- The media myth of a global Islamic conspiracy never got
much traction in America before 2001 because the minority Muslim American
population simply did not seem like much of a threat, because Saudi Arabia
and other Gulf States are loyal US allies, and because Americans generally
have a positive attitude toward wealthy investors. After 9/11 pro-Israel
propagandists exploited public ignorance and created a nightmarish fantasy
of al-Qaeda in order to put the US and allies into conflict with the entire
Islamic world. What is al-Qaeda? What do they believe? What do they actually
- Osama bin Laden first used the term "al-Qaeda"
in an interview in 1998, probably in reference to a 1988 article written
by Palestinian activist Abdullah Azzam entitled "al-Qa`ida al-Sulba"
(the Solid Foundation). In it, Azzam elaborates upon the ideas
of the Egyptian scholar Sayed Qutb to explain modern jihadi principles.
Qutb, author of Social Justice in Islam, is viewed as the founder of modern
Arab-Islamic political religious thought. Qutb is comparable to John Locke
in Western political development. Both Azzam and Qutb were serious men
of exceptional integrity and honor.
- While Qutb was visiting the USA in 1949, he and several
friends were turned away from a movie theater because the owner thought
they were black. 'But we're Egyptians,' one of the group explained. The
owner apologized and offered to let them in, but Qutb refused, galled by
the fact that black Egyptians could be admitted but black Americans could
not," recounts Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower. Qutb predicted
that the struggle between Islam and materialism would define the modern
world. He embraced martyrdom in 1966 in rejection of Arab socialist politics.
- Azzam similarly rejected secular Palestinian nationalist
politics as an impediment to moral virtue. He opposed terrorist attacks
on civilians and had strong reservations about ideas like offensive jihad,
or preventive war. He also hesitated to designate any Muslim leader as
an apostate and preferred to allow God to make such judgments. Inspired
by the courage and piety of Afghan Muslims struggling against the Soviets,
Azzam reinterpreted Qutb's concept of individual and collective obligation
of Muslims in his fatwa entitled "Defense of the Muslim Lands, the
First Obligation after Iman (Faith)." Qutb would have prioritized
the struggle of Egyptian Muslims to transform Egypt into a virtuous Islamic
state while Azzam argued that every individual Muslim had an obligation
to come to the aid of oppressed Muslims everywhere, whether they are Afghan,
Kosovar, Bosnian, Thai, Filipino, or Chechen.
- John Calvert of Creighton University writes, "This
ideology would soon energize the most significant jihad movement of modern
- At Azzam's call, Arabs from many countries joined America's
fight against Communism in Afghanistan. No Arab jihadi attack was considered
terrorism when Azzam led the group, or later when bin Laden ran the group.
Because the global Islamic movement overlapped with the goals of the US
government, Arab jihadis worked and traveled frictionlessly throughout
the world between Asia, Arabia and America. Azzam was assassinated in Pakistan
in 1989, but legends of the courageous sacrifices of the noble Arab Afghans
energized the whole Islamic world.
- After the Soviets left Afghanistan, bin Laden relocated
to Sudan in 1992. At the time he was probably undisputed commander of nothing
more than a small group, which became even smaller after he lost practically
all his money on Sudan investments. He returned to Afghanistan in 1996,
where the younger Afghans, the Taliban welcomed him on account of his reputation
as a veteran war hero.
- There is no real evidence that bin Laden or al-Qaeda
had any connection to the Ugandan and Tanzanian embassy attacks or any
of the numerous attacks for which they have been blamed. Pro-Israel propagandists
like Daniel Pipes or Matthew Levitt needed an enemy for their war against
Muslim influence on American culture more than random explosions in various
places needed a central commander. By the time the World Trade Center was
destroyed, the Arab fighters surrounding Osama bin Laden were just a dwindling
remnant living on past glories of Afghanistan's struggle against Communism.
Al-Qaeda has never been and certainly is not today an immensely powerful
terror organization controlling Islamic banks and charities throughout
- Al-Qaeda maintained training camps in Afghanistan like
Camp Faruq, where Muslims could receive basic training just as American
Jews go to Israel for military training with the IDF. There they learned
to disassemble, clean and reassemble weapons, and got to associate with
old warriors, who engaged in great heroism against the Soviets but did
not do much since. Many al-Qaeda trainees went on to serve US interests
in Central Asia (e.g. Xinjiang) in the 1990s but from recent descriptions
the camps seem to currently provide a form of adventure tourism with no
future enlistment obligations.
- Although western media treats al-Qaeda as synonymous
with Absolute Evil, much of the world reveres the Arab Afghans as martyr
saints. Hundreds of pilgrims visit Kandahar's Arab cemetery daily, believing
that the graves of those massacred in the 2001 US bombing of Afghanistan
possess miraculous healing powers.
- Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based writer on Middle East
affairs and US politics. She is Director of the Division on Muslim Civil
Rights and Liberties for the National Association of Muslim American Women.
Joachim Martillo contributed to this article.