Jason Burke: "To reduce it all to 'al-Qaeda' ... we simply risk misleading ourselves"
05-03-2011, 01:10 PM (This post was last modified: 05-03-2011 01:48 PM by achali.)
Jason Burke: "To reduce it all to 'al-Qaeda' ... we simply risk misleading ourselves"
1) MLK: Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
2) BBC Documentary: "Born out of the failure of the liberal dream ... politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares" / Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb: The Power of Nightmares & the Rise of Fear [film]
Transcription excerpts from Part Three: "The Shadows in the Cave"
Narrator: Even bin Laden's displays of strength for the western media were faked. The fighters in this video (07:05) have been hired for the day and told to bring their own weapons. From beyond his own small group, bin Laden had no formal organization, until the Americans invented one for him. In January 2001, a trial began in a Manhattan courtroom for four men accused of the embassy bombings in East Africa [Kenya]. But the Americans had also decided to prosecute bin Laden in his absence. But to do this under American law the prosecutors needed evidence of a criminal organization, because, as with the mafia, that would allow them to prosecute the head of the organization even if he could not be linked directly to the crime. And the evidence for that organization was provided for them by an ex-associate of bin Laden's called Jamal al-Fadl.
Jason Burke (Chief Reporter, London Observer): "During the investigation ... there is a walking source, Jamal al-Fadl, who is a Sudanese militant who was with bin Laden in the early 90s, who has been passed around a whole series of middle eastern secret services -- none of whom want much to do with him -- who ends up in America, and is taken on by the American government, effectively, as a key prosecution witness ... his account is used as raw material to build up a picture of al-Qaeda. The picture the FBI want to build up is one that will fit the existing laws that they will have to use to prosecute those responsible for the bombing. Now those laws were drawn up to counteract organized crime -- the mafia, drugs crime -- crimes where people being a member of an organization is extremely important. You have to have an organization to get a prosecution. And you have al-Fadl and a number of other witnesses and a number of other sources who are happy to feed into this. You've got material that, looked at in a certain way, can be seen to show this organization's existence. You put the two together and you get what is the first bin Laden myth, the first al-Qaeda myth, and because it's one of the first it's extremely influential."
Narrator: The picture al-Fadl drew for the Americans of bin Laden was of an all-powerful figure at the head of a large terrorist network that had an organized hierarchy of control. He also said that bin Laden had given this network a name: al-Qaeda. It was a dramatic and powerful picture of bin Laden, but it bore little relationship to the truth. The reality was that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had become the focus of a loose association of disillusioned Islamist militants who were attracted by the new strategy. But there was no organization. These were militants who mostly planned their own operations and looked to bin Laden for funding and assistance. He was not their commander. There is also no evidence that bin Laden used the term al-Qaeda to refer to the name of a group until after September 11 (2001), when he realized that this was the term the Americans had given him. In reality Jamal al-Fadl was on the run from bin Laden, having stolen money from him. In return for his evidence, the Americans gave him witness protection in America and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many lawyers at the trial believe that al-Fadl exaggerated and lied to give the Americans a picture of the terrorist organization that they needed to prosecute bin Laden.
Sam Schmidt (Defense Lawyer in Embassy Bombings Trial): "There were select portions of al-Fadl's testimony that I believe were false, to help support the picture that he helped the Americans join together ... It made al-Qaeda the new mafia or the new communists. It made them identifiable as a group, and therefore made it easier to prosecute any person associated with al-Qaeda for any acts or statements made by bin Laden, who talked a lot."
Jason Burke: "The idea, which is critical to the FBI's prosecution, that bin Laden ran a coherent organization with operatives and cells around the world, of which you could be a member, is a myth. There is no al-Qaeda organization. There is no international network with a leader, with carders who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe ... It simply does not exist."
Narrator: What did exist was a powerful idea that was about to inspire a single, devastating act that would lead the whole world into believing the myth that had begun to be constructed in a Manhattan courtroom. The attack on America by nineteen hijackers shocked the world. It was Ayman al-Zawahiri's new strategy, implemented in a brutal and spectacular way. But neither he nor bin Laden were the originators of what was called the "Planes Operation". It was the brainchild of an Islamist militant called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who came to bin Laden for funding and help in finding volunteers. But in the wake of the panic created by the attacks, the politicians reached for the model which had been created by the trial earlier that year. The hijackers were just the tip of a vast "international terrorist network" which was called al-Qaeda.
Vincent Cannistraro (Head of Counter-terrorism, CIA 1988-1990): "What the neo-conservatives are doing is taking a concept that they developed during the competition with the Soviet Union (i.e. Soviet Communism was evil, wanted to take over our country, wanted to take over our people, our classrooms, our society). It was that kind of concept of evil that they took -- an exaggerated one, to be sure -- and then applied it to a new threat, where it didn't apply at all. And yet, it was layered with the same kind of cultural baggage -- the policy says there's a network, the policy says that network is evil, they want to infiltrate our classrooms, they want to take our society, they want all our women to wear veils, and this is what we have to deal with. Therefore, since we know it's evil let's just kill it, and that will make it go away."
What is al-Qaeda?
In this extract from his new book, Al-Qaeda: Casting a shadow of terror, The Observer's chief reporter, Jason Burke, looks at the true nature of bin Laden's organisation and why the west's misunderstanding of the broad and diverse phenomenon of modern Islamic militancy undermines its response to terrorism
The fighters came back in the middle of the night. Their weapons and the ammunition slung around their shoulders reflected the dull red glow given out by the embers of the fire. The men sleeping in the room sat up and moved to make space by the fire for the new arrivals. Outside it was cold enough for frost to form wherever there was standing water.
During the day two men had been taken prisoner and several others killed or wounded and the fighters did not talk much. One of them cleaned and checked a captured light machine gun while the others ate the remnants of a thin chicken stew cooked several hours earlier. It was 3am and everyone knew, at least if the routine established over the previous two days continued, the bombing would not start again for two or three hours and now was the time to sleep.
