In “Studies in Conflict & Terrorism”, Volume 6, N°6, November-December 2003

When doubt and confusion reign, when things are – or look – complicated, one should revert to fundamental questions. What is “al Qaeda” ? is the question addressed in this paper 1. But in a first step, and in a broader perspective, we will try to define what is really dangerous in today’s real world.

What is really dangerous today ?

The abolition of the bi-polar world order has caused more than walls to crumble, which, in Berlin and elsewhere, rendered impassable the frontiers of the former Eastern Bloc. Other, psychological, obstacles have disappeared. Thus the binary representations of yesterday’s world – West against East, political against criminal – no longer make sense. “Political” players (guerrillas, militias, liberation movements, terrorist groups) and “common criminals” (organized crime, mafias, cartels) which yesterday were evolving in distinct arenas were suddenly precipitated on the same stage. By choice ? No : but without their former sponsors, their only option was either mutation, or disappearance.

First, do these mutant entities represent a new threat ? Yes indeed. This can be easily demonstrated using an image from Karl Marx, who compared the revolution with heating water on a fire. Until it reaches boiling point, water only experiences a change of degree. Once it turns to steam at 100°, it changes character. In contrast to political unrest, insurrection or riot, a revolution marks a change of character and no longer of degree, in a country’s socio-political reality. The same applies to these new threats. None of them is either original or recent in their own right. Just an example: there have always been Islamists, smugglers and criminals in Algeria. But when a hybrid/symbiotic, fundamentalist-outlaw-thug entity as the GIA (Islamic Armed Group) wages an armed struggle, resists the most radical repression, summary executions etc., and within three years of its appearance is able to :

    • Put Algeria to the sword and the torch,
    • Hijack a French airliner,
    • Carry out a wave of bomb attacks in France, through recruitment from within French territory,

You have a situation without precedence. He who fails to understand this will not understand the shape that real warfare will adopt in this new century.

Mutations : why and how

In scientific parlance, the end of the bipolar order has caused the mutation of a host of organisms that used to be purely terrorist groups or purely criminal groups. In other words, they have abruptly and unexpectedly shifted from machines (technomorph structures) to lifeforms (biomorph entities).

Machines : during the Cold war, most of transnational terrorism was waged by groups organized or recruited by intelligence agencies working for states. Secretly obeying orders, they operated like machines, following start/stop signals.

Lifeforms : since the collapse of the bipolar world, we are witnessing an almost biological, uncontollable, and, thus far, uncontrolled, proliferation of dangerous, complex entities that are very hard to identify, understand, and define ; within inadequately explored territories or movements.

The new dangerous entities: a typology

Diverse they may be, but these dangerous entities have nonetheless some common characteristics:

    • De-territorialisation, and/or location in inaccessible areas,
    • Usually, an absence of state sponsorship, which makes them more unpredictable and uncontrollable,
    • A hybrid character, partly “political” or religious-fanatic, partly criminal,
    • An ability to rapidly mutate, according to the allmighty dollar, now essential,
    • A pragmatic approach, following the old Maoist doctrine of “waging guerrilla to learn about warfare” (hence the GIA’s primitive bombs in France, between July and November 1995),
    • Enormous killing power, compared with cold-war terrorism which was usually little more than symbolic; in April 1995, the Aum sect only failed to kill 40,000 in the Tokyo Metro because an aerosol blocked. And the 9/11 attacks killed fifteen times more people than the bloodiest terrorist attack of the XXth century.

Keeping this in mind, our first prognosis is that “al Qaeda” looks much like one ot these chaotic-dangerous new entities. But before trying to prove it, thus transforming our prognosis into a diagnosis, why is finding “al Qaeda’s” real character so important ? Why bother ?

Why it is important to know

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 germ causing it. In less than an month, a 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 administration persuaded it knows what “al Qaeda” really is, a well known entity, clearly defined and devoid of mystery.

Do they ? Is it ? No. Reading the available documentation shows it – these texts are like a pyramid sitting on its point. Because of a lack of initial definition, “al Qaeda” is floating between contradictory descriptions, comparisons and metaphors. It remains an “unidentified terrorist object”. This lack of definition being all the more curious that in some of these texts, various technical points are clearly and specifically defined, showing the authors are conscious of the importance of definitions. One example : “systems : we use the word system in the sense of..”, etc.).

So, in the end, is al Qaeda a “clearinghouse”, an “extremist islamist group”, a “global network”, an “entity”, an “organization”, a “system”, a “secret international brotherhood”, a “powerful islamic force”, a “dispersed and amorphous terrorist foe” ? Is it “more than an organization, also a process” ; is it “a dispersed and amorphous foe” ? Does it have “cells”, “operatives”, “members”, a “leadership ” ? Does it “functions like a cult” or like an “enterprise” ? No one seems to know for sure.

