[Marxism] The Uses of al-Qaida

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 5 07:27:02 MDT 2012

LRB Vol. 34 No. 17 · 13 September 2012
pages 25-26 | 2422 words

The Uses of al-Qaida
Richard Seymour

President Obama has waged war on al-Qaida by drone and by ‘kill list’. 
Vladimir Putin has hunted al-Qaida in the North Caucasus. The late 
Colonel Gaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad, have summoned alliances 
against it. The alarming ubiquity of al-Qaida, its mitosis and 
metastasis seemingly outpacing the destruction of its cells, is attested 
by the multiplication of enemies on the US State Department’s list of 
‘foreign terrorist organisations’. In 2002, al-Qaida appeared as a 
single entry; now there are four officially recognised organisations 
with the same root brand: al-Qaida (AQ), al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), 
al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic 
Maghreb (AQIM). The list also includes the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, 
usually described as an ‘affiliate’ of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The taxonomic determinacy of this list is deceptive. Consider al-Qaida 
in the Arabian Peninsula, the group held responsible for organising the 
attempt in 2009 by the ‘underwear bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to 
blow up a plane en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. AQAP was one of the 
most alarming new franchises identified in a briefing given to Congress 
by the Federation of American Scientists in 2005, one of a rash of new 
‘presences’ and ‘affiliates’ of al-Qaida emerging from Bali to Mombasa. 
It was said to be responsible for an attack on the US consulate in 
Jeddah in 2004 and, the FAS claimed, was attempting to overthrow the 
Saudi royal family. Yet, five years later, a Carnegie Endowment analysis 
paper traced the origins of a group called al-Qaida in the Arabian 
Peninsula to the emergence of a small number of jihadis who had escaped 
from prison in Sanaa in February 2006. And the Center for Strategic and 
International Studies reported that ‘al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula 
(AQAP) emerged in January 2009 from the union of two pre-existing 
militant groups: al-Qaida in Yemen (AQY) and al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia.’ 
Can these various expert analyses all have been discussing the same 

It is just as difficult to get a fix on the cadres of jihadis designated 
by the term ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’. The journalists Loretta Napoleoni 
(Insurgent Iraq) and Nick Davies (Flat Earth News) have thrown some 
light on the dense mesh of official misrepresentation surrounding Abu 
Musab al-Zarqawi, who was for some time the official face and emblem of 
the organisation for US officials. Starting out as a small-time opponent 
of the Jordanian regime, he was first referred to as ‘a senior al-Qaida 
leader’ by US and Israeli officials in 2002. In October that year, Bush 
identified him as an al-Qaida leader who had fled to Iraq and was 
colluding with Saddam Hussein. Colin Powell, addressing the United 
Nations the following February, asserted that Saddam had given ‘safe 
haven’ to Ansar al-Islam, a local group run by Zarqawi – despite the 
fact that the organisation was based in Iraqi Kurdistan, outside 
Saddam’s sphere of protection, and Zarqawi did not lead it.

Still, having provided a rationale for invasion, Zarqawi would go on to 
be cited as a reason for continued occupation. In February 2004, US 
officials announced that they had discovered a 17-page letter supposedly 
written by the almost illiterate Zarqawi to al-Qaida’s leadership, 
stressing the need to provoke a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Thomas 
Ricks later reported in the Washington Post that this was part of an 
American psychological operation aimed at demonising the armed 
resistance. The goal of the operation was to ‘eliminate popular support 
for a potentially sympathetic insurgency’, and to deny the ‘ability of 
insurgency to “take root” among the people’. The main means of achieving 
this was to ‘villainise Zarqawi’ and ‘leverage’ xenophobia towards 
foreign fighters. The stories kept coming. Zarqawi was alleged to have 
been involved in the beheading of the American businessman Nick Berg in 
Baghdad in 2004. And when the US reinvaded Fallujah in November 2004 to 
suppress a local insurgency, troops discovered Zarqawi’s abandoned 
headquarters, with a logo, ‘Al-Qaida Organisation’, drawn on the wall 
inside. In October 2005, another letter was released by the US military, 
ostensibly written by Osama bin Laden’s confederate Ayman al-Zawahiri 
and addressed to Zarqawi, offering strategic advice to ‘al-Qaida in 
Iraq’. It was never made entirely clear how many people were linked to 
Zarqawi, or what exactly they agreed on, or did. Despite official 
pronouncements, US intelligence suspected that his influence was marginal.

