Is al Qaeda really a 'threat'?



Following the terrible 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington seized on the shock and fear they produced to implement an aggressive renewed drive for world domination — under the banner of the "war on terror" — which otherwise would have caused an unacceptable level of disquiet among the US population. Washington's army of spin doctors have created the spectre of Western "civilisation" under siege from 21st century barbarians — "terrorists" — to justify the erosion of civil liberties and permanent war.

While the justifications for the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq have begun to be widely questioned in the US, the "threat" posed by "terrorism", epitomised by Osama bin Laden's apparently ubiquitous al Qaeda organisation, is seldom openly doubted.

Yet in the US in 2002, there were no casualties whatsoever from terrorist attacks — the same number as in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The US State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002 report, released in April 2003, noted: "International terrorists conducted 199 attacks in 2002, a significant drop (44%) from the 355 attacks recorded during 2001."

In fact, 2002 witnessed the fewest number of attacks classified as "acts of international terrorism" by the State Department since 1969.

In January, the US General Accounting Office found that at least 46% of the 288 federal convictions recorded as "terrorism-related" by the federal Department of Justice were in fact no such thing. Convictions investigated included a case involving "a group of anti-military activists who broke into an Air National Guard facility and intentionally damaged US Air Force aircraft in promotion of their anti-military beliefs".

Figures exaggerated

This inflation of "terrorism" figures (to justify the massive levels of funding for "anti-terrorism" programs) is not unusual. In January 2002, the Miami Herald published the results of an investigation by its journalists of five-years' worth of cases classified as "terrorism-related" by the justice department.

The Herald reported that "cases labelled as terrorism include erratic behaviour by people with mental illnesses, passengers getting drunk on airplanes and convicts rioting to get better prison food. There was the Mexican who concocted a phoney passport application, the former court employee who shoved a judge, the babbling man who walked into an FBI office and threatened to kill former president Bill Clinton — though he didn't realise Clinton was no longer president."

An investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, published in March 2002, found that, of the 62 "terrorism" indictments brought by the New Jersey US Attorney's Office since September 2001, 60 were brought against students of Middle Eastern backgrounds who paid others to take their English-language proficiency tests.

Of the remaining two, one was the indictment of a man accused of the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan (the charge was brought in Philadelphia because of the location of Pearl's employer's headquarters). The other was a man who used a false visa to enter the US.

The story is similar in Britain. The Institute of Race Relations revealed on March 5 that of the 304 "anti-terrorist" arrests made since 9/11, only 40 led to charges being laid — and just three have resulted in convictions (none for involvement in "Islamic terror groups" or specific terrorist acts).

How is this possible? We are being told daily that the US government, and its Australian and British allies, are challenging the vast, stateless army of al Qaeda, which supposedly has tentacles that encircle the globe and is financed by the formidable personal wealth of bin Laden. While this carefully crafted image may be convenient for the "neo-conservative" empire-builders ensconced in the Pentagon and the White House, it bears little relation to reality.

Of course, acts of terrorism do take place and the US and its citizens are sometimes targets. Bin Laden's al Qaeda organisation is also very real, as is its hostility to US interests. There are organisations and individuals in Arab and Islamic countries that sympathise with bin Laden. But al Qaeda is not the threat it is made out to be.

Al Qaeda and Iraq

While the war against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was easily sold to the US population after the 9/11 mass murders, the US invasion of Iraq was not so easily justified. Alongside the now discredited accusations that Iraq possessed a massive arsenal of "weapons of mass destruction", the Bush administration dishonestly insisted there were "links" between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda. US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented this lie to the UN Security Council on February 5.

However, the New York Times' James Risen revealed on June 8 that "two of the highest-ranking leaders of al Qaeda in American custody have told the CIA in separate interrogations that the terrorist organisation did not work jointly with the Iraqi government".

The BBC reported on the same day as Powell's speech to the Security Council that one of its journalists had seen a top-secret document produced by British intelligence services which stated: "While there has been contact between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime in the past, we believe that any fledgling relationship foundered due to mistrust and incompatible ideology."

Powell's "evidence" was the existence of Ansar al Islam — a tiny Kurdish Islamic group based in northern Iraq, outside the control of Hussein's government. While the link between Hussein and bin Laden was manufactured, it is likely there was contact between Ansar al Islam and Al Qaeda — one of Ansar's alleged leaders is Abu Masub al Zarqawi, like bin Laden a veteran of the CIA-funded 1980s Afghan war.

A year before the 9/11 attacks, the US government's own National Commission on Terrorism published a report that revealed the inherent absurdity of waging a "war on terrorism".

While it noted that al Qaeda, in addition "to pursuing its own terrorist campaign", can call "on numerous militant groups that share some of its ideological beliefs to support its violent campaign against the United States", the report concluded that neither the group's "extremist politico-religious beliefs nor its leader, Osama bin Laden, is unique. If al Qaeda and bin Laden were to disappear tomorrow, the United States would still face potential terrorist threats from a growing number of individuals opposed to perceived American hegemony."

Domestic opposition

In countries ruled by repressive regimes aligned to the US, al Qaeda "associates" and bin Laden sympathisers are more often than not primarily domestic opposition movements, with a reactionary, Islamic fundamentalist character, rather than simply cogs in a transnational terrorist network.