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 swamps and some mosquitoes species ? Since 9/11, in the US, why is it near impossible to read an accurate analysis on which mistakes gave birth to ben Laden and the Taliban ? Where do the Taliban and ben Laden really come from ? Are they a collective case of terrorist spontaneous generation ?

Is “al Qaeda” an organization ?

But if in its public declarations, the American administration has no definition for “al Qaeda”, it has a preconceived idea about it, and a strong one. 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 administration as a whole – with some dissenting voices of course – 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 officials 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.

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 : 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 jihadi culture, its own local habits. This is what the eminent british expert MJ Gohel says : “it is important to understand that what is referred to as the “al Qaeda network” is in reality a conglomerate of a number of terror groups and their cells, of varying autonomy but who share a common ideology and who cooperate with each other”. Recently the criminologist R. T. Naylor also depicted the “al-Qaeda” entity in these terms : “In reality, al-Qaeda seems less an organization than a loose association of independent cell-like entities that change form and personnel ad hoc in response to threat and opportunities… Al-Qaeda seems less an entity than a shared state of mind, less a political organization than a cult of personality…”2.

Common in Europe, this way of thinking also exists in the US. Bruce Hoffman’s paper “al Qaeda, trends in terrorism and future potentialities : an assessment” Rand, may 2003, also clearly shared this view, and our doubts about an “al Qaeda” monolithic organization.

How does such a chaotic-protoplasmic entity work ?

How does this chaotic system work ? If any of these salafist-activist cells or groups plans, either to build a new mosque, or fund 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.

As we said before, 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.3

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 have a precise and definite set of parts ; more important, they 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 like a rather big intellectual mistake.

Besides, the fact that “al Qaeda” is not a mechanism, with a precise set of parts, but a biological entity, able to grow new roots or branches, is easy to prove : since 1998, and the first US reactions to the attacks against the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam, around 5 000 (maybe more) OBL-related fanatics have been jailed worldwide; they’ve been captured in maybe 70 countries, the jihadi themselves coming from as many various nationalities (maybe more). Also, “al Qaeda” related funds (around fourty millions US dollars) have been freezed, or confiscated, in hundred and twenty nine countries. Now let’s imagine an company, or agency, with global markets, or an international mission. Let’s say, IBM or the CIA. If their offices has been raided worldwide, or bombarded, tens of millions of dollars confiscated from them, all their known banking accounts blocked, their computers seized, their electronic communication systems destroyed, thousands of their employees and part of their leadership arrested – killed sometimes – could these organizations still function? No of course. Still, after almost five years of this treatment, OBL-related fanatics were able to hit last spring in Ryad and Casablanca – as always, where it hurts most. Obviously, “al Qaeda” is not something as simple as an organization. It’s the human-fanatic equivalent of Aids. Thus, as long as the present US administration fight this mutant and proteiform entity with the intelectual tools designed to confront organizations, they’ll risk being constantly one battle late.

Anatomy of the mind of the islamic militant, and western perceptions

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 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 ?

Since 9/11 we have been subjected to massive amounts of such “informations” on Islamic militants, especially Osama ben Laden and his salafi followers and supporters. A lot of these informations only show how the West misunderstands the Islamic militant mindset.

In the last fifteen years or so, from Lebanon to Algeria, from the Arabian peninsula to Sudan, the author has held discussions with quite a lot of islamic fanatics. But when he compares the picture of these fanatics as painted by western officials, media, and some academicians, to what he has seen and heard in his discussions with these jihadi, he does’nt not recognize the picture. There is a major disconnect between how the West perceives militant Islam and the reality of the situation. Some of our French and Algerian colleagues who have long conversed with these salafi militants share this concern.

This is a crucial point. Since ancient Greece, “know your ennemy” has been a cardinal rule of warfare. If you want to determine what your ennemy targets and tactics will be, you must identify and understand its inner logic and and comprehend the core elements of its motivations and objectives.

But to truly understand ben Laden, it is not enough to just collect and process facts about his finances, tactics, communications, and organizational skills. One has to try and understand his vision and worldview. In this way, we might be able to hazard a guess as to what his reactions would be to certain events, developments, or incidents. This vision and worldview comes from the subtle interaction of an individual psychology with a very specific culture. They cannot be easily programmed, or captured and wrapped up in a computer’s hard disk.

Two examples :

    • Dates ? one year after 9/11, precisely the 11th of september 2002, the western world became hysterical. Commercial flights were empty. Each and every western police force, army, navy or air force was on high alert. Whereas, for a salafi muslim of the arabic peninsula, dates simply don’t matter, are meaningless. In the mindset, in the culture of a desert bedoin, anniversaries, birthdays don’t exist. You don’t celebrate your children’s, your mother’s birthday. Salafists even consider commemorating the prophet’s anniversary a major sin. Calendar obsession is a westerner’s disease. Not so for a fundamentalist desert arab. After 9/11, in ben Laden’s propaganda, that day became yom al-moubarak (the Holy Day) and that’s it. Which precise calendar day it was, is absolutely devoid of interest. Anyone here, having had an appointmement with a bedoin (moreover with a cheikh) will understand what I mean.