Through the day the B-52s had been overhead. We had watched their distinctive quadruple contrails tracking in straight lines from the north towards their targets. Then they would make a sharp turn to the west and we would see great gouts of smoke, dirt, rock and flame on the steep slopes above us. A second or so later the noise and the blast would reach us, tugging at our clothes. When I woke three hours later all the men in the room were awake. They wrapped their blankets over their thin shalwar kameez, hitched the straps of their Kalashnikovs over their shoulders, put magazines in their pockets and moved outside into the cold. Many of their blankets, bought in the city of Jalalabad some 30 miles away, had been imported from Iran and were bright green and pink and covered in gold prints of large flowers. The men moved off in small groups towards their assault positions.
The sky had begun to lighten. To the north, behind us, lay Jalalabad and the dirt-coloured desert around it. Strands of mist hung over the irrigated lands around the Kabul River. And then high overhead, scoring confident white lines across the pale sky like a steel cutter across glass, came the first set of the quadruple vapour trails of the B-52s of the day. When they appeared the trails were white against the dawn sky. But the rays of the early morning sun were angled up into the sky like searchlights and when they struck the vapour trails, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, the sun's rays turned them a pink as bright and as out of place as the printed flowers on the blankets wrapped around the soldiers thin shoulders. The trails powered forwards towards the mountains and then dipped away to the West. And then came the boiling, orange flames and the oily, dark smoke and the noise rolling over the hills.
The Americans had started bombing the caves - known locally as Tora Bora - on November 30th 2001. Seventeen days earlier the Taliban and their Arab and Pakistani auxiliaries had pulled out of Kabul. Within hours the troops of the Northern Alliance had entered the city. With a group of mujahideen I had smuggled myself across the border and arrived in Jalalabad a few hours after it had been liberated. Over the next weeks American warplanes and special forces troops scoured Afghanistan mopping up retreating Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Resistance was minimal.
Osama bin Laden was in Kandahar, the southern desert city that was the spiritual home and administrative headquarters of the Taliban, when the air strikes started. By early November he, his close aides and several hundred of his Arab followers had moved up to Tora Bora. By mid December he, his senior aides, much of the Taliban high command, and hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters were gone. They had slipped the net.
I left Tora Bora, spent a few days in Jalalabad and then drove out to Pakistan. I arrived in London in time for the office Christmas party.
Though I had been reporting on Afghanistan, Pakistan and bin Laden almost full time for nearly four years, and had been covering conflicts, coups and natural disasters for a decade, nothing had prepared me for what I had seen. In fact living and working in the region for so long had made the shock altogether more powerful. I had witnessed countless scenes of grief and deprivation in Afghanistan but, though horrific and tragic, most of it seemed to make sense, to be somehow part of the essence of the place. What I had seen at Tora Bora did not make any sense at all.
It was clear that it was impossible to explain what had happened merely by looking at events in southwest Asia. What had occurred at Tora Bora was the culmination of a huge and complex historical process. The men who had been under the bombs were from Yemen, Egypt, the Sudan and Algeria and a dozen other countries as well as from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The reason for what had happened at Tora Bora lay hidden in their histories.
I also wanted to answer other questions. What was the nature of the threat that now confronted my way of life, my culture, my values, my own personal security and that of those I love? Should I genuinely be frightened of bombs on the London underground, hijackings at Paris Orly, gas attacks in Los Angeles or dirty bombs in Chicago?
Little that had previously been published helped. It was clear to me that profound misconceptions were widespread. Foremost among them was the idea that bin Laden led a cohesive and structured terrorist organisation called "al-Qaeda". Every piece of evidence I came across in my own work contradicted this notion of al-Qaeda as an "Evil Empire" with an omnipotent mastermind at its head. Such an idea was undoubtedly comforting - destroy the man and his henchmen and the problem goes away - but it was clearly deeply flawed. As a result the debate over the prosecution of the ongoing "war on terror" had been skewed.
Instead of there being a reasoned and honest look at the root causes of resurgent Islamic radicalism the discussion of strategies in the war against terror had been almost entirely dominated by the language of high-tech weaponry, militarism and eradication.
One question remained, and remains, largely unanswered: what is al-Qaeda? The word itself is critical. Al-Qaeda comes from the Arabic root qaf-ayn-dal. It can mean a base, such as a camp or a home, or a foundation. It can also mean a precept, rule, principle, maxim, formula or method.
For the most extreme elements among the Islamic radicals who joined the Afghans in the long battle through the 1980s against the Soviets, the word was understood in a very specific sense. Abdullah Azzam, the chief ideologue of the non-Afghan militants and a spiritual mentor of bin Laden, used it to describe the role he envisaged the most committed of the Muslim volunteers who had fought the Soviets playing once the war in Afghanistan was over. In 1987 he wrote: "Every principle needs a vanguard to carry it forward and [to] put up with heavy tasks and enormous sacrifices. This vanguard constitutes the strong foundation (al qaeda al-sulbah) for the expected society."
Azzam was talking about a mode of activism and a tactic, not talking about a particular organisation. Indeed it would be a year or more before bin Laden formed his group. Azzam was using the word to denote a purpose, an ideal and a function. He, and subsequently bin Laden too, saw the role of al-Qaeda, the vanguard, as being to radicalise and mobilise those Muslims who had hitherto rejected their extremist message. They would act like any revolutionary vanguard, as Lenin or indeed the French revolutionaries had imagined. Modern radical Islamic thought is heavily influenced by Western radical political thought, on the right and the left, and the concept of the vanguard is only one of a number of concepts, and tactics, borrowed from thinkers ranging from Trotsky and Mao to Hitler and Heidegger.
