The execution of Osama Bin Laden and more recently the death of Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone attack has led the US President to claim Al-Qaeda is on the run. Others claim the organisation does not exist. Paradoxically, they are both right.
Pierre Waithe’s article on the death of Anwar al-Awlaki can be found here.
Al-Qaeda is real, make no mistake about that, but the question of how it exists is a little more complex.
If you join a profession, a company, trade union, or even your local chess club, you will be given some sort of recognition or proof of membership. It may be as little as a receipt from the treasurer, or a great deal more such as a membership card, a rule book, a diary, and maybe even a uniform. For reasons that need no explaining, most terrorist organisations tend not to issue membership cards, and even people who profess open sympathy for them can’t join; the organisation, cell or whatever, chooses its members and not vice versa.
Also, because terrorist organisations are by definition illegal, they cannot operate openly. Yes, there are exceptions to this, most notably Hamas is branded a terrorist organisation by the Israeli Government, and the Israeli Government is branded a terrorist organisation by most of the Islamic world, but leaving aside semantics and observations such as one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter, in general when people refer to terrorist groups they mean for the most part small collections of men and women, often operating a cell system, who cannot function openly for fear of arrest. Again, there are exceptions to this, there are for example a number of self-styled animal rights organisations that while not overtly terroristic, conduct and/or advocate illegal operations behind the scenes while at the same time operating ostensibly only within the law.
Way back in 19th Century America, an organisation known as the Fenian Brotherhood was founded. This morphed into the IRA, an organisation that was committed to creating a United Ireland free from the yoke of “British Imperialism”. Obviously Britain, and indeed many Irishmen didn’t see things that way; during the 20th Century, Irishmen both fought and died for the Crown. Ireland was partitioned in 1922, and at times the so-called armed struggle has been particularly bloody.
In December 1969-January 1970, there was two splits involving the Official IRA, the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin, with the latter remaining a legal political party dedicated to peaceful change, while the Provisional IRA – the Provos – continued what they called the armed struggle. The juxtaposition of the two became known as “the Armalite and the ballot box”, something which led to no little controversy.
The Provisional IRA also adopted what it called a military structure with a self-styled army council that chose targets – eg people to murder, premises to bomb – and although there were many rogue and opportunist actions, this structure and pretence gave it some sort of authority in its own eyes and in the eyes of its supporters, though of course not in the eyes of its “Colonial Masters”. This is a structure that Al-Qaeda has never had.
The big name in Al-Qaeda up until his death earlier this year was of course Osama Bin Laden. In the wake of 9/11, Bin Laden was portrayed as the spider at the centre of a web of subversion, ruling with the assistance of two or three trusted lieutenants, deciding who and what was to be targeted, choosing the individuals or cells responsible, and providing the finance. The impression was also given by Western governments that Al-Qaeda sleeper cells had insinuated their way into all the major cities of the West, and were prepared at any time to strike against us.
This picture was both extremely plausible, and wrong.
It is well known that the term Al-Qaeda alludes to a toilet, and while it is just possible a terrorist organisation might call itself “The Toilet”, that is not what happened here. It was actually Uncle Sam that began using that phrase, and perhaps seeing the joke, the terrorist network itself adopted that terminology.
In the wake of 9/11, the blame was quickly laid at the door of both Bin Laden and the leader of Iraq. It is now accepted that there was no connection whatsoever between Iraq and the 9/11 atrocities, and less generally recognised that Bin Laden did not order the attacks, although he never missed an opportunity to gloat over them.
Did Bin Laden have any input into 9/11 at all? That is the question! According to Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the failed attack on the White House had a budget of around half a million dollars; that won’t even buy you a house in Central London, so it is clear that no massive input was needed, although the attacks were clearly incredibly well planned.
What then was the role of Bin Laden, and how did he get this image of the Godfather of Islamist terrorism? Jason Burke explained this too. The myth was created by the American authorities for a very pragmatic reason. Obviously the people who are perpetrating atrocities not only against Americans but against people and governments all across the world can’t be allowed to get away with it, but it is not enough simply to go after the perpetrators, which is a little pointless when they are suicide bombers. It was and is necessary to attack the support networks, and this can best be achieved by using anti-racketeering legislation similar to RICO where being a member of an organisation is integral to bringing a successful prosecution.
