For most Britons, 7 July 2005 will be remembered as the day that al Qaeda attacked London. But five years on, no link has been established between the 7/7 bombers and al Qaeda. Whilst its possible that Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan may have visited training camps in Pakistan and met with al Qaeda operatives, there is no evidence of this. This week a report from the Centre for Social Cohesion analysing Islamist terrorist offences in Britain over the last decade finds that only 14.5 per cent of terrorism offenders had links with al Qaeda. And yet despite this a belief persists that most Islamist attacks, including the 7/7 bombings, are somehow masterminded by them.
This is not just the case in Britain. When Faisal Shahzad was arrested for attempting to detonate a car bomb in Times Square earlier this year, news sources were quick to suggest that the Pakistani-American was a part of an international terror network. Four months on and his links to al Qaeda, or indeed any other terrorist organization, remain hazy. Whilst Shahzad and the 7/7 bombers were no doubt influenced by radical Islamists, and it is unlikely that they were acting alone, viewing al Qaeda as the puppet master behind all Islamic terrorism is not only inaccurate but dangerously misleading.
According to Alain Bauer, professor of criminology and terrorism specialist, al Qaeda does not exist. “It is not like a James Bond movie where they are villains based in a volcano,” he explains. “Rather, al Qaeda is more like a mutual organisation or a franchise.” Bauer believes the “invention” of al Qaeda results from a very human desire to put a name and a face to an otherwise unknowable enemy. But “knowing thine enemy” should extend beyond knowing his name and what he looks like. It should also involve a genuine attempt to understand why he wants to destroy you. But despite the acres of newsprint written on the subject, this type of analysis is rare. Rather than acknowledging the unsettling multitude of radicalised groups living in our midst and scattered across the globe it is more comforting to regard them as a single enemy. Rather than attempting to comprehend the reasons for their murderous…