In his book “Al Qaeda and what it means to be modern”, the English philosopher John Gray argues that the human condition is not a cakewalk towards modernism and enlightenment. Gray examines Al Qaeda to show that it is not a throwback to medieval times but rather a fluid modern hybrid of Islam reinterpreted in the light of contemporary Western thought.
Al Qaeda is Arabic for “the base” but it can also mean that very modern conceit: “the database”. They use satellite phones, laptop computers and encrypted websites. They use satellite TV to mobilise support in the Arab world. Its organisation is the cellular structure of drug cartels and resembles a virtual business corporation. Al Qaeda is a modern global multinational company.
Their origins lie in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The CIA with the help of Pakistani’s equally shadowy ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) bankrolled the mujahideen resistance. With Abdullah Azzam, Osama Bin Laden was a founder member of Maktab al-Khadamāt (MAK) which raised funds in the US and elsewhere to support the war effort against the Soviets throughout the 1980s. As the decade went on, it was increasingly clear that this was a war the Red Army could not win. They bowed to the inevitable and announced their withdrawal in 1987. When the war ended Azzam and Bin Laden fought over what should be the new strategic goals of MAK. Azzam wanted to concentrate on installing an Islamic government in post-Soviet Kabul whereas Bin Laden wanted to launch global jihad. In 1989 Azzam was killed by a massive car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan allowing Bin Laden to assume full control of the organisation. MAK split up but Bin Laden launched a new body called Al Qaeda.
Bin Laden returned to his native Saudi Arabia. He was there when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Suddenly the ruling House of Saud was looking very shaky with a massive and belligerent army on their northern border. Bin Laden offered Al Qaeda’s services to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq. King Fahd turned down his offer and allowed US troops to deploy instead. Bin Laden was enraged and spoke out publicly about the profane presence of foreign troops in the "land of the two mosques".
The now ostracised Bin Laden accepted an offer to come to Sudan in 1991. The Islamists had taken power there and wanted Al Qaeda operations to help their new government. They helped the government with major infrastructure projects and ran military camps.
From there, Bin Laden launched the next crusade and raised the Bosnian Mujahideen to help newly independent Bosnia in its war with Serbia. Bin Laden was forced to flee Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996 after the US implicated him in an attempted assassination of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Kabul had just fallen to the Taliban at this time. The fundamentalist Taliban and Al Qaeda were a perfect match. Al Qaeda camps proceeded to train militant Muslims from around the world in the art of warfare. Around this time, Bin Laden started to focus on Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally, the US. In 1998, he and co-leader Egyptian Ahman Al-Zawahiri issued a fatwa against America and its allies.
Almost immediately they bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Though the US retaliated by bombing an Al Qaeda base, Bin Laden struck again in 2000. While the missile destroyer USS Cole was at anchor in Aden, a small boat of suicide bombers attacked the ship and killed 17 sailors. Planning then commenced for the biggest attack yet. Mohammed Atta led a team of 17 hijackers to capture four aeroplanes in US airspace and killed 3,000 people in New York and elsewhere on 9/11. Though Al Qaeda never claimed responsibility, the US used the fatwa to pin the blame on them. The US plan to strike Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and remove Al Qaeda. The invasion destroyed much of their infrastructure, but they survived and moved to the rugged Pakistani border territory. On 13 December 2001, the US government released a video tape of Osama speaking with associates talking about how they carried out 9/11. Its authenticity and English translation has been challenged but remains the single-most damning piece of evidence linking Al Qaeda with the attack.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave new impetus to Al Qaeda. Initially it posed a dilemma. Iraq is a largely Shiite nation, and Al Qaeda is composed of Sunnis who believe that the Shia are heretics. However the renegade Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi affiliated his organisation with Al Qaeda in 2004 and declared loyalty to Osama. Although it may simply have been designed to boost his own legitimacy it gave Al Qaeda a boost. Abu Ayyub al-Masri took over as head of al-Qaeda in Iraq since al-Zarqawi’s death. Al-Qaeda are now active in Kashmir and have links to Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Toiba. Although rumours abound of Osama’s death due to typhoid fever, the movement he started is still healthy. Its ultimate goal remains the downfall of the Arabian House of Saud. While many in the West would support the removal of this autocratic and secretive empire, it is highly unlikely the US would ever consent to allowing the world’s richest oil reserves fall into the hands of militant extremists.