Wrong question. So what if it was or wasn't? The world can hardly heave a sigh of relief if the terrorist attacks in Mumbai were not Al-Qaeda related, though it is likely that the reason why these attacks on foreign soil has caught the American media's attention is the distinct (and delicious) possibility that there is such a link. But we should not be in such a hurry to find connections when sometimes they are tenuous.
It seems likely that what happened in Mumbai was at least as domestically instigated as it was analgous to 9/11. But some journalists are already listing the parallels. Sure, the terrorists hit the Leopold Café, a favorite haunt of tourists, a train terminal, a Jewish cultural center in Nariman House, the Oberoi-Trident hotel, and the Taj Mahal hotel. These locations may give credence to the hypothesis that the terrorists were going after Westerners, but it is also possible that they were going after cosmopolitan locals embracing modernity.
I have nothing against a unified field theory of terrorism. There may well be one. For example, resentment may be a common denominator for all those who feel marginalized in the societies in which they live. Terrorism is a tragic story of society failing to accommodate its misfits; it is a bloody story of how the perceived losers of the game push back against the winners.
But, we should not miss the trees in the thicket of the forest. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai may also be a proxy for a conventional war between two nuclear rivals, Indian and Pakistan, and if this is so its causes are as much contextual as they are universal. Indian officials have already made public their suspicion of Pakistani or Kashmiri groups. In an effort to diffuse such suspicions, Pakistan is sending a top official of its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, to help investigate the attacks. If Pakistan is in some way implicated, then the US response would be even trickier than it already must be because we used to be ex-President Musharraf's best friend.
Because the trees always complicate the view of the forest, the last thing America should do is to ignore context in favor of a slogan. But President Bush couldn't help himself in his first public statement about the attacks. "The killers who struck this week are brutal and violent, but terror will not have the final word," said Bush. The forces of good and evil are at it again, he would have us believe.
Islamic terrorism is not a global ideology but a franchise of organizations and cells addressing precise local concerns by leasing the name, methods, and ideology of Al-Qaeda in such places as Iraq, Somalia, the Phillipines, and now India. It is a confederation of franchises of the disenfranchised. Once we realize that we are fighting a Medusa with many heads, we will understand that Evil doesn't wear Osama Bin Laden's head; it is a condition wrought by imperfect institutions all around the world and men and women who rebel - with indiscriminate methods - against their systematic failures. There is no swift single method of decapitating this Medusa. We must address these heinous acts and the problems out of which they arose country by country, strugggle by struggle.