We cannot defeat al Qaeda unless we understand it. And since we’re told mostly exaggerations and lies…

Summary: Forged by our intervention into Afghanistan against the USSR, senior US government officials ignored al Qaida until 9-11. Then its name became a totem for the American people, the hated other. To mention it was waving the bloody shirt, hitting the stop button to our minds. Any thought about our strategy must start with questions about the myth and reality of al Qaeda. These were asked here in 2005 (and countless times since), yet for most Americans these questions remain not just unanswered but unasked. Today’s post by Richard Seymour provides some answers, confirming what we’ve said here so many times.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden

“He [VP Cheney] would have worked through the whole lot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, dealing with all their surrogates in the course of it – Hezbollah, Hamas, etc. In other words, he thought the whole world had to be made anew, and that after September 11, it had to be done by force and with urgency. So he was for hard, hard power. … We’re coming after you, so change or be changed.”
— UK PM Tony Blair in his memoir A Journey: My Political Life

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
— Aphorism 146 in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

Today’s reading

The Uses of al-Qaida

By Richard Seymour, London Review of Books, 13 September 2012
Published with the generous permission of Richard Seymour and the LRB.

President Obama has waged war on al-Qaida by drone and by ‘kill list’. Vladimir Putin has hunted al-Qaida in the North Caucasus. The late Colonel Gaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad, have summoned alliances against it.

The alarming ubiquity of al-Qaida, its mitosis and metastasis seemingly outpacing the destruction of its cells, is attested by the multiplication of enemies on the US State Department’s list of ‘foreign terrorist organisations’. In 2002, al-Qaida appeared as a single entry; now there are four officially recognised organisations with the same root brand: al-Qaida (AQ), al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The list also includes the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, usually described as an ‘affiliate’ of al-Qaida in Iraq.

About the greater al Qaida

The taxonomic determinacy of this list is deceptive.

Consider al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group held responsible for organising the attempt in 2009 by the ‘underwear bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to blow up a plane en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.

  • AQAP was one of the most alarming new franchises identified in a briefing given to Congress by the Federation of American Scientists in 2005, one of a rash of new ‘presences’ and ‘affiliates’ of al-Qaida emerging from Bali to Mombasa. It was said to be responsible for an attack on the US consulate in Jeddah in 2004 and, the FAS claimed, was attempting to overthrow the Saudi royal family.
  • Yet, five years later, a Carnegie Endowment analysis paper traced the origins of a group called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to the emergence of a small number of jihadis who had escaped from prison in Sanaa in February 2006.
  • And the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported {in July 2011} that ‘al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged in January 2009 from the union of two pre-existing militant groups: al-Qaida in Yemen (AQY) and al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia.’

Can these various expert analyses all have been discussing the same organisation?

Boot on Face
Why do they hate our freedom, and our boot?


It is just as difficult to get a fix on the cadres of jihadis designated by the term ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’. The journalists Loretta Napoleoni (Insurgent Iraq) and Nick Davies (Flat Earth News) have thrown some light on the dense mesh of official misrepresentation surrounding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was for some time the official face and emblem of the organisation for US officials. Starting out as a small-time opponent of the Jordanian regime, he was first referred to as ‘a senior al-Qaida leader’ by US and Israeli officials in 2002. In October that year, Bush identified him as an al-Qaida leader who had fled to Iraq and was colluding with Saddam Hussein.

Colin Powell, addressing the United Nations the following February, asserted that Saddam had given ‘safe haven’ to Ansar al-Islam, a local group run by Zarqawi – despite the fact that the organisation was based in Iraqi Kurdistan, outside Saddam’s sphere of protection, and Zarqawi did not lead it.

Still, having provided a rationale for invasion, Zarqawi would go on to be cited as a reason for continued occupation.

In February 2004, US officials announced that they had discovered a 17-page letter supposedly written by the almost illiterate Zarqawi to al-Qaida’s leadership, stressing the need to provoke a sectarian civil war in Iraq.

Thomas Ricks later reported in the Washington Post that this was part of an American psychological operation aimed at demonising the armed resistance. The goal of the operation was to ‘eliminate popular support for a potentially sympathetic insurgency’, and to deny the ‘ability of insurgency to “take root” among the people’. The main means of achieving this was to ‘villainise Zarqawi’ and ‘leverage’ xenophobia towards foreign fighters.

The stories kept coming.

  • Zarqawi was alleged to have been involved in the beheading of the American businessman Nick Berg in Baghdad in 2004.
  • And when the US reinvaded Fallujah in November 2004 to suppress a local insurgency, troops discovered Zarqawi’s abandoned headquarters, with a logo, ‘Al-Qaida Organisation’, drawn on the wall inside.
  • In October 2005, another letter was released by the US military, ostensibly written by Osama bin Laden’s confederate Ayman al-Zawahiri and addressed to Zarqawi, offering strategic advice to ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’.

