What is al-Qaeda?

Jason Burke (2004), who is a journalist for the Observer, has spent more than a decade reporting in the Middle East  South East Asia, and draws the conclusion that seeing al-Qaeda as a single international organisation is an over simplification of the ‘war on terror’.

Burke begins his introduction by stating the objective of writing the book, and the questions he wishes to answer. In his own words, “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?. . . I became increasingly concerned about the misconceptions that were gaining currency. Foremost among them was the idea that Bin Laden led a cohesive and structured terrorist organisation called al-Qaeda.” [Burke 2004: xxiv-xxv]

He traces the roots of radical Islamic militancy to the beginning of the twentieth century. Bin Laden is but a single player in these events, no doubt the most popular, “but there were and are others.” [ibid: xxv]

His book is divided into sixteen chapters excluding the introduction and conclusion. The first two chapters expound on the nature of al-Qaeda, which “are important to understanding the nature of al-Qaeda.” [ibid: xxvii] Chapters’ three to eight examine the life of Bin laden in considerable detail, outlining the historical events that formed the man. Thereafter, is an analysis of al-Qaeda between 1996-2001. Finally, drawing a conclusion of the threat the West faces today.

Burke (2004) traces the roots of al-Qaeda that the word was in use since the early eighties during the Soviet-Afghanistan war, not referring to the organisation but as an Arabic word in its linguistic sense, which means ‘base/ maxim’. The real period in which al-Qaeda matured, not as a well structured organisation as envisaged in the West, but as a safe haven for the many disparate elements of militant Islam globally was between the years 1996-2001. [ibid: 8]

This was because Afghanistan was a great place for militant Islam during the above years. It had training camps, recruits, and even cash available for terrorist activities. It was like a department store designed specifically for them, where they could carry out their plans without the extra burden of avoiding surveillance.

Burke divides al-Qaeda into three elements: 1) the ‘hardcore’, 2) a network of co-opted groups 3) an ideology. This he states is crucial to understanding al-Qaeda. [ibid]

The hardcore refers to Bin Laden’s associates whom he had become acquainted with since the 1980’s. He had managed to attract them from different parts of the world who had fought in Egypt, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya or Algeria. This was the heart of al-Qaeda and they numbered about a hundred. These men expressed a nominal loyalty to Bin Laden, and acted as trainers and administrators.   

The second element of al-Qaeda is ‘scores of other militant Islamic groups around the world that were somehow linked with Bin Laden and his associates’ [ibid: 10] these were groups who allied with the Saudi either for funds or because they ascribed to a similar ideology. It is wrong to assume an international network of active groups all of whom were obedient to Bin Laden and his men.

There were many groups who refused to co-opt with Bin Laden, including the Palestinian Hamas, and GFI in Algeria. During the 1996-2001 period there existed many other financial aids beyond Bin Laden. They regarded Bin laden as a hero, but there cause was local. [ibid: 11-12]

The third element is the ideology, or the worldview of al-Qaeda.  Bin Laden did not force men to join his cause. The men came of their own free will. ‘They shared the key ideas, and the key objectives of Bin laden’ [ibid: 13] this is not about being a part of a group but about a way of thinking about the world. This is what Burke calls the largest element in al-Qaeda and the one that is erroneously termed ‘al-Qaeda’ in its monolithic sense.   

In 2001, when America invaded Afghanistan Bin Laden lost most of his co-opt groups, because they depended on the funds he could offer. This was lost in 2001 and even the hardcore was either killed, made de-functional or scattered.

What we see today, is more of the third element of al-Qaeda, groups who are not linked to Bin Laden in any way but have the same ideology.

Shazad Khan

Source: Burke, J (2004). Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam.

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