Al-Qaeda: blowing up the numbers

Why both sides of the war debate choose to perpetuate myths about bin Laden's '18,000' terrorists.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Can it really be the case that after 9/11, after the Afghan war of 2001/2002, after the transfer of 600-odd suspected terrorists from Afghanistan to the cages of Camp X-Ray, after raids, arrests and shootings by counter-terrorist cops in Pakistan over the past 18 months, al-Qaeda is 18,000-strong and ready to pounce on an unsuspecting West?

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) seems to think so. It stopped the press at the end of May 2004 with its annual Strategic Survey, which claimed that, ‘Although half of al-Qaeda’s 30 senior leaders and perhaps 2,000 rank-and-file members have been killed or captured, a rump leadership is still intact and over 18,000 potential terrorists at large, with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq’ (1). Coming in the same week as US attorney general John Ashcroft’s warning that al-Qaeda is ‘almost ready to attack the United States’ – and that it plans to do so ‘hard’ – the Institute’s claims about an undefeated terror network brought the political and media worlds out in a sweat.

‘18,000 SET TO ATTACK’ declared the UK Daily Mirror, claiming that bin Ladenites are ‘waiting for the order to attack targets in Europe and the USA, preferably with weapons of mass destruction’ (2). More prestigious publications also ran with the IISS story. ‘Still plotting, still recruiting’ said The Economist, arguing that the IISS report shows how al-Qaeda has become a ‘textbook business-school case of a multinational enterprise restructuring in response to a big competitive challenge’ (3). Time magazine reported that ‘bin Laden’s network today commands some 18,000 men’, and said America remains ‘vulnerable to al-Qaeda attack’ (4).

Of course al-Qaeda types might be plotting another attack on America or Europe, which could leave scores dead. And recent events in Saudi Arabia, culminating with the beheading of US civilian Paul Johnson over the weekend, show that there are still individuals who are willing to do grisly things in al-Qaeda’s name. But these remain rare and isolated incidents; where is the evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda has thousands more such willing killers and martyrs, ready to take action at a nod and a wink from bin Laden?

Even on their own terms, the IISS figures don’t add up. The claim that al-Qaeda has 18,000 potential terrorists is not derived from on-the-ground investigation or a serious assessment of the intelligence or newly discovered al-Qaeda documents, but from some rather simple (in both meanings of that word) arithmetic. The IISS worked out that, since ‘at least 20,000 jihadists have been trained in [al-Qaeda’s] Afghanistan camps since 1996’, and that ‘2,000 rank-and-file members have been killed or captured’ since the start of the Afghan war in 2001, then there must be 18,000 al-Qaeda-trained jihadists left, lurking somewhere around the world’s hotspots. According to the IISS, this shows that the war in Afghanistan ‘offensively hobbled, but defensively benefited, al-Qaeda’, forcing it to ‘disperse and become even more decentralised, “virtual” and invisible’ (5).

This is exactly the same simple arithmetic that the IISS used over a year ago. In last year’s Strategic Survey, published on 13 May 2003, the IISS claimed that al-Qaeda remained a ‘potent’ terrorist network with ‘more than 18,000 trained members at large’; it pointed out that 2,000 rank-and-file members had been killed or captured, leaving ‘some 18,000 jihadists who had been through al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan’ (6). Déjà vu, anyone? The 2003 Strategic Survey also generated shock headlines, such as ‘Terror crackdown has not reduced al-Qaeda threat, warns think tank’ in the UK Guardian (7). A cynic might accuse the IISS of repeating last year’s claims of an 18,000-strong al-Qaeda in this year’s Strategic Survey, because it knows from experience that such claims will get the media going.

That the figures have remained the same for over a year calls into question other parts of the 2004 survey and the subsequent news coverage. This year the IISS claimed not only that al-Qaeda still has thousands of potential terrorists, but that its ranks are growing, that recruitment is ‘accelerating on account of Iraq’. As an Associated Press headline summed it up: ‘Al-Qaeda is 18,000-strong, growing as a result of Iraq war, think tank says.’ (8) Yet the IISS survey doesn’t provide any evidence for this Iraq-inspired growth of al-Qaeda. All we know from looking at its 2003 survey and its 2004 survey is that al-Qaeda was allegedly 18,000-strong then and remains 18,000-strong today. What happened to all the new recruits?