It was never made entirely clear how many people were linked to Zarqawi, or what exactly they agreed on, or did. Despite official pronouncements, US intelligence suspected that his influence was marginal.

Think of America
Think of America

History of al Qaida

The history of al-Qaida itself, or what is sometimes called ‘al-Qaida central’, is also less clear than we are given to believe. ‘The first reference to something called “al-Qaida”,’ Jason Burke pointed out in Al-Qaida: The True Story of Radical Islam (2007),

appeared in a CIA report compiled in 1996, which mentions that ‘by 1985 bin Laden had … organised an Islamic Salvation Front, or al-Qaida,’ to support mujahideen in Afghanistan. It is unclear if the author is referring to a group acting as an ‘al-Qaida’ or called ‘al-Qaida’ … Certainly there is no mention of ‘al-Qaida’ in memos between the State Department and their representatives in Pakistan at the time.

The connection between bin Laden and al-Qaida wasn’t made until the State Department used the term for the first time in a report compiled in 1998. There, al-Qaida was described ‘not as an organised group, but, accurately, as “an operational hub, predominantly for like-minded Sunni extremists”’.

This, then, was al-Qaida: at most, a ‘base’ or a ‘hub’. Not an organisation in itself but more a ‘mobilisational outreach programme’, as Fawaz Gerges described it in The Far Enemy (2005). If ever there was a central control structure, it has long since vanished.

Yet, as the example of al-Qaida in Iraq suggests, the discourse has a hyperstitious quality: that is, through the telling and retelling of the same fables, the hype produces real effects in the organisation of conflict.

Nick Davies shows that the repeated invocation of ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ eventually led a number of jihadis, including bin Laden, to accept both the label and Zarqawi’s leadership of the struggle in Iraq. Burke points out that there ‘were no al-Qaida training camps during the early 1990s, although camps run by other groups churned out thousands of highly trained fanatics.’ Today, any jihadi training camp is liable to be branded an al-Qaida camp.

Similarly, the multiplication of ‘al-Qaida’ cells in recent years has largely been due to the rebranding of existing groups. ‘Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’, for example, is merely a new name for the long established Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), a breakaway from Algeria’s Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), which waged a ferocious war against the Algerian army after the military denied the Front Islamique du Salut its victory in the 1991 general elections.

The jihadis now claiming to belong to al-Qaida diverge markedly in their composition, their local concerns and their methods.

  • While the GIA had roots among the urban poor of Algeria, ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ was a small contingent of international volunteer fighters, some of them from rural backgrounds.
  • Some of the fighters calling themselves al-Qaida took part in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but most did not.
  • Some reportedly pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden, others did not.
  • Some have been through one of the jihadi ‘training camps’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or Sudan, some not.
American Soldier
This is the face of America they see


There is no central control or umbrella organisation co-ordinating their respective struggles.

Tactically, the ‘martyrdom’ operation is thought to be a unique al-Qaida calling card, but the history of secular struggles from Sri Lanka to Colombia suggests otherwise.

If there is anything that all the groups claiming membership of al-Qaida have in common, it is likely to be ideological. That is, they link their local struggles to a wider politics of Islamic revival centred on resistance to Christian-Jewish oppression, culminating in the reconstitution of the Caliphate and the universal application of a ‘fundamentalist’ interpretation of the Quran – a distant and utopian goal that is an unlikely basis for a global organisation.

Confronted with the certainties of politicians, the seeming expertise of analysts and policymakers and even the studiedly neutral analyses of sociology and political science, it is easy to forget that ‘al-Qaida’ is an unstable construct. Use of the label ‘terrorism’ only adds to the complexity. Alan Krueger’s authoritative What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (2007) was notable for being unable to define its subject. Krueger admits that it might have been as well to discard the word in favour of the more cumbersome ‘politically motivated violence carried out by sub-state actors with the goal of spreading fear within the population’. This excludes state violence, narrowing the field to insurgency or subversion of various kinds, but not all insurgent groups that Krueger – or the State Department – calls ‘terrorist’ make it a strategic priority to target civilian populations.

Insofar as they do, they don’t necessarily differ in their methods from state actors. In the ‘war on terror’, a cardinal claim of ‘civilised’ states was that, unlike their opponents, they did not target civilians. Suicide attacks cause indiscriminate slaughter and are an indicator of barbarism; surgical strikes are the gentle civilisers of nations.

