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Does Al-Qaeda Exist?

December 24, 2010

The 2004 award-winning BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares came up with some worth pondering analysis. Besides showcasing the history of Muslim and Christian fundamentalism also known as the Islamic militants and the Neo-conservatives, it claimed that no organization by the name of Al-Qaeda, led by the world’s most wanted terrorist Osama Bin Laden, ever existed. In fact Al-Qaeda was only an amalgam of liked minded groups. The documentary further claimed that a few armed men around Bin Laden as shown in the popular CNN video were hired and it was not that he had a whole bunch of militants under his wings. This theory doesn’t sound as absurd if compared with the Pakistan’s situation, where we are confronted with plenty of groups, which may or may not share the similar ideology or goal but are equally formidable for the stability of the country.

According to the documentary, the name Al-Qaeda was coined after the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In connection with those bombings, four people were arrested and tried in the US court in January 2001. The US authorities also wanted to prosecute Osama Bin Laden in his absence but under the US law it was possible only after the evidence of criminal organization.

The prosecutors than turned to Jamal Al Fadal, a former Sudanese militant and Bin Laden’s aide who had fiddled about $110,000 from him.  Al Fadal became a witness for FBI and testified in the court about the existence of an organization called Al-Qaeda, which was led by Osama Bin Laden. From there the name Al-Qadea, which in Arabic means ‘the base’ or ‘the foundation’, became the most used word in the media. The media successfully crafted an image of a monster organization which was capable of challenging the authority of any state or an intelligence agency around the world. The west had now an enemy with a face and the name.

Further research about the origin or the existence of Al-Qaeda led me to two interesting articles published in The Guardian. In first one titled, ‘What is the origin of the name Al-Qaeda’, Dr. Saad al-Fagih, the former Afghan mujahid from Saudi Arabia said,

I really laugh when I hear the FBI talking about al-Qaida as an organisation of Bin Laden.” Al-Qaida was just a service for relatives of jihadis, he said, speaking to the American PBS show Frontline. “In 1988 he [Bin Laden] noticed that he was backward in his documentation and was not able to give answers to some families asking about their loved ones gone missing in Afghanistan. He decided to make the matter much more organised and arranged for proper documentation.

In the same article, Yossef Bodansky, director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, said,

A lot of money is being spent on a rapidly expanding web of Islamist charities and social services, including the recently maligned al-Qaida. Bin Laden’s first charity, al-Qaida, never amounted to more than a loose umbrella framework for supporting like-minded individuals and their causes. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, al-Qaida has been portrayed in the west as a cohesive terrorist organisation, but it is not.

Some analysts, on the other hand, believe that the name Al-Qaeda came from a political theory formulated in an essay by Abdullah Azzam, Bin Laden’s intellectual mentor. Incidentally Bin Laden was suspected for assassinating Adbullah Azzam in the car bomb blast in Peshawar in 1989.

The article, ‘The struggle against terrorism can’t be won by military means’, written by the British Labor Party politician, Robin Cook discussed Bin Laden and his much talked about ‘the base’ organization in a rather interesting manner. Robin Cook said,

Throughout the 80s he [Bin Laden] was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.

Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Taliban Nexus

If Al-Qaeda never existed than who did Zawahiri belong to and what was the role of the Taliban? It is known from the news reports that when Bin Laden was expelled from Sudan he took refuge in Afghanistan in 1996. In Afghanistan, the Taliban government gave him refuge under the code of Pukhtunwali. The renowned journalist Zahid Hussain writes in his book, The Scorpion’s Tail that the relationship between Mullah Omar and Bin Laden were far from cordial in the beginning due to political and religious differences. Mullah Omar would often mock Bin Laden and refer to him as ‘the donkey’. Gradually, the equation between Bin Laden and Mullah Omar changed when the former began to financially support the Taliban.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor, on the other hand, took inspiration from the philosophies of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was an educator and an intellectual who believed that anything non-Islamic was evil and corrupt. He vehemently disapproved of the western materialistic society and lamented the fact that his own Egyptian people were walking the same path of self-centeredness and selfishness. In his youth, Zawahiri was associated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The aim of this organization was to eliminate the corrupt leadership of Egypt and to bring in the Islamic revolution. The plan backfired in the absence of mass support and Zawahiri got arrested with hundreds of other members for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. After release, Zawahiri went to Saudi Arabia and than traveled to Peshawar in 1986. He worked in the Red Crescent hospital treating wounded refugees. It is believed that in Peshawar he met with Bin Laden and the two form a bonding based on the similar ideology. Being the most senior and Bn Laden’s close aide, he is usually referred to as the ‘number two’.

