The Al Qaeda Enigma: There Is Not One, but Many Different Al Qaedas, Most of Whom Have Little Connection to Their Supposed Ideological Partners Elsewhere in the World

By Gearon, Eamonn | The Middle East, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Al Qaeda Enigma: There Is Not One, but Many Different Al Qaedas, Most of Whom Have Little Connection to Their Supposed Ideological Partners Elsewhere in the World


Gearon, Eamonn, The Middle East


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THE AL QAEDA NAME CERTAINLY ranks as one of the most recognisable brands in the world. A radical Sunni Islamist group, widely designated a terrorist organisation, was established to foment wars among the nations who do not agree with its agenda - western and Muslim states alike--the first step towards the creation of a global Muslim Caliphate. But what, beyond this broad outline, can be said about a group now in its third decade of life?

Expert opinion remains sharply divided as to what Al Qaeda is. Founded in Pakistan in 1988--the result of fighting Soviet and pro-Soviet Afghan forces during the decade-long occupation of Afghanistan--an agenda from an early meeting lists among its membership requirements good manners, obedience and a pledge of allegiance to the group's leaders.

However, since then Al Qaeda -the name means "the base"--has fragmented enormously. In terms of directing operations or controlling those who claim membership, it would appear to be "the base" in name only. For instance, former CIA counter-terrorism officer Marc Sageman has said Al Qaeda is nothing more than a "label for a movement that seems to target the West", but which is in no sense an umbrella organisation. Sageman adds: "We like to create a mythical entity called Al Qaeda in our minds, but that is not the reality we are dealing with."

Fragmented it may be, but others argue that the group retains some form of central control, with operations now being directed from the Pakistani tribal areas that border Afghanistan, and where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be in hiding. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, believes that the Pakistani-based leadership retain a strong strategic purpose, saying in an interview that he is "amazed" people cannot understand that Al Qaeda remains, "a clear adversary ... [which has] a strategic approach."

Against this, in the wake of the 7 July bombings in London in 2005, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said, when asked about the possibility of an Al Qaeda connection to the attacks that, "Al Qaeda is not an organisation. Al Qaeda is a way of working ... Al Qaeda clearly has the ability to provide training ... to provide expertise." Later police and MI5 investigations came to the conclusion that the suicide bombers had acted independently of any overseas Al Qaeda terrorist-in-chief figure.

Numerous entities

Thus, it would appear that opinion is split between those who argue that Al Qaeda does not exist at all and those who see the organisation as an existential threat to the way of life of everyone in the civilised world. More likely, the truth lies in the middle of these two views. If nothing else, Al Qaeda exists as long as there are those willing to kill in the name of Al Qaeda. And this is the crux of the matter: there are many different Al Qaedas, most of whom have little connection to their supposed ideological partners elsewhere in the world.

It is true that Al Qaeda has sprouted numerous entities around the globe, each with its own definitively regional interests. Which leads one to wonder how many capable operational commanders Al Qaeda has. Like much surrounding this often-opaque group, it is impossible to provide accurate figures. One 2006 estimate of those who had received significant military-terrorist training--such that they would be able to command insurgent forces--was put at several thousand in 40 countries. Since then, estimates have been reduced for various reasons, including deaths in combat and disruption caused to Al Qaeda networks around the world. 2010 figures from US military and independent terrorism experts suggested that there were no more than 300 active commanders in the field.

The core of Al Qaeda, as represented by the likes of Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, has been more than decimated by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. …

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