There is little evidence for a distinction of that sort in the prosecution of recent wars. Moreover, it is never entirely clear where the boundary between state and sub-state actors can be drawn. The State Department’s definition, otherwise identical to Krueger’s, characterises ‘terrorism’ as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents’. The alleged collusion between Saddam Hussein and Zarqawi may have been an invention, but this type of collusion is widespread, from the CIA’s backing of Central American death squads to the anti-FARC paramilitaries sponsored by the Colombian state.

The source of our knowledge, misinformation, and confusion

The problem with trying to assess the epistemological status of al-Qaida, or even whether it exists at all, is that states, which are strategic actors in global conflicts, are also a dominant force in the constitution of knowledge about them. Any attempt to investigate al-Qaida will involve looking into state operations that are publicly disavowed: not merely the issuing of propaganda, but also such ‘parapolitical’ activities as state funding for paramilitary groups, intelligence penetration, and provision for the training and indoctrination of sub-state actors.

At the crudest level, states work to obstruct knowledge or spread disinformation for their own strategic purposes. But they also have the power to promote certain ideas and expressions not of their own formulation, typically produced within think tanks and the media, while maintaining a tactful silence on other, dissident ways of thinking.

Above all, states monopolise knowledge in their fields of action, and present it in a technical language in which most people are not trained. It is not that counterterrorism analysis is mere propaganda. It is part of the state’s knowledge, and must contain elements of the real if it is to be strategically valuable. The major obstacle to public understanding is not suppression of information or even necessarily covert action. It is the huge gulf between specialist knowledge elaborated within the orbit of the state, and the representations directed at popular audiences.

Wounded child
Collateral Damage. Stand by for blowback.

Looking at the real al Qaida

Even specialist state discourse, ideological though it is, acknowledges a degree of disarticulation and franchising of the so-called al-Qaida groups. Yet the popular image, which has its origins in Cold War ideology, is of a global hydra, a centralised and unified conspiracy against civilisation. Wherever al-Qaida is said to appear, in the Arabian peninsula, the Maghreb or in Europe, the invocation has an ambiguous effect, on the one hand drawing attention to a conflict – because we cannot ignore al-Qaida – and on the other overriding any focus on the specificities of the conflict in the name of extirpating the enemy.

During the ‘war on terror’, the symbolic organisation of the disparate global conflicts in which the US had a stake encouraged the proliferation of ‘al-Qaida’ threats. In some cases this was a matter of existing jihadi fraternities actually regrouping or rebranding themselves; in others it involved the assiduous application of the brand to miscellaneous actors. In the context of the revolutions in the Arab world, ‘al-Qaida’ became the name of the ‘security’ fears of pundits and policymakers: should a power vacuum emerge, would it be filled by hordes of bin Ladenists?

Now, on the borders of Syria, CIA officers are seeking to vet the flow of weapons from Gulf states to Syrian insurgents, purportedly to deprive al-Qaida of the privilege of finishing off Assad, while Assad himself has been cultivating the loyalty both of the minorities and the Sunni bourgeoisie since the spring of 2011 by invoking the threat of al-Qaida. Plausibly or not, Sami Ramadani has asserted in the Guardian that there is a ‘de facto … marriage of convenience’ between the US and al-Qaida in Syria.

Even if there are jihadi networks, some of whose members call themselves al-Qaida, few people know who they really are, much less whether they have significant influence in the conflict. Most likely they are marginal. ‘Al-Qaida-style groups can be found among the revolutionaries,’ Anand Gopal wrote in Harper’s {8 August 212},

but they remain rare. Moreover, radical Islam is far more complex than Washington tends to appreciate. I’ve met beer-guzzling Syrian rebels who carried the black al-Qaida flag, but for whom this was no contradiction: Islamist stylings in Syria are typically part performance vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post-Iraq War world, and part expression of pure faith.

Yet al-Qaida has nevertheless assumed much of the burden of interpretation of the struggle: they are cited all at once as the reason for Assad’s intransigence, the motive for US intervention, the source of popular fears and grievances, and, if it comes to it, the cause of Syria’s civil war. As a principle of interpretation, it now seems that al-Qaida is so widely useful as to be practically useless.

Contact the LRB for rights and issues enquiries.

About the author

His profile:

Born in a Hun enclave of Northern Ireland in 1977, I can resist anything except temptation (because I lack discipline), flattery (because I’m vain) or money (because I’m usually broke). I am an author, occasional columnist, and MPhil/PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. Hobbies include referring to myself in the fourth person. My wiki page contains some background on my written work. You can also check my pages at The Guardian, Verso and Zero. My Readysteadybooks interview also has some background.

Richard Seymour is a PhD candidate in Sociology,  studying on US Cold War anti-communism at the London School of Economics (see his page there). His started his high-profile website, Lenin’s Tomb, in 2003.


