The Al-Qaeda Myth

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Why are we so apt to see the terrorist group or its offshoots where they don't really exist?

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Diners at a Kabul restaurant watch an Afghan newscast about Osama Bin Laden's death / Reuters

In the first hours after a blast shook downtown Oslo on a Friday this July, a number of writers and bloggers in the U.S. -- including me -- seemed to converge around a common assumption. "It's natural to wonder whether al-Qaeda, the world's most famous terrorist organization, might have been involved," I wrote, repeating a conclusion many of us reached, it turned out prematurely and wrongly. The real culprit, a Norwegian man named Anders Behring Breivik, would appear to be the polar opposite of an al-Qaeda agent: ultranationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed.

But are the distinctions between a man like Breivik and a man, for they are always men, who calls himself a member of al-Qaeda really so clear and wide? I, like so many others, had clearly been mistaken to so readily assume al-Qaeda. But the error may have revealed less about media over-reaction than about another, much larger fallacy. The world's ever-widening definition of al-Qaeda, and our ever-rising expectations of their capabilities, have so exaggerated their strength and reach in our collective imaginations that we are ready to see them behind nearly every blast.

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MORE ON AL-QAEDA 10 YEARS LATER
J.M. Berger: Anwar al-Awlaki and the Hijackers
William McCants and William Rosenau: We've Won the War
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Al-Qaeda Is Winning
Thanassis Cambanis : We Still Don't Get the Threat of Non-State Actors

In the decade since September 11, al-Qaeda has become physically isolated, less capable of striking its enemies, and largely shunned by the worldwide Islamic community it had wanted to lead. But it has succeeded enormously in persuading many in the West of much the opposite. Al-Qaeda wants us to see them everywhere, to imagine the group as a global movement with bloodthirsty agents in every corner, waiting for the order to strike. And we have often obliged, slapping al-Qaeda's label on just about every militant group or homicidal fanatic that happens to observe Islam, the world's second most common religion. How we got here reveals as much about our own propensity for over-reaction as it does about al-Qaeda's one remaining great skill: branding.

The story of how al-Qaeda came to be is a famous one. A movement of Arab Islamists who went to fight in Afghanistan against the Russian army later turned their experience and their ideology, sharpened by the 1990 Gulf War, against the "apostate" regimes back home, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the Western nations supporting them. But what about the supposed al-Qaeda branch-offs that have displaced the original group (now largely contained in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region) in ability to both kill and to terrify Westerners on al-Qaeda's behalf? Their stories are a little different -- and don't quite fit with what al-Qaeda would like you to believe.

In 1991, Algeria held its first-ever real democratic elections. But when the Islamist party swept the first round of voting, Algeria's army staged a coup and cancelled the elections. Members and followers of the Islamist party took up arms against the new government, and soon some of the fighters formed what they called the Armed Islamic Group, an insurgency aimed at putting the democratically elected Islamists in power. In 1999, as it became clear the army would win the war, many members of the Armed Islamic Group accepted an offer of amnesty, laying down their arms. Some of the fighters refused, however, and declared a new name: the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. They kept fighting, though with less and less support from war-weary Algerians. Throughout the next decade, the increasingly marginalized SGPC slid into criminality, ransoming foreign tourists and terrorizing local villages. When the U.S-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, many of Algeria's angry young Islamist men -- the field of potential SGPC recruits -- rushed off to fight the American occupation. Suddenly bereft of new fighters and of donations (money had come mainly from Algerian exiles in France who were still furious at the military regime, but who now preferred to support the fighters in Iraq), the SGPC fell on hard times. Some officers deserted or accepted government amnesty offers.

Then, in 2006, the group tried something that had worked for it before: rebranding. As it had in 1999, it changed its name. Or, more accurately, it adopted someone else's: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al-Qaeda operational chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, always happy to take credit for someone else's fighting, claimed the Algerian movement as his own. In return, the SQPC could use al-Qaeda's cachet to improve their pitch to potential recruits and donors. But the 15-year-old group didn't appear to operate much differently now that it was a self-declared wing of al-Qaeda, and it didn't seem to pose much more of a threat to anyone, especially anyone outside of Algeria. But one thing did change: in 2007, Algeria got a big bump in foreign aid from the U.S., including $875,000 from the Pentagon alone.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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