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Frank Gardner

It is hard to imagine it now, but not long ago most of the world had never heard of the name ‘al-Qaeda’. True, Osama Bin Laden’s name had cropped up a few times, mainly as the chief suspect behind the US embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998. But for most people, this was not a name nor a group that intruded into most people’s lives.

That changed on 11 September 2001. The devastating aerial attacks on New York and Washington on that day were the culmination of months of meticulous planning by an organisation that was, and still is, dedicated to the downfall of America and its allies.

What is al-Qaeda?

Al-Qaeda, meaning ‘The Base’ in Arabic, was founded by Osama Bin Laden and his associates in the 1980s. Then, it was essentially a loose umbrella term for the Islamic militants (the Mujahideen) who had been fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. When the Soviets withdrew, these so-called ‘Arab Afghans’ began to return home to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and other Arab countries. They did not like what they found. After years spent fighting for a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan they viewed their own governments as being corrupt and secular. But worse was to come.

When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, Osama Bin Laden proposed to the Saudi Government that he drive them out with a mujahideen army. The Saudis declined the offer, and invited the US military to do the job instead. Appalled at this ‘desecration’ of holy Arabian soil by Christian and Jewish soldiers, Bin Laden and his Saudi followers began to complain about their rulers and their American backers. To escape the attentions of the Saudi authorities, Bin Laden moved first to Sudan then, in 1996, to Afghanistan where he forged a close alliance with the Taleban.

Al-Qaeda’s strikes
  • 1998 - twin bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania kill 223 people
  • 2000 - Suicide bomb attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour kills 17 US sailors
  • 2001 - four hijacked planes slam into New York and Washington killing nearly 3,000 people
  • Secure in its Afghan bases, al-Qaeda was able to run training camps for thousands of eager, impressionable young Muslims from all over the world. United in their hatred of America and Israel, they were taught how to handle explosives, firearms, and in some cases an assassination, and how to blend into Western society. By 1998, al-Qaeda had merged with Egypt’s Islamic Jihad group, declared a war on ‘Jews and Crusaders’, and established links with the violent Salafist groups of North Africans living in Europe.

    Long before 11 September, the US military drew up plans to send teams of special forces into Afghanistan, snatch Bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda’s base. In 1998 it launched cruise missiles against Bin Laden’s camp but without success. It was not until October 2001 that the US acted decisively on al-Qaeda’s Afghan base.

    Within two months, the Taleban had been driven out of power and al-Qaeda was on the run. Yet today, Western intelligence agencies say the organisation is more dangerous than ever. It is dispersed across more than 50 countries. It is invisible. And it is planning to strike again.

    Intelligence picture

    Why did US intelligence fail to stop the attacks of 11 September? There are many reasons, but the two principle ones are these:

    The vast and secretive US intelligence community was competing with itself. Information was not being shared, memos were not being acted upon, warnings about al-Qaeda were effectively being ignored. The shake-up in organisation this year will have rectified some of these failings but it will take time and there are fears that plans for a second major strike on the US have already been laid.

    The US has invested billions of dollars in hi-tech intelligence-gathering. It has got satellites in space, pilotless drones in the air, and the ability to intercept phone calls, e-mails and facsimiles. What it has plainly lacked is a human informant inside al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. The US has also woken up belatedly to the fact it knows too little about al-Qaeda and that it does not have enough Arabic speakers to translate the wealth of information it is gathering.

    The investigation today

    Arrests are being made all over the world, some of them in error. There are now close to 600 detainees being held without trial by the US military in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The US says they are being interrogated without any physical contact and that it is making slow but methodical progress in finding out more about al-Qaeda. Others say that most of those held there know precious little about the organisation and those that do are not telling their interrogators the truth.

    In the UK and Europe there have been dozens of arrests and so-called ‘terror trials’ of individuals accused of supporting al-Qaeda. It has emerged that Europe has played a key role as a logistics base for the group, providing false documents, passports, money, safe houses and recruiting. But prosecutors are finding it hard to make their charges stick and in many cases suspects are being released for lack of evidence or else given light sentences. Already, some of those accused are moving to file law suits against those who detained them.

    Western intelligence is having some successes against al-Qaeda. Working closely with the Moroccan authorities, it believes it thwarted a major plot to attack Western warships in the Straits of Gibraltar, although those arrested say they are innocent.

    But in America, the whole issue of ‘racial profiling’ - in this case screening those with a Middle Eastern background - is alienating the millions of Muslims who live there and angering Arab visitors. These are some of the very people the US needs to help it fight al-Qaeda.

    Now, humiliated by searches and raids, and often feeling like second-class citizens, they are increasingly reluctant to help. The US and its allies still have a long way to go before winning their ‘war on terror’.

    Story link:

  • Al-Qaeda's origins
  • Roots of Jihad
  • Bin Laden tape fears
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