In October last year, an item appeared on an authoritative Russian studies website that soon had the science-fiction community buzzing with speculative excitement. It asserted that Isaac Asimov’s 1951 classic Foundation was translated into Arabic under the title “al-Qaida”. And it seemed to have the evidence to back up its claims.
The Arabic word qaida – ordinarily meaning “base” or “foundation” – is also used for “groundwork” and “basis”. It is employed in the sense of a military or naval base, and for chemical formulae and geometry: the base of a pyramid, for example. Lane, the best Arab-English lexicon, gives these senses: foundation, basis of a house; the supporting columns or poles of a structure; the lower parts of clouds extending across a horizon; a universal or general rule or canon. With the coming of the computer age, it has gained the further meaning of “database”: qaida ma’lumat (information base).”This peculiar coincidence would be of little interest if not for abundant parallels between the plot of Asimov’s book and the events unfolding now,” wrote Dmitri Gusev, the scientist who posted the article. He was referring to apparent similarities between the plot of Foundation and the pursuit of the organisation we have come to know, perhaps erroneously, as al-Qaida.
Qaida itself comes from the root verb q-‘-d : to sit down, remain, stay, abide. Many people appear to think al-Qaida’s name emerged from some idea of a physical base – a command centre from where Bin Laden and other leaders could direct operations. “We’ve got to get back to al-Qaida on that one,” it’s possible to imagine a footsoldier saying. Bin Laden himself has spoken, post-September 11, of being in “a very safe place”. There have also been stories that his father had a vernal estate called al-Qaida in Yemen or Saudi Arabia. Could there be a sense in which the name of the organisation represents a notion of the eternal home in the consciousness of its fugitive leader?
On the surface, the most improbable explanation of the name is that Bin Laden was somehow inspired by a Russian-born writer who lived most of his life in the US and was once the world’s most prolific sci-fi novelist (born in 1920 in Smolensk, Asimov died in New York in 1992). But the deeper you dig, the more plausible it seems that al-Qaida’s founders may have borrowed some rhetoric from Foundation and its successors (it became a series) and possibly from other science fiction material.
As Nick Mamatas argued in an article on sci-fi fans in Gadfly magazine, “even the terror of September 11th had science fictional overtones: it was both an attack on New York from a tin-plated overlord with delusions of grandeur and a single cataclysmic event that seemingly changed everything, for ever”.
Science fiction has often featured “evil empires” against which are set utopian ideas whose survival must be fought for against the odds by a small but resourceful band of men. Such empires often turn out to be amazingly fragile when faced by intelligent idealists. Intelligent idealists who are also psychopaths might find comfort in a fictional role model – especially one created by a novelist famous for castigating that “amiable dunce” Ronald Reagan: the president who prosecuted the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan.
The Empire portrayed in Asimov’s novels is in turmoil – he cited Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an influence. Beset by overconsumption, corruption and inefficiency, “it had been falling for centuries before one man really became aware of that fall. That man was Hari Seldon, the man who represented the one spark of creative effort left among the gathering decay. He developed and brought to its highest pitch the science of psycho-history.”
Seldon is a scientist and prophet who predicts the Empire’s fall. He sets up his Foundation in a remote corner of the galaxy, hoping to build a new civilisation from the ruins of the old. The Empire attacks the Foundation with all its military arsenal and tries to crush it. Seldon uses a religion (based on scientific illusionism) to further his aims. These are tracked by the novel and its sequels across a vast tract of time. For the most part, his predictions come true.
Seldon, like Bin Laden, transmits videotaped messages for his followers, recorded in advance. There is also some similarity in geopolitical strategy. Seldon’s vision seems oddly like the way Bin Laden has conceived his campaign. “Psycho-history” is the statistical treatment of the actions of large populations across epochal periods – the science of mobs as Asimov calls it. “Hari Seldon plotted the social and economic trends of the time, sighted along curves and foresaw the continuing and accelerating fall of civilisation.”