Bin Laden and a number of close associates acted on Azzam's suggestion and, probably sometime in 1988 or early 1989, set up a militant group in Peshawar, the frontier city in western Pakistan. They hoped the group would act as a "vanguard" in the coming struggle. The unity that a common purpose had forced on the disparate groups of Islamic extremists fighting against the Soviets was disintegrating. National and ethnic divisions re-asserted themselves among the volunteers. Bin Laden's group was formed with the aim of rousing Muslims, through active campaigning or "propaganda by deed", to create an "international army" that would unite the umma or world Islamic community against oppression. The group was small, comprising not more than a dozen men, and there was little to distinguish it from the scores of other groups operating, forming and dissolving in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
Bin Laden left Pakistan in 1989 and returned to his homeland of Saudi Arabia. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, bin Laden, several other Arab veterans of the war in Afghanistan and a number of Afghan commanders, offered to form an army of Islamic militants to protect the land of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi regime rejected bin Laden's plan and the 32 year old militant began to work to reform of his own country. The al-Qaeda project languished. In 1991 bin Laden left his native land and fled, via Pakistan, to Sudan where he remained until 1996.
Western intelligence officials have been criticised for being slow to recognise al-Qaeda. This is unfair. In his first few years in Sudan bin Laden was at least as interested in arboriculture and road construction as in creating an international legion of Islamic militants. His own group had barely expanded beyond the dozen or so individuals who had pledged allegiance to him back in 1988 or 1989 and he was heavily reliant on the know-how and resources of larger and more established militant outfits such as Egytpian Islamic Jihad. Nor was he connected to the raft of attacks, including that on the World Trade Centre, there were in this period. His involvement in Somalia and the famous "blackhawk down" episode was marginal.
In 1996 bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan. This provided the first real opportunity for him to build something that could genuinely be described as an organised terrorist structure.
What bin Laden was able to do in Afghanistan was provide a central focus for many of the disparate elements within contemporary Islamic militancy. This led, not to the formation of a huge and disciplined group "with tentacles everywhere", but to a temporary concentration of many of the different strands within modern Islamic militancy on a single place and project. This period, from 1996 to 2001, is when "al-Qaeda" matured.
"Al-Qaeda" consisted of three elements. The first element was the "al-Qaeda hard core", the few dozen associates who had stayed with bin Laden since the late 1980s. Their numbers were boosted by the number of experienced militants, most of whom had been active independently for several years, who made their way to Afghanistan to join bin Laden there. One such was Khaled Sheikh Mohammed who had been involved in attacks in the Philippines and elsewhere. Most of these militants came for purely pragmatic reasons. For men who had spent years trying to mobilise and act, struggling all the while with domestic security services, Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 was like a department store for Islamic terrorists. Recruits, knowledge, ideas and even cash could be had off the shelf. Bin Laden and his associates were running a whole floor, the biggest, the best-stocked and the most glitzy.
A second element of "al-Qaeda" involves the scores of other militant Islamic groups around the world which have, or had, some kind of relationship with bin Laden or figures connected to him. But imagining that all these groups were all created or run by bin Laden is to denigrate the particular local factors that led to their emergence.
Tracing the links between various groups and the "al-Qaeda hardcore" not easy. Even within individual movements different factions had different relations with "al-Qaeda". For example, the Ansar ul Islam group that emerged in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in the autumn of 2001 comprised three different factions. Though two of them set off to Afghanistan to meet senior al-Qaeda leaders in the spring of 2001, a third had been unwilling to deal with bin Laden or those around him. Only when bin Laden specifically sent an emissary did they "come on board". By the end of 2001 Ansar was joined by Arab fighters who had fled the US-led onslaught in Afghanistan, some of whom had been close to the al-Qaeda leadership. Ansar was one ostensibly one group, yet included many different relationships to "al-Qaeda". In that it is a microcosm of the broader militant movement.
It is also worth pointing out that at no stage did any Ansar members have any relations with Saddam Hussein. Such claims rested on the thinnest of evidence.
Indeed claims of any links between Saddam and al-Qaeda were based on a fundamental misconception of the nature of modern Islamic militancy. They depended, largely, on the idea that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant allegedly sheltered by Baghdad, was close to bin Laden. Yet Western European intelligence reports, compiled in 2003, reveal that his group was formed "in opposition" to al-Qaeda. Again, if only if al-Qaeda is, wrongly, conceived of as a single organisation encompassing the whole of contemporary radical Islamic activism could one say that al-Zarqawi was "al-Qaeda". It is also true that representatives of bin Laden did have some contact with Saddam Hussein's regime, as the American administration has often said. But bin Laden rejected all of Baghdad's approaches - a point that is less often made by hawks in Washington.
I was able to study Ansar ul Islam in some depth when I was working in northern Iraq in 2002. I had first been to Kurdistan in 1991 when, as a young and cocky student I had spent several weeks one summer carrying a Kalashnikov alongside the peshmerga fighters there. In 2002 the results of hardline proselytisation by Gulf-based Islamic groups and the global spread of bin Laden's message was becoming obvious as the "salafi-jihadi" ideology spread among the previously secular Kurds. On my return to Kurdistan, I had an opportunity to interview many of Ansar's members, including Didar, a failed suicide bomber.
I met Didar in the eastern Kurdish city of Sulaimania in Northern Iraq. He was born, he said, in 1985 and raised in the sprawling city of Arbil, one of nine children. His father was unemployed but, as he had two sons working (illegally) in Britain, the family had a good standard of living. They had their own house and car. All the children went to school and Didar, the 6th child, studied until he was 14.
Didar's upbringing was not particularly religious. Like most Kurds he went to the mosque to pray several times a week and kept the fast at Ramadan but little else. Nor had he been involved in politics though, he said, he felt strongly that things were not right with the world from his early teens. His education, he told me, was unlikely to get him a decent job and he had few friends. When he left school in 1999, without employment, he didn't have much to do so started going to the mosque a lot. Soon he was spending every evening there and was invited to join a Quranic study group. He enjoyed the meetings and liked being with his new friends. Didar's teacher at the mosque gave him books and pamphlets to read. Some were hardline tracts subsidised by Saudi Arabian quasi-governmental groups. Others were reprints of Abdullah Azzam's works. His teacher explained Azzam's doctrine that jihad was the duty of every Muslim man and told him that men like Osama bin Laden were true Muslims whose examples should be followed. He introduced Didar to other young men with similar ideas. This mode of recruitment, or rather induction, is similar to that of many young Islamic radicals.
