The Al-Qaeda Myth

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

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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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.

Such is the trend of al-Qaeda's supposed branches: local militant groups that have little interest in al-Qaeda's globally oriented ideology or mission nonetheless find it useful to claim they do. Often, whatever government is fighting that local group also finds it useful to claim an al-Qaeda connection, as Western governments tend to be willing to overlook abuses by and write lavish checks to a government that says it is at war with al-Qaeda. But no one seems to like this arrangement more than al-Qaeda itself, that handful of militants dodging drone strikes in the ungoverned backwaters of Yemen and Pakistan. Rather than fess up and admit defeat, al-Qaeda officers can claim virtually any Islamist militant group or gun-waving Muslim as part of their dark, global army. Because we so often believe them, al-Qaeda can accomplish the goal that once required committing successful acts of terrorism: terrorize Westerners.

This history is now repeating itself in Nigeria. In 2002, militants in Nigeria's poorer, Muslim north formed a group they called Boko Haram to fight the police and government, which they resent as dominated by the wealthier, Christian south. They adopted acts of terrorism to further their cause. Sure enough, this August, reports began appearing about possible "links" to al-Qaeda. But phrases like "al-Qaeda affiliated" and "al-Qaeda linked" can mean much less than they might sound like they mean. The case for Boko Haram's "links" appears slim: members took trips to meet and train with al-Qaeda "affiliates," later adopting what looks like a version of their bombing technique. That "affiliate," however, was none other than al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Algerian group.

Al-Qaeda is surprisingly successful at selling its logic, in which the most tenuous financial, ideological, or even personal connection is used as evidence of their control over another group or individual. (Their evidence that U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan was working for al-Qaeda when he descended into psychopathy and shot several fellow soldiers? He had exchanged some apparently mundane emails with Anwar al-Awlaki.)

But does that logic really hold? An anti-government insurgent in a Muslim-majority country might be considered an "al-Qaeda affiliated" in the same way that, for example, a low-level officer in the Pakistani army could be called "U.S. affiliated." The officer's organization gets some funding from the U.S., the Pakistani officer and the U.S. share a few common enemies and common allies, he may have received some training at some point from an American, and the officer's bosses are likely to maintain diplomatic links to the U.S. government. But we don't consider every rank-and-file Pakistani army officer an American agent, or assume his every action comes at the behest of top-level American leadership. Only when it comes to Islamist terrorist groups do we draw such conclusions.

Still, it's not hard to see how we keep making the mistake of over-estimating al-Qaeda. Violent conflict is, for reasons having to do with the end of colonialism and the proxy conflicts of the Cold War, disproportionately common in countries with a significant Muslim populations. Al-Qaeda's ideology, designed during the Afghan war against Soviet occupation, claims common cause with every armed Islamic group, of which there are a few. And large-scale terrorist attacks against civilians, though pioneered during the Latin American conflicts of the 1980s, have been seared into the American imagination as a tool of al-Qaeda by the attacks of September 11, leading us to believe al-Qaeda when they tell us that every group that builds bombs and observes Islam must be part of the same monolithic force.

But the great al-Qaeda menace is not what they would have us believe. Look at the data: the wave of terrorist attacks against the West, which September 11 was supposed to inspire, never came: not from the real al-Qaeda, which paid dearly for their attack, and not from the so-called "franchises" that show little real interest in following al-Qaeda's suicidal mission. The two exceptions are in Yemen, where the al-Qaeda off-shoot does want to mimic Osama bin Laden's jihad but has so far succeeded mostly in achieving his group's extreme isolation; and in Iraq. There, following the U.S.-led invasion, al-Qaeda-appointed officers were able to recruit as many as a few thousand fighters from the Middle East and North Africa to turn Iraq into a terrorist's playground. But it's worth considering that al-Qaeda would not have been able to do this without the 2003 invasion that threw Iraq into chaos in the first place. That was itself was inspired by American overreaction to al-Qaeda. At the time, 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein had been personally involved in the September 11 attacks; 80 percent believed he had ties to al-Qaeda. But who doesn't?