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Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror Hardcover – November 13, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Not many reporters have firsthand experience of terrorist camps, but Burke, chief reporter for London's Observer, achieved it during the 2001 war in Afghanistan. His nuanced investigation into Islamic extremist groups benefits as a result; his depth of knowledge is clear as he paints a complex portrait of al-Qaida and related groups. The outfit often called al-Qaida is, he says, actually a loose amalgam of groups that share a similar worldview: a belief in Islamic fundamentalism and antagonism toward the West. This is not new, but Burke writes clearly, and his descriptions of terror camps and religious schools-even a brief description of a bombing campaign in Afghanistan-make his work more lively and powerful than most of the recent books on the subject. Similarly, he shows that Osama bin Laden is less central to the enterprise than Western leaders think; the Islamist movement is longstanding and widespread: "This movement is growing. Osama bin Laden did not create it nor will his death or incarceration end it." As a result, he argues, the U.S. focus on bin Laden and al-Qaida is misguided and ultimately a waste of time-in fact, he says, it will only create more bin Ladens. Only a battle to "win the hearts and minds" of the Islamic world will effectively counteract the terrorist phenomenon. Unfortunately, Burke fails to address how this might be done, but he's made a strong argument that it is the road to take. Maps not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"A must-read...Burke's sophisticated view of Al-Qaeda is convincing. Burke's book is the one that will last. It's a triumph."--Giles Foden, The Guardian
"This book is an eye-opener... authoritative and detailed"--Hazhir Teimourian, The Literary Review
"This young, impassioned journalist has made an important contribution to the growing literature on al Qaeda."-Jeff Stein, Washington Post Book World
"He has given us an indispensable guide to the multidimensional reality of Al-Qaeda"-- John Gray, New Statesman
"...more lively and powerful than most of the recent books on the subject."--Publishers Weekly
"...Burke has taken the time to sort it out...compulsory reading for Rumsfeld and his clique."--Sam Kiley, The Evening Standard (UK)
"Fascinating...packed full with totally new material."--Gilles Kepel, author of Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam
"...a book which vastly increases our understanding of the Al-Qaeda phenomenon. Burke writes with admirable lucidity and the benefit of his frontline reporting and deep research."--Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.
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Most fascinating to me was that the book was as much as about what al-Qaeda wasn't as about what it was (and is). Al-Qaeda is one of the most misused, overused, and misunderstood words in the media today, one that has artificially been imposed upon a rather large and diverse group of Islamist groups beginning in the early 1990s.
In Arabic, al-Qaeda is basically an abstract noun, one meaning "base," as in a camp or a home, or "foundation," as is what is under a house. It can also mean "pedestal," such that what supports a column, and also can mean "rule," "formula," "method," and "pattern." It has been in use since at least the mid-1980s among the Islamic radicals fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, though Burke wrote that this should not be surprising, as it is a common Arabic word. Generally the term since then has not been used to describe an extant organization, but actually a purpose and a function. One of the first times the term was encountered was from the name of a terrorist manual, entitled _Al-Qaeda_, obtained from Ahmed Ajaj, detained months before the 1993 World Trade Center attack and later convicted for his role in that assault. The title was translated at the time as meaning "the basic rules" and Burke felt that was the correct translation; that it is not the name of a group being used but rather it is being used in its sense of a "maxim" or the "fundamentals."
Many in the media, in positions of leadership, and even professional analysts often make the mistake of thinking of al-Qaeda as some sort of united organization, run by one man, maybe envisioning a James Bond type villain presiding over a vast international organization from some secret lair in the desert. The closest thing according to Burke that ever really could have been called "al-Qaeda" was a rather small and short-lived organization, one active between 1996 and 2001 and largely based in Afghanistan, destroyed and dispersed as such by the fighting at Tora Bora.