The history of al-Qaida itself, or what is sometimes called ‘al-Qaida 
central’, is also less clear than we are given to believe. ‘The first 
reference to something called “al-Qaida”,’ Jason Burke pointed out in 
Al-Qaida: The True Story of Radical Islam (2007),

     appeared in a CIA report compiled in 1996, which mentions that ‘by 
1985 bin Laden had … organised an Islamic Salvation Front, or al-Qaida,’ 
to support mujahideen in Afghanistan. It is unclear if the author is 
referring to a group acting as an ‘al-Qaida’ or called ‘al-Qaida’ … 
Certainly there is no mention of ‘al-Qaida’ in memos between the State 
Department and their representatives in Pakistan at the time.

The connection between bin Laden and al-Qaida wasn’t made until the 
State Department used the term for the first time in a report compiled 
in 1998. There, al-Qaida was described ‘not as an organised group, but, 
accurately, as “an operational hub, predominantly for like-minded Sunni 

This, then, was al-Qaida: at most, a ‘base’ or a ‘hub’. Not an 
organisation in itself but more a ‘mobilisational outreach programme’, 
as Fawaz Gerges described it in The Far Enemy (2005). If ever there was 
a central control structure, it has long since vanished. Yet, as the 
example of al-Qaida in Iraq suggests, the discourse has a hyperstitious 
quality: that is, through the telling and retelling of the same fables, 
the hype produces real effects in the organisation of conflict. Nick 
Davies shows that the repeated invocation of ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ 
eventually led a number of jihadis, including bin Laden, to accept both 
the label and Zarqawi’s leadership of the struggle in Iraq. Burke points 
out that there ‘were no al-Qaida training camps during the early 1990s, 
although camps run by other groups churned out thousands of highly 
trained fanatics.’ Today, any jihadi training camp is liable to be 
branded an al-Qaida camp. Similarly, the multiplication of ‘al-Qaida’ 
cells in recent years has largely been due to the rebranding of existing 
groups. ‘Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’, for example, is merely a new 
name for the long established Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le 
Combat (GSPC), a breakaway from Algeria’s Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), 
which waged a ferocious war against the Algerian army after the military 
denied the Front Islamique du Salut its victory in the 1991 general 

The jihadis now claiming to belong to al-Qaida diverge markedly in their 
composition, their local concerns and their methods. While the GIA had 
roots among the urban poor of Algeria, ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ was a small 
contingent of international volunteer fighters, some of them from rural 
backgrounds. Some of the fighters calling themselves al-Qaida took part 
in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but most did not. 
Some reportedly pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden, others did not. Some 
have been through one of the jihadi ‘training camps’ in Afghanistan, 
Pakistan, Iraq or Sudan, some not. There is no central control or 
umbrella organisation co-ordinating their respective struggles. 
Tactically, the ‘martyrdom’ operation is thought to be a unique al-Qaida 
calling card, but the history of secular struggles from Sri Lanka to 
Colombia suggests otherwise. If there is anything that all the groups 
claiming membership of al-Qaida have in common, it is likely to be 
ideological. That is, they link their local struggles to a wider 
politics of Islamic revival centred on resistance to Christian-Jewish 
oppression, culminating in the reconstitution of the Caliphate and the 
universal application of a ‘fundamentalist’ interpretation of the Quran 
– a distant and utopian goal that is an unlikely basis for a global 

Confronted with the certainties of politicians, the seeming expertise of 
analysts and policymakers and even the studiedly neutral analyses of 
sociology and political science, it is easy to forget that ‘al-Qaida’ is 
an unstable construct. Use of the label ‘terrorism’ only adds to the 
complexity. Alan Krueger’s authoritative What Makes a Terrorist: 
Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (2007) was notable for being unable 
to define its subject. Krueger admits that it might have been as well to 
discard the word in favour of the more cumbersome ‘politically motivated 
violence carried out by sub-state actors with the goal of spreading fear 
within the population’. This excludes state violence, narrowing the 
field to insurgency or subversion of various kinds, but not all 
insurgent groups that Krueger – or the State Department – calls 
‘terrorist’ make it a strategic priority to target civilian populations. 
Insofar as they do, they don’t necessarily differ in their methods from 
state actors. In the ‘war on terror’, a cardinal claim of ‘civilised’ 
states was that, unlike their opponents, they did not target civilians. 
Suicide attacks cause indiscriminate slaughter and are an indicator of 
barbarism; surgical strikes are the gentle civilisers of nations. There 
is little evidence for a distinction of that sort in the prosecution of 
recent wars. Moreover, it is never entirely clear where the boundary 
between state and sub-state actors can be drawn. The State Department’s 
definition, otherwise identical to Krueger’s, characterises ‘terrorism’ 
as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against 
noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents’. The 
alleged collusion between Saddam Hussein and Zarqawi may have been an 
invention, but this type of collusion is widespread, from the CIA’s 
backing of Central American death squads to the anti-FARC paramilitaries 
sponsored by the Colombian state.

