Al-Qaeda at 20: How many groups are we really fighting?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - The world first heard about al-Qaeda ten years ago, on August 7, 1998, when two explosions ripped through the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223.

Al-Qaeda was set up a decade earlier, on August 11, 1988. Unlike much of the later history of the organization we know this for sure, because both CIA and Pakistani intelligence service agents took part in the "founding" meeting and, some say, provided protection for it.

Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and Egyptians Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama's chief lieutenant, and Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group Al Jihad, and known to those in the underground mainly as Dr. Fadl, met in Peshawar to set up the terrorist group.

Al-Sharif, al-Qaeda's chief ideologist, who has been serving a life sentence in Tora Prison in Egypt since 2004, has recently written a book, or manifesto, rejecting al-Qaeda's violence.

"We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that," Fadl wrote in his fax from the prison.

Two months later an enraged al-Zawahiri, who like Osama bin Laden is still at large, asked sarcastically in a video produced on behalf of al-Qaeda: "Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells? I wonder if they're connected to the same line as the electric shock machines."

Numerous attempts to apprehend bin Laden have failed, although he has been declared "surrounded" and "nearly" done for several times. According to the latest rumor, he may be hiding in the mountainous area between Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces and Bajaur in Pakistan. According to some European publications, U.S. special services have recently become especially active there.

The hunt for the world's two most wanted terrorists was launched after the 9/11 tragedy in the United States, gathered momentum when Washington invaded Afghanistan and came to a head by the end of George W. Bush's presidential term.

Many Western experts say bin Laden and al-Zawahiri could have been hunted down long ago, but their imprisonment or death would make them martyrs and symbols for the unification of all jihadists.

Much has been said and written about al-Qaeda, far from all of it true. Part of the information was concocted to turn the terrorist group, which had not dreamed of global fame, or even infamy, at the time of its inception, into a myth.

The Americans have claimed more than once to have destroyed its "core." CIA director Michael Hayden recently said al-Qaeda was dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, but no proof of its death has been provided.

Worse still, the group looks very much alive in cyberspace. According to Saudi experts, about 6,000 web sites are operating on behalf of al-Qaeda and the figure grows by 900 every year. Many sites are closed only to reappear under a new domain, so that the total number remains approximately the same.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wondered out loud at a conference this summer: "How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world's greatest communication society?" Indeed, how? And was it only "one man in a cave"?

Like many other such groups, al-Qaeda quarreled with its "parents" soon after it was encouraged, if not created, by the CIA.

In the 1980s, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were fighting on the side of the Mujahidin against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. At that time few people in the world could imagine the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, and although the CIA suspected that Moscow would soon start to pull out of Afghanistan (in fact the Soviet withdrawal began on May 15, 1988, and ended on February 15, 1989), it was unsure about what would happen after that. It therefore continued to provide financial and material assistance to all groups fighting Russians.

One of those groups was al-Qaeda, which was set up when a special Afghan division was established at Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Gen. Mohammed Yusaf led the division, under nominal CIA supervision.

That initial support for fighters against "the Evil Empire" came back to haunt the United States with a vengeance.

As one British expert put it, Afghanistan was al-Qaida's training site before the Taliban took over, university after they left, and doctorate when the United States deployed troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is past its prime now.

The British, who have accumulated a wealth of experience fighting terrorists in Northern Ireland, say the time of single command is over for al-Qaeda. It has now become an amorphous accumulation of small and disconnected terrorist groups. Fighting such movements with invasions like those of Afghanistan or Iraq is like using a tank to weed a flowerbed.

It will be easier to understand the U.S. administrations' motives if we look at their actions through the eyes of the British, who have a peculiarly "biased objectivity" regarding their cousins.

According to the British, the Americans, despite their huge material resources and seemingly broad connections in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, have only a shallow notion of the processes underway there. This is why Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King's College in London, said in his book A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, "They have accomplished miracles in uniting against their country societies that otherwise have nothing in common."

A minor detail demonstrates the point. When Condoleezza Rice was appointed Secretary of State, she was shocked to learn that the department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs did not have an Iran section. This is strange indeed, since Iran has been the United State's main enemy for the last 30 years.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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