What is important is that all the islamic militants the author has met are absolute litteralists, obsessed by the Coran’s litteral meaning, by the Prophet’s actual deeds. They will do something only if it’s in the Coran, they act and dress as the prophet did. The prophet used to squat before drinking water ? So they do. The prophet advised a true believer to enter a mosque right foot first ? So they do. And so on.

90% of their exchanges (verbal, internet, telephones : as the major french anti-terrorist judges teach in the author’s research center, he know this as a fact) are about what is licit or illicit, what would the prophet do, if… etc. If it’s not in the Coran, if the prophet didn’t do it, its worse than haram (unlawful), it’s bida (innovation) the biggest sin for a salafi, deserving swift death penalty.

9/11 has been accepted by ben Laden’s shura council because it’s in the Coran4 : what happened that day is a Ghazwah, a raid. As an emir (military leader), the prophet conducted many raids, for territory conquest, loot or revenge. He even said in the Coran “A raid on the path of God is better than this world and what’s in it”. So OK, Ghazwah is Halal (lawful).

    • Biological or nuclear terrorism ? This is even more important. Among the serious, proven facts we have on 9/11 (not so many, actually) there is this five-pages document found by the FBI in Mohammad Atta’s luggage, in a car left outside Dulles airport ; also found in several other shahids (martyrs) bags, and in the wreckage of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Most probably this document, hand-written by the (unknown) organizer of the attacks, was given to all the hijackers. This text is a spiritual guide for the 19 terrorists’ last day of life. It’s not a technical or practical document, but a religious, even mystical one – it could have been written in the Prophet’s times. Containing a list of rituals to be performed, starting with “The last night”, it helps the future martyr achieve body and spirit unity in the last day of his mission.

The last paragraph is terrible : “When the moment of truth comes near, and zero hour is upon you, open your chest, welcoming death in the path of God. Always remember to conclude with the prayer, if possible starting it seconds before the target, or let your last words be : there is none worthy of worship but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. After that, God willing, the meeting is in the highest paradise, in the company of God”.

Among many tactical problems mentioned in this text : why kill, and how to kill, the pilots or resisting passengers ? Here, a word is pointedly chosen Dhabaha (slit, rip something open) and not Qatala (any way of killing).

Dhabaha means slit the jugular vein of an animal or human being. It is a ritual slaughter, what Abraham was about to do to his son : sacrifice him on God’s order. It is a physically close act, commited with a blade : the blood must actually flow. It’s impossible to perform Dhabaha from afar, with any other type of weapon.

Now, let’s go back to year 2003 : we’ve seen Ghazwah is Halal. With explosives, at a close distance and with a lot of blood flowing, shahadat (martyrdom) is acceptable to the Hamas shura council. Spreading poison in a public place should also be Halal: poison is known in the islamic tradition. 10 out of 12 shi’a imams died from poisoning. Saladin ordered the crusader’s wells, in their fortresses, to be poisoned.

But biological or nuclear weapons ? You spread a substance, and people die maybe months later from a disease, or radiations ? Experimenting it, at the jihadi level, why not ? But ben Laden’s shura council, some very old and reactionary bigots, having spent their live commenting the only book they know by heart (the Coran), would they sanction an attack with such weapons ? This is at least doubtful.

Is fighting terrorism a state-to state problem ?

Finally, is a common perception in the present US administration 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, a military reply to the “Taliban regime” – was to “find and punish culprit states behind 9/11”. 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 threatening entities have been : terrorist nebulas, degenerated guerrillas, criminal cults, narco-terrorists, militarized mafias, warlord’s savage armies, etc. None of these entities are, have been, or will be any time soon, states. None of them has a vital need of any state to survive – see Somalia.

Thus even if destroying dictatorships is morally important, does targeting “rogue states” really solve today’s strategic security problems : terrorism and organized crime ? the author seriously doubts it.

1 This paper wishes to be analytical not polemic. Thus, to avoid any finger-pointing, the following quotations are not directly attributed to any author or institution. But all of these come from either official do­cuments such as : National strategy for combating terrorism, february 2003 ; Patterns of global terrorism, U. S. Department of State, april 2003 ; Combating terrorism – interagency framework and agency programs to address the overseas threat, General Accounting Office, may 2003 ; Congressional research ser­vice – Report for Congress – The Library of Congress «al-Qaeda after the Iraq conflict» ; or from analy­ses and essays out of major think tanks interested in defence, terrorism or intelligence. We possess of course the precise origin of all the quotations made here.

2 «Wages of crime : blackmarkets, illegal finances and the underworld economy», Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY & London UK, 2002.

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

4 On this point, in english, read the excellent and erudite «Manual for a raid», Kanan Makiya & Hassan Mneimneh, in «Striking terror», New York Review of Books, 2002.

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