Does al-Qaeda exist?

Not in the way that we think, say some terrorism experts.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘Al-Qaeda bombing foiled’ says the front page of today’s UK Sun, reporting the arrest yesterday of 24-year-old student Sajid Badat in Gloucester, England, on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity. Other reports have referred to Badat as ‘having links with al-Qaeda’ and being a potential ‘suicide bomber’ (1).

Also this week, media reports claim that al-Qaeda may have developed ‘car-bomb capability’ in the USA, and that al-Qaeda has compiled a ‘kidnappers’ manual’ and is plotting to snatch American troops from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Every day since the 9/11 attacks of 2001 there have been media reports about al-Qaeda – its leaders, members, capabilities, bank accounts, reach and threat. What is this al-Qaeda? Does such a group even exist?

Some terrorism experts doubt it. Adam Dolnik and Kimberly McCloud reckon it’s time we ‘defused the widespread image of al-Qaeda as a ubiquitous, super-organised terror network and call it as it is: a loose collection of groups and individuals that doesn’t even refer to itself as al-Qaeda’. Dolnik and McCloud – who first started studying terrorism at the prestigious Monterey Institute of International Studies in California – claim it was Western officials who imposed the name ‘al-Qaeda’ on to disparate radical Islamic groups and who blew Osama bin Laden’s power and reach ‘out of proportion’. Both are concerned about the threat of terror, but argue that we should ‘debunk the myth of al-Qaeda’ (2).

There is a ‘rooted public perception of what al-Qaeda is’, says Dolnik, who is currently carrying out research on the Terrorism and Political Violence Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore; but, he says, such perceptions are far from accurate. Dolnik argues that where many imagine that al-Qaeda is ‘a super organisation of thousands of super-trained and super-secret members who can be activated any minute’, in fact it is better understood as something like a ‘global ideology that has not only attracted many smaller regional groups, but has also facilitated the boom of new organisations that embrace this sort of radical and violent thinking’. Dolnik and others believe that, in many ways, the thing we refer to as ‘al-Qaeda’ is largely a creation of Western officials.

‘Bin Laden never used the term al-Qaeda prior to 9/11’, Dolnik tells me. ‘Nor am I aware of the name being used by operatives on trial. The closest they came were in statements such as, “Yes, I am a member of what you call al-Qaeda”. The only name used by al-Qaeda themselves was the World Islamic Front for the Struggle Against Jews and Crusaders – but I guess that’s too long to really stick.’

So where did ‘al-Qaeda’ come from? Dolink says there are a number of theories – that the term was first used by bin Laden’s spiritual mentor Abdullah Azzam, who wrote of al Qaeda al Sulbah, meaning the ‘solid base’, in 1988; or that it derives from a bin Laden-sponsored safehouse in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when he was part of the mujahideen fighting against the Soviet invasion, again referring to a physical ‘base’ rather than to a distinct organisation. But in terms of ‘al-Qaeda’ then being used to define a group of operatives around bin Laden – that, says Dolnik, originated in the West.

‘The US intelligence community used the term “al-Qaeda” for the first time only after the 1998 embassy bombings’, he says, when suspected bin Laden followers detonated bombs at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people. Dolnik says al-Qaeda was used as a ‘convenient label for a group that had no formal name’. Prior to the 1998 bombings, US officials were concerned about Osama bin Laden and the financial backing he appeared to provide to Islamic terror groups – but they rarely, if ever, mentioned anything called ‘al-Qaeda’.

According to British journalist Jason Burke, in his authoritative Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, ‘Al-Qaeda is a messy and rough designation, often applied carelessly in the absence of a more useful term’ (3). Burke points out that while many think al-Qaeda is ‘a terrorist organisation founded more than a decade ago by a hugely wealthy Saudi Arabian religious fanatic’, in fact the term ‘al-Qaeda’ has only entered political and mainstream discussion fairly recently:

‘American intelligence reports in the early 1990s talk about “Middle Eastern extremists…working together to further the cause of radical Islam”, but do not use the term “al-Qaeda”. After the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, FBI investigators were aware of bin Laden but only “as one name among thousands”. In the summer of 1995, during the trials of Islamic terrorists who had tried to blow up a series of targets in New York two years earlier, “Osam ben Laden” (sic) was mentioned by prosecutors once; “al-Qaeda” was not.’

