Inside Al-Qaeda: History, Ideology and Structure

By Will Spens.

The Frontline Club’s first First Wednesday of 2011 was a stimulating discussion focused on Al-Qaeda and the complexities and mystery surrounding its history and structure. Chaired by Paddy O’Connell of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the audience was invited to engage with the expert panel, resulting in fascinating insights and at times complex arguments.  <

As to the origins of Al-Qaeda, historian and journalist Deepak Tripathi said that ‘the scope of Al-Qaeda is an invention of the West and is in fact a number of local insurgencies’ with its history linked to the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1920s and anti West sentiment. It was ‘a legacy of the neo colonialist era’ rooted in local causes and conditions.

Dr Maha Azzam, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, said ‘Al-Qaeda was a reaction to military occupation of Muslim lands’ and that its formation was born of the ‘previous failure of Islamist groups, creating a situation where there was no ceiling on militancy’. While acknowledging that poverty was a factor in radicalization, Dr Azzam remarked that a large number of recruits were not often poor themselves.

In regards to the modern structure and hierarchy of the organization, journalist Camille Tawil said that ‘Al-Qaeda became franchised all over the middle east and the world’ after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The nature of such affiliations was contentious however, along with reliable estimates for their number.

When asked whether Al-Qaeda could be defeated, Noman Benotman, a former leader of the jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), said that countering Al-Qaeda propaganda, along with ‘more freedom and democracy in the Middle East’ is essential. An understanding of the Al-Qaeda view that time, not land, is its most important asset was fundamental.

On the topic of whether Al-Qaeda would be be willing to use weapons of mass destruction if available, the panel was in agreement that this was almost certainly true.

In his closing remarks Camille Tawil touched on the revelation that there is now infact debate going on within Al-Qaeda itself and within jihadist groups. Challenging the core ideologies of Al-Qaeda in using violence against Islamic governments in the middle east.