FORGIVE MY language, but of all the imagined or speculative incarnations of Osama bin Laden that have appeared in speech or print in the past two months, my favourite is bin Laden the dickhead. OBL the DH is the man who, by his apocalyptic provocation, ensured that the regime that nurtured him has been smashed and that the network he spent years constructing, has been hugely damaged. I like this image, and it strikes me as being as likely to be accurate as the hydra-headed monster OBL of the anti-war movement, or the Mephistophelean OBL of some popular magazines.
But even permitting oneself the consolation of OBL the DH doesn't tell you too much about the terrorist threat. For that we can only examine the record and chart the steady growth of suicide attacks, and piece together such other evidence as comes our way. We have the suburban Kabuli houses full of manuals, poisons and al-Qa'ida application forms (post now to avoid disappointment). We may guess that the shattering (if lucky) success of the 11 September massacres will inspire a generation of pitiless nihilists of all kinds to see if they cannot arrange something just as televisual.
And then there's what the intelligence services are telling us. Over the weekend, David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote about an on-the- record briefing given to journalists by Jean-Jacques Pascal, head of the DST, the French counter-intelligence agency. M. Pascal said that, since 1998, his organisation had noted the return to Europe and America of hundreds of "neo-Afghans" - Arabs who had gone to be trained by al-Qa'ida and other, similar organisations. His agency had, he said, already prevented attacks in Strasbourg and uncovered a plot to blow up the American embassy in Paris. According to M. Pascal, out there right now are dozens of "artisanal" terror grouplets, just waiting their turn.
If that's true for France then it is most probably true for Britain too. At times like this (but when have there been times like this?) one longs for the austere protection of one's own spooks. For who else can save us from men who don't mind dying? And it will be the spooks' judgements that will inform the Home Secretary - should Parliament give him the powers when it votes tomorrow - as he comes to decide who gets to be detained indefinitely. They will tell him who the 16 to 20 (very precise, this) bad persons are, for whose benefit we will have derogated on Article 5 of the Convention on Human Rights, now incorporated into British law.
I can buy the necessity of doing this. Just. My nightmare, and one that I have shared with readers before, is what would happen to race relations in this country should some terrorist, acting in the name of Islam, decide to kill a whole load of citizens here. There is a mythology about British sang-froid and tolerance that I do not care to have tested. But the effectiveness of this measure depends precisely upon its limitation and its forensic use. And that's where my worries begin.
With, if you like, Stella Rimington, the retired director general of MI5 and her autobiography Open Secret, published a couple of months ago. Back in 1969, Stella, as a trainee, was practising her trade/craft on the Sussex District of the Communist Party of Great Britain (a district, if my memory as a former party member serves, full of ancient, inert Stalinists), while reading the works of that unpleasantly racist forerunner of Ian Fleming's, Dornford Yates.
Soon MI5 - like the country, according to Stella - was experiencing a "period of very considerable political upheaval" which necessitated MI5 keeping tabs on domestic subversives.
She lists the rise of CND, events at Greenham Common, the miners' strike and the growth of the militant tendency, and continues, "most of the subversive activity. …