Al Qaeda and Urban Legends

February 21, 2010     
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Urban legends or myths tend to grow up around groups or individuals that are in the news. Al Qaeda is no different. Many “facts” about al Qaeda are often shown to be little more than urban legends that have developed because of a lack of actual knowledge. Identifying and exposing such myths is a worthwhile exercise as it is imperative to know one’s enemy. Obviously, accurate knowledge is more important that myths.

One of the most quoted “facts” about al Qaeda is that the personal fortune of USD$300 million of Osama bin Laden was used to finance the organization. There is no $300 million personal fortune. This number was arrived at by taking the total estimated value of the Saudi bin Laden Group and then dividing it by 52 (the number of children conceived by the founder of the company, Mohamed bin Laden). The reality is that there is no evidence to show that the Saudi bin Laden Group was broken up and the assets divided among the children. Nor was any exception made for Osama himself, who was never a favoured son. By 1994 the break between the family, Osama bin Laden and the government of Saudi Arabia was nearly total in nature. By the time Osama bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan in 1996, most evidence shows that both he and his organization were nearly broke and had to reach out to private donors for money.

Another favoured urban legend is that al Qaeda has a “twenty year seven stage grand strategy for the jihadist struggle aimed at achieving a global Caliphate by the year 2020″ to achieve its goals. This is near total nonsense and has been repeated debunked. However, this “fact” still shows up on occasion. The basis of the rumour is a book written by the Jordanian journalist Faoud Hussein who reportedly interviewed two al Qaeda figures who told him about this grand plan. No one else has ever found evidence of this plan. The good news, however, is that we are in stage three of the plan now (if it is true) and there is nothing in the last four stages that calls for attacks on the West. If the “grand plan” is true, then the West is safe!

Another fascinating urban legend that makes the rounds is the “Al Qaeda weapons lab in Algeria” story. This story would have us believe that al Qaeda had a weapons lab in Algeria and an accidental spill killed some 40 operatives with the Bubonic Plague. The problem with this story is that it was completely fabricated and it has been debunked by intelligence agencies, the World Health Organization and the Atlanta Center for Disease Control. The story was most like a bit of disinformation that was being spread by the Algerian government. There is no indication that the Algerians ever wanted the story to spread beyond their own borders, but the London Sun picked up the story which was then repeated by the Washington Times. The “Times”, it should be noted, is owned by the Reverend Sun Moon.

Perhaps the most interesting story about al Qaeda, however, is the claim that is has a sleeper agent program. This claim was believed to be true by many serious intelligence agencies back in the time period from 1995 to 2001. However, the July 2004 9/11 Commission Report debunked the idea of a widespread sleeper agent network. Their report stated: The domestic agencies were waiting for evidence of a domestic threat from sleeper cells within the United States. No one was looking for a foreign threat to domestic targets. The threat was coming not from sleeper cells. It was foreign – but from foreigners who had infiltrated into the United States. The idea of sleeper agents was even further debunked when the head of the FBI (Robert Mueller) testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2005 that his agency had found no evidence of sleeper agents. Despite these clear statements and the fact that no al Qaeda sleeper agent has ever carried out an attack in 20 years, the myth persists that somewhere out there a sleeper agent is in place. Much like the McCarthyism scare of 1950s in which people were looking everywhere for “reds under the bed,” we now have individuals who are looking for “Muslims under the mattress.”

Terrorism of all types is a real and persistent danger to society. However, it is necessary to have accurate and informed intelligence assessments about the threat. Policy and activity based on urban legends is unlikely to be effective.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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2 Responses to “Al Qaeda and Urban Legends”

  1. Minivet on March 7th, 2010 12:07 am

    Useful article, thanks. In a trivial vein, why did you write “Atlanta Center for Disease Control”? The CDC may technically be composed of various Centers, but by my understanding it is in practice a single national agency whose headquarters happens to be Atlanta, so referring to it that way feels a bit diminishing (as if it’s a regional branch). Was the statement from one of the old regional Coordinating Centers (which were apparently abolished last year)?

  2. Tom Quiggin on March 7th, 2010 11:18 am

    The inclusion of “Atlanta” is probably a reflection of my age and force of habit.

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