Bin Laden’s role in al-Qaeda exaggerated

UC DAVIS (US) — The United States may have oversimplified its views of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, according to an analysis of audio recordings from bin Laden’s personal library.

The oversimplification was based in part on misleading court records, poor translations, and an inadequate understanding of al-Qaeda’s history, according to Flagg Miller, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis.

Miller casts doubt on the common belief that the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago this week resulted from a two-decade-long conspiracy against the United States by bin Laden and the organization he led.

In fact, al-Qaeda did not emerge in its ultimate form with bin Laden at the helm until the late 1990s, according to Miller, who argues that bin Laden maneuvered himself into becoming the leader of al-Qaeda more through self-marketing than as a recognized militant leader, particularly after 9/11.

An understanding of the true dynamics that culminated in the nation’s worst terrorist attack is essential to wise foreign policy, according to Miller.

In a paper to be delivered Sept. 13 at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Miller will call into question a widespread assumption that 9/11 and other terrorist attacks originated during a series of meetings in 1988 in which bin Laden and others purportedly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and approved a series of terrorist activities.

“In the years following Sept. 11, Americans joined others worldwide in seeking to not just understand why such a thing happened but to track down those responsible for the attacks and bring them to justice,” Miller writes in his paper.

“Ten years later and with bin Laden dead, I believe that we are in a better position to reassess the accuracy and legacy of this early wealth of history for our understanding of the movement bin Laden claimed to represent.”

Miller will discuss the paper, “Rereading the Origins of al-Qaeda through Osama bin Laden’s Former Audiocassette Collection,” during a panel discussion at a meeting titled “10 Years Later: A Conference on al-Qaeda’s Past and Future,” sponsored by the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies.

Lost in translation

The paper’s title refers to 1,500 tapes taken by CNN from bin Laden’s residence in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2001. Miller is the first academic researcher to have studied the tapes.

Miller’s primary sources include tapes that he has translated from the original Arabic, in addition to military and court documents related to the U.S. government’s prosecutions of bin Laden and one of his associates, Enaam Arnaout. From them, he extracts greater detail about bin Laden and al-Qaeda, particularly in the two decades leading up to 9/11.

An al-Qaeda propaganda tape produced in October 2000 is the only source Miller has found so far that refers to “al-Qaeda” as a militant organization or base associated with bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda means “base” in Arabic, but has different meanings in different contexts, according to Miller.

“Al-Qaeda can refer, of course, to bin Laden’s worldwide terrorist organization, but so too can it simply mean a ‘base’ of operations, as was the case for a host of training camps from the 1980s-2000s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond that had no significant connection to bin Laden or his ideology,” he says.

U.S. Department of Defense translations, as well as documents produced by prosecutors in American court proceedings, repeatedly leave this single word in its Arabic original, says Miller. “But by doing so, they give the impression that discussions of ‘the base’ are, in fact, about the organization that we have come to know since Sept. 11 as bin Laden’s brainchild.”

Court documents and other records relied upon by many experts, analysts and prosecutors indicate that bin Laden and others formed al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization during a series of meetings in Afghanistan in 1988. But Miller says the documents raise questions. Some of the records, referred to as charter documents, don’t have dates, and others may be poor translations.

In the margins

Miller’s research also suggests that al-Qaeda marginalized bin Laden in the early years. In his speeches from the 1980s and ’90s, bin Laden directed his outrage at corrupt Muslims, not Americans, Miller says.

In 1988, bin Laden helped to establish a training camp, al-Faruq, in eastern Afghanistan, with a chief objective of preparing recruits to recognize and fight what he and his allies viewed as global apostasy, especially in the Islamic world. The West remained a less important target, according to Miller.

Even so, bin Laden’s leadership of the camp appears to have been marginal, Miller concludes. While camp charter documents referred to required oaths to the “amir,” Miller found no evidence that the “amir,” or leader, was bin Laden.

Most curious was a stipulation that none of the amir’s security guards could be from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or any of the other Arabian Gulf states, countries that supplied bin Laden’s most vehement supporters, Miller says.

Recordings of theological lectures at al-Qaeda camps also require a shift in thought about al-Qaeda’s broader legacy for promoting anti-Americanism, Miller adds.

“To begin with, the primary enemy was not the American, Jew, or Christian, but rather the errant Muslim within,” he writes. At the same time, the primary audiences were those yearning for a restoration of Arab ethnic pride.

By the latter half of the 1990s, however, bin Laden had positioned himself as al-Qaeda’s leader, an achievement that Miller credits to bin Laden’s self-marketing and media outreach—as well as his family wealth, social connections among Saudis, expanding community of Afghan-Arab volunteers, and his political alliances throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s.

Bin Laden’s anti-American sentiments had also become very much part of his public rhetoric by this time, amplified by Western news outlets.

In 1999, bin Laden established a second camp, also named al-Faruq. Based near Kandahar, this camp was marked by pronounced anti-Americanism and is notorious for having trained 9/11 hijackers and a host of men who would later be imprisoned at Guantanamo.

In the months and years following 9/11, many experts spoke of bin Laden’s “intimate involvement with the establishment and development of al-Qaeda,” Miller notes.

“These accounts helped remind audiences of his impressive role as bankroller, organizational chief, warrior, and spokesperson for a struggle that would be turned against the United States in no uncertain terms. Given the generalizing and often breezy nature of narratives about bin Laden’s role in history, however, it is important to recognize their inadequacy as records of the past, especially considering the desire of many interviewees to figure prominently in the unfolding drama of bin Laden’s unveiling.”

More news from UC Davis: