Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam - Jason Burke

The most striking fact Jason Burke hammers through time and again in this meticulous and comprehensive study is that "Al Qaeda" does not exist. Or at least, "Al Qaeda" the organised terrorist group, cohesive and complete we hear of in the media doesn't. I like Spooks as much as anyone, but I fear we have been misinformed.

What does exist is a series of interconnected yet disparate and competing forms of militant Islamism. Bin Laden's faction, amorphous in itself and rarely termed "Al Qaeda" by its followers is only one part of this, yet it has become lazy shorthand for a massive phenomenon. Burke does not claim Islamist fundamentalism isn't a large, violent and dangerous force, but does show that this one key misunderstanding is disastrous if you want to deal with it. For one example, the twin towers atrocity could be said to be the work of "Al Qaeda"; the ones in Madrid and Bali cannot. And as another, al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug currently given to beheading aid-workers in Iraq has been described as an "Al Queda operative" and "bin Laden's Lieutenant" in highly reputable papers despite the two having never met, and their groups being bitter rivals of one another.

Burke, who has spent the last ten years as The Observer's Middle East correspondent, tells two separate yet interlinked stories; that of the formation of militant political Islamism, and that of the more specific violent groupings of which bin Laden became a leading figure.

He traces the roots of modern political Sunni "Islamism" (as opposed to the Shia extremism of Khomeini) as comparatively recent, stemming from Wahaabism, a variant of Islam espoused in the eighteenth century by the ultra-orthodox renegade Abdul al Wahaab. This was developed into an all-encompassing political doctrine by an Egyptian, the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna in the 1920s and 30s. Explicitly rejecting all Western influence as degenerate, Al-Banna and his successor Syed Qutb, (another Egyptian campaigning in the 50s and 60s) sought to recreate the world according to the laws of Islam in the early post-Mohammed years as they interpreted it, an interpretation very obscure and unpopular at the time in the wider Islamic world (though, crucially, not in Saudi Arabia, where it gained credence amongst the ruling royal family who used it to re-inforce their legitimacy.)

The more specific story of the violent armed groups which emerged espousing this ideology is detailed too. Bin Laden, who cut his teeth as so many others did in the Soviet/Afghan conflict of the 80s, is shown as starting out as very much the junior partner of Islamic Jihad leader Aymar al-Zawahri. It is interesting to learn he had no direct contact (as is often reported) with America, though the close co-operation with the Pakistani secret services and the CIA who funded and supported his and other gangs makes this distinction rather academic.

bin Laden became seen as a "Godfather" figure due to his genius for media manipulation, culminating of course with the calculated violent symbolism of September 11th, also recounted in detail here. But Burke also shows the many other groups in action both before, during and after the New York attack, often with either limited or no contact with bin Laden. The GIA in Algeria are shown to far surpass bin Laden and followers in terms of violence against their own general population, who had stubbornly failed to give them mass support.

The leadership of bin Laden's faction has indeed been decapitated following the US invasion of Afghanistan, but the anger caused in the wider Muslim world and the subsequent assault on Iraq has let to a rapid increase in the sympathy for and potential recruits to such groups. The Madrid bombing is shown as the work of a cadre not only wholly disconnected from bin Laden, but not even working in his style any more; no symbolic target, no suicides, and being the work of genuinely impoverished immigrants rather than the disaffected middle-class types chiefly at work in such atrocities previously. More than ever now, it is bin Laden and Al Qaeda as an idea and ideal that is the danger.

One amazing fact, particularly farcical given the neo-con justification of the Iraqi invasion, is that in the first Gulf War bin Laden actually offered up his band of fighters to the House of Saud to fight against Saddam Hussein defending the home of Wahaabism against the secularist Iraqi infidel. It was only after this offer was turned down that bin Laden truly took against the Saudi royals, seeing them as weaklings who had to rely on "kufr" American protection. The notion of bin Laden siding with Saddam as a "fellow Muslim" could scarcely be further rooted in the realms of fantasy, and shows the true depths of the (deliberate?) neo-con misunderstanding of how their ideology works.

