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Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise

Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise

by Christina Hellmich

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Since the attacks of September 11th 2001 and up to and beyond Osama bin Ladin's death, al-Qaeda has come to embody the new enigmatic face of terrorism, dominating discussions of national and international security. Yet in spite of the attention it receives, conflicting assumptions about the group abound. Is al-Qaeda a rigidly structured organization, a global network


Since the attacks of September 11th 2001 and up to and beyond Osama bin Ladin's death, al-Qaeda has come to embody the new enigmatic face of terrorism, dominating discussions of national and international security. Yet in spite of the attention it receives, conflicting assumptions about the group abound. Is al-Qaeda a rigidly structured organization, a global network of semi-independent cells, a franchise, or simply an idea whose time has come? What is meant by talk of the ‘global Salafi jihad’ that is confronting the West? What are the implications of bin Ladin's death? Christina Hellmich offers a critical examination of the widely-held notions regarding the origins and manifestations of al-Qaeda and the sources on which they rely, mapping the organisation’s alleged transition from what began as a regional struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan to the increasingly leaderless jihad of the post-9/11 world. Rather than just providing yet another biography of al-Qaeda, Hellmich forensically examines discrepancies between the most common explanations and to the limits of what can realistically be known. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, 'al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise' offers a penetrating insight into an organization which, for all its notoriety, is one of the least-understood of our time.

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From Global Network to Local Franchise

By Christina Hellmich

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Christina Hellmich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-911-4


9/11 and the anxious search for answers

On 23 February 1998, Osama bin Ladin and his associates issued a religious ruling (fatwa) that called on every Muslim to kill Americans, both civilians and military personnel, in every country in which it was possible to do so, in order to liberate al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Mosque and to drive the US armies out of all the lands of Islam, to the point where they would be defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. Three and a half years later, on the morning of 11 September 2001, al-Qaeda demonstrated the magnitude of its threat and the sophistication of its methods by organizing and perpetrating the world's greatest terrorist outrage: for the first time in history, transnational teams, united in their belief that they were defending Islam, hijacked four planes to use as flying suicide bombs. Two were directed into the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, New York, one into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed outside Pittsburgh after its passengers attempted to regain control of the plane. What happened next is, as they say, history.

Al-Qaeda, the first global terrorist group of the twenty-first century, embodies the enigmatic new face of global terrorism. Since perpetrating the most destructive act of terrorism to date on 11 September 2001, it has dominated discussion of national and international security in the media as well as in academic and policymaking circles. Who would do such a thing, and why? Ten years into the global war against terrorism, one would expect to find clear answers to these basic, though critically important, questions. Yet, despite the fact that few issues have generated more substantial debate than the task of explaining the rationale and appeal of spectacular mass murder in the name of Islam, speculation about the strength and extent of the group continues to run rife. Bewildering descriptions – eagerly seized upon and broadcast by the mass media – of a shadowy network and undercover terrorist cells, televised reports of new arrests of suspected terrorists and urgent warnings of imminent dangers continue to create alarm but bring little by way of clarity, whilst heightened security threat levels and hitherto unheard-of restrictions endured by the travelling public have become an accepted feature of life in the post 9/11 world.

That the threat of so-called 'Islamic' terrorism dominates the collective consciousness of the Western world is plain to see: a quick Internet search of the term 'al-Qaeda' on Google generates over 12 million links to articles, interviews, books and commentaries in a wide variety of languages. Yet a closer look at the extant literature on the subject generates more questions than answers. Is al-Qaeda a rigidly structured organization, a global network of semi-independent cells, a franchise, or simply an idea whose time has come? Was Osama bin Ladin an engineer, a business-school graduate, a playboy or a university dropout? What is meant by talk of the 'global Salafi jihad' that is confronting the West? On closer examination, 'facts' about the nature of the terrorist group which permanently branded its name into the Manhattan skyline begin to sink all too quickly in a proverbial sea of assertions and unsubstantiated truth claims.