The US State Department's 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism reported that the only significant terrorist acts in the Eurasia region came from domestic opposition groups — national liberation fighters in Russian-occupied Chechnya and the anti-government Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (a country whose US-backed dictator has a predilection for boiling oppositionists alive, sticking needles under people's toe-nails and torturing prisoners).

Even bin Laden's falling out with his erstwhile masters in Washington (bin Laden collaborated with the CIA throughout the 1980s to defeat the left-wing government of Afghanistan; the nucleus of what became the al Qaeda network was armed and funded by Washington, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) was not due to opposition to the US empire per se, but to Washington's collaboration with the corrupt regime in his homeland of Saudi Arabia.

In the January 24, 2000, edition of the New Yorker, Mary Anne Weaver (author of A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam) reported that, according former State Department official David Long, the long-term threat posed by bin Laden was his "ability to destabilize friendly Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia's, whose support is geopolitically crucial to us". Weaver's article added: "In fact, bin Laden very likely sees his battle with the House of Saud as his most important struggle; from his perspective, the United States is of secondary concern."

Eric Margolis, a contributing foreign editor for the Toronto Sun in Canada, argued on October 20 last year: "Washington would like to blame all violent anti-Western incidents on al Qaeda. Doing so is convenient and affords Americans a simple black-and-white image. Bin Laden and al Qaeda reinforce this erroneous view by applauding every anti-Western attack, no matter how heinous or ineffective... In reality, the US now faces scores of violent anti-American groups from Morocco to Indonesia, inspired by Osama bin Laden's defiance, and enraged by the suffering of the Palestinians and Iraqis."

Osama bin Laden's organisation, according to Peter Bergen, author of Holy War Inc. and a terrorism analyst for CNN, numbers merely 200. Beyond bin Laden's organisation, there are groups and individuals (numbering thousands, Bergen estimates) that have had some contact with, and sometimes received training or funding from, bin Laden's gang in Afghanistan, but are largely a product of the US-funded jihad against the secular government of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

A May 23, 2002, article in the Christian Science Monitor by Kimberly McCloud and Adam Dolnik of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies called on the Bush regime to "defuse the widespread image of al Qaeda as a ubiquitous, super-organised terror network and call it as it is: a loose collection of groups and individuals that doesn't even refer to itself as 'al Qaeda'."

"Most of the affiliated groups [lumped together as 'al Qaeda' by the White House] have distinct goals within their own countries or regions, and pose little direct threat to the United States. Washington must also be careful not to imply that any attack anywhere is by definition, or likely, the work of al Qaeda", McCloud and Dolnik wrote.

Cold War legacy

The international terrorist milieu with which bin Laden has most direct contact — remnants of the anti-communist mujaheddin (at least those sections of it not currently allied with the US-backed regime in Kabul) — are a legacy of Washington's Cold War policies which were aimed at the "containment" and "roll-back" of "communism". Washington waged wars, covert and overt, to defeat left-leaning national liberation movements in the Third World and to weaken the Soviet Union. Reactionary Islamists such as bin Laden were Washington's allies.

After the secular, Soviet-aligned Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power as a result of a popular uprising in 1978, Washington provided up to US$20 billion worth of aid to the mujaheddin. According to a report produced on behalf the US-based Center for Public Integrity, released in September 2001, in 1986 then CIA chief William Casey decided to directly arm the anti-PDPA forces, providing the mujaheddin with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and US agents to teach the contras in their use.

The report's author, Ahmed Rashid, noted that the CIA, Britain's foreign intelligence service MI6 and Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence "agreed on a provocative plan to launch guerrilla attacks into the Soviet Socialist Republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan". Casey also committed the CIA to supporting the ISI's initiative of recruiting anti-communist Islamic fundamentalist fighters from around the world to fight the PDPA government.

According to Rashid, between 1982 and 1996, "some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would pass their baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujaheddin. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new madrassas that [US-ally President Zia ul Haq's] government began to fund in Pakistan and along the Afghan border. Eventually more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad." A contingent of fighters from Saudi Arabia was led by Osama bin Laden.

An article in the January 24, 2000, New Yorker quoted Milt Bearden, Pakistan station chief for the CIA between 1986 and 1989. Bearden told that paper that, although he had never met bin Laden: "Did I know that he was out there? Yes, I did ... [Guys like] bin Laden were bringing $20-$25 million a month from other Saudis and Gulf Arabs to underwrite the war. And that is a lot of money. It's an extra $200-$300 million a year. And this is what bin Laden did."

A January 31 article by Bergen (at <>) pointed out: "Since 9/11, people with no formal links to al Qaeda or its affiliated groups, but who seem to be operating with an al Qaeda-like agenda have carried out a number of terrorist acts".

Bergen warned: "All these 'al Qaedas' will be galvanised by an American war against Iraq, particularly one that is conducted in seeming defiance of the opinions of the international community. Whatever one's views about Saddam Hussein, one prediction can be safely made: a war in Iraq will generate multiple low-level acts of anti-Western terrorism around the world."

From Green Left Weekly, September 10, 2003.

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