In November of 2001 Didar was told by his teacher that a group called Ansar ul Islam had announced a jihad in Kurdistan. Didar had not heard of the organisation before but was keen to join it. The two men took a bus to the stronghold of the group in the mountains east of Sulaimania. The Ansar base was surrounded on three sides by fighters from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two secular groups who dominate politics locally. On the fourth side was the Iranian border. Around 40 Arabs had recently arrived there from Afghanistan, joining around 500 Kurds, and providing a battle-hardened, fanatical edge.
A Kurd who had spent time in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan was running the training of Ansar's new recruits, and for the next three months Didar was instructed in basic infantry tactics, explosives, urban warfare and assassinations. The training followed the syllabus that had been taught to the group's representatives who had made it to Afghanistan in the previous year and is similar to that outlined in a series of notebooks I had found at a training camp in Khost, the eastern Afghan town that was the centre of international Islamic militancy in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 about a week before the battle at Tora Bora.
Every morning the Ansar recruits would rise for morning prayers and then do physical training until the sun came over the horizon. They spent the rest of the day training, in lectures or reading the Koran. The idea of ishtishahd, or "martyrdom operations" was first raised by the Arab instructors but it was one of Didar's friends, a 22 year old who he had met in the mosque at Arbil, who starting talking about suicide seriously.
"Hisham quoted all the verses of the Quran and repeated the prophet's teaching on ishtishad and every day we talked about it - I decided that I wanted to do this too. I knew that PUK people were kufr (unbelievers) and that our duty was to fight against the kufr to free the umma. I told [our leader], that I was ready and then during the night they called me on the radio and asked me to come to them. They showed me the jacket and how it worked. Then we had lunch."
Didar was talking to me in the office of the PUK security chief. While he spoke the chief went to a cupboard and pulled out the jacket that had been taken off Didar when he had been arrested. It had two slabs of TNT over the chest and in the small of the back and was made of blue nylon. A belt contained more explosives. There were two metal switches, one for the jacket and one for the belt. I sat and clicked them back and forth, listening to the metallic tick, as Didar continued.
"After seeing the jacket I went back to our base."
"What date was it?", I asked.
"It was the 12th of June," he said. "Because it was during the World Cup."
You were watching the World Cup?"
There were no televisions because they were haram [forbidden]. But I was following it in the newspapers."
What was your favourite team?"
"England. Michael Owen and I like McManaman and David Seaman."
"England is your favourite team and you are about to blow yourself up in the jihad against kufr?"
"Politics is one thing. Football is something else."
Didar was driven to a house on the outskirts of Halabjah. He had dinner at the house of a sympathiser. Then they watched a Jackie Chan film on a DVD.
"I didn't dream. I slept fine. I knew I was going to paradise so was very calm. At just after five pm I [left the house]. I was calm. I was thinking about paradise. The bus went through the bazaar and I got down just before the PUK office and walked up to it with the switch in my pocket and my hand on it. I walked up to the official at the door and gave him the name of a man who I thought would be inside and he said what is that underneath your shirt, and I said nothing and he asked again and I said it's TNT and then they arrested me."
Didar's story is revealing. It tells us much about the real nature of "al-Qaeda". Bin Laden does not have the power to issue orders that are instantly obeyed. He is not the commander in chief of an army. Bin Laden does not kidnap young men and brainwash them. Both the young men who flocked to Afghanistan to seek military and terrorist training and the leaders of more established groups who were happy to link themselves with bin Laden's group did so of their volition.
As is clear from the testimony of recruits in the training camps run by the "al-Qaeda" hardcore in Afghanistan nobody was kept there against their will. Most overcame considerable obstacles to reach the camps. Indeed bin Laden's associates spent much of their time selecting which of the myriad requests for assistance they would grant. The requests came from everywhere from Morocco to Malaysia. A group in Singapore even made a video showing their intended targets which they showed to Mohammed Atef, bin Laden's military commander. Other militants formulated their plans in the training camps and then approached the leadership. Those who had not got any ideas of their own were refused assistance and told to return when they had thought of something.
These requests, like the recruits who carried them, originated in the huge swathe of largely young men who are sufficiently motivated to want to devote substantial proportions of their lives and energies to the most extreme form of Islamic militancy. In very broad terms they share the key ideas, and the key objectives, of bin Laden and the "al-Qaeda" hardcore. They, like Didar, subscribe, whether involved in a radical group or not, to the "al-Qaeda" worldview. They speak the "al-Qaeda" language. They are committed to a certain way of thinking about the world, of understanding events, of interpreting and behaving. This ideology, a composite of the common elements of all the various strands of modern Islamic radical thought, is currently the most widespread, and the fastest growing, element of what makes up the phenomenon currently, and largely erroneously, labelled "al-Qaeda". The smoke and the vapour trails over Tora Bora signalled the end of Afghanistan as a favoured destination for aspirant terrorists. But the "war on terror" has so far done nothing to eradicate the reasons for the volunteers wanting to travel to the training camps or to deal with the grievances behind the constant applications fielded by bin Laden and his lieutenants.
The war in Afghanistan ended a specific, and in many ways anomalous, period. The camps were destroyed, the militants who had joined bin Laden there were scattered. The al-Qaeda hardcore, the first component of al-Qaeda that we identified above, was virtually destroyed. However the threat is more grave than ever before.
Thirty years ago a new Islamic political ideology began to resonate amongst millions of young men and women across the Muslim world. This ideology was a sophisticated and genuine intellectual effort to find an Islamic answer to the challenges posed by the West's cultural, economic and political superiority. In the middle of the 20th century nationalist anti-imperialism was the dominant ideology. Then, at least in the Middle East, it was pan-Arabism. Both failed to solve the problems of the Islamic world. Now Islam is seen the solution. But over the decades Islamic activism has changed. Once Islamic activists thought primarily in terms of achieving power or reforming their own nation. There was room in their programme for gradualism and compromise, for a huge multiplicity of different strands of political thought, for the parochial, radical and conservative movements of rural areas and for the clever, educated and aware ideologues of the cities. There was also room, on the movement's periphery, for those extremists who were committed to violence and who saw the world as a battlefield between the forces of good and evil, of belief and unbelief.
