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The Myth of Al Qaeda

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By Michael Hirsh

Newsweek

June 28, 2006 - The capture of Ibn Al-Shaykhal-Libi was said to be one of the first big breakthroughs in the war against Al Qaeda. It was also the start of the post-9/11 mythologizing of the terror group. According to the official history of the Bush administration, al-Libi (a nom de guerre meaning "the Libyan") was the most senior Al Qaeda leader captured during the war in Afghanistan after running a training camp there for Osama bin Laden. Al-Libi was sent on to Egypt, where under interrogation he was said to have given up crucial information linking Saddam Hussein to the training of Al Qaeda operatives in chemical and biological warfare. His story was later used publicly by Secretary of State Colin Powell to justify the war in Iraq to the world.

The reality, as we have learned since—far too late, of course, to avert the war in Iraq—is that al-Libi made up that story of Iraq connections, probably because he was tortured by the Egyptians (or possibly Libyan intelligence officers who worked with them). But there's even more to this strange tale that hasn't been revealed. According to Numan bin-Uthman, a former fellow jihadi of al-Libi's who has left the movement and is based in London, al-Libi was never a member of Al Qaeda at all. Moreover, Uthman says, he's "90 percent sure" that al-Libi, who he says is dying of tuberculosis, has been released by the United States to Libya. (A CIA spokesman said he could not comment.) According to Uthman, al-Libi was a small-time member of a broader movement of jihadists who—inspired by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian killed during the CIA-backed mujahedin fight against the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—came to fight the Soviets in the 1980s and later, trained, to redirect jihad back to their home regimes. The so-called Khaldin camp that al-Libi helped run dated from this movement. "I know him personally. He's not a member of Al Qaeda," Uthman, an anti-Kaddafi political activist who is considered credible by other Libyan exiles, told NEWSWEEK by phone from London.

It seems very likely that the Khaldin camp hosted Al Qaeda figures to whom al-Libi was linked but perhaps in the loose way that Uthman describes. (Others who trained at Khaldin, like Abdurahman Khadr, a 20-year-old Canadian released from Guantánamo in 2003, have given testimony backing up Uthman's description of the camp.) Certainly al-Libi is looking less and less like the fearsome "bin Laden lieutenant" he was made out to be. And we find this sort of debunking has occurred with many Al Qaeda "lieutenants" whose gauzy reputations are reduced to pill-sized smallness once the culprits themselves fall into our hands.

Another one of these key figures was said to be Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. As NEWSWEEK first reported in “The Debate Over Torture” more than 18 months ago, the CIA's difficult interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, who was resisting standard questioning methods, set in motion a long train of Justice Department and White House legal memos justifying harsh treatment of terror suspects. This legal discussion ultimately contributed to the tougher interrogation standards applied at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Was all this effort at extracting information worth the blight to America's honor and reputation? Probably not when it comes to Abu Zubaydah. As former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind writes in his new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," the person whom George W. Bush characterized as a "top operative plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States" was discovered to be more of a low-level messenger man, and a slightly daft one as well. "It was like calling someone who runs a company's in-house travel department the COO," one CIA official said, according to Suskind.

Some U.S. officials are disputing Suskind's account. But it is true that the more we learn about Al Qaeda, the more we have to conclude that the group contained a lot more Abu Zubaydah types than it did Muhammad Attas. In contrast to the truly terrifying Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, and 9/11 master strategist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—both of whom took terrorism to new levels of competence—most Al Qaeda operatives look more like life's losers, the kind who in a Western culture would join street gangs or become a petty criminals but who in the jihadi world could lose themselves in a "great cause," making some sense of their pinched, useless lives. Like Richard Reid, who tried to set his shoelace on fire. Or Ahmed Ressam, who bolted in a panic from his car at the U.S. border during an alleged mission to bomb the L.A. airport. Or Iyman Faris, who comically believed he could bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. Or the crazed Zacarias Moussaoui, who was disowned even by bin Laden. Then you've got the hapless Lackawanna Six, and, more recently, the Toronto 17, who were thinking about pulling off an Oklahoma City-style attack with ammonium nitrate—or perhaps just beheading the prime minister—but hadn't quite gotten around to it.

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