Sunday, July 10, 2005

Naming the base: origins of al-Qa'ida 

I don't know for sure what the origin(s) of the name al Qaeda might truely be. But there are various theories out and about with respect to such questions and Lambert posted a link in a comment thread below which will deliver you into the hands of one Marc Perkel, who claims to be "the most dangerous mind on the internet", and who is discussing a recent BBC documentary film titled "The Power of Nightmares" which discusses such matters as the origins, impact, and even existence of al-Qaeda and how the dreaded AQ is used as a foil to scare the living shit out of just about anyone concerned. Or something like that. I haven't seen the film myself. Marc Perkel's post is here: al-Qaeda is Fiction.

By the way: I have no idea if Marc Perkel is the most dangerous mind on the internet or not... but that's besides the point, afterall, you can be whatever you want to be on the internet. If I told you that I was a sturgeon fisherman who lived in a bungalow on the shores of the Aral sea you'd pretty much just have to take my word for it. Thems is the breaks. But this isn't about me or my fondness for caviar and isinglass or even Marc Perkel's supposedly dangerous mind for that matter. This is about the BBC film noted above and some things that Marc Perkel wrote on his blog. Specifically things like this (on the origins of the name al-Qaeda):

It appears however that might have gotten it wrong on the claim that Al Qaeda was and invented term by New York Prosecutors. The article in The Nation seems to refute that premise. However the size and scope of the organization has been greatly exagerated.

On the other hand I had someone do a Lexis-Nexis search that shows the term appearing first in late 1998 at the New York trial. Nothing before that. That would indicate that the term might have been invented there. The word Al Qaeda translates into "the base" which is a generic term and because of that this issue might never be completely resolved.

Ok, got that? Issues of size and scope aside - the name al-Qaeda "might have been invented" in 1998 by prosecutor types. Plus, I'm not exactly sure who "might" have got "it" wrong (as Perkel writes above) since Perkel seems to have left out an *I* or a *they* (or any explanation of who specifically may have got "it" wrong) - and so - I'm not sure if Perkel is talking about himself getting "it" wrong or the BBC film makers getting "it" wrong. But that's not really all that important either.

What I'd like to point out is that a quick search of Lexis-Nexis will turn up at least a couple of references to al-Qaeda prior to 1998. The only catch is this: search "al-Qa'ida". Or "al Qaida". As opposed to "al Qaeda". Spelling matters this time.

Also: I haven't yet read the entire Nation article Perkel cites and links to in his post so I'm not sure what Peter Bergen has to say on the subject but you can read it here: See Peter Bergen's Beware the Holy War: The Power of Nightmares.

Further along in Perkel's post he excerpts material from the BBC documentary which offers the following:
VOICE OVER: The reality was that bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri had become the focus of a loose association of disillusioned Islamist militants who were attracted by the new strategy. But there was no organisation. 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.

What's interesting here is that one of those pre 1998 articles which mention "al-Qa'ida" (and can be found via a Lex-Nex search) includes a paragrah which suggests the possibility that Ayaman Zawahiri may have been the one who gave al-Qa'ida its name. Maybe. Perhaps even the original founder, so to speak, of al-Qa'ida (in some manner or form or another). From Al Ahram Weekly, April 14, 1994:
"I left Egypt with enormous popular and official support which was only appreciated later with shock by the regime. All the procedures were legal when I left in the middle of 1985, went to Jeddah and from there to Pakistan where I worked as a doctor with the Mujahedin," Zawahri said. When he settled in Peshawar he established, with Bin Laden's financial help, Al-Qa'ida (the base) to host Arab volunteers.

Abdullah Azam, by then living in Peshawar, also had an active role receiving volunteers through the 'Mujahedin Services' office which he ran and which was financed by Bin Laden. He used to house them in the 'Ansar' hostel and later put them through their military training in the 'Sada' camp. Sherif recalls that Azam was known to be a Muslim Brother while the Sada camp was fully sponsored by the Brotherhood.

The Ansar was not the only refuge for Egyptian-Afghans in Pakistan. When Zawahri managed to convince Bin Laden to establish Al-Qa'ida, Jihad members from a variety of Arab states came to have a hostel of their own. Adli Youssef also managed to establish a camp in 1989 with the full financial and military support of Abdel-Rasul Sayaf, an Afghani leader. This was later named after Adli's alias Abu Shuhayb, when he was killed during an operation in 1990.

Note: Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, places Zawahiri in Peshawar, and meeting bin Laden, in 1987. Which would make sense given the timeline above.

Similarly, a 1996 article written by Carol Giacomo (Lex-Nex) which appeared in Australia's Courier Mail stated the following:
By 1985, Bin Laden had drawn on his family's wealth plus donations from sympathetic merchant families in the Gulf region to organise the Islamic Salvation Foundation, or al-Qaida. Al-Qaida recruitment centres and guesthouses in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enlisted and sheltered thousands of Arab recruits and his foundation also funded camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report said.

The "report" Giacomo notes is a US State Department report on bin Laden's activity and funding of different extremist operations and so on. Giacomo writes:
THE United States yesterday accused wealthy Arab businessman Osama Bin Laden of being one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world. The State Department said Ramzi Yousef, alleged mastermind of the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, lived for three years at a Bin Laden-funded guesthouse in Peshawar, Pakistan.

So obviously the name al-Qa'ida was rattling around in the pipes years before 1998. So we can put that one to rest. But what is also interesting, as it relates to the name al-Qaida, is the mention of the Islamic Salvation Foundation. Why is that perhaps interesting you ask? (some of you probably already know why). Its interesting because of this:
In October last year, an item appeared on an authoritative Russian studies website that soon had the science-fiction community buzzing with speculative excitement. It asserted that Isaac Asimov's 1951 classic Foundation was translated into Arabic under the title "al-Qaida". And it seemed to have the evidence to back up its claims.

Huh! Whaht? The article continues:
"This peculiar coincidence would be of little interest if not for abundant parallels between the plot of Asimov's book and the events unfolding now," wrote Dmitri Gusev, the scientist who posted the article. He was referring to apparent similarities between the plot of Foundation and the pursuit of the organisation we have come to know, perhaps erroneously, as al-Qaida.

The Arabic word qaida - ordinarily meaning "base" or "foundation" - is also used for "groundwork" and "basis". It is employed in the sense of a military or naval base, and for chemical formulae and geometry: the base of a pyramid, for example. Lane, the best Arab-English lexicon, gives these senses: foundation, basis of a house; the supporting columns or poles of a structure; the lower parts of clouds extending across a horizon; a universal or general rule or canon. With the coming of the computer age, it has gained the further meaning of "database": qaida ma'lumat (information base).

Interesting isn't it? The plot thickens too. You can read the whole thing (it's a long one) at The Guardian (UK). See Review: Essay: War of the worlds, by Giles Foden, August 24, 2002.

I'm going to stop right here for now so you can read Perkel's post and what Bergen has to say in the Nation and Foden's Assimov/Foundation theory analysis as well. And then I'll finish this thing off. I have my own little theory on all of this and how it all ties together. Which is all probably complete bullshit... but whadda ya want from a cranky fish surgeon who lives in a bungalow with a couple of dangerous talking deer on shores of the Aral sea.


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