Beginning a new series on the history of Al Qaeda, this week I provide the basis for what’s coming in the next several episodes. What is or was Al Qaeda? Four distinct models have been proposed to try to answer this question so I outline each, drawing on the works of Rohan Gunaratna, Jason Burke/Adam Curtis, Nafeez Ahmed and Daniele Ganser. While drawing no specific conclusions this presents more subtle and complex way of viewing the ongoing War on Terror, and provides an interpretive framework for the specific cases we’re going to examine in this series.
This is the beginning of a new series that is likely to go on for several episodes so I guess the first question is why have I chosen this topic? For one thing I felt that it was time to take a bit of a break from the central topic of this podcast and of the whole spyculture site. I’m so engaged in this topic, so fascinated by it but also somewhat repulsed by what it implies about our culture and politics that I could talk about it endlessly and not get bored. But I do occasionally worry about getting boring, so when a subscriber on Patreon said that they’d love to hear me talk more about this I did take it to heart. That person has cancelled their Patreon subscription but hey, you win some and you lose some.
For me personally, the book 1984 either caused or coincided with my political awakenings, which happened when I was very young. I read the book repeatedly from the age of maybe 10 years old, maybe even younger than that – too young to properly understand it, but not too young for it to make a big impression on someone who is naturally interested in how language works, how power works, how systems and structures work. There’s a lot of ideas that 1984 posed to me that, looking back, had a fundamental influence on how I think about the world. Two key ideas – doublethink/doublespeak and false flag terrorism – have fascinated me ever since.
I was 18 years old when 9/11 happened – perhaps not quite a man but certainly not a boy. I was appalled by what happened afterwards, and by the lack of resistance to it. It wasn’t until 2003-2004 that I started reading about 9/11 and Al Qaeda in a serious way, but my initial instincts when I watched 9/11 live on TV was that the images didn’t match up to the comments by the various presenters and interviewees that framed the coverage. In the weeks and months that followed I watched as the coverage of the supposed perpetrators – Al Qaeda – grew more and more ludicrous in its exaggerations about the capabilities of a small group of radical Muslims living in caves. I felt that a narrative was emerging – for whatever reason – that simply wasn’t true.
Sometime in late 2003 someone on a philosophy discussion forum I used to frequent raised the possibility of the Bush administration, or people inside the government at any rate, being behind the 9/11 attacks. I saw that they had cynically exploited 9/11 to launch two wars so I wasn’t opposed to this idea and he started sending me some of the early 9/11 truth videos. I admit, I kinda got hooked on the topic for a while like a lot of people did but within a few months I started wondering about the bigger question – not ‘who did 9/11?’ but ‘what is Al Qaeda?’. Because, expressed simply, if Al Qaeda is in some way a tool or asset of Western governments then the binary division between ‘Al Qaeda did it’ and ‘the government did it’ dissolves into a much more complex and subtle scenario.
The First Model of Al Qaeda
Or set of scenarios, I should say. Because they are at least four popular versions of what Al Qaeda is and therefore what the post-9/11 War on Terror is. The first is that Al Qaeda is, or at least was in 2001, a vast network of Islamic terrorists with cells in 60 countries and maybe 100,000 operatives worldwide. This is the version put forward by the Bush White House, the Blair government and critics like Rohan Gunaratna, an Indonesian academic who gained an astonishing amount of access to captured Al Qaeda members. As in, the kind of access you only get when you’re friendly with the intelligence services. He published his book Inside Al Qaeda in June 2002, less than a year after 9/11. This became the standard go-to book in critical and journalistic circles and Gunaratna was perhaps the biggest of the new generation of ‘terror experts’ we saw on the nightly news. It is likely no coincidence that while he was doing research at the University of Maryland in the mid 1990s he worked with Stansfield Turner, former head of the CIA. Gunaratna came out of nowhere – a guy who had written about nothing except the Tamil Tigers suddenly became a world-respected expert on Al Qaeda? And he’s also a proven liar, his brief Wikipedia page mentions several instances of Rohan getting into trouble for telling porkies, about himself, about organisations being front for terrorist gangs, that sort of thing. So these days he’s something of a tragic figure, discarded by a news media that no longer gives a toss. But for a time he was a very important useful idiot.
