Al Qa'eda: Imperialism's Frankenstein

Al Qa'eda is back. Indeed, it never went away, writes Ian Donovan

So al Qa’eda is back. Indeed, it never went away, despite the braggadocio of Bush, Blair et al. Realisation of this fact caused a sudden, near three-percent hiccup downwards on the hitherto slowly recovering stock markets on May 19, in the aftermath of suicide bombings - first of all in Saudi Arabia, quickly followed by multiple bombings in Morocco. The ultra-reactionary, terrorist fringe of political islam has chosen to hit a series of soft, civilian targets - expatriate workers’ quarters in Riyadh: a Spanish social club and a number of Jewish targets in Casablanca. Spanish targets were no doubt particularly looked for due to Jose Maria Aznar’s support of the war against Iraq.

Bearing the latter particularly in mind, the British government and intelligence services were so panicked by a sighting of a leading al Qa’eda figure in Mogadishu, Somalia, that last week they banned all British Airways flights to neighbouring Kenya (the scene of an earlier al Qa’eda attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner with a hand-held missile), and put out strongly worded warnings to people not to travel not only to chaotic Somalia, but also to a string of relatively stable east African countries such as Tanzania and Uganda. As some in the media have noted, despite the panic-mongering about potential bio-terrorism, chemical weapons, ‘dirty bombs’, etc, these terrorist attacks (indeed, all al Qa’eda’s attacks) have been rather low-tech - guns, explosives and kamikaze tactics.

All this is happening in the context of continued ferment in the Middle East, as US/UK-occupied Iraq staggers into renewed crisis. The US has just been forced to replace its initial choice to run the place, retired general Jay Garner, with a new hot-shot who has been sent in to bang heads and sort out the chaotic mess Garner’s brief overlordship has ingloriously finished. US talk of handing over power to an ‘interim’ puppet government has also been put on ice.

Meanwhile Bush’s Israel-Palestine ‘road map’ is already in deep doo-doo, as the advent of US client Abu Mazen to the Palestine authority premiership has not prevented Hamas, Islamic Jihad and not least the secular al Aqsa Brigade from once again striking Israel with another burst of suicide attacks. As a result, Sharon has predictably pulled out of a visit to Washington and once again sealed off the occupied territories - which of course is exactly what he always wanted.

Last week’s al Qa’eda attacks were actually quite small in scale compared to the spectacular atrocities the group has pulled off in the past. Around 40 dead both in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, hundreds more injured, often horrendously. Of course, it ought to go without saying that such actions are utterly alien to the cause of any real struggle for liberation of anybody, as indeed were the al Qa’eda attacks on the United States in September 2001, or their attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which actually killed mainly Africans. Indeed, many of the civilians killed and injured in the Riyadh and Casablanca attacks were ordinary Arab civilians, Moroccan and Saudi. But al Qa’eda cares nothing for that.

Their actions are not only to be condemned out of hand in themselves as barbarous acts of terror. They also do not in any sense have the mitigating circumstance that they are in some way an errant manifestation or deformation of some tangible struggle against national oppression. That is at least the case in the indefensible actions taken by both islamist and secular suicide terrorists in the Israel/Palestine conflict, in Lebanon under Israeli occupation in the last two decades or so, or for that matter in Chechnya today under Russian occupation.

The origins and history of al Qa’eda put this organisation in a fundamentally different category from even those organisations that have a formally similar ideology, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that are or have been engaged in these genuine national struggles. Al Qa’eda was born in a purely reactionary struggle, funded by the United States itself, to drown in blood all social progress in Afghanistan, that actually involved destroying the real Afghan national movement, whose ideology was a hybrid of nationalism and Stalinism.

The counterrevolutionary ‘holy warriors’ from which it sprang were massively funded by the CIA and various other components of the US state (as well as Britain and many other western ‘allies’). Imperialism actively sought out the most bloodthirsty and fanatical elements among the devout muslim opponents of the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan regime, shunning more moderate elements because they would be less effective in slaughtering the ‘communists’.