So did Bin Laden use Foundation as a kind of imaginative sounding-board for the creation of al-Qaida? Perhaps reading the book in his pampered youth, and later on seeing his destiny in terms of the ruthless manipulation of historical forces? Did he realise much earlier than anyone else that the march of globalisation would provide opportunities for those who wanted to rouse and exploit the dispossessed?
In the Arab newspaper al-Hayat, the Muslim intellectual Yussuf Samahah put it like this: “Anyone who believes that his [Bin Laden’s] ‘ideas’ and the new phenomenon [globalisation] are contradictory would be mistaken, because while globalisation is gradually uniting the planet, it is causing many introverted and revivalist reactions which use the tools that globalisation provides to give the impression that they are not only fighting it but will ultimately defeat it.” Using something like game-theory, Asimov’s Hari Seldon worked on exactly such principles, taking into account, across time, the dynamic between intergalactic megatrends and local reactions to them.
If Bin Laden did read Asimov, when was it? It is clear that from an early age he consumed western products and media, until a fundamentalist reversion occurred when he met the Palestinian preacher Abdullah Azzam, who was to be a crucial influence.
As Bin Laden’s best biographer, Yossef Bodansky, puts it, he “started the 1970s as did many other sons of the affluent and well-connected – breaking the strict Muslim lifestyle in Saudi Arabia with sojourns in cosmopolitan Beirut. While in high school and college, Osama visited Beirut often, frequenting flashy nightclubs, casinos, and bars. He was a drinker and womaniser, which often got him into bar brawls.”
If Bin Laden did read Foundation, it most likely would have been in these wild years, when he was aping western habits. Maybe he read an English version, bought in one of Beirut’s English-language bookshops, or during a trip to the US or London (where he bought property in Wembley).
Was there any science fiction for him to read in Arabic? A search dating from 1972 to the present of the Index Translationem, Unesco’s register of translated books, reveals a reasonable amount of classic fantastic fiction in Arabic: The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. But so far as 20th-century science fiction is concerned, a search found only two clear-cut examples: a 1985 Kuwait book which collected Ray Bradbury’s Pillar of Fire and The Fog Horn and a 1988 Iraqi edition of Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites.
Maybe, says Dennis Lien from the University of Minnesota, who made the search, the fabled Arabic edition of Foundation was published prior to 1972 and has not been reprinted since, but passed from hand to hand. “I suppose one could argue that since Asimov was Jewish it may have become politically incorrect in the Islamic world to reprint his books, but the same argument would apply against their being printed to any great degree in the first place.”
In the wake of September 11, the spectre of another science-fiction novel, Frank Herbert’s Dune, was also raised as a possible influence on Bin Laden’s self-mythology. It features a mysterious man whose followers, Arabic-speaking sons of the desert, live in caves and tunnels. They engage in a religious jihad against a corrupt imperialist civilisation.
The case that science fiction, and in particular Asimov, could have had an effect on Bin Laden is strengthened by their better documented effects on other psychopathic personalities. Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo sect – which released 11 packets of deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995 – was also apparently trying to build a community of scientists modelled on the members of Asimov’s Foundation. “Aum’s bible was, believe it or not, the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov,” says David Kaplan, author of The Cult at the End of the World, a book on the sect, or “guild” as it styled itself.
This is backed up by others. According to Yoichi Clark Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, “The ultimate purpose of the guild, said the sect’s science minister Hideo Murai, before he was murdered by a Korean gangster, is to rebuild civilisation after a cataclysm and to combat the powerful globalist institutions that are bringing on an apocalypse.”
In 1995, after the subway attacks, a coded letter arrived at the magazine Takarajima 30. Believed to have been from Aum sympathisers, it gives a sense of how seriously the sect’s members took Asimov and science fiction more generally. The letter, which promised an attack on the Tokaimura nuclear reprocessing plant, embedded its threat in a passage of literary criticism.