But increasingly, and this is a trend that is accelerating, the extremists are no longer perceived as the "lunatic fringe". Instead they are seen as the standard bearers. And their language is now the dominant discourse in modern Islamic activism. Their debased, violent, nihilisitic, anti-rational millenarianism has become the standard ideology aspired to by angry young Muslim men. This is the genuine victory of bin Laden and our greatest defeat in the "war on terror".
In the weeks immediately following the tragedy of September 11th there was a genuine interest in understanding: why?. Why "they" hate us, why "they" were prepared to kill themselves, why such a thing could happen. That curiosity has dwindled and is being replaced by other questions: how did it happen, how many of "them" are there, how many are there left to capture and kill. Anyone who tries to "explain" the roots of the threat now facing all of us, to answer the "why", to elaborate who "they are", risks being dismissed as ineffectual or cowardly. To ask "why" is to lay oneself open to accusations of lacking the moral courage to face up to the "genuine" threat and the need to meet it with force and aggression. Many characterise this threat, dangerously and wrongly, as rooted in a "clash of civilizations."
This attitude not only plays into the hands of the extremists but, by downplaying the importance of genuine causes, risks encouraging tactics that are counterproductive. I hope to redress the balance. As I watched the bombs falling at Tora Bora I had asked the question why. My book is my attempt to find some answers.
05-03-2011, 01:16 PM
RE: Jason Burke: "To reduce it all to 'al-Qaeda' ... we simply risk misleading ourselves"
Think Again: Al Qaeda
The mere mention of al Qaeda conjures images of an efficient terrorist network guided by a powerful criminal mastermind. Yet al Qaeda is more lethal as an ideology than as an organization. “Al Qaedaism” will continue to attract supporters in the years to come—whether Osama bin Laden is around to lead them or not.
“Al Qaeda Is a Global Terrorist Organization”
No. It is less an organization than an ideology. The Arabic word qaeda can be translated as a “base of operation” or “foundation,” or alternatively as a “precept” or “method.” Islamic militants always understood the term in the latter sense. In 1987, Abdullah Azzam, the leading ideologue for modern Sunni Muslim radical activists, called for al-qaeda al-sulbah (a vanguard of the strong). He envisaged men who, acting independently, would set an example for the rest of the Islamic world and thus galvanize the umma (global community of believers) against its oppressors. It was the FBI—during its investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa—which dubbed the loosely linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and his aides had formed as “al Qaeda.” This decision was partly due to institutional conservatism and partly because the FBI had to apply conventional antiterrorism laws to an adversary that was in no sense a traditional terrorist or criminal organization.
Although bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure in Afghanistan that attracted new recruits and forged links among preexisting Islamic militant groups, they never created a coherent terrorist network in the way commonly conceived. Instead, al Qaeda functioned like a venture capital firm—providing funding, contacts, and expert advice to many different militant groups and individuals from all over the Islamic world.
Today, the structure that was built in Afghanistan has been destroyed, and bin Laden and his associates have scattered or been arrested or killed. There is no longer a central hub for Islamic militancy. But the al Qaeda worldview, or “al Qaedaism,” is growing stronger every day. This radical internationalist ideology—sustained by anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric—has adherents among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely follow his precepts, models, and methods. They act in the style of al Qaeda, but they are only part of al Qaeda in the very loosest sense. That's why Israeli intelligence services now prefer the term “jihadi international” instead of “al Qaeda.”
“Capturing or Killing Bin Laden Will Deal a Severe Blow to Al Qaeda”
Wrong. Even for militants with identifiable ties to bin Laden, the death of the “sheik” will make little difference in their ability to recruit people. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently acknowledged as much when he questioned in an internal Pentagon memo whether it was possible to kill militants faster than radical clerics and religious schools could create them. In practical terms, bin Laden now has only a very limited ability to commission acts of terror, and his involvement is restricted to the broad strategic direction of largely autonomous cells and groups. Most intelligence analysts now consider him largely peripheral.
This turn of events should surprise no one. Islamic militancy predates bin Laden's activities. He was barely involved in the Islamic violence of the early 1990s in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, and Kashmir. His links to the 1993 World Trade Center attack were tangential. There were no al Qaeda training camps during the early 1990s, although camps run by other groups churned out thousands of highly trained fanatics. Even when bin Laden was based in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it was often Islamic groups and individuals who sought him out for help in finding resources for preconceived attacks, not vice versa. These days, Islamic groups can go to other individuals, such as Jordanian activist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who set up his al Tauhid group in competition with bin Laden (rather than, as is frequently claimed, in alliance with him) to obtain funds, expertise, or other logistical assistance.
Bin Laden still plays a significant role in the movement as a propagandist who effectively exploits modern mass communications. It is likely that the United States will eventually apprehend bin Laden and that this demonstration of U.S. power will demoralize many militants. However, much depends on the manner in which he is captured or killed. If, like deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he surrenders without a fight, which is very unlikely, many followers will be deeply disillusioned. If he achieves martyrdom in a way that his cohorts can spin as heroic, he will be an inspiration for generations to come. Either way, bin Laden's removal from the scene will not stop Islamic militancy.
