The war in Iraq is radicalising a new generation of Islamic terrorist freelancersby Jason Burke / June 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Despite several hundred books and countless words of analysis since 11th September, there is still some confusion over al Qaeda’s true nature. Some, albeit a diminishing number, believe that al Qaeda is a group of fanatical terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden, with a network of “sleeper cells” all over the world. Some describe al Qaeda as a set of loosely linked groups with broadly shared goals. It is spoken of as a “brand” or a “franchise.” Others deny the existence of al Qaeda altogether, saying that if al Qaeda is anything, it is a worldview. Still more want to use it as a label applied to all modern, Sunni Muslim salafi jihadi militant activism.
This lack of definition has clouded thinking and policymaking. Politicians and intelligence services know that to label any attack in their own country as the work of al Qaeda simultaneously deflects attention from their own domestic problems and establishes them as allies in the war on terror. At the least this improves their standing with Washington; at best it releases a torrent of aid and diplomatic support. The governments of Russia, Uzbekistan, Algeria and the Philippines have been shameless in finding al Qaeda responsible for events that they know are nothing to do with any external group.
Al Qaeda – the three phases
The fundamental unit of the resistance fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 was, in various local dialects, the komite, the karaga, the markaz and, for some of the 20,000 or so Arabs who joined in the war, the qaeda. Arabic newspapers currently refer to the main US-led military base at Bagram in Afghanistan as al Qaeda Bagram.
It is this translation as “the base” that is most common today. However, there are several other possible translations that help us to understand the phenomenon of modern Islamic militancy and the role of Osama bin Laden’s group within it. Most crucially, al Qaeda can also mean a precept, maxim, rule, formula or methodology. At a trial in New York in 2001, an FBI agent gave details of his interrogation of Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, one of the suspected bombers of the US embassy in Dar es Salaam three years previously. The agent told the court that when Mohammed had been asked about the term al Qaeda he had said that “al Qaeda was a formula system for what they…