Shimatsu explains: “The letter was a rebuttal to an essay by Susan Sontag in which she claims the sci-fi film genre is based on a fascination with catastrophe in the age of the bomb. Instead, this critic asserted, science fiction is really about surviving catastrophe, and is therefore optimistic – and the key to the genre is the longing for a sense of scientific community resembling the craft guilds of the past.
“A professor of American literature at one of Tokyo’s top universities, a specialist in science fiction, immediately recognised the passage as the work of literary critic Frederic Jameson. It was obviously selected as a defense of the Aum sect’s effort to build a community of scientists modelled after Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.”
A small, unplanned nuclear reaction took place at the Tokaimura plant in 1999, the same year the Japanese government cracked down on the sect. There had been other, more minor incidents. All are generally attributed to human error, but Shimatsu believes they may be connected to a second, resurgent wing of Aum working in the nuclear industry on Asimovian lines. “Aum enjoys a huge following within Japan’s nuclear establishment, which is riddled with believers from millennialist sects. Another clue is contained in Asimov’s masterpiece. After the visible First Foundation was crushed by the Galactic Empire, the invisible Second Foundation persisted to eventually win the universal struggle.”
One can’t blame Asimov for fuelling the swollen fantasies of the murderous. It is the last thing this committed pacifist (“violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”) would have wanted. He may not be the only famous sci-fi author to have been taken up by lunatics, anyway. Killer cultist Charles Manson’s favourite book is said to have been Stranger in a Strange Land, written by Asimov’s rival for the imaginative future Robert Heinlein.
More generally, the space opera sub-genre of science fiction offers the possibility of a massive expansion of self-mythologising will-to-power. In a 1999 New Yorker article on galactic empires, Oliver Morton beamed up French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, author of The Poetics of Space, to explain all this: “Immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.” A world, one might add, in which knocking down the twin towers with passenger jets seems a possibility that can be realised.
As a genre, science fiction can’t claim exclusive villainous effect. Other figures of extreme public animus have been influenced by different types of novels. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who held science in contempt, told his family that he’d read Conrad’s The Secret Agent “about a dozen times” in his Montana hut, and is thought to have modelled himself on Conrad’s anarchist. He also registered under the name “Conrad” in the Sacramento hotel from which he’s believed to have sent his bombs.
Earth First!, the militant US environmental gang, claim inspiration from Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey-Wrench Gang, in which eco-guerrillas sabotage dams and bridges. Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was a fan of neo-Nazi William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, which tells of a group that blows up the FBI headquarters in Washington.
As, in that very same biscuit-brown building in Federal Plaza, more “Most Wanted” pictures of Bin Laden were being pinned up in the wake of September 11, the Asimov/al-Qaida story was spreading. There was a piece in the Ottawa Citizen. On Ansible, one of the most popular science-fiction websites, hip sci-fi novelist China Miéville was quoted: “An expert on the Middle East told me about a rumour circulating about the name of Bin Laden’s network. The term al-Qaida seems to have no political precedent in Arabic, and has therefore been something of a conundrum to the experts… Unlikely as it sounds, this is the only theory anyone can come up with.”
The expert Miéville was referring to is Fred Halliday, who teaches international relations at the LSE. Trying to define al-Qaida, Halliday included the Asimov connection as a glancing aside in the “keywords” section of Two Hours that Shook the World, a book about September 11: “The term has no apparent antecedents in Islamic or Arabic political history: explanations range from a protected region during the communist era in Afghanistan, to it being an allusion to the Bin Laden family’s construction company, to the title of a 1951 Isaac Asimov novel which was translated into Arabic as al-Qaida.”
Many readers of Gusev’s original website posting disagreed with its thesis entirely. “Asimov’s story hinges on a secular extrapolation of human history based on mathematics,” says John Jenkins, an expert on the author. “It’s an idea which would make a Muslim extremist cringe.” A letter to the most important British science-fiction magazine, Interzone, pointed out that the German title of Karl Marx’s preparatory musings on capital, Grundrisse, can also be translated as “base” or “foundation”.