If anything, he wrote, there were three al-Qaedas. One is what he called "the al-Qaeda hardcore," based in Afghanistan, comprised of men such as bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubaydah, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others, a small group of militants, generally Afghan war veterans. Then there "the associate members of al-Qaeda," long-term associates of bin Laden and the hardcore, not usually based in Afghanistan, who accepted missions from them, acted as intermediaries and recruiters for not only the hardcore but for others, and also undertook projects of their own. The third group is vast, amorphous, and hard to define, basically the movement of modern radical Islam itself, with its myriad cells, domestic groups, and individuals. This Burke called the "network of networks;" other groups, originally often with only very local concerns (Burke detailed at length militant movements in Kurdish Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere), that would from time to time come to be to varying degrees under bin Laden's umbrella, sometimes for specific missions (approaching bin Laden or his associate members for money, weapons, fatwas, or training), other times for more long term associations. An important aspect of the network of networks is that many groups were often very independent in action and only worked with bin Laden as they saw fit; there was no compelling these groups and individuals to act.
In reality, there is a rather broad movement of Islamic militancy active in the world today, of which al-Qaeda is only a part of. Burke viewed Osama bin Laden as actually a rather peripheral figure, mainly existing in a charismatic, inspirational function or as a facilitator for the activities of other militant organizations and individuals. Burke provided several models to view al-Qaeda. One is to see al-Qaeda as some sort of wealthy university distributing research grants and providing classes to allow the ambitions of its pupils to be fulfilled, a sort of Holy War Foundation. Another analogy is viewing it as a model of venture capitalism; individuals or small group approached the chief executive and the board (bin Laden, etc.) with ideas that they believed were worthy of support. This board would evaluate hundreds of proposals and decided which to back, which missions would turn a profit so to speak.
The last section of the book detailed the results to date of the war on terror. Though there have been successes - many members of the al-Qaeda hardcore have been killed or captured, Afghanistan has a real chance at democracy, and there has been extensive physical damage to the hardcore with the loss of its training camps and its refuge in Afghanistan - Burke felt that the group is winning. Those hardcore members that were not killed or captured have dispersed and continued to aid and fund operations worldwide. Many of these militants, after dispersal from Afghanistan following the American attack, caused radicalization wherever they ended up, notably in Pakistan, Kashmir, Algeria, Yemen, Chechnya, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan. Though bin Laden's ability to personally influence events has greatly decreased since he went into hiding after Tora Bora, the network of networks is hardly touched, as most groups are firmly rooted in "local contingencies and causes," having little if anything to do directly with al-Qaeda, and didn't necessarily need al-Qaeda to begin with. From Burke's perspective bin Laden is doing very well, as he achieved his goals of radicalizing movements in many countries, leading them to plan their own terrorist activities, using people often with no previous experience with terrorism and unknown to security services (the October 12, 2002 Bali bombing had nothing to do with al-Qaeda) and to unite and work with other groups outside their own narrow local goals, with militants from diverse places cooperating like never before.
The rest of the book is great though. I thought the section about the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban was very interesting. I didn't realize how close they were. It's the most honest book I've read on radical islam, so for that reason it's the best. Highly recommended.
If the book has any flaw, it how incomplete it feels to read today with ISIS and the conflicts in Syria. But, of course, that isn't the topic of this book.
Burke has spent a number of years in various Islamic hot spots (Saudi, Afghanistan, Kurdish Iraq) and has apparently the spent the most of the last four years doing his homework. The account he sets out (which really ought not to be a surprise to anyone but the Neo-Conservatives) is that Islamic militancy is not centrally controlled; there is no "head of the snake" except the one Western foreign policy has created in Osama bin Laden. For nothing has assisted fundamentalism as a rallying point for (the in reality mostly social and political) discontent in the Islamic word than his vilification by Messrs Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their friends. Indeed, Burke's case is that before the Western Hawks began targeting it, Islamic militancy was, amongst its own constituents, all but dead in the water.
Burke is convincing in his arguments that Al-Qaeda *the actual organisation* was never more than a hard-core of twenty or thirty militants, was not more than indirectly associated with many of the terrorist acts attributed to them, and was dispersed, incapacitated and in large part eliminated after the war in Afghanistan. But Al Qaeda *the idea* - which is the creation of western conservative political classes - has spread virus-like amongst the Islamic world, and is a much more threatening spectacle. Ideas are a whole lot harder to kill off than individuals.
In laying the groundwork for his thesis Burke is obliged to engage with a lot of minutiae of the history of Islamic dissent (every bit-player in the last twenty years gets a mention), and this part of the book is somewhat heavy going, though it certainly leads gravitas: without it, Burke would be open to criticism for a lack of thoroughness. But otherwise, this is a stimulating and important book.
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