How the Americans created the al-Qaeda myth prior to 9/11 attacks in order to invade Afghanistan and Iraq
In his documentary The Power Of Nightmares, Adam Curtis gives the details of how the Americans essentially invented al-Qaeda and how the neocons re-emerged after the 9/11 attacks to exploit this myth.
The result was the devastating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:
For beyond his own small group, Bin Laden had no formal organization. Until the Americans invented one for him. In January 2001, a trial began in a Manhattan courtroom of four men accused of the embassy bombings in east Africa. But the Americans had also decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence. But to do this under American law, the prosecutors needed evidence of a criminal organization because, as with the Mafia, that would allow them to prosecute the head of the organization, even if he could not be linked directly to the crime. And the evidence for that organization was provided for them by an ex-associate of Bin Laden's called Jamal Al-Fadl.
The picture Al-Fadl drew for the Americans of Bin Laden was of an all-powerful figure at the head of a large terrorist network that had an organized hierarchy of control. He also said that Bin Laden had given this network a name: "al-Qaeda". It was a dramatic and powerful picture of Bin Laden, but it bore little relationship to the truth. The reality was that Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had become the focus of a loose association of disillusioned Islamist militants who were attracted by the new strategy.
But there was no organization. These were militants who mostly planned their own operations and looked to Bin Laden for funding and assistance. He was not their commander.
There is also no evidence that Bin Laden used the term "al-Qaeda" to refer to the name of a group until after September the 11th when he realized that this was the term the Americans have given it. In reality, Jamal Al-Fadl was on the run from Bin Laden having stolen money from him. In return for his evidence, the Americans gave him witness protection in America and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many lawyers at the trial believed that Al-Fadl exaggerated and lied to give the Americans the picture of a terrorist organization that they needed to prosecute Bin Laden.
The idea - which is critical to the FBI's prosecution - that Bin Laden ran a coherent organization with operatives and cells all around the world of which you could be a member, is a myth. There is no al-Qaeda organization. There is no international network with a leader, with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe. That idea of a coherent, structured terrorist network with an organized capability, simply does not exist.
What did exist, was a powerful idea that was about to inspire a single devastating act that would lead the whole world into believing the myth that had begun to be constructed in the Manhattan courtroom.
The attack on America by 19 hijackers shocked the world. It was Ayman Zawahiri's new strategy, implemented in a brutal and spectacular way. But neither he nor Bin Laden were the originators of what was called the "Planes Operation". It was the brainchild of an Islamist militant called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who came to Bin Laden for funding and help in finding volunteers. But in the wake of the panic created by the attacks, the politicians reached for the model which had been created by the trial earlier that year: The hijackers were just the tip of a vast, international terrorist network which was called, "al-Qaeda".
The neoconservatives distorted and exaggerated the Soviet threat. They created the image of a hidden, international web of evil run from Moscow that planned to dominate the world, when, in reality, the Soviet Union was on its last legs, collapsing from within. Now, they did the same with the Islamists. They took a failing movement which had lost mass support and began to reconstruct it into the image of a powerful network of evil, controlled from the center by Bin Laden and his lair in Afghanistan.
And so, the Americans set off to invade Afghanistan to find and destroy the heart of this network. To do this, the Americans allied themselves with a group called the Northern Alliance. They were a loose collection of warlords, fighting a war of resistance against the Taliban, the Islamists who controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban's best troops were the thousands of foreign fighters from the training camps, who the Northern Alliance hated. And now, they took their revenge on the foreign fighters. The Americans believed that these men were al-Qaeda terrorists. And the Northern Alliance did nothing to disabuse them of this because they were paid by the Americans for each prisoner they delivered. But the majority of these fighters had never had anything to do with Bin Laden, or international terrorism. Both they and the Taliban were radical nationalists who wanted to create Islamist societies in their own countries. But now, they were either killed or taken off to Guantanamo Bay. And Islamism, as an organized movement for changing the Muslim world, was obliterated in Afghanistan. But as it disappeared, it was replaced by ever more extravagant fantasies about the power and reach of the al-Qaeda network. In December, the Northern Alliance told the Americans that Bin Laden was hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora. They were convinced they had found the heart of his organization.
For days, the Americans bombed the mountains of Tora Bora with the most powerful weapons they had. The Northern Alliance had been paid more than a million dollars for their help and information and now their fighters set off up the mountains to storm Bin Laden's fortress and bring back the al-Qaeda terrorists and their leader. But all they found were a few small caves, which were either empty or had been used to store ammunition. There was no underground bunker system, no secret tunnels. The fortress didn't exist. The Northern Alliance did produce some prisoners they claimed were al-Qaeda fighters but there was no proof of this. And one rumor, was that the Northern Alliance was simply kidnapping anyone who looked remotely like an Arab and selling them to the Americans for yet more money.
The Americans now began to search all the caves in all the mountains of eastern Afghanistan for the hidden al-Qaeda network. But wherever they looked, there was nothing there. Al-Qaeda seemed to have completely disappeared. The terrible truth was that there was nothing there because al-Qaeda as an organization did not exist.
The attacks on America had been planned by a small group that had come together around Bin Laden in the late 90s. What had united them was an idea. An extreme interpretation of Islamism developed by Ayman Zawahiri. With the American invasion, that group had been destroyed, killed, or scattered. What was left was the idea. And the real danger was the way this idea could inspire groups and individuals around the world who had no relationship to each other.
What the British and American governments have done is both distort and exaggerate the real nature of the threat. There are dangerous and fanatical groups around the world who've been inspired by the extreme Islamist theories and they are prepared to use the techniques of mass terror on civilians. The bombings in Madrid showed this only too clearly. But this is not a new phenomenon.
What is new, is the way the American and other governments have transformed this complex and disparate threat into a simplistic fantasy of an organized web of uniquely powerful terrorists who may strike anywhere and at any moment. But no one questioned this fantasy because, increasingly, it was serving the interests of so many people.