President Obama has waged war on al-Qaida by drone and by ‘kill list’. Vladimir Putin has hunted al-Qaida in the North Caucasus. The late Colonel Gaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad, have summoned alliances against it. The alarming ubiquity of al-Qaida, its mitosis and metastasis seemingly outpacing the destruction of its cells, is attested by the multiplication of enemies on the US State Department’s list of ‘foreign terrorist organisations’. In 2002, al-Qaida appeared as a single entry; now there are four officially recognised organisations with the same root brand: al-Qaida (AQ), al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The list also includes the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, usually described as an ‘affiliate’ of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The taxonomic determinacy of this list is deceptive. Consider al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group held responsible for organising the attempt in 2009 by the ‘underwear bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to blow up a plane en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. AQAP was one of the most alarming new franchises identified in a briefing given to Congress by the Federation of American Scientists in 2005, one of a rash of new ‘presences’ and ‘affiliates’ of al-Qaida emerging from Bali to Mombasa. It was said to be responsible for an attack on the US consulate in Jeddah in 2004 and, the FAS claimed, was attempting to overthrow the Saudi royal family. Yet, five years later, a Carnegie Endowment analysis paper traced the origins of a group called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to the emergence of a small number of jihadis who had escaped from prison in Sanaa in February 2006. And the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that ‘al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged in January 2009 from the union of two pre-existing militant groups: al-Qaida in Yemen (AQY) and al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia.’ Can these various expert analyses all have been discussing the same organisation?

It is just as difficult to get a fix on the cadres of jihadis designated by the term ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’. The journalists Loretta Napoleoni (Insurgent Iraq) and Nick Davies (Flat Earth News) have thrown some light on the dense mesh of official misrepresentation surrounding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was for some time the official face and emblem of the organisation for US officials. Starting out as a small-time opponent of the Jordanian regime, he was first referred to as ‘a senior al-Qaida leader’ by US and Israeli officials in 2002. In October that year, Bush identified him as an al-Qaida leader who had fled to Iraq and was colluding with Saddam Hussein. Colin Powell, addressing the United Nations the following February, asserted that Saddam had given ‘safe haven’ to Ansar al-Islam, a local group run by Zarqawi – despite the fact that the organisation was based in Iraqi Kurdistan, outside Saddam’s sphere of protection, and Zarqawi did not lead it.

Still, having provided a rationale for invasion, Zarqawi would go on to be cited as a reason for continued occupation. In February 2004, US officials announced that they had discovered a 17-page letter supposedly written by the almost illiterate Zarqawi to al-Qaida’s leadership, stressing the need to provoke a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Thomas Ricks later reported in the Washington Post that this was part of an American psychological operation aimed at demonising the armed resistance. The goal of the operation was to ‘eliminate popular support for a potentially sympathetic insurgency’, and to deny the ‘ability of insurgency to “take root” among the people’. The main means of achieving this was to ‘villainise Zarqawi’ and ‘leverage’ xenophobia towards foreign fighters. The stories kept coming. Zarqawi was alleged to have been involved in the beheading of the American businessman Nick Berg in Baghdad in 2004. And when the US reinvaded Fallujah in November 2004 to suppress a local insurgency, troops discovered Zarqawi’s abandoned headquarters, with a logo, ‘Al-Qaida Organisation’, drawn on the wall inside. In October 2005, another letter was released by the US military, ostensibly written by Osama bin Laden’s confederate Ayman al-Zawahiri and addressed to Zarqawi, offering strategic advice to ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’. It was never made entirely clear how many people were linked to Zarqawi, or what exactly they agreed on, or did. Despite official pronouncements, US intelligence suspected that his influence was marginal.

