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Who is this al-Qaeda that everybody speaks of?
Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2002

by Brendan O'Neill

For some, al-Qaeda is still a big bad threat to the West, using its underground networks and underhand techniques to plot America's overthrow. For others, al-Qaeda (or 'bin Ladenism') is dead, having destroyed itself in its most infamous and outrageous act - the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

To others, al-Qaeda is finished in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been successfully routed by the US bombing campaign - while others claim that al-Qaeda is 'everywhere, from Brussels to Bagram'. Some argue that al-Qaeda is made up of a hardened central core of bin Laden and his henchmen - while others lump everyone from 'shoe bomber' Richard Reid to gun nut Mohammed Hadayet in the al-Qaeda camp.

The truth is, nobody knows what al-Qaeda is, who it is, where it is, or why it is. But some of the clues of the past nine months suggest that - far from being a coherent political network of hardened soldiers, against whom it is possible to declare war - al-Qaeda is an amorphous, apolitical collection of anti-Westerners, with little steam or direction.

The way that al-Qaeda appears to have fizzled out since 11 September suggests that it acted without thinking - that the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were more like nihilistic lashing-outs than well thought-through acts of war. They were meaningless, empty attacks, most likely carried out by people who blindly hate the West rather than people who stand for a coherent alternative to the West. Still no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, no declaration of war was made, no demands were issued, no programme of alternatives offered, nothing. There was just wanton destruction and terror, for no apparent reason whatsoever.

After being blamed for the 11 September attacks, al-Qaeda leaders tried desperately to instil some meaning into the destruction - claiming that there would be no peace in the West until their 'Palestinian brothers' were free and until American forces got out of the Middle East. This looked like an (unconvincing) attempt to find a cause to fit the violence, rather than being a case of violence carried out in the name of a cause. From the outset, al-Qaeda appeared bereft of politics or motivation, and seemed to be driven more by nihilism than idealism.

Yet al-Qaeda was talked up as some kind of huge threat to the West. If it had been the movement's unpredictability, its baselessness and anti-political nature, that had fired up Western fears, that would have made some sense. But instead, al-Qaeda was consistently presented as a worldwide organisation, with influential links in nations across the third world and the West, which was busily plotting new and even more devastating attacks. But the reality on the ground in Afghanistan was that al-Qaeda had been dispersed or had disappeared - and apart from isolated pockets of resistance, al-Qaeda looked increasingly incapable of launching a serious attack.

What we seem to have ended up with is a fantasy al-Qaeda and a real al-Qaeda (as far as we can know the real al-Qaeda). A fantasy al-Qaeda which political leaders and media commentators claim is 'everywhere', all around us, in '60 nations' according to Bush, and constantly 'increasing its communication', planning new attacks, just waiting for the moment to strike.

But there are dangers in the creation of a fantasy al-Qaeda - as captured in the tendency for many cranks in the West to latch on to 'the al-Qaeda thing' as a justification for violent attacks. The more we in the West talk up al-Qaeda as a broad-based movement that reaches all corners of the globe, the more unhinged people seem to be signing themselves up to al-Qaeda to give their nihilistic actions some alleged meaning.

So it seems to have been with Richard Reid, a sad loner who tried to blow up an aeroplane over the Atlantic ocean; 15-year-old American Charles Bishop, who crashed a plane into a Florida skyscraper on 5 January 2002; and now, perhaps, Mohammed Hadayet, who shot dead two people at Los Angeles airport, and who is already been accused of having had 'links with al-Qaeda'. Our unfounded claims that al-Qaeda is lurking everywhere, ready to pounce and cause destruction, could end up being a self-fulfilling prohecy - inviting crazy types who really want to pounce and cause destruction to do precisely that.

Then there is the real al-Qaeda - bin Laden and his associates - whom American and British forces have singularly failed to find over the past nine months. Indeed, the less success Western forces have in the hunt for bin Laden, Omar and co, the more they talk up the fantasy enemy and spread the war on terrorism further and further outwards - from the original axis of evil, to the new and improved axis of evil, to President Bush's 60 threatening nations.

All of this captures the dangers inherent in the war on terrorism. Instead of catching those allegedly responsible for the 11 September attacks and reining in anti-Western violence, the war seems to be creating more instability and the potential for further violence - not only in the third world, but also in the West.

Read on: War against what?

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