The Foundation

|

Terrorism specialists Adam Dolnik and Kimberly McCloud argue that "Al Qaeda" is a phrase that has come to obscure more than it illuminates. It's time, they tell sp!ked, to defuse "the widespread image of al-Qaeda as a ubiquitous, super-organised terror network and call it as it is: a loose collection of groups and individuals that doesn't even refer to itself as al-Qaeda."

Yes, I know: You already knew that. You should read the article anyway. The language we use can alter the way we see things, and the piece is a useful reminder of what we forget when we rely too much on the words "Al Qaeda."

NEXT: Too Sensitive

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. It’s true, once we realize that “al-Qaeda [is not] a ubiquitous, super-organised terror network [but rather] a loose collection of groups and individuals that doesn’t even refer to itself as al-Qaeda” we’ll understand that negotation cannot work and taking the fight to them is necessary.

  2. we’ll understand that negotation cannot work and taking the fight to them is necessary

    When has anyone suggested “negotiating” with Al Qaeda?

  3. What does “taking the fight to them” mean if they’re a loose organization? If it means putting forth intelligence resources to identify various cells and raid them then I’m all in favor of it. That implies a series of precision attacks around the world in response to good intelligence. It could also mean attacking governments that provide refuge for high-ranking terrorist leaders. That’s how we should fight the war on terror.

    Or perhaps you mean something else, a more blunt instrument perhaps?

  4. In answer to the 2:11 post, the majority of the world has favored negotiation.

  5. Negotiation? With Osama? How?

    You sure you aren’t confusing Al Qaeda with Iraq? Or maybe you’re not sure what “negotiation” means?

  6. I have had this discussion in one form or another with friends and co-workers, and the only ones who seem to disagree with the common sense understanding of what “al-Qaeda,” really is are the ones who support the massive overkill we have engaged in… the ideal way (IMHO) to deal with the terrorist threat is to treat the individual cells as a law-enforcement matter (which would be immeasurably more effective if we didn’t alienate our allies), and as a national security matter when it can be proven that a nation-state is supporting them. Am I wrong about this?

  7. Iraq notwithstanding of course. The case against them has turned into a sterling case against “pre-emptive war,” an unholy subversion of American priniciple in my not so humble opinion.

  8. Steve in CO,
    Yes, you are wrong. Any more questions?

  9. I’d never heard the term al Qaeda until 9/11. I recall thinking that, based on what I’d heard on teevee, that they sounded exactly like a foundation working with local nonprofits.

    Capacity building, project management, grants, panels, conventions…

  10. Todd-

    I thought Steve made a lot of sense, at least in his first post. The second post was shorter, so I’m more reluctant to agree or disagree with it until I see more embellishment.

    Was he wrong in the first post, the second post, or both? If so, what was the error (or errors)?

  11. …workshops, advertising, fund raising, lobbying, cultivating friendly relationships with government contacts.

  12. Dear Thoreau,

    My second post is my exclamation that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a great example of why pre-emptive war doctrine should be incompatible with a free nation. When only the ones with the “need to know,” are privy to why we should pre-emptively invade a country then we are going to be dragged into perpetual war that suits the contemporary powers that be, not to be any safer, if anything we’d become a bigger and bigger target. If that’s possible.

  13. I thought any and all references to al Qaeda post the major operations in Afghanistan were just another word for bogey man. Anytime anybody disagreed with Dick Cheney’s muppet or Herr Ashkroft wanted to look up somebody’s ass, they would pull it out and parade it around until the pubic rolled over.

  14. Too right, Steve-O.

    Far better to wait until New York is nuked, than to topple a vicious, genocidal and unpredictable dictator who hasn’t hit us with a catastrophic strike yet. That’s just incompatible with notions of a free nation…

    And funny, Bill, but the Turks don’t think Al Qaida is an imaginary bogey man.

  15. Nuke New York City? With what? Did one of the donkeys get into some looted Barium?

  16. Stephen-

    The people who attacked Turkey are not imaginary. Al Qaeda is not imaginary.

    The question is just how strong or loose the Al Qaeda organization is. If it’s a tight organization, then taking out key people could cause the whole thing to collapse. If it’s a looser organization (i.e. many of the people operating under its moniker have/need relatively little support/direction/funding from central leaders) then the task in front of us is much more difficult. Sadly, the task may be much more difficult. That should in no way be seen as a suggestion to surrender.

  17. I am glad to see the point espoused here that “Al Qaeda” is not some kind of coherent organization of people with membership cards and a homeland.

    I hope this message gets passed along to all the critics who bemoan that the invasion of Iraq “distracted us from the fight against Al Qaeda” or that we should be fighting “the real enemy (which is Al Qaeda)” somewhere other than Iraq, because those criticisms are predicated on the notion that “Al Qaeda” is some kind of coherent organization of people with membership cards and a homeland.

