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Al Qaeda as ideology or organisation? 25, September 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Terrorism.
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In the aftermath of the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the US government pursued those responsible with vigour. However, they soon came across difficulties when deciding how to proceed with indictments and other legal proceedings because of the nature of the terrorists involved. Because the US authorities did not have a deep and thorough understanding of Islamic militancy at the time (one assumes that they do now) they resorted to the next best thing and essentially used analogy to guide their policy. These terrorists, the mused, are not that dissimilar to the mafia in the US, which the authorities had been fighting for decades. Therefore, they used associated legal proceedings and particularly the RICO (Racketeering and Organised Crime) law as a vehicle to bring the Embassy bombers to justice. To proceed with this, they argued that the terrorists involved were part of a larger, loosely affiliated group. The name of this group was Al Qaeda.

It is a fascinating intellectual question as to who first deemed this group (such as it was) to be called Al Qaeda. There is ample evidence to suggest that it was because of the American legal proceedings that Al Qaeda as a name came into existence. For sure, the phrase had been used for at least a decade: but in what context? In Arabic Al Qaeda translates as the base of some description. So when militants were seeking to go from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or anywhere else to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets back in the 1980s, they were told to go to the base. In short, one wonders how things would have been different had those people directing want-to-be fighters directed them to Omar’s house, for example, instead.

Either which way, this group Al Qaeda were soon blamed (and took responsibility for) for various bombings including the 9/11 attacks. This group was described as being some kind of monolithic, super terrorist group, with a fanatical leader, enormous resources, innumerable bases, and a typical command and control structure was inferred. This is because people, when confronted by an unfamiliar concept, seek to use analogy to find similarities and thus aid understanding. For example, it could be suggested that this happened with British people familiar with the IRA’s long terrorist campaign and them as a rigid, structured para-miliraty group. Thus many British peoples idea of a terrorist group was already clear in their mind. Therefore, Al Qaeda – rightly or wrongly – took on these familiar qualities.

Indeed, this impression was reinforced by the American administration as a whole and Donald Rumsfeld in particular with the absurd cave diagram, or rather, to give its official title, “Bin Laden’s Mountain Fortress”.

It was a work of absolute fiction plucked from the ether and grounded in as much reality as George Lucas’ Death Star, yet it built on and reinforced notions of what people expected: a structured group with a structured base.

Jason Burke is a journalist for the Observer newspaper and wrote the definitive book on Al Qaeda which simply, unequivocally, and convincingly decimates the whole notion of Al Qaeda as some structured organisation, with clear lines of communication, head quarters and so on. His central argument is that such notions simply do not and have just about never fit the actual situation on the ground. He suggests that Al Qaeda can be best described as an ideology, adhered to be followers around the world. Whilst there are examples of carefully planned and executed plots by Al Qaeda, notably the African embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, proving the actual levels of communication and ‘direct direction’ from on-high are notoriously difficult. Indeed, overall, it is best to see Al Qaeda as an ideology that anyone can borrow. The clearest example of this can be seen in the Madrid bombings in 2004, where the culprits were clearly shown to have no links whatsoever with so called Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan: It was an entirely indigenous operation borrowing ideas from Al Qaeda alone.

However, the recent court case involving the so-called ‘airline plotters’ suggests that perhaps some kind of rethink is in order. Burke suggests that as the protagonists in the case visited the tribal areas of Pakistan and allegedly met with several high up members of the remnants of the Taliban, that the link – however tenuous – between the older generation of terrorists (Al Qaeda) and the new recruits has been directly re-established. Indeed, the accused were charged that they received funding and tactical education from those they visited in Pakistan.

Ascertaining the exact kind of relationship in not far off impossibly difficult. Educated guesses are all that there are, no matter what some may claim. Nevertheless, the general weight of evidence suggests that today Al Qaeda may be best seen as a group of people with a common goal and ideology, who maintain some kind of transitory training camps in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, who pass on their knowledge of bombs, equipment and the like and may suggest targets. Though if one were to ask Donald Rumsfeld no doubt they would morph, once again, into some kind of terrorist super-group, replete with throngs of minions and a mountain fortress.

