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The Al Qaeda Most Americans Know Is Basically a Myth at This Point

The world recently got a good taste of how al Qaeda operatives have a lot in common these days with cubicle-dwelling bureaucrats.

This article first appeared at Not Safe for Work Corporation.

When I left Vegas last week, Mali was still the center of the world. I got home today, after taking a few wrong turns, and Mali is well on its way back to nowhere. Google News only listed 23 stories tagged “Mali” last week, and they were all about a supposedly secret Al Qaeda communique found in Timbuktu after the Jihadis bugged out.

This is just a phase, like your parents told themselves when you were 12. It’s the phase where the war reporters lag behind the war, and don’t get into town until the fighting is over (not that there was much fighting in Mali in the first place) after the French have tidied up after their airstrikes. Now, when the big fuss is over, Timbuktu and Gao are crawling with reporters who just can’t find much to talk about—because there never really was much to talk about in these teeny desert outposts, not even when the Jihadis were in charge. So Associated Press  is screaming to anybody who’ll listen that its reporters found a vital secret document while snuffling through the trash in Timbuktu:

”TIMBUKTU, Mali - (AP) -- In their hurry to flee last month, al-Qaida fighters left behind a crucial document: Tucked under a pile of papers and trash is a confidential letter, spelling out the terror network's strategy for conquering northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule the region.”

That’s a pretty cool lead sentence, like the start of a good spy novel, until you realize every key word should have an asterisk after it, leading to a footnote that says, “Look, we needed a big story here—you know how much it costs to get to this stinking hellhole? So give us a break.”

So let’s break it down, phrase by phrase.

First, “Al Qaeda”. Every time you read that name, you should spit and shrug like a peasant turning down a horse with a hernia. It’s a scam. First of all, who says there is such a thing in the first place? Al Qaeda is an organization that makes no sense in traditional guerrilla terms. You don’t hold guerrilla jamborees, guerrilla mixers—you compartmentalize and only let members who are already blown meet with other movements. The whole idea of Al Qaeda as a jihadi ecumenical lovefest is so stupid that  almost two years ago, I said we should be asking whether there even is such a thing as Al Qaeda.

There wasn’t anything like a “terror network” operating in Mali, even when the northern half of the country was marked with those diagonal red lines meaning “under Islamist control” a few months ago. Al Qaeda is as dead as bin Laden, and it died—if it ever really existed—years before the Old Man himself was shot up while watching Jeopardy reruns in Abbotabad.

There are plenty of Islamists, from one or another of the hardline traditions—Salafist, Wahhabi, Deobandi—but they don’t report to any central Al Qaeda Board of Directors. It’s always local, much more local than the news services want to tell you. In Mali, there was a simple physics problem, a surplus of energy in the Maghrib, the rim of North Africa. Some of that energy spun back south, across the Sahara, into places like Mali.

Normally, if you’ll recall your HS Physics, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” but Nature is normally willing to tolerate one in Mali. It was just that for a while, after the Islamists lost the Algerian Civil War and Qaddafi was blasted out of Libya, there was so much excess weaponry and such a huge surplus of unemployed freelance jihadis up there, a lot of them Tuaregs nursing the old ambition to have their own ridiculous landlocked chunk of Sahara, that something was bound to pop in Mali.

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