Gwynne Dyer: Supervillains? No, sad sacks

You're allowed to lie for jihad. You're allowed any technique to defeat your enemy," Zacarias Moussaoui told the Virginia courtroom on March 27, trying to explain why he had changed his story about not being directly involved in the September 11 plot.

Now he wants to die a martyr, not rot in an American prison for the rest of his life, so he claims that he and the pathetically incompetent British shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, were scheduled to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House on September 11, 2001.

That's not what he said before, but you're allowed to lie for jihad.

Moussaoui initially denied knowledge of the plot but subsequently signed a confession that he was the missing "20th hijacker". (Three of the four hijacked planes on that day had teams of five hijackers aboard, but one was a man short.)

Then he repudiated his confession, explaining that it was only a joke, and now he has repudiated that repudiation, insisting that he was indeed part of the plot. You have to lie a lot for jihad.

The main reason Moussaoui keeps changing his story is that he is a seriously disturbed individual: his court appearances have often been incoherent, abusive and even hysterical.

To qualify for the death penalty he must show that he had foreknowledge of the attacks and deliberately withheld it. Otherwise he wasn't responsible for any deaths, and cannot be executed even under United States law.

After September 11 he happily signed a confession admitting that he had been part of the team, because he felt that that would bring him honour.

The truth is probably that he was initially asked to take part in the plot but had been excluded from it well before it took place.

The leaders of the attack, while not exactly paragons of stability themselves, were unlikely to have wanted him along as he was clearly a security risk.

Since that is too humiliating a truth for Moussaoui to bear, he flops back and forth between claiming some role in the operation and denying any connection with it, as he veers between wanting to live or wishing for a martyr's death at the hands of American executioners.

In his latest story, he and Richard Reid were to have had their very own hijacked plane to crash into the White House.

Moussaoui's testimony is worthless - and yet his trial does tell us some important things about September 11. It reminds us of the spectacular incompetence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI did not seriously interrogate Moussaoui for almost a month after his arrest on immigration charges on August 16, 2001, so he was under minimal pressure to spill the beans about September 11 (if he had any).

It also reminds us that the White House wasn't paying attention to intelligence about terrorist threats anyway, so focused was it on building a case for invading Iraq.

Above all, it reminds us of what sad sacks the terrorists were.

Over the past four and a half years, the Bush Administration has constructed its entire foreign policy on a "war against terror" which presupposes a serious opponent on the other side.

The imagery is straight out of an old James Bond movie: supervillains in caves with plans for world conquest sending out legions of fanatical, high-tech Islamist terrorists to murder innocent Americans.

The reality, as Moussaoui amply demonstrates, is a bit less impressive.

In an alternative universe where they had not come under the influence of Osama bin Laden, Moussaoui and his colleagues could have been the subjects of an Arabic-language sitcom about hopeless losers adrift in the West and lost between two cultures.

The only reason they managed to pull off the September 11 attacks, despite scattering clues around like confetti, was that nobody was looking. In four and a half years, it hasn't happened again.

Indeed, nobody has been killed by terrorists in North America since September 11, the longest completely terrorism-free period since the 1960s.

And none of the terrorist attacks elsewhere during this time (only two of which happened in Western countries, Spain and Britain) were at all innovative or high-tech. It's back to truck-bombs and backpacks stuffed with explosives.

In all the terrorist attacks since September 11 by people who are in some way linked with al Qaeda and its various clones and affiliates (apart from those in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are directly linked to foreign occupations), the total fatalities all around the world are well under 1000 people.

Less than one person a day worldwide is being killed in so-called Islamist terrorist attacks. More people than that are dying of dog bites.

This is not a global crisis, however much President Bush strives to define it as such.

From the start, the "war on terror" has served as a cover for various plans for asserting US military and political hegemony around the world that were already on the agenda of the neo-conservatives for years before they took control of US foreign and defence policy with the inauguration of Bush in January, 2001.

It has been one of the longest and most successful hoaxes in history - but the strategies that hide behind it are still doomed to end in failure.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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