Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Who Is “al-Qaeda”?

This is, of course, for almost all members of the general public, a matter that is determined by governments and media. Media reports tell us that a certain group is, or is affiliated with, “al-Qaeda,” and people just assume it to be so. Here is an article that attempts to answer the same question, but in my view does so unsatisfactorily.

Let me have a go at it. I think it’s simpler to assume that someone can be al-Qaeda or affiliated with al-Qaeda just by proclaiming it. Why would they want to do this? One could think of various reasons. For example, they really believe in what “al-Qaeda” is doing, and want to jump on the bandwagon. Or maybe a group — or even a single person — has a similar agenda, but works alone, and just wants to be thought of as “al-Qaeda.” This would conceivably make the group or individual more feared by their intended targets. Or maybe the group or individual just hopes so. Or perhaps the leader of a group wants his operatives to believe they are part of AQ because it would bolster his authority and give his operatives more confidence in what they are doing. So he claims to be taking his cues or orders from the AQ leadership.

So, if you let your imagination take this and run with it, you can think of any number of possible reasons someone would claim to be AQ or affiliated with it, but actually have little or nothing to do with it.

But that’s not all. Alternatively, it might be of strategic or tactical value for one entity to identify another entity as AQ, regardless of the truth. For example, if a certain country wants to intervene militarily in another country but needs a good excuse, it could claim the presence of “al-Qaeda” operatives in the place it wants to enter, or say that a group of people there is “al-Qaeda” in order to justify the intervention. Or maybe there is someone in a certain place that the state entity wants to kill or capture for some reason unrelated to terrorism, but again needs an excuse. So, the state entity labels that person or group “al-Qaeda,” which these days seems to justify just about anything.

The writer of the Slate article seems to attach great importance to videos, but how do we know who actually made a video? The answer is, we don’t. Again, it is primarily Western governments and media who tell us, and almost all members of the public, at least in Western countries and Japan, take these seemingly authoritative statements at face value. But actually such videos could easily be faked by anyone with the resources, such as Western intelligence agencies who might, for the reasons described above, derive benefit by doing so. Maybe a video is made to fake the existence of a terrorist group to scare the bejesus out of the public.

Therefore the best answer to the question “Who is al-Qaeda?” is, whoever claims to be “al-Qaeda” or whoever is labeled “al-Qaeda.” Videos, websites, and other means can simply be tools used to claim that someone is AQ, or to label someone as AQ, or even to conjure up a group or “terrorist cell” that actually does not exist. And that makes the identity of AQ very fluid.

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