Generally, many people fail to differentiate between the Taliban and the Bin Laden’s organization. The Taliban were the de-facto rulers of Afghanistan at the time of 9/11 and since Bin Laden and others wanted by the US were living in Afghanistan, the US government demanded to turn them over for prosecution. The Taliban demanded the evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which the US outrightly refused to share. Under the Bush Doctrine, all those countries accused of harboring terrorists and not cooperating with the US were also deemed as the enemy. There were reports that the Taliban were contemplating handing over Bin Laden for a trial in a country other than the US. There is not much known as to why the talks ended in a deadlock and the US went ahead with its plan of attacking Afghanistan. One thing however, is clear that the Taliban and Bin Laden were not the same in terms of their goals. The Taliban were busy in maintaining their writ in Afghanistan while the plans of Bin Laden’s clique transcended the borders.

In the light of current situation the debate about Al-Qaeda’s existence somehow becomes irrelevant. What is more relevant is to gauge the true ‘extent’ of danger from such rogue elements. It is crucial to address whether it is as big a threat as was portrayed by the President Bush or can it be tackled without waging wars on the sovereign countries.

Taliban on the other hand, may have been limited to Afghanistan but today their ideology is spreading wings across Afghan border in Pakistan and its not conclusive that they’d lay down the arms if the US exit from the region. If we exclude a war ravaged Afghanistan, and Iraq – the third country that suffered heavily in the global war on terror is Pakistan. It won’t be right to claim that the rogue elements such as TTP came into existence post 9/11. However, its true that the aftermath of 9/11 helped those militants found a new mission. The genie of militancy always existed but 9/11 helped unleashed it completely. Today, our analysts are more concerned about the growing Pakistanisation of Al-Qaeda. It seems almost unreal to see Pakistan becoming a hub of terrorist activities; but given the loss suffered in the past 6 years or so, it is hard to shut eyes and ignore the changing face of militancy in the country.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Shahid permalink
    December 24, 2010 10:26 pm

    I have to warn that from the basic read, anybody with an already skewed mindset would conclude from the post that you’re saying that al-Qaeda is a hogwash, a figment of imagination and a non-existent enemy. Clearly, that is not the case. Even if, as some like to point out, the name al-Qaeda wasn’t chosen by Bin Lade to identify his group of nutjobs, after the ’98 bombings, they did start to use it – perhaps seeing th popularity of the name. Before that, there IS evidence that they used the name al-Qaeda (Tarnak Farm was called an al-Qaeda centre much before ’98 by the terrorists training there and Taliban regime alike). More than that, there were names of the type – Global movement to defeat American imperialism and blah blah.

    My point was just that it’d be better to clarify and noone should go back with a false account in mind.

    As for Mullah Omar having a low personal opinion of Bin Laden, it had turned to an appreciation by ’98 as well. He called Bin Laden a mujahid, a fighter and a true warrior jihadi when Prince Turki (Saudi head of intelligence) went to meet him and secure Bin Laden’s hand over and/or expulsion from Afghanistan. More than that, Omar was happy that Bin Laden had allowed his camps and training centres to be used by “our” jihadis and therefore not let a large number of organizations set up their very own camps and allow mushrooming of the problem.

    • December 24, 2010 10:37 pm

      I vaguely remember Peter Bergen’s account about the formation of Al-Qaeda and if I’m not wrong Rahimullah Yousfzai was also a witness to that. Anyway, in this post I presented the account of various sources – kind of an alternate view. For me this entire debate is irrelevant because whoever they are, under what umbrella or organization they work, they are inflicting harm on people.

      Mullah Omar and Bin Laden’s equation changed when the money began to pour. No argument about the Taliban jihadi and the Al-Qaeda jihadi but apparently the goals of Taliban were limited to Afghanistan because they were already in a state of civil war. Most of Al-Qaeda’s operatives (abroad) were Arabs as opposed to Pushtuns. If we debate from the point of view of harboring and supporting the Al-Qaeda yes, then Taliban were equal partners in crime.

  2. Shahid permalink
    December 24, 2010 10:29 pm

    And just to make the first point clear again, AQ has always been very organized at the top – regardless of power struggles and perceived “genuisness” of Zwhairi – and very robustly independent at the bottom in the form of free cells that work on basic points only.

    • December 24, 2010 11:06 pm

      Btw, in terms of an international humanitarian law, majority agree that an attack on Afghanistan was illegal. I’m divided on that!

      What do you mean by organized at the top and independent at the bottom? Does it mean, the people at the lower level seek blessings of their Shaikh? Or does he devise plans and targets for them?

  3. Shahid permalink
    December 24, 2010 11:22 pm

    Whoever they are is not irrelevant. The enemy should be identifiable. With very much disorganized semi-independent groups, there is this problem and forces must learn and adapt, but there is al-Qaeda as a global force. I didn’t say Taliban were aiming for something outside Afghanistan – but that maybe entirely because they were stuck and their hands filled with civil war as you said. Mullah Omar’s reply to Turki was symbolic of the global view he had too (same old global Islamic rule).

