2007-04-15

Why the misconceptions about Al-Qaeda?

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuation of notes from Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror by Jason Burke.

Why do the misconceptions about Al-Qaeda persist?

Reason 1: It is convenient and reassuring to think of al-Qaeda as a traditional terrorist group. It promises an sure victory once the organization is defeated.

Reason 2: Repressive governments can avoid international criticism by labelling their opponents as having links with al-Qaeda. Jason Burke notes that in the autumn of 2001 previously undetected al-Qaeda cells were “discovered” in scores of countries:

  • Uzbekistan (Tashenk suddenly branded U’s local Islamic Movement as ‘al-Qaeda’)
  • China (the longstanding independence movement among the Uighar Moslems was branded an ‘al-Qaeda’ branch)
  • Thailand (bomb blasts in the south of Thailand by groups for many years in turf war between police and military over smuggling and racketing, and in which local Islamic gropus were sometimes involved, were now blamed on ‘al-Qaeda’)
  • Macedonia (8 illegal economic immigrants shot dead at a border were accused of being ‘al-Qaeda’)
  • Tunisia (left-wing opponents of the Tunisian government were re-labelled as ‘al-Qaeda’)
  • Philippines (The Abu Sayyaf group, a local independence movement many decades old, that has largely abandoned militant Islam in preference for crime, especially kidnapping western tourists, has been branded ‘al-Qaeda’)
  • Kashmir (As tensions mount between Pakistan and India over Kashmir claims of bin-Laden hiding there always arise.)

Reason 3: “Intelligence services lie, cheat and deceive. Propaganda is one of their primary functions.” (p.19) — e.g. the British intelligence dossier of 4 October 2001 claimed substantial bin-Laden links with the drug trade. Fact: everyone involved in the drug trade from Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere, including UN experts monitoring drugs production, deny bin-Laden’s involvement. The lie was akin to propaganda about German atrocities in World War 1. Similar false stories circulated about Saddam’s links with al-Qaeda.

Reason 4: The media knows what sells. Ironically information from security services is widely seen as having greater veracity and is exempt from normal journalistic scrutiny. A story containing bin-Laden will sell easily.

Reason 5: Bin Laden is happy to encourage myths about his power. He rarely confirms or denies his involement in any operation.

“Myth breeds more myth” (p.21)

I would add another here — that a few groups may well want to proclaim a link with al-Qaeda to provoke more fear than their real clout warrants. Such may be the case of the group claiming responsibility for recent bombing in Algeria (if indeed they did claim this and that news was not concocted by the Algerian government).

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