Does Al-Qaeda Exist?
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.