“The Militants Seek to Destroy the West so They Can Impose a Global Islamic State”
False. Islamic militants' main objective is not conquest, but to beat back what they perceive as an aggressive West that is supposedly trying to complete the project begun during the Crusades and colonial periods of denigrating, dividing, and humiliating Islam. The militants' secondary goal is the establishment of the caliphate, or single Islamic state, in the lands roughly corresponding to the furthest extent of the Islamic empire of the late first and early second centuries. Today, this state would encompass the Middle East, the Maghreb (North Africa bordering the Mediterranean), Andalusia in southern Spain, Central Asia, parts of the Balkans, and possibly some Islamic territories in the Far East. Precisely how this utopian caliphate would function is vague. The militants believe that if all Muslims act according to a literal interpretation of the Islamic holy texts, an almost mystical transformation to a just and perfect society will follow. The radical Islamists seek to weaken the United States and the West because they are both impediments to this end. During the 1990s, militants in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria began turning their attention abroad as they grew frustrated by their failure to change the status quo at home. The militants felt that striking at the Arab regimes' Western sponsors (the “far enemy” as opposed to the “near enemy”) would be the best means to improve local conditions. This strategy, which bin Laden and those around him aggressively advocate, remains contentious among Islamic radicals, especially in Egypt.
Yet, as the March 11, 2004, terrorist bombings in Madrid revealed, attacks on the “far enemy” can still be employed with great effect. By striking Spain just before its elections, the militants sent a message to Western governments that their presence in the Middle East would exact a heavy political and human toll.
“The Militants Reject Modern Ideas in Favor of Traditional Muslim Theology”
No. Although Islamic hard-liners long to return to an idealized seventh-century existence, they have little compunction about embracing the tools that modernity provides. Their purported medievalism has not deterred militants from effectively using the Internet and videocassettes to mobilize the faithful.
At the ideological level, prominent thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb and Abu Ala Maududi have borrowed heavily from the organizational tactics of secular leftist and anarchist revolutionaries. Their concept of the vanguard is influenced by Leninist theory. Qutb's most important work, Ma'alim fi'l-tariq (Milestones), reads in part like an Islamicized Communist Manifesto. A commonly used Arabic word in the names of militant groups is Hizb (as in Lebanon's Hizb Allah, or Hezbollah), which means “party”—another modern concept.
In fact, the militants often couch their grievances in Third-Worldist terms familiar to any contemporary antiglobalization activist. One recent document purporting to come from bin Laden berates the United States for failing to ratify the Kyoto agreement on climate change. Egyptian militant leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has decried multinational companies as a major evil. Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, once told a friend how angered he was by a world economic system that meant Egyptian farmers grew cash crops such as strawberries for the West while the country's own people could barely afford bread. In all these cases, the militants are framing modern political concerns, including social justice, within a mythic and religious narrative. They do not reject modernization per se, but they resent their failure to benefit from that modernization.
Also, within the context of Islamic observance, these new Sunni militants are not considered traditionalists, but radical reformers, because they reject the authority of the established clergy and demand the right to interpret doctrine themselves, despite a general lack of academic credentials on the part of leading figures such as bin Laden or Zawahiri.
“Since the Rise of Al Qaeda, Islamic Moderates Have Been Marginalized”
Incorrect. Al Qaeda represents the lunatic fringe of political thought in the Islamic world. While al Qaedaism has made significant inroads in recent years, only a tiny minority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims adhere to its doctrine. Many sympathize with bin Laden and take satisfaction at his ability to strike the United States, but that does not mean they genuinely want to live in a unified Islamic state governed along strict Koranic lines. Nor does anti-Western sentiment translate into a rejection of Western values. Surveys of public opinion in the Arab world, conducted by organizations such as Zogby International and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, reveal strong support for elected government, personal liberty, educational opportunity, and economic choice.
Even those who believe “Islam is the solution” disagree over precisely what that solution might be and how it might be achieved. Radical militants such as bin Laden want to destroy the state and replace it with something based on a literal reading of the Koran. However, some political Islamists want to appropriate the structures of the state and, in varying degrees, Islamicize them, usually with a view toward promoting greater social justice and outflanking undemocratic and powerful regimes. An example of the latter would be the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) movement, currently led by veteran activist Qazi Hussein Ahmed. JI represents a significant swath of Pakistani popular opinion, and although it is tainted by appalling levels of anti-Semitism, it has taken a stance against bin Laden and the Taliban when politically feasible. Often, as in Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey, such groups are relatively moderate and can serve as useful interlocutors for the West. They should not be rejected out of hand as “Islamists”; refusing to engage them only allows the extremists to dominate the political discourse.
“The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is Central to the Militants' Cause”
Wrong. Televised images of Israeli troops violently repressing Palestinian protesters in the occupied territories certainly reinforce the militants' key message that the lands of Islam are under attack and that all Muslims must rise up and fight. However, although a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help alleviate political tensions in the region, it would not end the threat of militant Islam.
The roots of contemporary Sunni Islamic militancy cannot be reduced to any single, albeit thorny, problem. Militants feel the umma is under attack. In their view, Israel is merely the West's most obvious outpost—as it was when it became a Crusader kingdom in the 12th century. If the Jewish state disappeared, the Islamists would still fight in Chechnya, Kashmir, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and Algeria. Their agenda is typically determined by local grievances, often with lengthy histories. For instance, although bin Laden was already calling for a boycott of U.S. goods to protest support for Israel in the late 1980s, he had never been involved in an attack on an Israeli target until recently. His primary focus has always been to topple the regime in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Zawahiri's lengthy 2002 book, Knights Under the Prophet's Banner—part autobiography, part militant manifesto, which first appeared in serial form in 2001—focuses almost exclusively on the author's native Egypt.
Moreover, considerable support for the Islamic cause stems from Muslims' sense of humiliation. A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would still leave the “Zionist entity” intact, would therefore offer little succor to the wounded pride of any committed militant or, more crucial, to the pride of those in the wider community who support and legitimize extremism and violence.
“Sort Out Saudi Arabia and the Whole Problem Will Disappear”
No. Saudi Arabia has contributed significantly to the spread of radicalism through the government-subsidized export of its Wahhabist strand of hard-line Islam. This policy arose from the turmoil of the late 1970s, when outrage over government corruption and the royal family's decadence prompted hundreds of Islamic radicals to occupy the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The 1978-79 Shiite revolution in Iran threatened Saudi leadership in the Muslim world and offered a cautionary tale of the fate that could await the House of Saud. In an effort to appeal to religious conservatives and counter the Iranian regime, the royal family gave the Wahhabi clerics more influence at home and a mandate to expand their ideology abroad.