Indeed, they were being funded by Washington before the Soviet Stalinists made their fateful decision to ‘help’ the PDPA by shooting its leaders and subordinating the defence of the gains made under the PDPA’s left nationalism to the interests of the internally decaying USSR elite. They were in no sense waging any kind of war of national liberation, any more than were the contras of Nicaragua or the apartheid stooges of Unita in Angola that were armed and bankrolled by the CIA in the 1970s and 1980s.

Bin Laden’s al Qa’eda is a Frankenstein’s monster created by US imperialism: unemployed ultra-right terrorists, having run out of ‘communist’ targets, are finding new fields of battle in a new jihad against the ‘infidel’ west itself. Despite their cynical verbal attempts to evoke and appropriate struggles such as Chechnya, Palestine and now Iraq, and thus recruit more cannon fodder, the core of al Qa’eda has no real attachment to these questions: they are at bottom killer mercenaries run amok.

The only place al Qa’eda might claim with any semblance of plausibility to represent some kind of movement against oppression is in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia - and even here this is a fraud. The Riyadh bombings take place in a country where there are sporadic explosions of terrorism, as well as a paranoid, increasingly isolated monarchical regime that really does live in constant fear of being toppled. The house of Saud, while professing public loyalty to the most austere Wahabbi form of sunni islam, and imposing those norms with a vengeance rivalling the Taliban on the ordinary people, especially women, is widely recognised as completely hypocritical and corrupt.

Rather than observe the strictures of the Koran on prayer, alms and fasting, the men of the extended Saudi royal clique are well known to prefer whisky, casinos and expensive prostitutes. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is one of the most grotesque societies on earth: strict sharia law, enforced by totalitarian means, in a country whose cities glisten with extravagant wealth generated by the oil industry, distributed in a bizarrely unequal manner that can only outrage the poorer, more pious muslims. Together with their subservience to United States interests, this grotesquery gives bin Laden and al Qa’eda the leverage to promote their own version of islam, which is, as Afghanistan showed, remarkably similar to that of the house of Saud itself.

Confrontation between the fanatical islamism of al Qa’eda and the strictly enforced but empty and hypocritical islamism of the house of Saud represents nothing at all in terms of an advance for any kind of progressive or modernising agenda in Saudi Arabia. It would be in many ways simply a re-run of Saudi history in reverse: since both the house of Saud and al Qa’eda are or were mercenary-type forces that owe their prominence to imperialism (the house of Saud in the days of the British adventurer TE Lawrence, and his less illustrious followers, al Qa’eda, simply an errant tool of the cold war).

Historically, al Qa’eda and their like in Saudi Arabia are somewhat akin to the Ikhwan, the fanatical Wahabbi military brotherhood whom Ibn Saud (the founder of the modern Saudi regime) made such good use of early in the 20th century on the road to the conquest of the Hijaz and the rest of Arabia, only later to slaughter them when they outlived their usefulness. Bin Laden and his ilk are thus hardly anomalous in Arabian history; their victory, however, would mean more of the same - with zealotry replacing the hypocrisy (at least to begin with). An even bigger nightmare than the Iranian revolution for the US, but an ominous development for the international working class movement also.

In this tragic period in the history of the Arab and muslim world, given the decline and perceived failure of the old secular forms of nationalism (closely linked to Stalinism at various times), together with a massive intensification of national oppression, elements of real protest against oppression have at times found other outlets, sometimes through the medium of islamist-type movements. The genuine left must learn to address the oppressed, who are so deluded and misled, in a manner as effective, sensitive and fraternal as objective conditions allow, so as to win authority for communism as the only movement that consistently fights for the historic interests of the oppressed.

This also involves not seeing such movements as simply monolithic, reactionary blocks: it means carefully evaluating the real meaning of various trends and the reason they gain support - being prepared when advantageous to enter into temporary agreements against a common enemy with those currents whose supporters are in reality engaged in a struggle against oppression, while at the same time drawing a hard line against the reactionary logic of this kind of politics.

Al Qa’eda, the bastard child of political islam and the CIA, serves as the incarnation and ultimate conclusion of that reactionary logic.