Jan 31, 2003

What is al Qaeda? Special to the site

What is al Qaeda? It seems such a simple question: after all, it's a term much bandied about by the public, politicians and pundits alike. Indeed, al Qaeda is now one of the best-known organizations in the world, with brand recognition seemingly only eclipsed by another successful franchise operation: McDonalds. Yet there is a great deal of ambiguity about what exactly constitutes al Qaeda. Is it a terrorist organization run in a regimented top-down fashion by its CEO, Osama bin Laden? Or is it a loose knit group of Islamist radicals around the world whose only common link is that they trained in Afghanistan? Or has al Qaeda evolved into an intensely anti-Western ideology that has now been adopted by millions of Muslims? Or is it all of the above? Defining our terms about what exactly is meant by the shorthand term "al Qaeda" is more than matter of mere semantic interest. If we can better define what we mean by "al Qaeda" we may better understand the threat posed by the al Qaeda phenomenon.
First there is al Qaeda, the organization. Most non-specialists are surprised to learn that al Qaeda has only some two hundred members. These are the men who have sworn bayat, an oath of allegiance to serve their emir, or leader, Osama bin Laden, even unto death. The second concentric ring spreading out beyond the inner core of al Qaeda are the several thousand holy warriors who trained in the group's camps over the past decade who were instructed in the terrorist black arts of bomb-making and assassination techniques. Beyond this circle are tens of thousands who received some kind of basic military training in Afghanistan over the past decade. Many of these trainees came to Afghanistan for something not much more than a jihad vacation. Most were to be cannon fodder in the Taliban's war against the Northern Alliance. (Think John Walker Lindh.)

In addition there are members of Islamist terrorist groups around the world who cooperate to some degree or another with al Qaeda. The Kashmiri terrorist group Harakat al Mujahideen (HUM) shared training camps with al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late ?90s. HUM has since devolved into Jaish-e-Mohammed, which has been implicated in the murder of journalist Danny Pearl and other attacks on western targets in Pakistan. In 1999 Ahmed Ressam, a member of the Algerian terrorist group GIA, was given $12,000 by an al Qaeda member to foment terrorism in the United States. Luckily, Ressam was arrested at the Canadian border before he was able to carry out his plan to celebrate the new Millennium by bombing Los Angeles airport. In Indonesia, a man who goes by the alias Hambali is widely regarded as the mastermind of the October attack on the Bali disco that killed more than 190 people. He sits on both the leadership councils of al Qaeda and the local group implicated in the Bali blast, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Finally, there are an untold numbers of Muslims who subscribe to bin Laden's Manichean view of the world that the West is the enemy of Islam, some of whom may be prepared to do violence. Since 9/11, people with no formal links to al Qaeda or its affiliated groups, but who seem to be operating with an al Qaeda-like agenda have carried out a number of terrorist acts. Into this category we can possibly put a grenade attack on a church in Islamabad which killed two Americans in March; Kerim Chatty an Islamist militant who says he "forgot" that he packed a gun in his hand luggage when he boarded a flight in August from Sweden to the United Kingdom; and two men who attempted to hijacked a London-bound Saudi Arabian Airlines flight in October. Call this group the al Qaeda freelancers.

All these "al Qaedas" will be galvanized by an American war against Iraq, particularly one that that is conducted in seeming defiance of the opinions of the international community. Whatever one?s views about Saddam Hussein, one prediction can be safely made: a war in Iraq will generate multiple low-level acts of anti-Western terrorism around the world. (McDonalds? franchise operators in the Muslim world should check their insurance policies now.) And it's possible that an Iraq war will be the occasion of a catastrophic anti-American attack masterminded by al Qaeda itself and its elusive leader bin Laden, a person mysteriously absent from President Bush's recent State of the Union address about the progress of the war on terrorism.