Since then, Saudi money disbursed through quasi-governmental organizations such as the Muslim World League has built hundreds of mosques throughout the world. The Saudis provide hard-line clerics with stipends and offer financial incentives to those who forsake previous patterns of worship. In Pakistan, money from the Persian Gulf has funded the massive expansion of madrasas (Islamic schools) that indoctrinate young students with virulent, anti-Western dogma. This Saudi-funded proselytism has enormously damaged long-standing tolerant and pluralist traditions of Islamic observance in East and West Africa, the Far East, and Central Asia. Wahhabism was virtually unknown in northern Iraq until a massive push by Gulf-based missionaries in the early 1990s. And many of the mosques known for radical activity in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada were built with donations from private and state sources in Saudi Arabia.
The inequities of the Saudi system—in which most people are very poor and ruled by a super-rich clique—continues to create a sense of disenfranchisement that allows extremism to flourish. Many of the most militant preachers (and some of the Saudi hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 terrorist attacks) come from marginalized tribes and provinces. A more inclusive style of government and a more just redistribution of resources would undercut the legitimacy of local militants and deny radicals new recruits. Yet, while such reforms might slow the spread of Wahhabism and associated strands outside Saudi Arabia, in much of the world the damage has already been done. As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia is one of the many causes of modern Islamic militancy, but it has no monopoly on blame.
“It Is Only a Matter of Time Before Islamic Militants Use Weapons of Mass Destruction”
Calm down. Although Islamic militants (including bin Laden) have attempted to develop a basic chemical or biological arsenal, those efforts have been largely unsuccessful due to the technical difficulty of creating, let alone weaponizing, such materials. As one of the first journalists to enter the research facilities at the Darunta camp in eastern Afghanistan in 2001, I was struck by how crude they were. The Ansar al-Islam terrorist group's alleged chemical weapons factory in northern Iraq, which I inspected the day after its capture in 2003, was even more rudimentary. Alleged attempts by a British group to develop ricin poison, but for the apparent seriousness of the intent, could be dismissed as farcical.
Nor is there any compelling evidence that militants have come close to creating a “dirty bomb” (a conventional explosive packaged with radioactive material). The claim that Jose Padilla, an alleged al Qaeda operative arrested in the United States in 2002, had intended to deploy a dirty bomb has been largely discounted—it was an aspiration rather than a practical plan. Constructing a dirty bomb is more difficult than most imagine. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency warns that more than 100 countries have inadequate control of radioactive material, only a small percentage of that material is lethal enough to cause serious harm. It also requires considerable technical sophistication to build a device that can effectively disperse radioactive material. Some have also voiced the fear that militants might obtain a “prepackaged” working nuclear warhead from Pakistan. However, that would only be a plausible scenario if an Islamic regime came to power, or if high-ranking elements of the Pakistani military developed greater sympathy for the Islamists than currently exists.
The 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in Japan highlights the difficulties terrorist groups face in deploying weapons of mass destruction. Despite possessing sophisticated research facilities funded by an estimated $1 billion in assets, the group failed nine times to launch a successful attack prior to the incident in the Tokyo subway system. (Even then, the fatalities were mercifully limited to a dozen people.) Confronted with such constraints, Islamic militants are far more likely to use conventional bombs or employ conventional devices in imaginative ways—as was the case with the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Spain.
“The West Is Winning the War on Terror”
Unfortunately, no. The military component of the war on terrorism has had some significant success. A high proportion of those who associated with bin Laden between 1996 and 2001 are now either dead or in prison. Bin Laden's own ability to commission and instigate terror attacks has been severely curtailed. Enhanced cooperation between intelligence organizations around the world and increased security budgets have made it much harder for terrorists to move their funds across borders or to successfully organize and execute attacks.
However, if countries are to win the war on terror, they must eradicate enemies without creating new ones. They also need to deny those militants with whom negotiation is impossible the support of local populations. Such support assists and, in the minds of the militants, morally legitimizes their actions. If Western countries are to succeed, they must marry the hard component of military force to the soft component of cultural appeal. There is nothing weak about this approach. As any senior military officer with experience in counterinsurgency warfare will tell you, it makes good sense. The invasion of Iraq, though entirely justifiable from a humanitarian perspective, has made this task more pressing.
Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.
05-03-2011, 01:17 PM
RE: Jason Burke: "To reduce it all to 'al-Qaeda' ... we simply risk misleading ourselves"
Al-Qaida's flawed vision
The attempted bombing of the Northwest Airlines flight exposes an unresolved tension at the heart of militant Islam
Almost before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was being led down the steps of Northwest Airlines flight 253 he had been linked to al-Qaida. He himself has apparently claimed he was trained and commissioned by an al‑Qaida master bomb-maker in Yemen. Whatever the eventual conclusion about his alleged international mission – a Nigerian living in London, trained in Yemen to blow up US planes – his case should not distract us from the fact that modern Islamic militancy is primarily a local phenomenon, not a global one.
The tension between these two is the unresolved flaw at the heart of the international militant project. Al-Qaida was set up by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and a handful of others, many Egyptian, to overcome the disunity among the foreign volunteers who fought with the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. The global call to arms that Bin Laden issued in the 1990s was only partially effective. In a letter I found in an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan in 2001, a Jordanian volunteer complained that his Algerian, Moroccan and Saudi counterparts kept to themselves even at prayer times.
This parochialism was obscured through the first years of the 9/11 era as bombs exploded from Bali to London and, more recently, as new al-Qaida offshoots were formed. However, beneath this apparent internationalism other elements were present. In many of the major actions, bombers struck within the country – and sometimes within the town – of their birth. Many targets were selected with an international dimension in mind, but many others were not.
One reason conspirators said they bombed the nightclub in Bali in 2002 was that it did not allow locals in. In Morocco, alongside the Jewish targets, a restaurant patronised by the local elite was hit. In Madrid, immigrants struck under a mile from where many of them lived or socialised. There was little international about the targets or the perpetrators of the 7/7 London bombings.