Like Dolnik, Burke points out that the name al-Qaeda entered the popular imagination only after US officials used it to describe those who attacked the embassies in Africa. ‘In the immediate aftermath of the double bombings, President Clinton merely described a “network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Usama (sic) bin Laden”’, writes Burke. ‘Clinton talks of “the bin Laden network”, not of “al-Qaeda”. In fact, it is only during the FBI-led investigation into those bombings that the term first starts to be used to describe a traditionally structured terrorist organisation’ (4). According to some experts, it was this naming of al-Qaeda by US officials that kickstarted the public’s misunderstanding of Islamic terror groups. Dolnik points out that, while US officials talked up a structured group, this so-called al-Qaeda did not even have ‘any sort of insignia – a phenomenon quite rare in the realm of terrorism’.

Having given bin Laden and his henchmen a name, Western officials then proceeded to exaggerate their threat. ‘In the quest to define the enemy, the US and its allies have helped to blow it out of proportion’, wrote Dolnik and Kimberly McCloud of the Monterey Institute in 2002. They pointed out that after 1998, US officials began distributing posters and matchboxes featuring bin Laden’s face and a reward for his capture around the Middle East and Central Asia – a process that ‘transformed this little-known jihadist into a household name and, in some places, a symbol of heroic defiance’ (5).

Now, Dolnik says that Western officials have helped to blow al-Qaeda out of proportion in other ways, too – by ‘the automatic attribution of credit to the group for disparate attacks; by making unintelligent and unqualified statements about the group’s very basic “weapons of mass destruction” programme; by treating al-Qaeda as a super-organisation; by creating the impression that al-Qaeda can do just about anything’. As a result, al-Qaeda has been turned into something it is not. In the mid-1990s intelligence officials saw bin Laden as ‘one name among thousands’; within a few years they had transformed him into a global threat who heads a ruthless, structured organisation that is capable of doing anything, anytime, anywhere.

This invention, or certainly exaggeration, of al-Qaeda is not only inaccurate; it also has a potentially destabilising effect, encouraging regional groups to act in the name of al-Qaeda in the knowledge that such actions will have a massive impact on our al-Qaeda-obsessed world. The talking up of al-Qaeda has created a kind of brand name, which can be invoked by small, isolated groups wishing to strike a blow beyond their means.

Consider the recent suicide bombings in Istanbul. Predictably, many in the West instantly attributed the attacks to al-Qaeda, though it has since emerged that the bombs were most likely made and detonated by local Turkish groups. However, at least three Turkish groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks in the name of al-Qaeda. The West’s obsession with al-Qaeda has given terrorist outfits a convenient shortcut to grabbing the world’s attention and scaring us senseless.

According to Dolnik: ‘In a world where one email sent to a news agency translates into a headline stating that al-Qaeda was behind even the blackouts in Italy and the USA, anyone can claim to be al-Qaeda – not only groups but also individuals’.

Sajid Badat, the 24-year-old student arrested by British police in Gloucester yesterday, on suspicion of planning to carry out a terrorist attack, was immediately referred to in media reports as a ‘suicide bomber’ and ‘al-Qaeda terrorist’ – after it was revealed that he had boasted to college mates and neighbours: ‘I’m in al-Qaeda.’ Whatever the truth of the allegations against him, however, it is clear that anybody can make an impact today by claiming a link to the largely mythical al-Qaeda. The script for such claims has already been written, by fearful Western officials who have made ‘al-Qaeda’, whatever that might be, into an instantly recognisable, frightening, global phenomenon.

How can we challenge the widespread but warped understanding of what ‘al-Qaeda’ is? Dolnik worries that it might be ‘too late’, but he has some ideas: ‘We could have a balanced assessment of the group’s capabilities, including its embarrassing failures – some al-Qaeda plots were flat-out ridiculous. We could emphasise al-Qaeda’s heretical nature within Islam, in order to decrease the overt support for the group among fellow Muslims who are forced to align “with us or against us”. We could stop calling everything al-Qaeda does “new” or “unprecedented” – I am aware of at least 10 concrete plans to use aeroplanes to crash them into buildings and one actual successful attempt as far back as 1976. And we could stop calling small amounts of recovered chemicals “chemical weapons” – without effective weaponisation, these are about as dangerous as bullets without a gun.’

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Al-Qaeda bombing foiled, Sun, 28 November 2003

(2) See Debunk the myth of al-Qaeda, Adam Dolnik and Kimberly A McCloud, Christian Science Monitor, 23 May 2002

(3) Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke, IB Tauris, 2003

(4) Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke, IB Tauris, 2003

(5) See Debunk the myth of al-Qaeda, Adam Dolnik and Kimberly A McCloud, Christian Science Monitor, 23 May 2002

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Topics Politics


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