When SARS erupted in China, spread in Hong Kong then elsewhere in the world, the first move of the concerned authorities (WHO, etc.) was to define this new and atypic disease, that is, find the exact virus causing it. In less than an month, this virus had been identified. All the further programs aiming at combating the disease, (tests, vaccine, etc.) would from now on stand on a firm ground.

Surprisingly, and even if : “al Qaeda constitutes the most serious immediate threat to the security of the United States” and has committed the worse terrorist attacks ever, no one in the United States seems, to this day, really sure of what al Qaeda really is. Even worse, this question “what is al Qaeda?” seems futile, even meaningless, to an American antiterrorist community persuaded it knows what al Qaeda really is, an entity supposed to be perfectly well known, clearly defined and devoid of mystery.

Do they? Is it? No. Reading “Countering al Qaeda” and “Deterrence and influence in counterterrorism” shows it. Because of a lack of initial definition, al Qaeda is, all along these both texts, floating between contradictory descriptions, comparisons and metaphors. It remains an “unidentified terrorist object” and the texts are like a pyramid sitting on its point. Besides, in these texts, this lack of definition is all the more curious that some minor technical points are clearly and specifically defined, showing the authors are conscious of the importance of definitions. (“systems : we use the word system in the sense of..” etc.).

So, in the end, is al Qaeda an “extremist islamist group”, a “global network”, an “organization”, a “system”, a “secret international brotherhood”, a “process”, a “powerful islamic force”, a “dispersed and amorphous terrorist foe”? Does it have “cells”, “operatives”, “members”, a “leadership”.? Is it similar to a “cult”, an “enterprise”?

Now the contradictions :

  • Can a “powerful force”, an “organization” be “dispersed and amorphous” and have “no central command”?
  • Does an “amorphous and dispersed” entity have an “operational philosophy” or a “center of gravity”?

Does a “network” have a “leadership” and “members”?

  • Also : either “al Qaeda” is a conglomerate of “frustrated immigrants in Europe and America, drifters living on the margins of society, seekers of absolute truth or greater meaning in their lives, lonely souls with varying levels of education”, or “ben Laden and many of his lieutenants and agents have not been the victims of poverty or deprivation” – but both simultaneously?

Finally if the goal is the “pursuit”, then the “destruction of al Qaeda”, how will it be achieved, if no one has a precise idea of what the target is? And also without at least a faint idea of the phenomenon’s root causes? Was it possible to eradicate malaria without clearly understanding the links between some type of swamps and some mosquitoes species? Why, since 9/11 is it near impossible to read in the US an accurate analysis on which mistakes made ben Laden and the Taliban possible? Where do the Taliban and ben Laden really come from? Are they a collective case of terrorist spontaneous generation?

But if the American antiterrorist community has no definition for al Qaeda, they have a preconceived idea about it, and a strong one, and this maybe explains that. Since the August 1998 attacks on the two US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam, and even more so since 9/11, the US antiterrorist community, in its diversity, and with some dissenting voices of course, but as a whole, considers “al Qaeda” as a western-style organization, as some kind of an islamist ETA or IRA, with a central committee, a general headquarters, etc., and a chief named Osama ben Laden.

Of course, there is an entity of some sort, or an islamic nebula, working with ben Laden, and responsible for, among others, the 9/11 attacks. But is there really an “al Qaeda” organization? Asking these questions is not academic finessing. Because what the American justice calls “al Qaeda” may well differ greatly from the West’s concept of an organization.

Why is this difference so important?

Using a word creates a representation in the human mind. When you present as a fact that there actually exists an al Qaeda organization, you create a common perception of a mechanical structure, as is a motor car, or a clock. You press on a button, and you honk the horn. You touch another button, and the windscreen wiper works. This mechanical model is the West’s terrorism model : pyramidal, hierarchical. The “strategic leadership” issues an order, then an attack occurs. Finally, the act is claimed on the organization’s letterhead.

But al Qaeda? Is al Qaeda an islamic Komintern? Has anyone seen an al Qaeda letterhead? or any authentic document using the word al Qaeda as a brand, like IRA or RAF?

More to the point : has Osama ben Laden ever publicly used, on an authentic document, the word al Qaeda (again, as a brand) himself? No : ben Laden never speaks for an organization, and always speaks as himself : he encourages muslims to revolt, he’s happy to see infidels punished, etc. Because even if he’s not a first class mufti himself, he knows very well what any decent muslim knows : jihad is an individual act, nothing else. You may pose as a model ; you may preach jihad fi sabil’Allah, you can’t force any one to join it. You can’t order anyone to join a jihad.

