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Beware the Holy War | The Nation

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Beware the Holy War

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In a 2001 interview with the Arab News, Hasan al-Seraihi, a militant Saudi cleric who had recently been released from jail, gave a description of Al Qaeda's beginnings during the late 1980s: "Al-Banshiri turned to me and started speaking in a quiet voice: 'You know that Brother Osama has spent a lot of money to train and buy weapons for the Arab Mujahedeen. We should not waste this investment after the jihad against the Russians. We should reorganize them under an Islamic army with the name al Qaeda. The army should be always ready to uphold the cause of Islam and Muslims in any part of the world.'" Similarly, Nasser Ahmad Nasser Al-Bahri, a bin Laden bodyguard who is now living in Yemen, recalled in an interview earlier this year with Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper that when bin Laden "returned to Afghanistan in 1996, he...opened branches of the al Qaeda organization in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and elsewhere."

About the Author

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen, a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

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Bin Laden himself recounted how the name "Al Qaeda" first emerged in an interview with an Al Jazeera correspondent shortly after the 9/11 attacks: "Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri established the training camps for our mujahedeen against Russia's terrorism [during the 1980s]. We used to call the training camp al Qaeda. And the name stayed." As early as 1999, in an interview with leading Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, bin Laden started publicly referring to Al Qaeda, at one point explaining that he didn't personally know everyone in his organization: "The number of brothers is large, thank God, and I do not know everyone who is with us in this base or organization." Bin Laden went on to note that someone named Mamdouh Salim, who had recently been extradited from Germany to the United States on terrorism charges, was "never a member of any jihad organization. He is not a member of the base." Indeed, when Al Jazeera broadcast a major documentary about bin Laden in 1999, the network called it The Destruction of al Qaeda, an odd choice of title if Al Qaeda did not in fact already exist.

Materials recovered in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban demonstrate that people within Al Qaeda referred to it as such and saw themselves as part of a larger organization led by bin Laden. Alan Cullison, a Wall Street Journal reporter, for instance, purchased a computer in Kabul that turned out to have been used by members of Al Qaeda, including Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. One memo on the computer dated April 1998, written by Tariq Anwar, was addressed to "Al-Qaeda Members in Yemen" and described the hassles of daily life in Afghanistan. Other memos were written in what Cullison describes as "language mimicking that of a multinational corporation." Bin Laden was referred to as "the contractor," while acts of terrorism became "trade." A memo from al-Zawahiri griped about how salaries had been halved for the militants living in Afghanistan and bemoaned the lack of accounting of monies spent in Yemen, the kind of memo familiar to anyone who has toiled inside a bureaucratic organization. Similarly, New York Times reporters recovered documents in Kabul such as one titled "Al Qaeda Ammunition Warehouse," which the organization used for tracking weapons and ammunition.

The 9/11 plot itself amply demonstrates the fact that Al Qaeda was an organization of global reach led by bin Laden. Although, as Curtis correctly points out, the 9/11 plot was the "brainchild of an Islamist militant called Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who came to bin Laden for funding and help in finding volunteers," Mohammed's scheme for crashing jets into American landmarks would have remained only a powerful nightmare without Al Qaeda, as the plot needed not only hundreds of thousands of dollars but, above all, a large pool of young men sufficiently indoctrinated that they would willingly "martyr" themselves in the operation. The 9/11 plot subsequently played out across the globe, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, money transfers from Dubai and the recruitment of suicide operatives from countries around the Middle East--all activities that were ultimately overseen by Al Qaeda's leaders in Afghanistan.

While bin Laden did not involve himself in the details of the 9/11 operation, he was its ultimate commander. In 2002, when Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda interviewed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who had together coordinated the 9/11 attacks, bin al-Shibh told Fouda that he had traveled to Pakistan from Hamburg in late August 2001 to insure that bin Laden was apprised of the timing of the attacks five days before they happened. Bin Laden's supervisory role in the attacks on Washington and New York is amplified in The 9/11 Commission Report, which explains that in 1999 bin Laden appointed Mohamed Atta to be the lead hijacker. The report concludes, "It is clear, then, that Bin Laden and Atef [his military commander] were very much in charge of the operation." The same can also be said of Al Qaeda's attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In 1993 bin Laden dispatched an aide to case the US Embassy in Kenya, and when he was shown photographs from that trip he pointed to the exact location where he thought the truck bomb should be detonated.

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