More seriously, even if we accept the rather simplistic claims that 20,000 wannabe jihadists were trained in Afghan camps and that 2,000 have subsequently been captured or killed, can we say that the remaining 18,000 are in any way related to al-Qaeda, much less that they are its ‘potential terrorists’? Can the Afghan camps even be described as al-Qaeda camps, which transformed young Arabs into al-Qaeda fighters? Some experts seriously doubt it.

‘There is a limited understanding regarding the nature of the Afghan camps’, says Adam Dolnik, head of training at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. ‘Most of the camps had nothing to do with bin Laden’, Dolnik tells me. He says the camps were ‘owned by people like [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and [Abdul Rasul] Sayyaf’, two veteran Mujihadeen of the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, who trained Islamic fighters through to the late 1990s. Hekmatyar was prime minister of Afghanistan from 1993 to 1994 and is now one of those ‘renegade warlords’ who is opposed to the current Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. Sayyaf heads the Afghan Islamic group Ittehad-e-Islami, and in June 2004 offered his support to Karzai for the forthcoming September presidential elections.

What did Hekmatyar, Sayyaf and other former Mujihadeen leaders use the camps for? ‘They would train a large number of people in very basic techniques’, says Dolnik, ‘often providing only very limited opportunity to do even basic things, like target practice, due to a shortage of bullets’. According to Dolnik, ‘Most of these people left right after basic training – thus they never became al-Qaeda members. They went on to fight in the “lands of jihad”, such as Bosnia, Yemen, Chechnya, Kashmir, or fought with Taliban forces. Some will have returned home to where they came from.’ In his book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke also says that incoming Arabs to Afghanistan mostly ‘received basic military training’, and then ‘most went on to fight for the Taliban, or returned home to their own countries’ (9).

According to American military expert Jim Dunnigan, most of the estimated 20,000 who went to Afghanistan to become jihadists didn’t end up anywhere near bin Laden’s network: ‘While more than 20,000 Islamic terrorists flocked to Afghanistan (and other countries where training camps existed), most of them were trained as infantry and used as ground troops to fight the Northern Alliance for the Taliban. If they survived that, they were sent home to “do what they could” to strike a blow for Islam. Most of these lads restricted their militant activities to a lot of lively talk at the local coffee shop or mosque.’ (10)

Did any of the 20,000 become affiliates of bin Laden, or his ‘potential terrorists’, as the IISS puts it? Some did, says Dolnik. ‘The way it worked was that a number of instructors in these camps were Egyptians, the most influential group within al-Qaeda. These instructors were able to pinpoint the more able trainees and to recruit them for advanced training in special camps – the actual al-Qaeda sites sponsored by bin Laden.’ How many of the 20,000 might have undergone such advanced training? Dolnik says it’s hard to be definitive. ‘Four thousand are thought to be al-Qaeda members, meaning people who got advanced training’, he says. ‘But the number of people who have sworn the oath to bin Laden was much, much smaller than that.’

There’s some controversy over whether ‘advanced training’ made a recruit into an al-Qaeda member or whether swearing the oath to bin Laden did. Where around 4,000 received advanced training, the number who bowed to bin Laden was much lower, ‘a few hundred, perhaps’, says Dolnik. So al-Qaeda was at the very most 4,000-strong, many of whom will have subsequently been captured or killed in the Afghan war and its aftermath; or, if measured by individuals who were directly loyal to bin Laden, it was a few hundred strong, some of whom, again, will have subsequently been captured or killed.

Of those 18,000 jihadists that the IISS and news reports claim are al-Qaeda’s potential terrorists, most will only ever have received basic training in things like target practice, may have subsequently been killed in Bosnia, Chechnya, Yemen or elsewhere, and will never have had anything whatsoever to do with bin Laden, much less be under his ‘command’ as Time claimed.