  18. Name-

    The closest thing Al Qaeda had to a central base and leadership was Osama and his merry band of spelunking terrorists living in Afghan caves. Although there are probably many governments with varying degrees of ties to various elements of Al Qaeda, the Taliban regime seems to have been the regime most closely affiliated with Al Qaeda.

    With the Taliban regime overthrown, the priorities should be (1) making sure Al Qaeda and the Taliban do not retake Afghanistan, (2) infiltrating the remainder of the Al Qaeda network with spies and informants, and (3) arresting members of terrorist cells once they are identified (perhaps waiting until our spies have obtained information on whom the identified terrorists are working with, so they can take down more people in one fell swoop).

    Seen in that light, it’s not entirely clear that invading Iraq helped us in the fight against Al Qaeda. Iraq may or may not have posed other threats (Al Qaeda is not the only source of terrorism in this world), so invading Iraq may have been worthwhile, but barring evidence of links to Al Qaeda one cannot say that invading Iraq advanced the war against Al Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq was part of a separate campaign that must be judged on its own merits or demerits.

  19. “Nuke New York City? With what? Did one of the donkeys get into some looted Barium?”

    Yes, not only does Al Qaeda not exist, they’ve proven themselves to be harmless!

    A rose by any other name…

  20. the priorities should be (1) making sure Al Qaeda and the Taliban do not retake Afghanistan,

    Certainly, we should do that. Thus far, we have succeeded. Let me know if that situation changes.

    (2) infiltrating the remainder of the Al Qaeda network with spies and informants,

    One hopes that we are doing that to whatever extent we are able to, at least without running up against diminishing returns and all that.

    and (3) arresting members of terrorist cells once they are identified

    Presumably this is being done on an ongoing basis as the situation warrants. Not only by our own government but by certain others if news reports are any indication.

    Even taking your expert word for it that your (1), (2), and (3) come out on top as Priorities for us on a cost/benefit basis, I see no reason a priori why the Iraq invasion necessarily ought to interfere with any of them to a fatal extent.

    What I would reject (not that your priorities need rejecting because they are obvious and unobjectionable) would be any prioritizing or reasoning which assumes that the only enemies we have in the world are the people who are “in” “Al Qaeda” and, therefore, that it is a priori not right to fight anyone other than those people who are “in” “Al Qaeda”. The point of the post, I thought – with which I agreed – was that there is not necessarily always such an easily-defined concept of being “in” “Al Qaeda” as is popularly supposed.

    it’s not entirely clear that invading Iraq helped us in the fight against Al Qaeda

    Perhaps not. As you can see I reject the notion that our fight is against “Al Qaeda” and no one else.

    invading Iraq may have been worthwhile, but barring evidence of links to Al Qaeda one cannot say that invading Iraq advanced the war against Al Qaeda

    Perhaps not. I wouldn’t stake a defense of the Iraq invasion on the degree to which it aided the war against “Al Qaeda” in the first place.

    “Al Qaeda” is not some kind of coherent organization of people with membership cards and a homeland.

  21. So, “Name:” it is a war against Arabs in general then, Muslims in particular? I thought it was a war against terrorists? Now, if you are into starting a war by inviting fence-sitters in to take potshots at your troops, we have done a fine job, that assumes a zero sum game, for which this is most definetly not.

  22. Name-

    I said near the end of my post:

    Al Qaeda is not the only source of terrorism in this world… The invasion of Iraq was part of a separate campaign that must be judged on its own merits or demerits

    So I think we agree, at least on that. Now, if you want my opinion of whether or not we should have invaded Iraq, I suspect we might disagree there. But as an aid to clear thinking people on both sides of the Iraq issue should recognize that

    (1) Given its loose nature, Al Qaeda was probably not closely allied with Iraq (unless one defines “closely allied” to mean “having a common enemy”, in which case we were closely allied with Iran when we invaded Iraq), so in the absence of new evidence one cannot cite the threat posed by Al Qaeda as sufficient or sole justification for invading Iraq.
    (2) Despite an apparent lack of linkage between Iraq and Al Qaeda, Iraq could still pose a threat, so one cannot dismiss the importance of invading Iraq by saying that Saddam Hussein wasn’t working with Al Qaeda (even if that statement is indeed correct).

    The case for invading or not invading Iraq needed to be made on other grounds. Whether or not the burden was met is a source of never-ending debate here, and probably always will be.

  23. thoreau,

    Al Qaeda was probably not closely allied with Iraq (unless one defines “closely allied” to mean “having a common enemy”, in which case we were closely allied with Iran when we invaded Iraq), so in the absence of new evidence one cannot cite the threat posed by Al Qaeda as sufficient or sole justification for invading Iraq.

    As comes through in your parenthetical remark, the truth of this sweeping assertion depends quite a bit on what that “closely allied” thing really means. Different people can make different evaluations of how “close” the “alliance” really needs to be before they get concerned enough about it to believe that invasion is warranted.

