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Al Qa’eda: inventing the brand

Milan Rai on the origins of "al-Qaeda"

I’m doing a talk about al-Qa’eda for Peace News Summer Camp which is in two weeks. (Really looking forward to seeing Tracy Curtis perform – I’ve heard Seize the Day and the Carbon Town Cryer before – they’re fantastic.)

I’m marvelling once again that the name al-Qa’eda was invented by the FBI.

The FBI led the investigations into the August 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, when over 230 people were killed near the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They used their normal Mafia-style-organisational model, with a hierarchical pyramid and a supreme leader, and they looked for the name of the organisation, and ‘members’ of the organisation, to help secure convictions.

The CIA had used the title ‘al-Qa’eda’ for the network around bin Laden, probably tracing it back to an article by Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet occupation – the FBI picked it up and it became the US term for the bin Laden grouping. (Jason Burke explains all of this well in the first pages of his excellent study Al-Qaeda.)

Bin Laden himself, who supposedly set up ‘al-Qa’eda’ in 1988 or 1989, according to the US government, did not use that name for his organisation until 2001. He used a variety of organisational names, including the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, and issued a lot of communiques in his own name, but didn’t publicly use ‘al-Qa’eda’ until three years after the FBI had invented this brand name. (See Bruce Lawrence’s excellent collection Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden to verify this.)

It was only after the US government had made ‘al-Qa’eda’ into a feared and powerful brand name that ‘the leader of al-Qa’eda’ adopted the name. Bizarre.

Topics: Terrorism