Al-Qaeda: The true story of radical Islam
by Noel Rooney
[ bookreviews ]
The mythographers have been busy: Osama bin Laden is presently morphing into a modern old man of the mountains, his assassins spoken of with the same awe as their famously obscure forebears. This iconic levitation was never likely to bear much relation to fact; bin Laden's cult status is the result of a potent mix of demonisation and adulation, a literary sub-genre and an internet bubble.
So it's first of all a plain relief to read a level-headed and informed analysis of al-Qaeda and its place in the diversity of islamisms (Burke settles on the judicious catch-all 'jihadist Salafis') staking a claim on the vanguard of Moslem militancy. After vanloads of invective passing itself as analysis, anything resembling common sense and objectivity should be grasped with gratitude.
If your view of al-Qaeda comes from either the western media, and the plethora of dreadful books which have appeared since 1998, but especially since September 2001; or from islamist websites, laced with the coded language of hubristically gullible acolytes, then you will know of this shadowy organisation, tentacles globally akimbo, as the corporate headquarters of extreme jihad. And bin Laden, the Bill Gates of the bombing fraternity, has a devout finger in every gory pie.
What emerges from Burke's admirably lucid investigation into a murky subject is very different. During the Afghan war of liberation, bin Laden was just one immigrant warlord among many, and the alliances he made did not suggest he was about to bankroll a Taliban emirate. When that war ended, he became an itinerant of sorts, spending time in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan among other places.
Al-Qaeda's operational phase seems to have come about later, from around 1996; certainly no intelligence hysteria is visible before that time. And the phase very probably ended soon after 9/11, when the US bombed the cave systems on which various jihadist organisations, including al-Qaeda, depended. While five years is sufficient time to generate an awful lot of carnage (and al-Qaeda was assiduous in this respect), it hardly merits notice as the reign of a pirate king.
So what is al-Qaeda now, and why do so many young men claim allegiance to it, and dedicate their acts of terror to it and to bin Laden? Burke shows that the bewildering variety of militant islamist organisations and ideologies around since the 1990s have tended to converge into an apocalyptic consensus. Crowning that consensus with a symbolic figurehead is a natural outgrowth of the mystical miasma of religious terrorism; but in this case it does seem as if the west's adoption of bin Laden as planetary enemy number one was a factor.
We should not be surprised to find that we have helped to create the monster of jihadist terrorism; nor that the followers of this particularly nihilistic form of religious fundamentalism are quite credulous enough to accept our word about who they should be following. What is perhaps surprising is that the west's inadvertent apotheosis has stuck, and al-Qaeda has remained the registered trademark for a whole range of murderous interventions worldwide.
Jason Burke has produced easily the best book on both the particular phenomenon of al-Qaeda, and the general context of terrorism in our troubled times. He sets aside the Daily Mail cant and islamist hyperbole, and shows us the physically fragmented, but ideologically homogeneous, arena in which the game of killing is played out.
He also gives a brief, but reasonably comprehensive, history of radical currents in Islam, setting an intellectual context for the apparently scattergun violence of the jihadis. Whether it is possible to glean more than a glimpse of the reality of militant Islam without a good knowledge of the religion and its history is arguable, but Burke does his best to show where ideas and strategies come from, and where the extreme views of the jihadis connect with current in mainstream Islam - or more to the point, where they do not.
Tony Blair's intimates might consider putting this book on their Christmas shopping lists; since it appears that the combined intellect of the western world's intelligence services has only managed to come up with the slightly eccentric idea that the world is secretly run by an eminence grise on a dialysis machine halfway up a mountain.
As for the original old man of the mountain, he wouldn't have fared too well in bin Laden's world. For one thing, he was an Ishmaeli, which is as good as pagan for those who follow the Wahhabi school of religious diplomacy (it is noticeable that the majority of militants find it rather difficult to express their support for the aspirations to freedom of the Shia, Ahmadi, Sufi, or any sect that isn't a conservative form of the Sunna). For another, the first assassins, for all they have passed into the mythic miasma too, did at least have the virtue of murdering mostly among the elite; the grubby violence of the modern militants, with their insistence on the de facto culpability of the innocent, is yet another example of the mealy-mouthed modernity with which the supposedly fundamentalist extreme is pathetically imbrocated.