There are four categorically different views of what has been termed Al Qaeda and each has radically different implications for the global war on terror.
The first main view of Al Qaeda is the one advanced by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11, whereby Al Qaeda is a global network of terror comprising cells in 50 or 60 countries. This view of Al Qaeda as a sort of Islamic equivalent of the Bond films SPECTRE was articulated by the 9/11 Commission. Largely authored by neo-conservative insider Philip Zelikow, the Commission said:
“With al Qaeda as its foundation, Bin Ladin sought to build a broader Islamic army that also included terrorist groups from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Somalia, and Eritrea. Not all groups from these states agreed to join, but at least one from each did. With a multinational council intended to promote common goals, coordinate targeting, and authorize asset sharing for terrorist operations, this Islamic force represented a new level of collaboration among diverse terrorist groups.”
However, as soon as this interpretation been put forward it was subject to criticism and a less centralised view of Al Qaeda was advanced. This notion appeared in Rohan Gunaratnas bestselling book Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. Though Gunaratna repeated the official propaganda about Al Qaeda, saying that it could call on as many as 120,000 fighters, he described the network as more horizontally than vertically structured. He wrote:
Al Qaeda is structured in such a way that it can operate without a centralised command. Its regional bureaus function as the nodal points of its horizontal network outside Afghanistan and liaise with associate groups and Al Qaeda cells. – Inside Al Qaeda (p13)
A slightly different version of this decentralised notion of Al Qaeda appeared in the widely lauded documentary series The Power of Nightmares. It featured interviews with journalist Jason Burke, who explained his thesis to filmmaker Adam Curtis:
“There is no Al Qaeda organisation. There is no international network with a leader, with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe. That idea of a coherent, structured terrorist network with an organised capability simply does not exist.” … But Burke was not denouncing the war on terror as a whole:
‘There is no organisation with its terrorist operatives, cells, sleeper cells, so on and so forth. What there is is an idea, prevalent among young, angry Muslim males throughout the Islamic world.That idea is what poses a threat.’ The Power of Nightmares episode three (video)(transcript)
As such, in this interpretation we are not fighting an international network of terrorists, but an idea.
This interpretation of the enemy, of the threat, has been taken up by the Liberal Left against the neo-conservative interpretation of the Bush administration and Zelikow Commission. Burke is a senior journalist for The Guardian and The Power of Nightmares broadcast on the BBC, both considered broadly Liberal Left media organs.
This view has also become the de facto view of the Obama administration. As noted by the Huffington Post shortly after Obama took over the US presidency, he did not use the term war on terror:
‘Since taking office less than two weeks ago, President Barack Obama has talked broadly of the “enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.” Another time it was an “ongoing struggle.” ‘ – Huffington Post
Some call it an extension of the domain of the struggle. Others call it mission creep. Instead of fighting a physical enemy, who can be disrupted, captured or most likely killed, we are fighting ideas. This is potentially a much broader fight, one that goes beyond any particular group, however closely or loosely knit. In expanding the battleground from just the physical wars across the Middle East to also include the abstract struggle of ideas, the Obama administration has publicly made a target of anyone and everyone who believes an idea considered to be dangerous. …
This shift in the official interpretation occurred sometime after the publication of Inside Al Qaeda and the broadcast of The Power of Nightmares. Within two hours of the 7/7 bombings in London, agents within the security services told BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner that the attacks bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda. Yet when the alleged bombers were identified, there was no evidence of them having anything to do with Bin Laden or any centralised command structure. A week after the bombings the head of the Metropolitan Police Sir Ian Blair explained the discrepancy:Al Qaeda is not an organization. Al Qaeda is a way of working, but this has the hallmark of that approach. – Sir Ian Blair, Fox News
This still leaves two distinct possibilities, and room for two further interpretations. The third interpretation is that Al Qaeda is a proxy force for Western military and intelligence agencies, employed in various theatres as a destabilisation force, a guerrilla network. However, the terrorist attacks that result from this unholy alliance are seen as blowback, the unintended consequences of ongoing covert operations. It is this thesis that is primarily pursued in Nafeez Ahmeds 2005 book The War on Truth and his 2006 book The London Bombings: An Independent Investigation.
In particular, Ahmed draws attention to this proxy force being used to foment the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990 and early 2000s. The Bosnian army, and later the KLA, were largely controlled through criminal networks using mujahideen to fight against the Serbs. A similar strategy is being used today in Libya. There, Islamic militants being directed by Western special forces and backed up by a NATO bombing campaign have ousted Colonel Gaddafi. As such, if the terrorist attacks in Paris in 1995, or Istanbul in 2003, or London in 2005 are blowback then it is clear that the governments running these covert operations have little concern for the safety of their own citizens.
Yet there is one further, and darker possibility. The fourth view of Al Qaeda is that rather than terrorist attacks being unintentional consequences of a secret service operation, they are in fact intentional consequences of such an operation. In this view Al Qaeda becomes Al CIAda, a devil spawned and maintained by Western security services. For those who subscribe to this view, responsibility for terrorist attacks is not just a matter of huge criminal negligence and willful indifference to the sanctity of human life. Instead it is a matter of conspiracy and premeditated murder.
This view is not publicly held by many academics or experts, though it is popular in the alternative media. It is supported by the existence of numerous double agents, from Luai Sakra and Ali Mohamed to David Headley and Omar Saeed Sheikh. It is also supported by the historical precedents of covert operations such as that known as Gladio. According to Daniele Ganser’s research, secret armies across Europe provoked, enabled or carried out terrorist attacks throughout the Cold War, at the behest of agents within the security services. …