There’s an even more basic question, which the IISS and the journalists who reported its claims failed to ask. If al-Qaeda has 18,000 potential terrorists, where are they? What are they doing? Not very much, if the number of international terror attacks carried out by Islamic extremists over the past year is anything to go by. As the IISS Strategic Survey itself points out, ‘since 11 September 2001, one major attack – in Madrid on 11 March 2004 – has taken place in Europe while none have occurred in North America’ (11). At the end of April 2004, the US State Department’s annual report Patterns of Global Terrorism said there were 190 acts of international terrorism in 2003, the lowest number in 30 years (though the State Department is now said to be rejigging the report, following complaints from US Democrats that it stopped documenting terror attacks in early November 2003 rather than documenting the whole year from January to December).

The IISS report says: ‘[W]here security institutions are weak (as in Kenya) or constrained by anti-Western domestic sentiment (as in Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), vulnerabilities arise that are easier for al-Qaeda to exploit. Such countries have become soft targets of opportunity.’ (12) That is true – but surely that points to a weakness on al-Qaeda’s part, rather than providing evidence that al-Qaeda is a menace to Western civilisation? Indeed, the recent spate of assaults on foreign citizens in Saudi Arabia by groups claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda suggests that bin Ladenesque groups are more isolated than ever. Saudi Arabia is understood to have been the birthplace of al-Qaeda; it doesn’t say much for this international network of an alleged 18,000 potential terrorists that it has to return home in order to launch attacks. As one commentator says, such local assaults are ‘akin to a man knocking down a gnome in his own garden’ (13).

‘The image of thousands of potential sleeper cells is clearly inaccurate’, says Dolnik. ‘For the terrorist who has a sense of purpose, who has come all the way to Afghanistan to train, who has experienced the glory of battle, inaction is extremely stressful. If there were such a high number of sleepers, it would be much more common to see some of these operatives participate in unauthorised low-level operations on their own – to relieve stress, if nothing else.’

By simply asking a few basic questions, we can see that claims of 18,000 terrorists having passed through Afghanistan and now poised to commit acts of terrorism are so much stuff and nonsense. So why were they so widely reported by sections of the media and others? There is a distinctly uncritical climate when it comes to discussing al-Qaeda and its alleged threat to the West. The claims of 18,000 potential terrorists were repeated by everyone from the anti-war Daily Mirror to the pro-war Daily Express, from the anti-Bush writer Gore Vidal to officials within the Bush administration itself.

Claims of a big, bad, threatening al-Qaeda are unquestioningly accepted because they suit the agenda of both sides. For anti-war commentators, the alleged growth of al-Qaeda proves that the war in Iraq has only exacerbated terrorism and made the world a less stable place. So Gore Vidal said in a recent anti-war speech in New York: ‘The IISS has said that in the wake of the war in Iraq, al-Qaeda now has more than 18,000 potential terrorists scattered around the world….’ Pro-war types, on the other hand, cited the 18,000 figure as evidence that we the West face a serious threat and must continue to mobilise against our enemies. Anti-war types talk up al-Qaeda in order to show that Bush was an ass for invading Iraq; pro-war types do it to convince themselves that they still have a mission, and that the ‘war on terror’ must go on. Because these al-Qaeda myths provide such a neat, little motif for what both sides are for/against, neither side stops to ask any probing questions.

So while many of those 18,000 jihadists are dead, imprisoned or back home again, the myth of their threat to Western civilisation lives on.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Strategic Survey 2003/4: An Evaluation and Forecast of World Affairs, IISS, May 2004

(2) 18,000 SET TO ATTACK, Mirror, 26 May 2004

(3) Still plotting, still recruiting, The Economist, 1 June 2004

(4) Why al-Qaeda thrives, Time, 26 May 2004

(5) Strategic Survey 2003/4: An Evaluation and Forecast of World Affairs, IISS, May 2004

(6) Terror crackdown has not reduced al-Qaeda threat, warns think tank, Guardian, 14 May 2003

(7) Terror crackdown has not reduced al-Qaeda threat, warns think tank, Guardian, 14 May 2003

(8) Al-Qaeda is 18,000-strong, growing as a result of Iraq war, think tank says, Associated Press, 26 May 2004

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

(10) Al-Qaeda run over by the internet, Jim Dunnigan, Strategy Page, 6 May 2002

(11) Strategic Survey 2003/4: An Evaluation and Forecast of World Affairs, IISS, May 2004

(12) Strategic Survey 2003/4: An Evaluation and Forecast of World Affairs, IISS, May 2004

(13) See Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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