The history of al-Qaida itself, or what is sometimes called ‘al-Qaida central’, is also less clear than we are given to believe. ‘The first reference to something called “al-Qaida”,’ Jason Burke pointed out in Al-Qaida: The True Story of Radical Islam (2007),

appeared in a CIA report compiled in 1996, which mentions that ‘by 1985 bin Laden had … organised an Islamic Salvation Front, or al-Qaida,’ to support mujahideen in Afghanistan. It is unclear if the author is referring to a group acting as an ‘al-Qaida’ or called ‘al-Qaida’ … Certainly there is no mention of ‘al-Qaida’ in memos between the State Department and their representatives in Pakistan at the time.

The connection between bin Laden and al-Qaida wasn’t made until the State Department used the term for the first time in a report compiled in 1998. There, al-Qaida was described ‘not as an organised group, but, accurately, as “an operational hub, predominantly for like-minded Sunni extremists”’.

This, then, was al-Qaida: at most, a ‘base’ or a ‘hub’. Not an organisation in itself but more a ‘mobilisational outreach programme’, as Fawaz Gerges described it in The Far Enemy (2005). If ever there was a central control structure, it has long since vanished. Yet, as the example of al-Qaida in Iraq suggests, the discourse has a hyperstitious quality: that is, through the telling and retelling of the same fables, the hype produces real effects in the organisation of conflict. Nick Davies shows that the repeated invocation of ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ eventually led a number of jihadis, including bin Laden, to accept both the label and Zarqawi’s leadership of the struggle in Iraq. Burke points out that there ‘were no al-Qaida training camps during the early 1990s, although camps run by other groups churned out thousands of highly trained fanatics.’ Today, any jihadi training camp is liable to be branded an al-Qaida camp. Similarly, the multiplication of ‘al-Qaida’ cells in recent years has largely been due to the rebranding of existing groups. ‘Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’, for example, is merely a new name for the long established Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), a breakaway from Algeria’s Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), which waged a ferocious war against the Algerian army after the military denied the Front Islamique du Salut its victory in the 1991 general elections.

The jihadis now claiming to belong to al-Qaida diverge markedly in their composition, their local concerns and their methods. While the GIA had roots among the urban poor of Algeria, ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ was a small contingent of international volunteer fighters, some of them from rural backgrounds. Some of the fighters calling themselves al-Qaida took part in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but most did not. Some reportedly pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden, others did not. Some have been through one of the jihadi ‘training camps’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or Sudan, some not. There is no central control or umbrella organisation co-ordinating their respective struggles. Tactically, the ‘martyrdom’ operation is thought to be a unique al-Qaida calling card, but the history of secular struggles from Sri Lanka to Colombia suggests otherwise. If there is anything that all the groups claiming membership of al-Qaida have in common, it is likely to be ideological. That is, they link their local struggles to a wider politics of Islamic revival centred on resistance to Christian-Jewish oppression, culminating in the reconstitution of the Caliphate and the universal application of a ‘fundamentalist’ interpretation of the Quran – a distant and utopian goal that is an unlikely basis for a global organisation.

Confronted with the certainties of politicians, the seeming expertise of analysts and policymakers and even the studiedly neutral analyses of sociology and political science, it is easy to forget that ‘al-Qaida’ is an unstable construct. Use of the label ‘terrorism’ only adds to the complexity. Alan Krueger’s authoritative What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (2007) was notable for being unable to define its subject. Krueger admits that it might have been as well to discard the word in favour of the more cumbersome ‘politically motivated violence carried out by sub-state actors with the goal of spreading fear within the population’. This excludes state violence, narrowing the field to insurgency or subversion of various kinds, but not all insurgent groups that Krueger – or the State Department – calls ‘terrorist’ make it a strategic priority to target civilian populations. Insofar as they do, they don’t necessarily differ in their methods from state actors. In the ‘war on terror’, a cardinal claim of ‘civilised’ states was that, unlike their opponents, they did not target civilians. Suicide attacks cause indiscriminate slaughter and are an indicator of barbarism; surgical strikes are the gentle civilisers of nations. There is little evidence for a distinction of that sort in the prosecution of recent wars. Moreover, it is never entirely clear where the boundary between state and sub-state actors can be drawn. The State Department’s definition, otherwise identical to Krueger’s, characterises ‘terrorism’ as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents’. The alleged collusion between Saddam Hussein and Zarqawi may have been an invention, but this type of collusion is widespread, from the CIA’s backing of Central American death squads to the anti-FARC paramilitaries sponsored by the Colombian state.

