The origins of ‘al-Qaeda’

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This is the story of how the West’s view of Islamic terrorism was informed by Osama bin Laden’s flawed ambitions and the US government believing its own fabrication.

Although not well remembered by most today, the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya changed the world. These coordinated attacks were carried out by the followers of a relatively unknown Islamic extremist who headed a number of the many Islamist training camps in Afghanistan at the time. This man was Osama bin Laden.

In spite of bin Laden’s vision of a grand Islamist army and an Islamic Caliphate in the centre of the Middle-East, following the victory of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, he had only a handful of followers, evn though he was well-connected (Farrall, 2011, pp. 129-131). What bin Laden did have – and lots of it – was money and charisma. Throughout the wilderness years between fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and 9/11, bin Laden took to trying to organise takeovers of numerous other terrorist groups. These groups had formed after Arab fighters returned to their home states after the Soviets had left Afghanistan, in order to stage their own Islamist uprisings (particularly effective in Algeria). However, this endeavour resulted in limited success (Curtis, 2004).

After the success in Afghanistan, bin Laden couldn’t fathom something. Why were the masses not rising up? Why were Islamists not flocking to his group? Why were the moderate Islamic or secular governments in the Middle-East being tolerated?

The leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group which had latched onto bin Laden, one Ayman al-Zawahiri, provided an answer to these questions: America and the West (McCants, 2011, pp. 23-25). What followed was in 1996 a small news conference in which Osama bin Laden declared war on America. Despite this, volunteers were not in abundance and bin Laden was just one of many leaders of radical Islamists, another being Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Apart from his wealth, very little set him apart.

Thus, from his base in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his cadres organised the embassy bombings. What resulted, on the 7th of August 1998, was two truck bombs in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that claimed the lives of over 200 people and injured more than 4,000. Although propelled onto the world stage, with donations flooding in, bin Laden did not attain the support he wished for through the attacks and even until 9/11, his group was a small and relatively isolated group of radical Islamists (Burke, 2007, pp. 181-182).

Our story turns to America and the aftermath of the bombings. In dealing with this attack as a criminal act, US prosecutors and the FBI looked to gain a conviction of bin Laden under conspiracy charges. Such legislation, however, was intended for Mafia kingpins and so required for his group to have an established hierarchy (Curtis, 2004). Such a hierarchy evidently did not exist. Thus, to combat this snag in their attempt to prosecute bin Laden, prosecutors used a somewhat trivial bit of evidence as sure proof of bin Laden having a vast network of cells. This piece of evidence was a database which bin Laden had put together based around a loose affiliation of jihadists bin Laden had fought with in Afghanistan in the 1980s (known in the West as the Afghan Services Bureau).

By all accounts this database was very slim evidence considering bin Laden’s movements of the last decade, yet it allowed for a conviction to be brought against him in his absence. With a walk-in witness who was a former cadre of bin Laden, Jamal al-Fadl (who had stolen from him), to testify to this, the case was settled, as well as al-Fadl’s payoff by prosecutors (Burke, 2004, pp. 6-7). What was more significant was that bin Laden’s small and unknown group became al-Qaeda – ‘the [data]base’ (Kepel, 2003, p. 315). In effect, al-Qaeda started as a figment of the US government’s imagination; it was an unknown enemy, but treating it as a traditional terrorist organisation made its actions easier to comprehend and deal with.

History has revealed that this view of a highly interconnected network of Islamic terrorists is a lie, but it served a purpose for prosecutors and, for administration officials, such as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, for the invasion of Iraq. What experts of al-Qaeda generally agree, is that the organisation is a ‘decentralised federation’ of groups (The Economist, 2012, p. 67). Still, this article does not show what al-Qaeda has morphed into in the twenty-first century; that endeavour is something books are written on. This article has looked back to the closing moments of the twentieth century in which the desire to gain a conviction of bin Laden led to a misunderstanding of Islamic extremism which would have disastrous effects at the start of the twenty-first century. If this misunderstanding had not transpired, who could say what would be different in today’s world?

By Peter Storey

Edited by Ben Mackay



‘Al-Qaeda is Down, But Far From Out’, The Economist (21 April 2012), p. 67.

Burke, J,. Al-Qaeda (London, Penguin, 2007).

The Power of Nightmares – ‘The Phantom Victory’, directed by Curtis, A., (BBC Two, first broadcast 27 October 2004).

The Power of Nightmares – ‘The Shadows in the Cave’, directed by Curtis, A., (BBC Two, first broadcast 3 November 2004).

Farrall, L., ‘How al Qaeda Works: What the Organisation’s subsidiaries Say About Its Strength’, Foreign Affairs 90 (2011), pp. 128-138.

Kepel, G., Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003).

McCants, W., ‘Al Qaeda’s Challenge: The Jihadists’ War With Islamist Democrats’, Foreign Affairs 90 (2011), pp. 20-32.