The media-spawned over-simplification of the Islamist phenomenon is highlighted by the distinction Burke demonstrates between the Taliban government of Afghanistan and the gang of bin Laden's that they housed. We all know Al Qaeda and the Taliban became firmly interwoven with each other some time after bin Laden and his followers first sought refuge in Afghanistan; what is less well known is the intense dislike the latter showed to the former, and how near they came to being thrown out, until it became a matter of local pan-Muslim pride to the Taliban that they could not be seen expel bin Laden due to US pressure. In yet another of the myriad intricacies detailed in the book, we see how different the Taliban were to Al Qaeda. The Taliban were extremist Wahabbi offshoots themselves, dedicated to fulfilling a similarly atavistic, repressive, misogynistic and unworkable arcadia, yet at the same time they were essentially parochial, rural tribalists totally uninterested in waging a jihad against the Western world. It was only bin Laden's machinations and the US response they received which saw them entrenched into the fight against the West urged by the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan Al Qaeda.

Burke shows with one illuminating example how the growth in popularity of this Wahaab cult is far from organic or inevitable. He spent time with members of the separatist Pershmaga fighters of the Kurdish Democratic Party in northern Iraq following the first gulf war.

"[They] were aggressively secular. They had drunk, sworn, smoked and I had never seen them pray. Their slogans were all about liberation and self-determination, about rights and democracy...The idea of them mentioning a "jihad" was almost risible. Though angry and resentful at what they felt, with some justification, were the West`s repeated betrayals, they were still vociferously pro-Western."

By 2001, many of these young men were turning from their seemingly failing secular resistance movement towards militant Islamism. The same goes for the growth of Hammas and Islamic Jihad in Israel at the expense of the PLO. And also in many other areas, not least moderate and/or secular Turkey, Indonesia, and Checnya, not to mention the diaspora in Europe. This growth was neither natural nor inevitable, and was undoubtedly exacerbated not only by the dictatorship, stagnation and corruption of the governments of Muslim states, but also by the polarisation caused in part by the invasions of the West (and Russia.)

None of which is to say that the growth of Islamist movements are a progressive and legitimate movement of liberation as some on the left have come near to disastrously maintaining. On the contrary, though Burke never makes such an assertion himself, I find the description of its leading figures corresponds with an almost classically fascist movement.

They are rooted firmly in a disenchanted middle-class, whether doctors like al-Zawarhi or rich businessmen like bin Laden himself. They are disenchanted chiefly due to a hurt sense of national (or pan-national/religious) decline. They are utterly hostile to religious tolerance, the Enlightenment, Jews, women or minority rights, and also to socialism and the labour movement at large. Indeed, al-Banna himself was an explicit admirer of Nazi Germany. As Burke shows, the hard-core of the real "terrorist cells" taking action against the West are profoundly educated and middle-class themselves. That an increasing minority come from genuinely impoverished backgrounds in the last two years (as he also demonstrates) only goes to show the counter-productive effect Western activities have had. There is still a key difference however, on the whole, to the masses tacitly sympathising with atrocities through desperation and those carrying them out themselves.

They attract a vast and increasing number of the desperate poor in their countries, often due to the crass stupidity and brutality of "infidel" governments of all colours. But this no more legitimises radical Islamists than the unemployment caused by the neo-liberal capitalist policies pursued by New Labour makes the BNP genuine champions of the working poor of England. No-one on the left should see them as anything other than what they are; evil bastards given false validation by the machinations of the more powerful. Cream off the followers, but don`t even think about trying to "engage" with the leaders.

Burke's study is exemplary in its research, and explains its extremely complex tale with some clarity (the extensive indexes and glossaries help too). It is however an undeniably dry read, a mixture of the academic and reportage journalese. I must say, at only 355 pages it still took me a very long time to get through it. That's probably my problem though and -damned if you do and damned if you don't - giving a more vibrant style to a subject like this leaves the author open to charges of sensationalism. It's fair to say though that this book is probably not best for the completely uninitiated, or for someone not prepared to give the subject their full undivided attention.

Part of this staid style comes from Burke's admirable neutrality of tone, which has won plaudits from Chomsky to those much further to the right. He is not out to make a point, but simply to document an area he has reported on and studied for many years. It's only in the final chapter that Burke's views - still fairly cautious - are made clear. Namely, that only the continuing resistance of the wider world Muslim population to the minority teachings of zealots like bin Laden, Zarqawi and their forbears al-Banna and Qutb can possibly see them off. And that, whatever the intentions, arresting the rapid growth this fanaticism is seeing has been made much harder by the recent actions of the West.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2005]