There is, said Burke, evidence which if looked at in a certain way can be interpreted as a conspiracy, ie an organisation made up of individuals with a common purpose who are engaged in an ongoing criminal – or terrorist – plot. The organisation does not actually exist, but it can certainly be made to seem like that. Burke can be seen explaining this in this video from about 8 minutes. *
An interesting aside here is that Dr Stan Monteith makes the same point about the “world conspiracy”; there is a great deal of evidence for a world conspiracy, a world government movement, which is often viewed in a certain way by people of a certain mindset. Nazis see “the Jews” behind it; socialists see greedy capitalists; naive anti-Communists see the red menace; doctrinaire “anti-racists” see a capitalist conspiracy fermenting racism and Sectarianism to divide the workers; financial reformers see the bankers’ cartel. What they all fail to see is the big picture, ie that there are all manner of groups vying for world control, aiming to build this supra-government, but there is no great conspiracy with a network, an hierarchical structure or even a uniform plan.
Returning to Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, this diagram was endorsed by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a TV interview (available on YouTube). According to the man the hard core 9/11 loonies regard as the true mastermind of the Twin Towers atrocities, this is, or was, Al-Qaeda’s Afghan HQ: “It’s a very sophisticated operation”, said the interviewer; Rumsfeld agreed, adding: “and there’s not one of those, there are many of those”.
It is difficult to credit that anyone ever bought this nonsense, but clearly Rumsfeld did. The reality is that Bin Laden was an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure sitting in a rat-infested Afghan cave sending out videotaped fatwas against the Great Satan. That was how he was up until the end, except that he relocated to a compound in Pakistan where he lived a virtual prisoner, never daring to venture out. How could he have controlled a terrorist network like this? The simple answer is that he didn’t.
Bin Laden’s now late and unlamented successor was cut from the same cloth. On September 30, a headline in the London Evening Standard by Oliver Poole put it in a nutshell: Terrorist whose real weapon was his voice.
The American-born al-Awlaki was basically a preacher of hate, he delivered sermons mostly over the Internet, and the gullible acted on them. Did that make him a terrorist? If he participated actively in terrorist operations, either by financing them or by some more direct method, then clearly he was a terrorist, and should have been brought to book. He certainly appears to have directly incited actual terrorist incidents, including in the United States, but having said that, there will be die-hard Libertarians who will be prepared to argue that he committed no actual crime.
Likewise, Bin Laden was primarily a preacher of hate, but when a man has such a pernicious influence that others are prepared both to murder and die for him, even without his specific approval, then clearly something must be done.
So there is actually no Al-Qaeda “Network” as such, instead there is what Jason Burke alluded to as an idea in the minds of angry young males throughout the Islamic world, and it is this idea that is the real threat.
The methodology adopted by Al-Qaeda operatives is what is known as leaderless resistance, an idea of specifically American origin. A summary of (legitimate) leaderless resistance can be found here.
It is clearly a model to resist state tyranny; rather than terrorists (freedom fighters) organising in groups to fight for the liberation of their country, the lone wolf strikes out of the darkness, and vanishes back into it. It remains to be seen if Bin Laden or any of his supporters were or are aware of Colonel Julius Amoss or his philosophy. It is also clear that apart from methodology, Al-Qaeda has nothing in common with the legitimate strategy of leaderless resistance as originally proposed, because leaderless resistance does not advocate the murder of innocents – collateral damage – but the targeting of active oppressors.
Having said that, it is a sad fact that so many Americans in particular now regard their government as an oppressor or even as an occupation. This ethos developed throughout the 1990s with the Ruby Ridge and Waco Massacres, and has now been cemented by the Patriot Act and other acts of repression that have been foisted onto the American people including the activities of the TSA. In this respect, whether or not Al-Qaeda actually exists, the repressive, brutal and nihilistic ideology behind it can be said in one sense to have won.
[The above article was first published October 3, 2011. * The YouTube video linked originally has been deleted, or rather the associated account has been terminated, but the video can still be found on the site on another or other accounts (as of February 25, 2022); it is called The Power Of Nightmares, a three part TV series from 2004. I have included here 4 minutes 47 seconds which I consider to be particularly relevant. Not that this is important but the linked archived article by Pierre Waithe is later credited to Shawn Kay.]
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