The problem with trying to assess the epistemological status of 
al-Qaida, or even whether it exists at all, is that states, which are 
strategic actors in global conflicts, are also a dominant force in the 
constitution of knowledge about them. Any attempt to investigate 
al-Qaida will involve looking into state operations that are publicly 
disavowed: not merely the issuing of propaganda, but also such 
‘parapolitical’ activities as state funding for paramilitary groups, 
intelligence penetration, and provision for the training and 
indoctrination of sub-state actors. At the crudest level, states work to 
obstruct knowledge or spread disinformation for their own strategic 
purposes. But they also have the power to promote certain ideas and 
expressions not of their own formulation, typically produced within 
think tanks and the media, while maintaining a tactful silence on other, 
dissident ways of thinking. Above all, states monopolise knowledge in 
their fields of action, and present it in a technical language in which 
most people are not trained. It is not that counterterrorism analysis is 
mere propaganda. It is part of the state’s knowledge, and must contain 
elements of the real if it is to be strategically valuable. The major 
obstacle to public understanding is not suppression of information or 
even necessarily covert action. It is the huge gulf between specialist 
knowledge elaborated within the orbit of the state, and the 
representations directed at popular audiences.

Even specialist state discourse, ideological though it is, acknowledges 
a degree of disarticulation and franchising of the so-called al-Qaida 
groups. Yet the popular image, which has its origins in Cold War 
ideology, is of a global hydra, a centralised and unified conspiracy 
against civilisation. Wherever al-Qaida is said to appear, in the 
Arabian peninsula, the Maghreb or in Europe, the invocation has an 
ambiguous effect, on the one hand drawing attention to a conflict – 
because we cannot ignore al-Qaida – and on the other overriding any 
focus on the specificities of the conflict in the name of extirpating 
the enemy. During the ‘war on terror’, the symbolic organisation of the 
disparate global conflicts in which the US had a stake encouraged the 
proliferation of ‘al-Qaida’ threats. In some cases this was a matter of 
existing jihadi fraternities actually regrouping or rebranding 
themselves; in others it involved the assiduous application of the brand 
to miscellaneous actors. In the context of the revolutions in the Arab 
world, ‘al-Qaida’ became the name of the ‘security’ fears of pundits and 
policymakers: should a power vacuum emerge, would it be filled by hordes 
of bin Ladenists?

Now, on the borders of Syria, CIA officers are seeking to vet the flow 
of weapons from Gulf states to Syrian insurgents, purportedly to deprive 
al-Qaida of the privilege of finishing off Assad, while Assad himself 
has been cultivating the loyalty both of the minorities and the Sunni 
bourgeoisie since the spring of 2011 by invoking the threat of al-Qaida. 
Plausibly or not, Sami Ramadani has asserted in the Guardian that there 
is a ‘de facto … marriage of convenience’ between the US and al-Qaida in 
Syria. Even if there are jihadi networks, some of whose members call 
themselves al-Qaida, few people know who they really are, much less 
whether they have significant influence in the conflict. Most likely 
they are marginal. ‘Al-Qaida-style groups can be found among the 
revolutionaries,’ Anand Gopal wrote in Harper’s,

     but they remain rare. Moreover, radical Islam is far more complex 
than Washington tends to appreciate. I’ve met beer-guzzling Syrian 
rebels who carried the black al-Qaida flag, but for whom this was no 
contradiction: Islamist stylings in Syria are typically part performance 
vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic 
invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post-Iraq War world, and part 
expression of pure faith.

Yet al-Qaida has nevertheless assumed much of the burden of 
interpretation of the struggle: they are cited all at once as the reason 
for Assad’s intransigence, the motive for US intervention, the source of 
popular fears and grievances, and, if it comes to it, the cause of 
Syria’s civil war. As a principle of interpretation, it now seems that 
al-Qaida is so widely useful as to be practically useless.

More information about the Marxism mailing list