See his articles at The Guardian and The Jacobin.


  • The Liberal Defence of Murder — see this excerpt:”Forlorn Hope – Lost Dreams of American Renewal” on the the influence of Kriegsideologie on the US Right.
  • “The Genocidal Imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, a chapter in Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left
  • The Meaning of David Cameron (2010)
  • American Insurgents: A Short History of American Anti-Imperialism (2011)
  • Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2012)
  • The ‘war on terror’ as political violence“, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Political Violence, Marie Breen Smyth, ed. (2012)

For More Information

(1)  Intelligence Resource Program on al Qaeda and related organizations, by the Federation of American Scientists

(2)  Articles explaining that AQ is winning, in an important sense:

  1. Why al-Qaeda is winning“, Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, 11 September 2011
  2. The Long War’s Long Tail“, Foreign Policy, 30 August 2011 — “Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s new book, Bin Laden’s Legacy, wonders which side actually is winning the war on terror. “  As an American geopolitical expert, G-R’s works to hype threats.  Even so, his analysis of AQ’s goals for 9/11 make sense.
  3. Bin Laden won, with our assistance. Our applause shows the scale of his victory., 15 December 2012

(3)  Posts about bin Laden:

  1. Important:  Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?
  2. Bin Laden wins by using the “Tactics of Mistake” against America.
  3. A brief note about the death of bin Laden.
  4. Important:  About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken.

(4)  These posts about AQ remain relevant today:

  1. Important:  Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq — Is al Qaeda like Cobra, SPECTRE, and THRUSH?
  2. The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important.
  3. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman.
  4. Can we defeat our almost imaginary enemies?.
  5. “The Almanac of Al Qaeda” – about our foe.
  6. Today’s news about the Af-Pak War, about al Qaeda’s strength.
  7. Important:  Does al Qaeda still exist?.
  8. A look at al Qaeda, the long war — and us.

All posts on the FM website about al Qaeda are listed here.

(5)  For more information about our Islamic foes:

  1. Important:  Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?.
  2. Important:  RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida.
  3. Stratfor’s strategic analysis – “Jihadism in 2010: The Threat Continues”.
  4. Stratfor: “Jihadism: The Grassroots Paradox”.
  5. Stratfor: Setting the Record Straight on Grassroots Jihadism.
  6. Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris.


6 thoughts on “We cannot defeat al Qaeda unless we understand it. And since we’re told mostly exaggerations and lies…”

  1. Pingback: We cannot defeat al Qaeda unless we understand it. And since we’re told mostly exaggerations and lies… - Global Dissident

    1. North,

      Done, per your request. However you raise an important issue — what is the magnitude of the “terrorist” threat?

      I believe this to be the classic “rule by fear” ploy, used to rule weak people since the dawn of history.

      There is little evidence that “terrorists” (what does this refer to?) are a serious threat to America, beyond the capability of our existing institutions to handle. Especially given the success of conventional methods by the world’s police and security services destroying al Qaeda.

      An objective analysis of the various organizations using terrorism shows that their resources are chaff compared to the communist nations opposed to us during the Cold War, or the fascist nations of the Axis during WWI. So far they are not even in the same league as the anarchists (see Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?).

      There is less than zero evidence that dealing ourselves into every two-bit nationalist insurgency increases our security.

    1. Marc,

      Paul, that libertarian superstar, gives us a dose of good old-fashioned fear-mongering. Appealing to the irrational hatred of others, always useful to rally the people to the flag of big government.

  2. Is the desire to defeat Al Queda? Or, to just fight it in some places, some time? It seems to me it comes in useful in some places just as mafia (WWII, 1960s with Cuba) and drug cartels have been useful. In the case of drug cartels, despite decades long war against drugs, drugs have gotten cheaper and more potent. Recent book by Mexican journalists only is most recent material about these sometime enemies.
    meanwhile despite war against terrorism terrorists have grown exponentially. Al Queda affiliates are the shock troops in Syria and acknowledged to be the most effective rebels. The rectently aught Libyan Jihadi was a one time asset-given asylum bu British and released from capture once by US.
    US captured al Qaeda operative: Brits used him, US once released him
    Bin Laden’s trusted lieutenant captured by U.S. forces in Libya was given political asylum by Britain.
    “The global war on drugs is failing, new research suggests, as the price of heroin, cocaine and cannabis has fallen while their purity has increased.”
    Report: Cheaper, purer illegal substances suggest global war on drugs is failing
    “CIA are drug smugglers.” – Federal Judge Bonner, head of DEA
    Mexican official: CIA ‘manages’ drug trade
    Is the CIA a drug cartel? Mexican official blames CIA for drug war
    ‘Mexico’s war on drugs is one big lie’

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