The problem with trying to assess the epistemological status of al-Qaida, or even whether it exists at all, is that states, which are strategic actors in global conflicts, are also a dominant force in the constitution of knowledge about them. Any attempt to investigate al-Qaida will involve looking into state operations that are publicly disavowed: not merely the issuing of propaganda, but also such ‘parapolitical’ activities as state funding for paramilitary groups, intelligence penetration, and provision for the training and indoctrination of sub-state actors. At the crudest level, states work to obstruct knowledge or spread disinformation for their own strategic purposes. But they also have the power to promote certain ideas and expressions not of their own formulation, typically produced within think tanks and the media, while maintaining a tactful silence on other, dissident ways of thinking. Above all, states monopolise knowledge in their fields of action, and present it in a technical language in which most people are not trained. It is not that counterterrorism analysis is mere propaganda. It is part of the state’s knowledge, and must contain elements of the real if it is to be strategically valuable. The major obstacle to public understanding is not suppression of information or even necessarily covert action. It is the huge gulf between specialist knowledge elaborated within the orbit of the state, and the representations directed at popular audiences.

Even specialist state discourse, ideological though it is, acknowledges a degree of disarticulation and franchising of the so-called al-Qaida groups. Yet the popular image, which has its origins in Cold War ideology, is of a global hydra, a centralised and unified conspiracy against civilisation. Wherever al-Qaida is said to appear, in the Arabian peninsula, the Maghreb or in Europe, the invocation has an ambiguous effect, on the one hand drawing attention to a conflict – because we cannot ignore al-Qaida – and on the other overriding any focus on the specificities of the conflict in the name of extirpating the enemy. During the ‘war on terror’, the symbolic organisation of the disparate global conflicts in which the US had a stake encouraged the proliferation of ‘al-Qaida’ threats. In some cases this was a matter of existing jihadi fraternities actually regrouping or rebranding themselves; in others it involved the assiduous application of the brand to miscellaneous actors. In the context of the revolutions in the Arab world, ‘al-Qaida’ became the name of the ‘security’ fears of pundits and policymakers: should a power vacuum emerge, would it be filled by hordes of bin Ladenists?

Now, on the borders of Syria, CIA officers are seeking to vet the flow of weapons from Gulf states to Syrian insurgents, purportedly to deprive al-Qaida of the privilege of finishing off Assad, while Assad himself has been cultivating the loyalty both of the minorities and the Sunni bourgeoisie since the spring of 2011 by invoking the threat of al-Qaida. Plausibly or not, Sami Ramadani has asserted in the Guardian that there is a ‘de facto … marriage of convenience’ between the US and al-Qaida in Syria. Even if there are jihadi networks, some of whose members call themselves al-Qaida, few people know who they really are, much less whether they have significant influence in the conflict. Most likely they are marginal. ‘Al-Qaida-style groups can be found among the revolutionaries,’ Anand Gopal wrote in Harper’s,

but they remain rare. Moreover, radical Islam is far more complex than Washington tends to appreciate. I’ve met beer-guzzling Syrian rebels who carried the black al-Qaida flag, but for whom this was no contradiction: Islamist stylings in Syria are typically part performance vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post-Iraq War world, and part expression of pure faith.

Yet al-Qaida has nevertheless assumed much of the burden of interpretation of the struggle: they are cited all at once as the reason for Assad’s intransigence, the motive for US intervention, the source of popular fears and grievances, and, if it comes to it, the cause of Syria’s civil war. As a principle of interpretation, it now seems that al-Qaida is so widely useful as to be practically useless.

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