One key shift came in 2006. With its international global jihad increasingly rejected by the Sunni minority in Iraq, al-Qaida there tried to rebrand itself as "the Islamic state of Iraq". When the disparate factions of Pashtun tribesmen formed a coalition in Pakistan's North-West Frontier province in 2007, they called it Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan, the union of Pakistani Taliban, a title that insists on a primarily national identity.
In Yemen and Saudi Arabia in recent years, 90% of the efforts and rhetoric of local militants have been directed against local targets. Al-Qaida in the Maghreb is actually 90% Algerian in composition and agenda. In Indonesia, Jemaa Islamiya, responsible for the Bali bombing, has decided the local situation doesn't justify violent jihad, and it has ceased military operations in the country. Recent attacks in Jakarta were the work of a breakaway group.
Al-Qaida's project is often wrongly portrayed as having roots in the protection of local specificity against a rampant globalisation. In fact, al-Qaida's ideology is as disrespectful of local difference as any other global ideology.
Where the al-Qaida project does coincide with local concerns, the combination is potent. Yet such situations are rare. The problem with "joining the dots" between the countries any individual militant may have visited is that it falsifies the picture by over-emphasising the international dimension. Ultimately, all politics is local. And, whatever the story of Abdulmutallab, we should not let it blind us to the fact that Islamic militancy is no exception.
05-03-2011, 01:17 PM
RE: Jason Burke: "To reduce it all to 'al-Qaeda' ... we simply risk misleading ourselves"
Al-Qaeda - a meaningless label
In the latest of his online dispatches, The Observer's Chief Reporter argues that we need to ditch the label "al-Qaeda" if we want to understand the chaotic nature of the terrorist threat.
We were on our way out of the camp when the man on the bicycle stopped beside our car window and asked us if we had been to the 'nuclear house'. It was mid-November 2001 and I was with Mike Moore, the daily Mirror photographer. We had just spent an hour walking around Darunta, a training base used by Islamic militant volunteers on the outskirts of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. The city had been 'liberated' a day earlier, the Arabs had fled and now local people were relieved. They had looted the camp, searching among the huge craters left by the B-52s for anything of value or edible. But they hadn't looted the 'nuclear house'. The Arabs had said it was very dangerous.
We turned the car round, drove up the short approach road, parked and then walked down through the village to the building pointed out by the cyclist. It was a small compound. We were worried about booby traps so scrambled over the mud walls to get in. As we did so our translator kicked the main door open. There was no big bang. In a room to one side was a laboratory. On the floor lay different types of mines in various states of disrepair. Flasks and bottles full of nitrates and sulphides and chlorates and acetone, labelled in English and Arabic, lay on dirty tables. There was a gas mask and lots of pairs of thick rubber gloves.
Darunta has now become infamous. Last year CNN broadcast a video, apparently filmed at the camp, showing a dog being gassed to death. The pictures confirmed testimony by Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who trained in Darunta in 1998, who said he had been involved in chemical weapons experiments there. There is plenty of other evidence that shows an interest in chemical weapons among bin Laden and his associates. In another camp, Khaldan, I picked up a stack of documents in English, printed off from right wing American websites. One is entitled 'assorted CIA nasties' and lists all the chemical and biological weapons that someone with basic laboratory experience and facilities could make. It also details a series of delivery systems ranging from poison bullets to blow guns. As the manual points out 'the most potent toxin in the world is of little value without an efficient delivery system.'
The manual, open on my desk at the moment next to a pret a manger chicken sandwich and a woolly hat, details two different modes of production, one for 'field grade' ricin, the other for 'blender method' which apparently gives a purer end product. The manuals are clear evidence that of somebody was interested in chemical and biological warfare. They are not evidence that the seven Algerians arrested last week in north London are 'an al'Qaeda' cell.
What we have so far is a flat in north London where traces of a peculiarly nasty biological poison (Ricin) were allegedly found, seven unnamed suspects who appear to be Arab Muslims from Algeria, claims from 'security sources' that some of them were known to nine other Muslim men arrested with laboratory equipment and a chemical warfare suit in Paris by French police in November, one of whom was the brother of a man arrested in Afghanistan and currently incarcerated in Guantanamo bay. The men in Paris have been linked to Chechen militants. They are said to have been planning an attack on the Russian embassy in revenge for the deaths of the Chechen militants who took control of a theatre in Moscow last October. Many of these details are currently unclear. However even if all these various connections are proved, which is unlikely, they still do not mean that those arrested in north London formed "a terrorist cell", let alone an "'al-Qaeda cell".
The obfuscation and confusion points the way to understanding what modern Islamic terrorism is all about. It is tempting to simplify the complexity, to reduce it all to "al-Qaeda". That would be wrong. We simply risk misleading ourselves.
Al-Qaeda remains useful as a term to describe bin Laden, his close associates and the infrastructure created in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. We now need to recognise that, as that construction has now been effectively demolished, so should the label "al-Qaeda" be jettisoned, or at least understood as describing something other than a coherent structured organisation.
Modern Islamic militancy is chaotic. It is composed of individuals, small unknown groups and larger better known entities that constantly form, dissolve and reform. Some involve longstanding activists, some are nothing more than a couple of hot-headed youngsters; some militants have been in Afghanistan, some have been in Bosnia or Chechnya or both, some have never left their home countries. Some have contacts with bin Laden or people close to him, others get funding or orders from other activists, some get no funding at all. Some of them share aims, others disagree. Some are prepared to co-operate to achieve common aims, others are fiercely competitive. Their views and preferred tactics differ and change. Some militants become active late in life, others at an early age. Some are genuinely committed to a jihadi struggle, others are simply caught up in things beyond their understanding. This is not a structured coherent organisation taking orders from one man.
Many words may spring to mind to describe those involved in modern Islamic terrorism. Perhaps it is time to realise that "al-Qaeda" should not be among them.
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