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The history of Al Qaeda, the world's most notorious terrorist group

A still from Damian Lewis: Spy Wars, episode 2, Bombs in the Sky

Having been embroiled in all kinds of intrigue in dramas like Homeland and Billions, British actor Damian Lewis now delves into the real world of espionage in Spy Wars. Using riveting reconstructions, the series brings to life seminal moments in the history of spycraft. And one of the darkest subjects tackled is the never-ending battle against religious terrorism in the 21st Century.

While events like 9/11, 7/7 and the Bali nightclub bombing have been carved into the world’s consciousness, one audacious terror plot has been almost completely forgotten – because it was mercifully stopped in its tracks. This was the plan, hatched in the mid-noughties, to simultaneously blow up seven commercial flights over the Atlantic, using liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks.

As Damian Lewis: Spy Wars reveals, it was only thanks to painstaking surveillance work – the largest such operation in the history of British police – which led to the co-conspirators being apprehended in time. And they weren’t a gaggle of gung-ho amateurs working on their own initiative in the UK. One news report bluntly described their plot as ‘al-Qaeda’s most ambitious attempt to target the West since 9/11’.

Ringleader Abdulla Ahmed Ali’s hatred for the West was partly fuelled by his experience working in refugee camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border – a region which can be considered the birthplace of al-Qaeda itself.
 
The history of the notorious terrorist organisation stems back to one of the most unexpectedly consequential conflicts of the 20th Century: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This occurred in the wake of a Communist revolution in the nation, which had a bloody fallout when the radical reforms of the new Marxist-Leninist regime caused friction with the Muslim population. Dissenters were oppressed, imprisoned and executed, while in-fighting amid the new Communist leaders led an exasperated USSR to send troops to Afghanistan. 
 
What followed was a quagmire often dubbed the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam, as Russian troops became embroiled in arduous guerrilla warfare with Muslim insurgents known as the Mujahideen. This became a flashpoint of the Cold War, as the United States began to secretly fund the Mujahideen against the Soviets through  a covert CIA programme called Operation Cyclone. 

 'it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the west'

Other Muslim fighters from outside Afghanistan arrived to join the battle, seeing it as their holy duty to do so. They became known as the Afghan Arabs, and one of them was a wealthy young man hailing from a prominent Saudi business dynasty. His name was Osama bin Laden, and he used his fortune and high-end connections to further the cause. It’s since become part of Middle East lore that some of the CIA funds made its way into the hands of the bin Laden contingent, implying that he, and his eventual terror group, were a kind of Frankenstein monster accidentally created by the West’s skulduggery.

Britain’s former foreign secretary Robin Cook explicitly outlined this version of events in print, calling bin Laden ‘a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies’, and saying that ‘inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the west.’

On the other hand, others have dismissed this as a kind of ‘folk myth’, in the words of journalist and security analyst Peter Bergen. ‘Bin Laden had his own money,’ Bergan says. ‘He was anti-American and he was operating secretly and independently.’

Former CIA agent Marc Sageman has also maintained the US funding only went to native Afghan Mujahideen, saying ‘No US official ever came in contact with the foreign volunteers… They had their own sources of money… and they made their own deals with the various Afghan resistance leaders.’

'the beginning of this international Sunni terrorist organization was something nobody imagined could happen'

Whatever the full truth, the Soviet-Afghan conflict, directly exacerbated by the CIA, provided bin Laden with a platform. He helped set-up an organisation called Maktab al-Khidamat, which opened offices as far afield as Brooklyn, New York, was used to raise and channel funds for the war in Afghanistan. MAK is generally considered a precursor to al-Qaeda, which bin Laden co-founded in four years later, in 1988.
 
Bin Laden’s contempt for the West and desire to unite Muslim nations to forge a caliphate under Sharia law, became more intense in the 90s. However, despite a number of Islamist attacks in that decade, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing which killed six people, and the devastating bombings of two US embassies in Africa in 1998, US intelligence agents were wrong-footed by the sheer ruthlessness of the new threat. Senior bosses simply failed to take the warnings seriously. In the words of historian Steve Coll, ‘the resources the country mustered to prevent al-Qaeda terrorism were not proportionate to the scale of the threat’. 

Former CIA analyst Cynthia Storer summed up the prevailing view: ‘At the end of the Cold War, the beginning of this international Sunni terrorist organization was something nobody imagined could happen, because “Arabs can’t work together, and these guys are a bunch of ragheads who’ve been fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan.”’
 
This complacency meant the warning signs of 9/11 were missed, and that catastrophic plan – hatched by bin Laden alongside another al-Qaeda mastermind called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – became a world-changing success for the terrorists. Just months after 9/11, al-Qaeda came close to another devastating ‘win’ when one of their operatives, British-born Richard Reid, almost ignited an explosive he’d smuggled on board a Miami-bound plane in his shoe.

The level of the involvement of al-Qaeda in various atrocities has often been opaque and ambiguous. The 7/7 bombings in London, for example, were originally reported as wholly ‘home grown’, but evidence later linked some of the bombers with an al-Qaeda fixer, Rashid Rauf, who would later be arrested in connection with the foiled 2006 plot.
 
Rauf’s death in a drone strike in 2008 was, according to a CNN report based on the words of a US counterterrorism operative, ‘a deep blow to al-Qaeda’s ability to plot terrorist attacks against the West’. Meanwhile, an exhaustive report on al-Qaeda by the Counter Extremism Project describes the current organisation as ‘increasingly decentralized, with affiliates acting semi-autonomously’, with cells effectively using the name ‘al-Qaeda’ as a form of corporate branding. The rise of ISIS, which began life as an al-Qaeda off-shoot in Iraq, has also posed an existential threat to al-Qaeda itself. 

However, it would be foolhardy to write off al-Qaeda as a spent force. As a report by the Hudson Institute think tank reminds us, ‘From the outset, al-Qaeda adopted a unique organizational design, whereby its senior leadership outlined a strategic course for the organization a whole, but empowered mid-level commanders to execute this strategy as they saw fit.’ In other words, it’s an organisation that’s always been frustratingly flexible, fluid and ‘agile’, to use one of the management buzzwords of today. And, as recently as September this year, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video calling on potential terrorists to strike Western targets, while a UN report has warned of the possibility of would-be ISIS recruits turning to al-Qaeda instead. The story of al-Qaeda is far from over, and dogged intelligence-gathering is as necessary as it’s ever been.

Damian Lewis: Spy Wars starts Monday 7 October at 9pm.