The end of Al Qaeda – heard it before? 11, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
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There have been many points at which various people have claimed that Al Qaeda and other such groups are on the wane. More often than not – indeed, just about every time so far – such predictions have been woefully early, plainly hopeful, poorly researched or just plain wrong. George Bush’s cringing ‘Mission Accomplished’ effort aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln is a moment that will surely live infamy. Nevertheless, experts, pundits, politicians, journalists and policeman are still tempting fate and prognosticating that Al Qaeda is something of a spent force, soon to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One such article emerged this past week in The New Republic, authored by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank. Bergen especially is an acknowledged expert on Al Qaeda generally and Osama Bin Laden specifically. Despite his tactlessly and almost cringe-worthily titled book “The Osama Bin Laden I Know” Bergen is a knowledgeable expert who does not resort to hyperbole as quickly as many or even most Bin Laden experts, but instead relies on evidence and knowledge.

The crux of their argument is persuasive. In an extensive 5000 word article, they list several key former Al Qaeda supporters who have apparently seen the light and now campaign against Al Qaeda’s poisonous message. They extrapolate that the reasons for their changes are already persuading others to follow suit. However, it is the fact that such ‘experts’ and former Al Qaeda justifiers and supporters actually believe these reasons that it the key. Their conversions will, so goes the argument, convince many others to change.

Here is a brief summary of the protagonists:

– Sheikh Salman Al Ouda was one of the fathers of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa (Awakening) movement in the early 1980s who riled against the presence of US troops in the Kingdom and indeed the House of Saud itself. He was thus an early inspiration for Bin Laden. Furthermore, he has repeatedly advocated attacks on US troops both in the Kingdom (in the past, obviously) and in Iraq today, castigating the US as occupiers and thus legitimate targets. Additionally, Al Ouda spent a considerable amount of time in jail in Saudi for his views and this would, therefore, enhance his credibility in certain circles.

– Sayyid Imam Al Sharif or Dr Fadh as he is better known was one of the ideological “Godfathers” of Al Qaeda as Bergen and Cruickshank put it. He laid down one of the central trysts that Al Qaeda and similar groups have used to designate swathes of people as legitimate targets: the notion of takfir and kuffar. Furthermore, Dr Fadh is well known for the time that he spent on the front lines of Jihad in Afghanistan in the 1990’s.

– Noman Benotman is the former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group whose avowed aim was to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The article reports several meetings between Benotman and Bin Laden, indicating a close relationship. However, he – like Dr Fadh and Al Ouda – have since performed a 180 degree turn and are now avowedly anti-Al Qaeda.

The three protagonists here have changed their opinions largely because of the escalating nature of Al Qaeda’s violence. Bombings such as in London and on the wedding in Amman, Jordan killing purely Muslims are crucial turning points for them. The three former Al Qaeda sympathisers/ideologues/soldiers say much the same thing: that these barbarous acts are forbidden in Sharia law and thus illegal.

Whilst this change of heart is to be encouraged, it must be questioned. I do not mean to suggest that they are lying to dupe ‘us’ into a false sense of security (we do not live in a Bond film, after all). Yet when those who fervently, passionately and concertedly preached, justified and carried out what many consider to be disgraceful acts of terrorism in the past suddenly ‘see the light’, I personally do not see why this is automatically a one-way street: what is stopping them from having another conversion back to the dark side?

In short, Bergen and Cruickshank’s article is, of its type, well reasoned, well argued and – who knows – perhaps prophetic, too. Yet the very nature of these peoples’ world and the values that they hold dear must not be forgotten. That is to say that they still have – theoretically – no problem with killing plenty of people, only now, they have shifted the goal posts and are much more selective, which is obviously a good thing. Yet nevertheless they still place scripture – now differently interpreted – above human life. This is something that I am deeply uncomfortable with and am thus not rejoicing just yet.