroyed or otherwise blown up during the war on Saddam? Precisely nothing.
Which may explain why, even after the May attacks, President Bush felt confident enough to assert, ‘We are, slowly but surely, dismantling the al-Qa’eda operational network.’ We certainly all hope al-Qa’eda is on the run, that the organisation is being dismantled, just as we all hope that Osama bin Laden is dead. But hope, as a philosopher once said, is the confusion of the desire for something with its probability.