    Despite an apparent lack of linkage between Iraq and Al Qaeda,

    I don’t know how “apparent” this is but on the other hand this premise probably begs the question of what you consider “linkage” – I’d guess that anything I’d say at this point would be labeled “not sufficient linkage” by you (else you wouldn’t have said this in the first place), so it’s not worth arguing about.

    The case for invading or not invading Iraq needed to be made on other grounds.

    I don’t know if I agree with that either. There may well be plenty of people who were convinced to approve of invading Iraq based solely on the “Al Qaeda” connection you think isn’t sufficiently “close” to warrant invasion. Again, different people can make different judgments about such things.

    The case for invading or not invading Iraq … Whether or not the burden was met is a source of never-ending debate here, and probably always will be.

    Actually it was resolved in the fall of the previous year, with about 70% of our representatives in Congress deciding in the affirmative when they approved the War Powers resolution. I guess what you’re saying is that, despite having effectively lost the argument already, some people will continue to try to re-argue the case. I suppose that is true. There are people who still re-argue WW2 and the Civil War after all…. Best,

  24. Steve in CO,

    So, “Name:” it is a war against Arabs in general then, Muslims in particular?

    Where do you get that? Certainly not from anything I wrote.

    I thought it was a war against terrorists?

    As lefties sometimes correctly point out, “terrorism” is a tactic. It is a war against people for whom terrorism is one of their tactics, sure.

    Now, if you are into starting a war by inviting fence-sitters in to take potshots at your troops,

    Since I’m not “into” that, the rest of your sentence does not apply. Best,

  25. Name:

    You said
    Actually it was resolved in the fall of the previous year, with about 70% of our representatives in Congress deciding in the affirmative when they approved the War Powers resolution. I guess what you’re saying is that, despite having effectively lost the argument already, some people will continue to try to re-argue the case.

    Two things. First, when I said “is a source of never-ending debate here, and probably always will be…” I only meant on this forum. It is self-evident that the question remains controversial on Reason’s Hit and Run discussion board.

    Second, I don’t consider a question settled simply because 70% of our elected representatives voted a certain way. It may be settled in their minds, but I make up my own mind.

  26. It is self-evident that the question remains controversial on Reason’s Hit and Run discussion board.

    Granted. Best,

  27. Sure, thoreau, whether we should have finished the Gulf War when and how we did will always be an open question. I do think the whole issue becomes a little more clear when you think of the invasion this year as the final campaign of a 12-year war.

    I don’t think the legality of the final campaign against Iraq can be seriously questioned. The US Senate authorized the President to conduct a war against Iraq twice. To the extent one cares (and I don’t, particularly), the UN also repeatedly authorized the use of force against Iraq. The cease-fire that ended the initial 1991 campaign never matured into an armistice, and everyone agrees it was repeatedly violated by Saddam. I think the legality side of the question is a dry hole for opponents of the final campaign.

    The political and diplomatic dimensions are, of course, loosely moored to the legal dimension, and will be endlessly debated.

  28. Are we sayin’ here “Al Qaeda” is like Hells Angels used to be before the Angels started collecting disability and social security?

  29. From what I gathered of that article, it seems like Al Qaeda’s diffuse structure may be a result of two distinct things:

    1) Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues created an intentionally compartmentalized organization, so that one cell could function if others were arrested. And they formed a lot of alliances, so it is diffuse by design already.

    2) Now that Al Qaeda is the most famous Islamic terrorist group out there, anybody who has ever had any interaction with them will now also claim membership.

    This is not to diminish the threat when some group with very tenuous Al Qaeda links launches any sort of attack. The fact that they launched the attack proves they are a very real danger. But saying they’re part of Al Qaeda might not provide many useful clues as to whom their immediate associates are, who funded them, etc. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go after Al Qaeda anyway, or that we shouldn’t go after the terrorists who are only indirectly linked to Al Qaeda. It just means that when doing the detective work of identifying all of the people involved in an attack, the Al Qaeda brand name might not be overly useful. (But who needs detective work, when you can just invade some random Arab country and say “Well, they were either involved or they would be next time if we hadn’t stopped them.”?)

    Then again, this is just what I gleaned from the article that started this thread. My surmising is no better than the info in the article.

  30. No, you could could always offer beer to the Angels, and they probably would forestall stomping you at least until they finished the beer.

    Al Queda was, is and will be a threat. I saw one of their ‘leaders’ quoted last month saying he wants to kill 100,000 Americans at once in one giant strike. By now do you really think he’s kidding?

  31. Also, there isn’t now and never was a Mafia. Just didn’t exist.

  32. Does anyone know how one comes to the conclusion that such and such an act of terrorism ‘looks like Al-Qaeda’? What kind of blown up building doesn’t look like the work of Al-Qaeda?

    Are they tracking suspects to Afghanistani terrorist schools or something?

  33. Jason, I think AQ when attackers engage in combat to gain access to/control of their target, then destroy it once it is firmly in their control. The 4 planes, the Indian legislature, the residential compounds in Saudi Arabia

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.