Also : who can today prove that ben Laden is al Qaeda’s leader, in the sense Stalin or Saddam Hussein were leaders? Or is he really, let’s say, “al Qaeda’s” Dan Rather? The PR guy showing up on TV?

Finally : of course, The 9/11 attacks required a centralized coordination and planning, but has “al Qaeda” an unique command center able to plan and centralize each and every operation, one after the other, or has an ad hoc apparatus been created for each big operation (African embassies, USS Cole, 9/11, etc.?

So : is this “al-Qaeda”-as-an-organization the only possible definition? No. Another way of thinking exists, dominant in Europe : since the beginning, “al Qaeda” is nothing else than a nebula, a protoplasm with not one mold, no unique way to organize; each group (the Egyptians for example or Pakistani) creating its own cells within the nebula, out of its own activist culture, its own local habits.

If any of these activist cells, or groups, plans, either to build a new mosque, or create a new charity, or launch a terrorist attack, they will need :

  • First, a religious sanction,
  • And then, funds for the operation they plan.

Funding from whom? From some “jihadi philanthropy”, or “terrorist philanthropy” active in Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Chechnya, Philippines, Bosnia, Kashmir, Algeria, etc. A “philanthropy” in which Osama Ben Laden plays, of course, a major role.

This is no mechanical model. This is a biological model. These islamic cells appear like mushrooms after rain. They grow on the same ground. Their roots are mingled underground. All these mushrooms look more or less the same 1.

But there is a huge difference between a mechanical and a biological model. If a car is damaged, it needs external help to be repaired. A watch or a car are dead. A mechanism is not alive. Of course, a biological entity is alive. When your skin is scratched, it cicatrizes alone. Lizards even grow a second tail, if the first one is broken.

Trying to destroy a biological entity while simultaneously thinking it, and describing it, as a mechanical one, looks to me as a rather big intellectual mistake.

In conclusion, I also wanted to raise the following points :

  • Anyone having met salafists (that is in their familiar surroundings, when they feel safe to discuss; not in a prison cell or in a tribunal…), and having even a remote idea of their psychology, culture and doctrin, should be surprised by the following judgments : “mission success is very important and leaders are in some way risk-adverse”, or “their leaders are deeply concerned with control”. This is a pure and simple projection of a westerner’s mental landscape. And ben Laden is not a “Fortune 500” CEO, but a Hadramaout Arab of wahhabi-muslim persuasion. Given the immense importance of apostasy in wahhabism, how could such an individual “see himself as a prophet” (for the non-muslims : conversion to Islam means pronouncing the following sentence, known as shahadat, or testimony : I attest that only God id God, and Mohammad, his last prophet and messenger), or join a “crusade”?
  • It is a common American perception now that the main strategic danger now comes from “rogue states”. Following 9/11, the United States reacted to terrorism by a strong military operation against Afghanistan, as a rogue state. The plan – a state to state issue – was to “find and punish culprit states behind 9/11”. First of all, with a military reply to the “Taliban regime”. Then it has been Iraq’s turn.

But does this strategy really address the real problems of today’s chaotic world – and specifically, the terrorism problem? Since the end of the Cold war indeed, the real security threats have been : terrorist nebulas, degenerated guerrillas, criminal cults, narco-terrorists, militarized mafias, warlord’s savage armies, etc. Very diverse of course, all of these entities have nevertheless in common the following characteristics:

  • De-territorialisation, or location in inaccessible areas,
  • Absence of state sponsorship, which makes them more unpredictable and uncontrollable,
  • A hybrid character, partly “political” partly criminal,
  • The ability to change configuration – and names ! – rapidly,
  • Enormous killing power, compared with an usually symbolic cold-war terrorism. The Aum cult planned to kill 40,000 in the Tokyo Metro in april 1995, but only failed to do so because an aerosol blocked. And the 9/11 attacks against the United States killed fifteen times more people than the bloodiest terrorist attack of the XXth century.

Thus even if destroying dictatorships is morally important, does it really solve today’s strategic security problems, terrorism and organized crime? Personally, I doubt it. And many European experts feel the same – that the “war on terror” is a “surface feature that does not affect underlying tectonic forces and the location of fault lines” (Tony Judt, “America and the world”, New York review of Books, 10/04/03).


1 Most of the jihadi are between 25-50, wahhabi, middle-class, well educated, trained in Afghanistan or Pakistan, etc.