Fantasy has certainly been an element in other terror campaigns, as in the influence of Celtic myths of nationhood on Irish Republicanism. Fergal Keane brought a quotation from Yeats into his contribution to the BBC’s 9/11 book The Day that Shook the World: “The heart fed on fantasy, grown brutal from the fare.” What Yeats was indicating, says Keane, “was the power of mythology in the shaping of the terrorist’s consciousness”. To be capable of sustaining a savage war, he went on, “it is necessary to narrow the mind, make it subject to a very limited range of ideas and influences”.
That would seem to cut out Asimov. But other reasons why al-Qaida might be so called are no less mysterious. After all, communiques issued by Bin Laden and his associates never use the name. Instead they refer to themselves as the “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and the Crusaders”, the “Islamic Army for the Liberation of Holy Places” and so on.
The first use of al-Qaida in western media was in 1996 in an American newspaper report which identified it as another name of the Islamic Salvation Foundation, one of Bin Laden’s jihadi charities. The term only came into general usage after the group’s bombing of the US embassies in East Africa in 1998, when the FBI and CIA fingered it as an umbrella organisation for various projects of Bin Laden and his associates – many of which grew out of ideas originally hatched by Abdullah Azzam, who’d been killed by a car-bomb in Peshawar in 1989.
The network grew exponentially. By the time Bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996, his roster of jihadis had been computerised. Flying back to Afghanistan on a C-130 transport plane, he is said to have had with him, along with his wives and 150 supporters, a laptop computer containing the names of the thousands of fighters and activists who would help him further expand his struggle against the west. This qaida ma’lumat, this “information base”, seems a very plausible source of the name.
Dr Saad al-Fagih, a Saudi dissident and former Afghan mujahideen, thinks the term is over-used: “Well I really laugh when I hear the FBI talking about al-Qaida as an organisation of Bin Laden.” Al-Qaida was just a service for relatives of jihadis, he said, speaking to the American PBS show Frontline. “In 1988 he [Bin Laden] noticed that he was backward in his documentation and was not able to give answers to some families asking about their loved ones gone missing in Afghanistan. He decided to make the matter much more organised and arranged for proper documentation.”
Fascinatingly, the acclaimed biography of Bin Laden by Yossef Bodansky, director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, hardly mentions the name al-Qaida. Written before September 11, it does so only to emphasise that al-Qaida is the wrong name altogether: “A lot of money is being spent on a rapidly expanding web of Islamist charities and social services, including the recently maligned al-Qaida. Bin Laden’s first charity, al-Qaida, never amounted to more than a loose umbrella framework for supporting like-minded individuals and their causes. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, al-Qaida has been portrayed in the west as a cohesive terrorist organisation, but it is not.”
There’s no doubt that the name came to prominence in part because America needed to conceptualise its enemy. This is certainly what Bodansky thinks now. “In the aftermath of September 11,” he says, “both governments and the media in the west had to identify an entity we should hate and fight against.”
Rohan Gunaratna, research fellow at the centre for the study of terrorism and political violence at the University of St Andrews, takes a different view. In an important recent book on al-Qaida, he argues that the name came from political theory, citing the concept of al-Qaida al-Sulbah (the solid base) formulated in an essay by Abdullah Azzam, Bin Laden’s intellectual mentor. The solid base provided a platform, Gunaratna writes, for the “sole purpose of creating societies founded on the strictest Islamic principles”.
Al-Qaida al-Sulbah mixes a type of revolutionary vanguardism, borrowed from European political philosophy, with Islamic martyrdom: it’s the pioneering vanguard that must, in Azzam’s phrase, after “a long period of training and hatching”, be prepared to “jump into the fire”. And there may be another borrowing: the essay reads like nothing so much as Hari Seldon’s plans for his foundation. Perhaps it was Azzam, after all, who read Asimov.