Monday, 8 January 2007

The Al Qaeda franchise

It is a commonplace these days to talk of Al Qaeda as a “franchise”. Osama Bin Laden’s organisation was broken up by the invasion of Afghanistan. While many of its leaders are still at large, and it still has money and committed adherents, its main role is now as a rallying cry and inspiration for jihadist groups across the world. Where in the 1990s it planned, funded and launched specific attacks, it is now more of a “brand” that other Islamist groups use to promote and justify their own acts of terrorism.

While there is undoubtedly truth in this, it is too clean a distinction. The truth is far more terrifying.

A few weeks ago Newsnight showed a Special Report entitled Inside al Qaeda - a spy's story, broadcast on 16 November. Details of the programme are available, as is the full broadcast. It was a truly terrifying look into the heart of this most committed and dangerous of enemies, and one of the most compelling 47 minutes of television I have watched in a long time.

While there was a lot of fascinating detail in the programme, one particular moment stood out. The interviewee, who spied on Islamist groups for many years and infiltrated Al Qaeda in 1995, described his time at an Afghan training camp. A CIA operative confirmed that tens of thousands of young men passed through the Afghan training camps during that time. What was particularly chilling was the interviewees description of how free they then were to take jihad abroad:

“They are just training you and you are free to choose your jihad. You are free – and I repeat, you are free – to say ‘No. I’m not going to fight there. I want to go and fight there.’”

To me, this explained much about the spread of chaos over the past decade. While Al Qaeda were training some particular individuals for special missions, tens or even hundreds of times as many young men were given long periods of military training (based, the CIA operative told us, on US and UK Special Forces training manuals) and ideological indoctrination, before being let loose on the world with no particular plan. These men would then travel to wherever they wished to cause mayhem.

This casts a new light on the tragedy of the July 2005 bombings. There was no need for Al Qaeda to coordinate these missions. Having trained the bombers how to run an operation and convinced them that it would be just, the leadership could release them, confident that they would bring terror to the West. They need not worry whether they would go through with it; if they did not, others would. We may rest far-from-assured that scores if not hundreds have been through these camps and returned to the UK. Even if some are caught it is no great loss to Al Qaeda; because they are autonomous groups, they will not be able to finger one another. This, too, might explain the copycat bombings on 21 July – having seen one group succeed, another was compelled to act.

It is a mercy that these camps have been broken up and that this level of training has ceased, but the danger that they have unleashed will be with us for years to come.

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