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What is al-Qaeda?

Don't Panic ... your war questions answered

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It's strange to be answering this question nearly six years into the War On Terror™ and more than four years since the United States invaded Iraq. I wasn't alive then, but I suspect that by the time of the D-Day invasion, every sentient American (and a large percentage of household pets and plants) knew what Nazi Germany was.

That was a different time, though. World War II dominated American lives. The Iraq war doesn't even dominate nightly newscasts (all of which are, by the way, watched by many fewer people than even the least popular episodes of "American Idol.")

Because Americans consume news on the run (if at all), they're susceptible to confusion born of sloppy shorthand. The Bush administration understands this and has recently ramped up its ongoing "sloppy shorthand" effort to confuse the American people about whom the United States is fighting and why.

With the war in Iraq now so unpopular that even docile, rubber-stampy Republican senators are starting to push for a troop withdrawal, Bush & Co. has intensified its campaign to connect the Iraq war to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The most egregious recent example was President Bush's June 28 speech at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Like most of his public speeches, he kicked it off with his chummy, "regular guy" stand-up routine:

"Those who go to school here are at a great place. We actually have some things in common. We went to school in New England. (Laughter.) We pursued advanced degrees. And we compiled outstanding academic records. (Laughter.) Well, two out of three. (Laughter and applause.)"

Is it just me, or is it kind of pathetic that the office of the most powerful man on Earth adds parenthetical notes indicating the audience laughed at the jokes? He's their boss. Of course they laughed.

Bush quickly dives into an "update" on the Iraq war's progress. Only it's not an update. It's a last-ditch rhetorical "Hail Mary," designed to sucker people into thinking the people in Iraq were involved in the 9/11 attacks.

"Anbar stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad to Iraq's borders with Jordan and Syria. It was al Qaeda's chief base of operations in Iraq. Remember, when I mention al Qaeda, they're the ones who attacked the United States of America and killed nearly 3,000 people on September the 11th, 2001."

Al-Qaeda did attack the United States on Sept. 11. However, the group he says operates in Anbar province isn't the same group.

The group operating in Iraq is called al-Qaeda in Iraq or al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. It did not exist until 2003. And though it symbolically swore loyalty to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, it does not take orders from them.

In case you're wondering if the blurring of the line between "al-Qaeda in Iraq" and "al-Qaeda who attacked us on 9/11" was anything less than intentional, Bush dropped this line later in the speech: "Al Qaeda is responsible for the most sensational killings in Iraq. They're responsible for the sensational killing on U.S. soil, and they're responsible for the sensational killings in Iraq."

The president cited "al-Qaeda" in this speech close to 30 times. Never does he explain the crucial distinction between "al-Qaeda" and "al-Qaeda in Iraq."

He doesn't explain it because he wants to confuse us. He wants us to think Iraq was somehow linked to 9/11. He wants to tar opponents of his Iraq war as pussies who refuse to fight the people who attacked us on 9/11, even though he's the guy who took the country's focus off the people who actually committed 9/11.

The group that attacked the United States in September 2001 is now headquartered in the tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. Assuming he's still alive, bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri have regrouped, in large part because in 2003 the Bush administration reassigned much of its intelligence and man-hunting resources to Iraq.

In summary:

Al-Qaeda = the group led by Osama bin Laden that attacked the United States on 9/11.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia = Different group, founded after the U.S. invasion.

Don't let our desperate president fool you.

The full transcript of the speech is available at here, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/06/20070628-14.html.

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