    As for the “independent at the bottom” thing, I meant semi-independent cells were trained and sent to places to sometimes target specific places (embassies, wtc) or canvass the area and find a target (USS Cole after missing the carrier) but they operate in the final place without direction and control of their ideological superiors. Today, of course, things have changed even further with nearly independent people merely acting on “advice” and general directions (not related to AQ but Faisal Shahzad like independent targeting).

    • Shahid permalink
      December 24, 2010 11:24 pm

      Correct that. Not a carrier but the destroyer USS Sullivans.

    • December 24, 2010 11:33 pm

      Spot on:

      Today, of course, things have changed even further with nearly independent people merely acting on “advice” and general directions (not related to AQ but Faisal Shahzad like independent targeting).

      Too bad, somehow Pakistan is deeply involved in this crap.

  4. Uljalool permalink
    December 25, 2010 1:05 pm

    Call them and their organizations with whatever name, these are all rabid dogs of different breeds but their bites are equally infectious and deadly. Unfortunately they are not going disappear from the scene in the NWFP ( I prefer the erstwhile name than the new one because I have not been able to reconcile with the hyphenated name Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It should have been Pakhtunkhwa only, but some how it made the Punjabi politicians very insecure and forced the hyphenanted version upon the people of NWFP))as long as the Khakies(Hijras) kept on embracing the doctrine of Strategi-Depth and remain India centric. AQ and their other franchises will keep on playing hide and seek with the rest of the world for a while yet.
    “Btw, in terms of an international humanitarian law, majority agree that an attack on Afghanistan was illegal. I’m divided on that!” Would you please mind explaining what do the above lines mean. Thank you.

  5. December 25, 2010 2:29 pm

    I am slowly working my way through Rush Baker’s FAMILY OF SECRETS. The book is really more like an encyclopedia of the Shadow Government than an expose. I am about 2/3 through and it seems I’m just getting to the good bit now. The chapter “Poppy’s Proxy and the Saudis” talks in detail about the extensive business (oil and weapons) ventures Bush senior personally set up with the Saudi royal family in 1976 while he was CIA director. Part of this arrangement involved Saudi assistance in setting up an “off-the-books” intelligence operation in the Middle East involving Saudi, Pakistani, Afghan and Iranian nationals. This was in direct response to the Church Committee making a lot of CIA covert operations illegal after Watergate. Bush continued to expand this “off-the-books” network after Carter fired him as CIA director and used it (in Iran-Contra) to illegally sell weapons to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. In 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Bush drew the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) into this network and got it legitimatized as an official CIA operation to promote fundamentalist Islam among Afghan “freedom fighters” to drive the Soviets out.

    Did Bush do all this out of patriotism? I think not. He used his business deals (which I think were treasonous) with the Saudis to make himself fabulously wealthy and to propel himself and his son into the presidency. The important point is that he clearly remained the head honcho over this network as Reagan’s vice-president and during his own presidency. A network that trained thousands of no-hope homeless Afghan orphans in fundamentalist Islam. Which the CIA continues to employ from time to time when they wish to create political instability somewhere (in Bosnia, Kosovo, Pakistan, Kashmir, etc). The rest of the time they seem to be independent agents.

    As far as I can see the main Pentagon/CIA objective at this point is to create a viable Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India energy transit route in Afghanistan – while preventing China from creating their own Iran-Pakistan-China energy transit route via Balochistan (the CIA and Pentagon are actively supporting the Baloch separatist movement). As long as the US persists in trying to achieve military and economic dominance over this region, the local residents will fight them. It’s really unfortunate that Bush and the CIA have trained them in Islamic fundamentalism and set up funding and training networks for them. But it doesn’t really matter whether you call them Taliban, Al Quaeda or Afghan and Pakistani nationalists – they aren’t prepared to accept foreign domination over their region.

    I blog about this at

  6. December 25, 2010 2:38 pm

    Much like most of USA’s claims, a little further research into the matter reveals holes and discrepancies. The Myth of Osama and the growing fear of this boogie man (once a CIA agent) gives US and its puppet regimes ammunition to walk into any country and make demands supporting their interests – Pakistan is one example.

    Can someone prove to me two main points: First – is he still alive? Despite having poor quality released supposedly the boogie man him self and later some audio tapes claiming to be the same boogie man. Secondly – that he is still not a CIA agent if proven he is still alive?

  7. December 25, 2010 8:41 pm

    Well I tend to believe in this theory. Whatever we know of Al Qaeda today is what the US has told the world about it. In time, if WikiLeaks is allowed to continue exposing the hidden secrets, we may come to know whose brainchild is this organization anyway (if there is one).

  8. December 26, 2010 10:31 am

    I did see this documentary sometime back. its a good work. What we see today is similar to its theme. Leaders are not promising on dreams, rather injecting fear to govern. nice post

  9. purple-er permalink
    December 27, 2010 3:55 pm

    Interesting post. Will make a point to see the documentary you mentioned. Unfortunately did not read your whole post but dont worry, you’re point is made. I’ve been reading Noam Chomsky’s book “What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World” and it also mentions the US neoconservatives.

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