The Power of Nightmares

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Review of 'Al Qaeda: The True Story', Jason Burke, Penguin £7.99

For all Jason Burke's meticulous research he fails to identify imperialism's role in the 'Al Qaida' phenomenon. His inability to perceive things from the point of view of Muslims or indeed other oppressed peoples culminates in the glorious understatement that 'western intervention in the Islamic world over the last three centuries has not been happy'. The three centuries of colonisation so glibly referred to by Burke created a whole gamut of squabbling nation states all more or less beholden to one or other imperial power. Islam was either actively suppressed, or sidelined by medieval monarchs and posturing dictators, acting as imperialism's proxies.

It was inevitable that Islamic forces would arise in response to these western attacks. Much of this response initially formed around local rulers or leaders of Sufi brotherhoods. Later, as Burke rightly points out, people like the Egyptian Al Banna and the Indian/Pakistani Maududi founded mass movements on modern lines. While Al Banna's Muslim Brotherhood and Maududi's Jamiat Islami were, and indeed continue to be, genuine mass movements, third generation Muslim movements arose in response to the suffocation of local despots. These 'jihadi' groups dismissed other Muslims, who did not embrace their Wahabi puritanism, as unbelievers. They became increasingly bitter and alienated as their compatriots refused to join in their violent and aimless campaigns.

Burke charts these 'jihadi' movements in some detail, without questioning certain underlying assumptions. He only once suggests that the bloody and fractious GIA in Algeria may have owed more to state sponsorship than a genuine radical Islam. He ignores their role in undermining the Islamic mass movement FIS on behalf of the pro-western military junta. Adam Curtis in his excellent TV series The Power of Nightmares, unlike Burke, noted the parallel developments in the western ruling class as contributing to the present 'war on terror'. Burke fails to analyse imperialist sponsorship of Wahabism in Arabia and Afghanistan. He notes that Bin Laden had no coherent programme, surely the very reason he was used by the US, Britain and their regional proxies as the quartermaster for the Arab/Afghani groups congregating in Afghanistan.

The power vacuum created by the collapse of the competing anti-Soviet parties led to the emergence of a fourth generation Islamic force, the most fractious and destructive of them all, the Taliban. Their cruel parody of Islam is well known to all. The complex relationship between the Taliban, the US government, oil interests and Bin Laden is certainly not explored here. There is, however, excellent coverage of these issues in Ahmed Rashid's Taliban.

Burke tells us that Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman - the blind scholar who supposedly masterminded the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre - 'somehow obtained a visa' for the US. John Cooley in his far superior Unholy Wars relates the intervention of the CIA in the matter. Burke chronicles the amazing career of Ali Muhammad in the Egyptian army, US special forces and the jihadi network in a footnote. Burke believes Ali Muhammad is the typical, modern, eclectic 'jihadi'. For me his CV screams double agent. For Burke the 'terrorist mastermind' Ramzi Yousef's lack of commitment to Islam did not suggest he was a mercenary who would work for anyone. Burke ignores Ramzi Yousef's involvement in attacks on Iranian civilians by the pro-imperialist Mujahideen Al Khalq.

When I heard Burke lecture in August 2003 he said that, although he did not believe there was such a thing as 'Al Qaida', his publishers insisted he used the 'Q word' in his book title. Unfortunately this statement is just one sign of a mind closed to real investigative journalism.