Le roi est mort; vive le roi! So might go one reading of a paper I am presenting at the upcoming conference “Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qa`ida’s Past & Future through Captured Records” at the National Defense University at Washington D.C. To be held in the wake of 9/11’s tenth-year memorial events, the conference promises to be an intriguing one, especially since Bin Ladin is dead. My paper, entitled “Revisiting the Origins of al-Qa`ida through Usama Bin Ladin’s Former Audiocassette Collection,” explores the ways his influence as a leader and world-wide terrorist has been a subject of creative animation for some time, however, no more so than in Western narratives focusing on the organization widely thought to be his brainchild: al-Qa`ida itself.
Al-Qa`ida, I argue, transcends the man, as evident in much cited documents that I examine with fresh eyes. Standard accounts of al-Qa`ida’s formation, reported by scholars, journalists and others, are based principally on court documents related to the U.S. government’s prosecutions of bin Laden and one of his associates, Enaam Arnaout, in the early 2000s. Together, these documents indicate that bin Laden and others met in Afghanistan in August 1988 to form al-Qa`ida, or “the base,” that went on to plan and approve major terrorist operations. Other documents, said to corroborate this formation of al-Qa`ida, were released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The West Point papers are thought to be founding charter papers obtained by U.S. military or intelligence personnel.
These documents all raise questions, however. Although court papers suggest that al-Qa`ida was a world-wide terrorist organization under bin Ladin’s leadership, a closer reading suggests that bin Ladin’s efforts were far more restricted and focused on working with more prominent leaders at the time to set up a specific training camp in Afghanistan. Charter documents reveal that despite his efforts, bin Ladin was quickly marginalized at the camp. Oaths to the “amir” were mentioned as being required of recruits, but I have found no correlation to the “amir” or leader as being bin Laden. Most curious is a stipulation that none of the amir’s security guards can be from Yemen, Saudi Arabia or any of the other Arab Gulf states, countries supplying bin Laden’s most vehement supporters. Some of the confusion may relate to problems with translating the meaning of “the base” (al-qa`ida). “Al-Qa`ida” can refer, of course, to Bin Ladin’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 Ladin or his ideology. So too can “al-qaida” be a general rule for legal reasoning, theological inference or speaking well. My analysis suggests the need to revisit arguments made by prosecutors [in the Arnaout trial] and conclusions drawn from them by wider audiences.
Do terrorists get human rights? By what rationale? The answer to these questions require a lengthier investigation into the ways individuals and social groups become identified with terrorism and, as a consequence, become exceptional targets for disciplinary action. At their best, such investigations produce messy questions about exactly when individuals become terrorists and how their status and power as terror-brokers emerges through competition between diverse communities as they compete for influence. Terrorists are not born lobbing bombs from the crib, of course; their eventual designation as terrorists by international legal institutions is perceived as no less self-evident. As a religious studies professor and anthropologist who has studied and lived in the Arab world for over twenty years, I like to think of myself as fairly open to the possibility that our views of the world reflect our backgrounds and that cross-cultural comparison can promote healthy and ethical engagement with others. The paper I am presenting in Washington D.C. is part of a larger book project that examines the figuration Bin Ladin’s leadership in a set of over 1500 audiotapes that were acquired from Bin Ladin’s former residence in Qandahar, Afghanistan. These tapes were acquired by the Cable News Network after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 and are currently being digitalized for public research by Yale University. Organized chronologically, my book considers discrepencies between our own narratives of Bin Ladin’s identity and those employed by speakers of the tapes. The lessons of the book, much like my upcoming paper, emerge from recognizing the ways in which complex histories, including our own, are elided in the interest of oversimplified and ethnocentric narratives of Muslims violence and its perpetrators. The United States’ post-9/11 rationale for invading Iraq on the pretext that overthrowing Saddam would strike a blow against al-Qa`ida proves only the most egregious case; links between al-Qa`ida and Saddam proved as tenuous as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Human rights discourses, including those advanced through American institutions of criminal law, special grand juries and military tribunals, are unfortunately not immune to distortions introduced by such narratives. Especially when Al-Qa`ida is involved.