Why is this so? How can a subject of such importance be so riven by uncertainties? A first attempt to explain the ambiguity surrounding the most notorious terrorist organization to date necessarily begins with a closer look at the state of the information that was available prior to September 11 and the rapid development of the literature that followed immediately thereafter. In the 1990s, only a handful of people were conducting research on what was to become one of the most widely discussed security issues in the years ahead. As surprising as it may seem with the benefit of hindsight, the spectacular destruction of the Twin Towers against a bright blue September sky took the Western world by surprise: terrorism experts, security specialists and academics alike had failed to predict an attack of such magnitude. As Magnus Ranstorp aptly pointed out in his extensive review of the terrorism studies literature, 'there was extraordinarily limited research on al-Qaeda related topics before 11 September 2001.'

Naturally, then, the events of September 11, at once the most spectacular case of propaganda ever carried out, instantly launched a rollercoaster of uncertainty, fear and speculation as the most obvious and pressing of questions begged to be answered: Who would do such a thing and why? Meaningful answers, however, were nowhere to be found. Indeed, a striking feature of the early days following the attacks was the circulation and recirculation of spectacular images of destruction that engrained the reality of what had literally come out of the blue into the consciousness of all those who could not escape the reach of the media. At the same time, little, if any, room was allocated to text – analysis and explanations of what had happened. Yet the prevalence of the sensational over the analytical was not an act of media propaganda or even, as some voices have claimed, the outworking of some sort of government conspiracy. Rather, the inescapable presence of those horrifying images in our newspapers and on our television screens was merely the visual evidence of a mounting confrontation of the bewildered Western world with questions to which there were no answers at that time. At risk of further sensationalizing the issue, September 11 could be said to be the opening of a blank page on which the biography of al-Qaeda had yet to be written.

That the circumstances in the aftermath of September 2001 were so bewildering and so urgent explains why there then came a rush to fill the vacuum left by Ground Zero with answers. What ensued was a widespread suspension of critical faculties as commentators rushed headlong to generate explanations. The corollary of this was that the most attention was paid to those who shouted loudest and appeared to provide the most satisfying, if not the most sophisticated, answers. Virtually overnight, journalists became the most influential commentators in the field, not because of the superior quality of their knowledge, but because their words and their analyses of the situation reached most people first. In turn, some analysts – especially those who were soon to be hailed as experts – were quoting 'facts' about al-Qaeda, the true nature of Islam and the meaning of jihad drawn from what they had picked up from CNN, the New York Times and Fox News. They began to talk of al-Qaeda's vision of a fantasy world, propounded by religious fanatics, hypocrites and madmen. Some argued that al-Qaeda was totally devoid of ideology, while others traced the origins of Osama bin Ladin's ideas to a variety of Islamic scholars such as Taqi ad-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) or Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), without having first engaged in any meaningful analysis of either the messages of bin Ladin or the writings of those who were supposed to have influenced him. It mattered little that many of the popular stories about 'global jihadism' were told by individuals with little expertise in the subject area, who relied on questionable sources and abandoned established academic procedures of analysis and even critical thought. Indeed, with the launch of the all-out global war against terror, in which freedom and democracy confronted their worst enemy – and which demanded a clear, uncompromising alignment with 'us' or 'them' – concerns about academic rigour and method, the 'but ifs ...', 'not quites', and observations that 'we need to put matters into broader perspective', were largely sidelined and consequently failed to receive the attention they deserved. Marc Sageman makes an important point when he observes that most of the early efforts at explaining al-Qaeda amount to little more than 'arguments made for the sake of scoring political points and have no role in a scientific study'. Fear and overreaction have historically not been the best foundation for rational consideration, reflection and debate, and September 11 and the uncritical kill-and-capture approach that underlay much of the strategy in the war against terror sit comfortably with a long line of historical precedents. In that sense, both the violent nature of the West's response and the reactionary climate that still prevails are unsurprising in the face of what was seen to be a new kind of 'terrorism', unprecedented in both the scale of the violence and destruction it seeks to inflict and the globality of its reach.

To explain fully the controversy surrounding al-Qaeda, it is useful to look beyond the immediate circumstances of 9/11 and to consider the state of terrorism studies and its concept of the issue it seeks to investigate: terrorism itself. During the thirty years before the 9/11 attacks, the field of terrorism studies occupied a somewhat marginal position within the social sciences, with only a limited number of researchers contributing assessments of a variety of terrorist incidents that occurred at different times and in different geographic and socio-cultural contexts. Indeed, most of the extant terrorism literature clusters around individual terrorist incidents and includes – perhaps unsurprisingly, in the light of post-9/11 experience – a large proportion written by individuals with little to no background or expertise in the subject area. In numerical terms, of the 490 articles published in the two core terrorism journals Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Terrorism and Political Violence, between 1990 and 1999, a total of 406 (83 per cent) were written by one-time authors. This body of literature is bedevilled by a number of shortcomings: the analytical efforts of various individual authors lacked rigour and were devoid of adequate theory, short of accurate data and in want of appropriate investigative methods. Many of the articles attempted to identify the causes of terrorism and to chart the evolution and dynamics of different terrorist groups, but their authors were typically too preoccupied with recent events to be able to devote adequate analysis to the bigger picture. Assessments of future security risks failed to include a real understanding of the terrorists' rationale, whilst any counter-terrorism strategies that were formulated tended to be founded on an ad hoc approach rather than long-term planning. The consequence of this is what Martha Crenshaw described as the 'construction of general categories of terrorist actors that lump together dissimilar motivations, organizations, resources and contexts'. The now infamous connection of al-Qaeda – as proclaimed by the US government – with Hamas, the Shia schools of Qom, the hard-line Islamic traditionalist Deobandi seminaries of northern Pakistan, and secular Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party regimes is but a contemporary example of a long-standing problem in the field. As lamented by Ted Gurr in 1988, 'most of the [terrorism] literature consists of naïve description, speculative commentary, and prescriptions for dealing with terrorism which could not meet minimum research standards in the more established branches of conflict and policy analysis.'

The same methodological shortcomings continued to be reflected in the literature that was published after 9/11. Although a record number of books related to terrorism were published within a year of the event, there is little reason to believe that the overall pattern has substantially changed. Again, Magnus Ranstorp's analysis of the state of terrorism studies post-9/11 points out the development of a worrying trend that not only further undermines the esteem in which the field is held, but also – more importantly in the light of the subject under investigation in this book – has not only obscured but also at times literally created what we know about al-Qaeda. In the absence of the kind of quality control to which academic literature is normally subject, the quest for answers has provided a fertile breeding ground for pseudo-academics and at times outright fraudsters claiming to be experts. Many claim privileged access to information, often from sources which are at first presented as 'secret', but which investigation has revealed to be unverifiable, unreliable or even non-existent.

One of the most egregious examples is the case of Alexis Debat, a former journalist who managed to rise to the prestigious positions of director of the Terrorism and National Security Program at the Nixon Center in Washington DC and editor of The National Interest on the basis of a faked Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, Paris and fraudulent claims regarding his professional background, experience and expertise. His case, unfortunately, is no exception. Indeed, many so-called 'experts' who in reality have little if any in-depth knowledge of al-Qaeda happen to be the very same people whose opinions on the organization have been most widely relied upon and quoted in public debate, and whose contributions in the field form a significant proportion of our 'intelligence' about the organization. A case in point is that of Evan Kohlmann, author of Al-Qaeda's Jihad in Europe: The Afghan–Bosnian Network, who, without any obvious expertise beyond a first degree in law and an internship, rose to the rank of a leading expert on Islamist terrorism in both media and government circles. Boasting 'factual expertise' seemingly gleaned from little more than Internet resources, he became a consultant to the US Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Crown Prosecution Service and Scotland Yard's SO-15 Counter Terrorism Command. The true extent of his 'expertise' was revealed during a trial (United States v. Haref and Hossein), in which he served as an expert witness on the Bangladeshi Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, the oldest religious party in Pakistan:

Under cross examination it transpired that [Kohlmann] had never written any papers on the party, nor been interviewed about the group. He had never been to Bangladesh, could not name the country's Prime Minister nor the name of the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami.

