Friday, September 21, 2012

Al Qa'ida: Bin Laden's band or a mythological tradition?

Eric Schmitt and David Kirkpatrick provide more indications that "Al Qa'ida" in its various incarnations today is more a marketing label than anything meaningfully connected to the group led by Osama bin Laden that organized the 9/11 attacks in After Libya, Renewed Questions About the Potency of Al Qaeda New York Times 09/18/2012:

At the heart of the debate is the reality that whatever the continued ability of Al Qaeda or regional groups bearing its name to inflict damage on local or American interests, the terrifying power of its name has also given it a spectral second life as a kind of catchall for Islamist militants. Far-flung militants with little connection to the original group find the use of its name an easy way to exaggerate their threat, and politicians eager to campaign against them — whether in the United States Congress or Arab capitals — share that incentive.

"It is a ghost," said Fahmy Howeidy, an Egyptian commentator. "People here don’t believe that Al Qaeda is this huge scary thing that is moving everywhere and behind everything in the whole world. They think that is American propaganda." [my emphasis]
Obviously, violent groups targeting Americans are a real concern whether or not they use the marketing label "Al Qa'ida". But carrying on a world-wide Long War against a ghost doesn't really make sense.

For political leaders in the United States or the Arab world, both addressing audiences that may have little familiarity with the various schools of ultraconservative or militant Islam, “the big name — Al Qaeda — can mobilize people,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist movements at the state-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It is very difficult to use another name that people don’t know when you already have this brand.”

“Al Qaeda as an organization, as a command, it doesn’t exist,” Mr. Rashwan said. “There are no orders from Ayman Zawahri coming to jihadists in Libya or Sinai to make something,” though he added, “Since the death of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda has been in a sense reborn because some of its ideas and the model have inspired new militants.”
The extreme secrecy under which both the Bush and Obama Administration have conducted the "war on terror" doesn't make it easier to have a high level of confidence in their claims about the real or mythical "Al Qa'ida".

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