The Politics of Terror: Who are Al Qaida?

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Bin Laden's network has become a byword for 'evil'. Anne Ashford looks at the reality behind the hype.

In the beginning was the base. There is nothing mysterious about the name of Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaida organisation. In Arabic, the word usually means a base, or military training camp. In its earliest form, Al Qaida was a network of bases for the foreign volunteers who joined the Afghan Mujahadeen in their holy war against the Soviets. Osama Bin Laden's family firm, a Saudi construction company, provided engineers who built a huge tunnel complex for the fighters in Khost with US taxpayers' money. It was 1986, and the CIA was keen to raise the stakes in the global war on Communism.

Disillusioned

However, in order to understand why the Arab and Muslim volunteers did not simply pack up and leave at the end of the war, you have to dig back further - to the revival of radical Islamism in the late 1970s. Many of the leaders of the 'Arab Afghans' had seen radical Islamist groups spring up across the Arab world in the 1970s. These new organisations were often critical of the passivity and conservatism of existing groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and were inspired by the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist intellectual who was hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. Qutb believed that state and society had reverted to pre-Islamic barbarism, the jahiliyya or age of ignorance. He called on Muslims to resist the Arab world's leaders at any cost. Qutb found an audience among a generation who were disillusioned with the nationalist and Communist parties which had compromised with the state.

Ironically, in Egypt it was Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, who opened the door to the Islamist revival, hoping to use the new Muslim student groups to cleanse the campuses of the left. Unable to control the process he had set in motion, Sadat turned to repression, and signed his own death warrant. On 6 October 1981 he was assassinated. The militants from Islamic Jihad who killed him hoped that their action would spark an uprising.

Egypt's Islamic revolution never came. Power passed smoothly to Hosni Mubarak. Among the hundreds arrested in the aftermath of the assassination was Ayman al Zawahiri, who would later bring his faction of Islamic Jihad into Al Qaida. Broken by torture, after his release from prison he left Egypt for Afghanistan.

The war against the Soviets provided a new sense of direction for the disappointed radicals of the 1970s. In 1986 the CIA agreed to provide US advisers to train the Afghan fighters. At the same time the CIA also backed a scheme proposed by the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, to recruit Muslims from around the world to join the struggle in Afghanistan. The Saudi ruling class saw this as a useful opportunity to extend its influence through the propagation of Wahhabism, a puritan trend within Sunni Islam. The organisational hub for much of this activity was the Maktab al Khidamat - Services Bureau - created by Abdullah Azzam, who was in charge of the World Muslim League offices in Peshawar. After Azzam's assassination in 1989, Bin Laden took over his role in providing services for the foreign volunteers who came to join the war.

A year later Bin Laden had returned home, disillusioned by the feuding among the victorious Mujahadeen commanders. However, like many of his comrades in arms, his homecoming brought further disappointment. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia invited US troops to man his military bases. As many as 35,000 foreign volunteers had fought with the Mujahadeen. Bin Laden offered to organise some of these experienced guerrillas as the core of an Islamic militia which would defend the kingdom from attack by Saddam Hussein. After his offer was rejected, he began to criticise the Saudi monarchy in public, eventually branding the royal family renegades from Islam.

It was not only in Saudi Arabia that the returning Mujahadeen began to turn against their own governments. Algerians who had fought in Afghanistan helped set up the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA - Armed Islamic Group) which fought a bloody civil war against the Algerian army after the generals sent their tanks in to stop the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS - Islamic Salvation Front)winning the 1992 elections.

Their resentment was also driven by external factors. The end of the Cold War brought with it more conflict, as the US ruling class attempted to demonstrate its supremacy to emerging imperialist rivals. This was the logic which drove US intervention in Somalia and the Balkans, and maintained the siege on Iraq, where UN sanctions killed hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile the slowly unravelling peace process in Palestine eventually collapsed into a new uprising, the intifada of 2000. Across the world, millions watched in horror as Israeli tanks crushed Palestinian protests.

Bin Laden meanwhile went first to Sudan, and then back to Afghanistan in 1996. The old training camps near Peshawar still had a role to play, this time as a base for a global campaign against the US. Bin Laden allied himself with the Taliban, who emerged from the Islamic schools in the miserable refugee camps on the Afghan border with Pakistan to challenge the established warlords for power. Many of his old backers had turned against him - the Saudis revoked his nationality in 1994, and the US froze his assets in 1996. They continued to have allies in common, however. Saudi funds still flowed to the Taliban, who were also courted by US officials hoping that they would bring stability, and oil pipelines, to Afghanistan. Bin Laden also maintained the backing of sections of the Pakistani secret service. In 1998, with Ayman al Zawahiri at his side, Bin Laden announced the creation of a 'World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders'. The front issued a call on Muslims to kill the 'Americans and their allies' who had occupied and looted the Middle East. Shortly afterwards, truck bombs destroyed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam.

World's most wanted man

The following years saw Bin Laden elevated to the status he enjoys today - the world's most wanted man. US officials were quick to blame him for the attacks which destroyed the World Trade Centre in September 2001, and US troops were sent to topple the Taliban. He was said to have a link to Saddam Hussein of Iraq. US officials conveniently ignored the obvious ideological contradiction between the secular Ba'ath Party and Bin Laden's radical Islamism. In video statements watched by millions, Al Qaida spokesmen claimed a string of attacks on western targets - US soldiers in Saudi Arabia, Israeli tourists in Mombasa, UN officials in Baghdad. Bin Laden's reach seemed limitless.

The real force driving Al Qaida's expansion was the US government, however. Each new military venture, each statement backing Israel against the Palestinians saw more young men convinced that the only way to resist US imperialism was by force. Waves of repression directed at Islamist activists by the US government's local allies only accelerated this process.

Al Qaida has never attracted more than a handful of supporters - by its nature Bin Laden's network has always been elitist. The numbers involved are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands in the Middle East who have demonstrated in solidarity with the Palestinians, or the millions around the world who marched against war on Iraq. But the increasing tempo of US military interventions during the 1990s created a self sustaining process of renewal for the organisation. The Afghan veterans may have provided the military knowledge for new attacks, but many of the new recruits were not even born when the Mujahadeen launched their war. In Morocco, for example, although the authorities arrested several Saudi citizens last year on charges of terrorism, the suicide bombers who attacked a Jewish community centre in Casablanca were from the slums of Rabat and members of a home-grown radical Islamist group.

In Iraq, US officials have blamed suicide bombings on the Kurdish Islamists Ansar al Islam acting in concert with Al Qaida. It is true that Ansar al Islam's former leader, Mullah Krekar, did go to Afghanistan - his website used to show a photo of him meeting Abdullah Azzam - but Ansar's fighters have no need for Bin Laden to find reasons to attack US soldiers. A cruise missile attack which killed dozens of villagers near their base in Kurdistan during the war last year might be one. But it suits US officials to claim Al Qaida is directing the bombing campaign, as it serves to justify the continuing 'war on terror' and the occupation of Iraq.

Yet in the end, Al Qaida's strategy is no more likely to bring real change than Islamic Jihad's assassination of Sadat. Al Qaida's rhetoric of global jihad hides the failure of its leaders to build an organisation which can really challenge the Saudi or Egyptian leaders, let alone the US ruling class. Whenever Bin Laden has had the chance, he has worked from the top, whether that has meant manoeuvring between factions of the Pakistani ruling class, doing deals with the CIA or winning the ear of Mullah Omar of the Taliban. Real liberation can only come from below.