In 2008, Kohlmann testified before the first Guantánamo military commission in the case of bin Ladin's chauffeur that the Office of Military Commission had asked him to produce a 90-minute video about the evolution of al-Qaeda. Having received $45,000 in compensation for the film and the testimony, Kohlmann confessed at the OMC that he had

changed his proposed name of the film from the 'Rise of al-Qaeda' to 'The al-Qaeda Plan' in order to draw closer comparison to 'The Nazi Plan', a famous documentary movie produced during the Nuremberg trials.

The reliance on such questionable expertise undermines the credibility of the proceedings. Yet, despite this record, Kohlmann's assertions continue to influence the debate on al-Qaeda in terrorism studies and security circles alike: his most recent contribution on 'Al-Qa'ida's Yemeni Expatriate Faction in Pakistan', seemingly based on information taken from dubious Internet sources, featured prominently in the January 2011 edition of the CTC Sentinel, the journal of 'The Combating Terrorism Center' based at the United States Military Academy, West Point.

Delving further into the academic field, one of the early and best-known al-Qaeda experts is Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al Qaeda, one of the first and, as the following chapters will show, most widely read and cited books dedicated to exposing the origins, nature and inner workings of the group. It is unfortunate that many of the factual statements made in the book rely on classified sources that cannot be verified or substantiated, as well as interviews with terrorists the author claimed to have conducted in Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – places he later confessed never to have visited and whose languages he does not speak. Pressed by defence lawyers as to the nature of the sources used in the book, during the trial United States v. Hassoun Jayyousi and Jose Padilla in 2007, in which he served as the main prosecution witness, Gunaratna explicitly agreed when it was put to him that 'a huge number of sources in your book cannot be checked by other authorities unless they have inside information from you.' The implications for Gunaratna's testimony in al-Qaeda-related trials are well worth bearing in mind even today. That he should have been relied upon to so great an extent is surprising, to say the least, given that as early as 2003 his expertise had been called into question, with the British Observer describing Gunaratna as 'probably the least reliable expert on al-Qaeda'.

Overall, these individuals are but a few examples of the many commentators whose expertise on the subject is now known to be questionable, but whose statements have nonetheless been taken at face value and have shaped our understanding – or lack thereof – of al-Qaeda. In the big picture they constitute but a fraction of the most infamous assertions and unsubstantiated truth claims. Yet the very same statements have subsequently been cited, and indeed are often relied upon as a key source of evidence, in publications on al-Qaeda such as the The 9/11 Commission Report: The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States and Marc Sageman's Understanding Terror Networks. By virtue of repetition, many of those claims that were of questionable value from the very beginning have entrenched themselves as facts. There exists a major methodological problem in terrorism studies literature, which Edna Reid described in 1997 as 'circular research systems'. These are created in the form of a 'feedback loop', which continually reinforces itself as authors uncritically rely on and cite each other's work, and this is a pattern which has clearly continued into the post-9/11 era. This in turn highlights the fundamental problem in any discussion about al-Qaeda: how to distinguish facts from fiction. Does a statement become truth because we have heard it so many times?


Excerpted from Al-Qaeda by Christina Hellmich. Copyright © 2011 Christina Hellmich. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christina Hellmich is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading.
Christina Hellmich is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading, UK and co-author of Knowing Al-Qaeda: The Epistemology of Terrorism. Dr Christina Hellmich is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading. She is a specialist in Middle East politics working in Yemen, with a particular research interest in political Islam and global terrorism. Her recent book, Al-Qaeda: From global network to local franchise (Zed 2011), examines the key sources that inform the present understanding of al-Qaeda. .

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