Al Qaeda does not exist

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Stories on al Qaeda have filled the pages of many newspapers in recent years, yet there are those who say the group doesn't exist at all. They're an invention of the US Government designed to keep the population frightened, and ensure they accept higher military spending, suggest some. But where's the evidence to support their claims?

Robin Cook

The most high-level source used to support the "al Qaeda doesn't exist" claims comes from former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Or at least that’s what you might be told.

Robin Cook wasn’t known for denying Al Qaeda is a terrorist group as far as we can recall, and searching at Hansard (a record of everything that goes on in Parliament) produced no matches even remotely matching the above claim. The best match we found was this, from a Guardian article:

No suggestion whatsoever that “al Qaeda is not a terrorist group”, quite the opposite. In the absence of any supporting evidence, it looks like the original quote has been twisted to suit one side of the story: so much for finding 9/11 truth.

Another Cook reference

The same article is sometimes used on blogs and forums to claim that Robin Cook said the following:

However, this is an utter fiction. The original "The Truth Seeker" article mentions Cook only once, in relation to the reference discussed above. It goes on to say that the following, where the "there is no islamic army or terrorist group called Al Qaida" occurs, is part of an "important excerpt from an Apr.-Jun. 2004 article by Pierre-Henry Bunel, a former agent for French military intelligence."

The quote is obviously from Bunel, then, not Cook at all. Yet another example of why it's a very bad idea to trust other people's interpretations of anything: always check the sources for yourself.

The Power of Nightmares

Some people have also misrepresented the UK documentary “The Power of Nightmares” to come to the same conclusion.

It's true that the documentary said there was no huge organised network called al Qaeda. Here's a quote from Power of Nightmares contributor Jason Burke:

It did not state there was no such group prior to 9/11, though, merely that it was much smaller than governments claimed:

So the documentary tells us these are individuals and small groups who come together only loosely, in a common ideology. This was sold to viewers as a surprising twist on the usual take on al Qaeda, but the reality is very different. Here, for instance, is Marion E. (Spike) Bowman, Deputy General Counsel at the FBI, saying something very similar to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on July 31, 2002:

Saying al Qaeda isn't some huge and well-defined organisation isn't the same as saying there's no danger, though. Adam Curtis, creator of the programme, spelled this out in more detail in a Q&A session on the BBCs site:

The program specifically says that 9/11 was planned by this "small group that had come together around bin Laden in the late 90s".

We would caution against taking this analysis at face value, though, as in our view the programme had an agenda to minimise the threat from al Qaeda.

They imply that the name al Qaeda originated with the Americans, for instance, ignoring evidence to the contrary (see The al Qaeda name).

And you can search the programme transcript, but you won't see any mention of the Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole. Why not? Wasn’t that a part of why America were saying they were a danger? Doesn't it demonstrate that they are a group with some power and reach? Seems relevant to us, yet The Power of Nightmares chose not to discuss this with their viewers.

Other analysts have also pointed out how The Power of Nightmares tried to play down the importance of al Qaeda. Here's Peter Bergen in The Nation:

Ian Blair

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair is occasionally quoted saying this:

This reads to us like Jason Burke’s comments, above: he’s saying that there is no big central organisation that you can join, but not that Al Qaeda doesn’t exist at all. And that's even clearer once you see the full quote:

"Al Qaeda clearly has the ability to provide training ... to provide expertise" - he plainly thinks there is a group of that name. Which, perhaps, is why this part of the quote is so often omitted.

Mullah Dadullah

We've seen this quote appear in al Qaeda-related forum posts:

This isn't to say the group don't exist, though, just that they weren't present in Afghanistan at the time the story appeared (March 2003). And as a Taleban commander you would hardly expect him to say "Afghanistan is teeming with al Qaeda volunteers and I personally met bin Laden yesterday", so it's difficult to see why we should trust his account. Especially when later pieces tell a very different story, such as in these reports of an al Jazeera interview:

The message here, once again, is not to necessarily believe quotes. Find the full version for yourself, read the context, look at what else an individual has said and decide if they can be trusted. Only then can you decide how accurate a particular article might be.