However, I will give Gunaratna some credit for not being quite as ridiculous as those people who claimed Bin Laden was in charge of all of these 100,000 disparate terrorists that made up Al Qaeda. Gunaratna describes a more horizontal structure, not really paramilitary in any traditional sense. The idea of a horizontal cell structure where the cells don’t know what the other cells are doing originates with the IRA. The idea is that it makes it much harder for the intelligence agencies to infiltrate your organisation and find out what you’re doing. The problem is that the IRA often met, four guys in black balaclavas, all using a false name. This is also what Gunaratna describes Al Qaeda doing. While this might sound like a good way to prevent your organisation being taken over by spies, in practice it is the opposite. It means if there are any spies in your organisation then it’s almost impossible to find them because no one knows who the fuck anyone else is or what they’re doing. As a consequence, the IRA were so well infiltrated that their own molecatcher – the guy responsible for finding the British spies – was a British spy.
The Second Model of Al Qaeda
So that’s the first interpretation of Al Qaeda – the neo con version if you like. Soon enough a counter-narrative emerged in the mainstream, most prominently through the documentary series The Power of Nightmares. This draws heavily on the work of Jason Burke, a journalist who to his credit has spent a lot of time wandering around dangerous places talking to dangerous people. Burke’s version, which became Adam Curtis’ version in The Power of Nightmares, is that the Gunaratna model is untrue. I’ll play you a famous clip of the key interview Curtis did with Burke which sums this up:
According to this interpretation Al Qaeda did not exist beyond Bin Laden and a small group of followers, but the threat is real because the threat is a set of ideas, basically the Islamist side of the philosophy of the Clash of Civilisations advanced by Samuel Huntington. So, by both of these two models the War on Terror is somewhat legitimate, in that there is a real threat that needs to be countered somehow.
The Third Model of Al Qaeda
Simultaneously, a third model emerged, most obviously in the work of Nafeez Ahmed, an academic who has written a load of great books and is now a journalist who continues to write a lot of great stuff. His recent piece on Trump as representing one faction of the Deep State that seems to have declared war on another faction is very compelling and probably an accurate analysis of what’s going on. But back in his academic days he documented how terrorism has been used as a tool of statecraft by Western states and their allies, often using jihadis as proxies to carry out the violence. He points to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bosnia, Kosova, Algeria, Indonesia, always tying back to organisations and people in Western countries, as examples of this strategy.
This model says that the attacks by ‘Al Qaeda’ (in a broad sense, more like how Burke is using the term) are the natural consequences of this use of terrorism as statecraft. In essence, if you arm, train, fund, equip and put to use a bunch of jihadis all over the place then sooner or later someone’s going to blow up a train station or shoot up a shopping centre. It’s just going to happen, it is quite predictable, and it seems that those in the West who are engaged in this strategy see this blowback as either an acceptable loss, a cost of doing business, or they just don’t care. So Ahmed characterises this as the wilful negligence of the security services – a crime, to be sure, but not total complicity.
The Fourth Model of Al Qaeda
The Fourth and final interpretation of Al Qaeda emerged in the 9/11 truth movement and associated circles, namely that Al Qaeda was in fact Al CIAda, a pseudogang created and controlled by Western intelligence. They point to some truths, such as the CIA and MI6 support for the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, which included Bin Laden, or that the reported 9/11 bagman Ahmed Omar Said Sheikh was working for MI6 and the Pakistani ISI. They also point to some nonsense, like Bin Laden being a CIA agent under the codename Tim Osman, which is one of those widely-repeated but never sourced claims.
In late 2004 a Swiss academic Daniele Ganser published the book NATO’s Secret Armies, based on his PhD thesis. For the first time since a BBC documentary in the early 1990s people started paying attention to Operation Gladio – a series of secret armies set up by intelligence agencies in NATO countries across Europe. These covert armies were initially stay-behind units who would remain inactive until there was a Soviet invasion, at which time they would self-activate and form a guerilla resistance like in France against the Nazis. Caches of weapons, communications equipment, forged identity documents, gold bars and the other equipment needed by a secret army were planted all over these European countries. The CIA and MI6, along with some very small high-level NATO committees, had overall responsibility for these operations.
As time went on and the Soviets didn’t invade the purpose of these armies changed. Instead of resisting overt Soviet military aggression they became more concerned with countering what they saw as Communist subversion, which usually meant democratic support for Communist and Socialist parties. In the mid-late 60s Europe exploded once again. Bombs started going off in the streets, politicians got assassinated, all manner of low-level urban warfare struck in over a dozen countries. The Years of Lead in Italy, the Brabant massacres in Belgium, the coup in Greece in 1967 – there was a lot of terrorist violence. Following the Peteano bombing in Italy a judge called Felice Casson began investigating what was going on, and this eventually led him to the perpetrator of that bombing, Vincenzo Vinciguerra. Vincenzo, a neo-fascist, explained that in Italy there was a parallel state of powerful anti-communists who were using fascist radicals to carry out attacks so they could be blamed on the radical Left. Vinciguerra had scratched a five-pointed star onto the bonnet of the car that he blew up in Peteano, and an explosives expert falsely testified that the explosive used was the one preferred by the Red Brigades, the militant communists. However, Vinciguerra says that his bombing was an act of rebellion against this manipulation by the parallel state, not part of their plan.
This broke open the whole issue of Gladio, leading to questions in the Italian parliament and several inquires just in Italy. Other governmental investigations took place in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, and the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning this and mandating that all countries that had these secret armies should conduct investigations into what the armies had done. So while some will tell you this is just a conspiracy theory it absolutely is not. That’s like calling British intelligence infiltration and manipulation of both Republican and Loyalist gangs in Ireland a conspiracy theory, at this point the evidence is overwhelming. That being said, of course people take this too far and before you know it every terrorist who has ever lived is apparently working for the state. That is not true either, that is a ludicrous conspiracy theory. However, if we take Gladio and transpose it onto Al Qaeda we get the fourth model, which if it is accurate has pretty terrible implications for our societies and the War on Terror across the world. It turns the War on Terror into a brutal, cynical power grab by psychopaths.
The Four Models
It took me two or three years to learn about all this stuff and figure out the differences between these models and what kinds of evidence there is for each interpretation. In truth I think there is something to all of these models. There was an organisation around Bin Laden founded in Afghanistan in the late 1980s that had a surprisingly broad international reach. There is a somewhat dangerous set of ideas about political Islam and the Clash of Civilisations. Western governments do use jihadis as proxies and don’t seem particularly bothered about the consequences for their domestic populations. Intelligence agencies do infiltrate and manipulate terrorist gangs and have carried out domestic terrorist attacks, not just abroad. So I wouldn’t reject any of these models out of hand, though I find pieces of the third and fourth the most well-evidenced and the most logical.
But how would we test this? All this talk of theoretical models is fine and dandy but how do we establish the truth here? That’s what motivated me and I spent years trying to find – not truth, exactly – but the best available answers. The way I see it, for the third and/or fourth models to be accurate there would have to be a high proportion of intelligence agents in these various Islamist gangs we’re calling Al Qaeda. If the third model is true then the intelligence failures that seem to precede every major terrorist attack would be either genuine or the result of apathy or looking the other way because jihadis make great secret armies. If the fourth model is true then the intelligence failures would consistently protect these agents, compartmentalising the information to avoid the covert operations being blown and allowing them to continue. That’s how you test which model is the most accurate or the most applicable regarding any given event or series of events.
Meanwhile, the alternative media mostly focused on crap about thermite in the WTC, holographic planes and other things that don’t immediately lead back to the government and the question of their culpability in terms of negligence, complicity, incompetence, apathy or a mixture of all four. Almost like they were all doing the work of the criminals who actually carried out 9/11, the 7/7 London Bombings and so on, whoever those criminals might be. This is why it was only several years into this research that I made a youtube documentary and became something of a public figure in the alt media, and is also why that didn’t last very long before I just said fuck it and decided to do my own thing. The alt media doesn’t have the patience for serious research or serious researchers, so I don’t have much patience for the alt media. The emergence of the idea that, ‘it’s all fake, they’re all just crisis actors, so the question of who the fuck the Tsarnaev brothers were actually working for doesn’t matter’ was essentially the final nail in the coffin, let alone my experiences with certain dishonest, spineless individuals who shall remain nameless.
As a result I have a half finished book on all this that I’m never going to find the time to publish so I’m going to convert all that into a podcast series for your education and enjoyment. Count yourselves lucky, you’re basically getting the juciest fruit of a decade of research for free. Some of this stuff I have talked about before, of course, but a lot of it will be new as well. In essence, we’re going to start in the late 1980s, as the war in Afghanistan was winding down and Bin Laden and others founded the original Al Qaeda organisation and trace the history of how this all continued and developed into and throughout the 1990s, looking at a number of individuals and organisations that have to be assets and fronts for the intelligence services. In short, this is that story you’ve never heard, of what was going with Al Qaeda between the time when it was an outgrowth of the CIA’s Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan, and the time the planes hit the WTC. Now I’ve said that I’m sure some of you are wondering ‘why haven’t we heard that story’? By the end of this series I imagine the answer to that question will be obvious.
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