Beware the Holy War
Just as Curtis gets his account of Team B right, so too he deftly charts the history of Islamist militancy over the past several decades. But he blows it when he concludes that Al Qaeda is a phantasmagorical construct of US officials. Curtis tells the story of al-Zawahiri, who, like Qutb before him, was radicalized by the three years he spent in an Egyptian prison during the early 1980s, emerging in jail as a spokesman for his fellow Islamist prisoners. Curtis shows powerful footage of al-Zawahiri at his trial shouting toward the camera in excellent English:
Now, we want to speak to the whole world. Who are we? Who are we? Why did they bring us here? And what we want to say? About the first question: We are Muslims. We are Muslims who believed in their religion, in their broad feelings, as both an ideology and practice. We believed in our religion as both an ideology and practice. And hence, we tried our best to establish an Islamic state and Islamic society.... The real Islamic front against Zionism, communism and imperialism.
Watching this footage you get a strong sense of both the forcefulness of al- Zawahiri's intellect and of his religious beliefs. After his release from prison he and bin Laden encountered each other in Pakistan in the mid-1980s during the Afghan war against the Soviets and forged a partnership. It is in recounting the nature of that partnership that Curtis makes his most explosive charge: "Beyond his small group, bin Laden had no formal organization, until the Americans invented one for him."
In support of this view Curtis relies, in part, on an interview with the British journalist Jason Burke, a friend of mine who has written an excellent book on Al Qaeda. Burke tells Curtis: "The idea...that bin Laden ran a coherent organization with operatives and cells all around the world of which you could be a member is a myth. There is no Al Qaeda organization. There is no international network with a leader; with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe." However, in his 2003 book, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Burke is less dismissive of the idea that Al Qaeda was an organization than this soundbite suggests. Burke wrote that while the "al-Qaeda hardcore" consisted of relatively few people, "by late 2001, bin Laden and the men around him had access to huge resources, both symbolic and material, which they could use to project their power and influence internationally"--that sounds suspiciously like a "coherent organization" to me.
Indeed, there is an excellent example of how this global organization operated that, for obvious reasons, goes unmentioned in Curtis's documentary. In December 2001 Singaporean authorities arrested thirteen operatives of Jemaah Islamiyah, the largest Southeast Asian terrorist group, for planning to blow up the US Embassy there. It transpired that those operatives had videotaped the embassy as part of their preparations for attacking it and had sent a copy of the tape to Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda's military commander in Afghanistan, so he could give the operation his blessing. In addition, a man who went by the alias of Hambali was simultaneously Jemaah Islamiyah's operational commander and a member of Al Qaeda's shura council, or deliberative body. Although Burke in his book was correct to emphasize that lumping together all the jihadist groups from around the world as "Al Qaeda" is a serious oversimplification, that does not change the fact that there was an Al Qaeda organization (an organization that has now largely been replaced by the militant jihadist ideological movement from which Al Qaeda first sprang and to which Al Qaeda has now given a tremendous boost).
Curtis claims that "Al Qaeda" was first "invented" in 2001 when US prosecutors put four men involved in the 1998 plot to blow up two US embassies in East Africa on trial in New York. During the trial they drew heavily on the testimony of former bin Laden associate Jamal al-Fadl, who spun a story about the Saudi militant that would make it easier for US prosecutors to target bin Laden using conspiracy laws that had previously put Mafia bosses behind bars. Curtis explains:
The picture al-Fadl drew for the Americans of bin Laden was of an all-powerful figure at the head of a large terrorist network that had an organized network of control. He also said that bin Laden had given this network a name, Al Qaeda....But there was no organization. These were militants who mostly planned their own operations and looked to bin Laden for funding and assistance. He was not their commander. There is also no evidence that bin Laden used the term "Al Qaeda" to refer to the name of a group until after September the 11th, when he realized that this was the term the Americans had given it.
This is nonsense. There is substantial evidence that Al Qaeda was founded in 1988 by bin Laden and a small group of like-minded militants, and that the group would mushroom into the secretive, disciplined organization that implemented the 9/11 attacks. Two years ago the minutes of the founding meetings of Al Qaeda (which had been discovered in Bosnia) were described in court documents in a trial in Chicago. Those meetings took place in August 1988 and involved bin Laden and Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who would later become Al Qaeda's military commander. The participants in the meetings discussed "the establishment of a new military group" consisting of a "qaida," or "base." In a handwritten organizational chart of the new group, bin Laden, who then went by the alias of Abu Abdullah, is at the top.