On a hot summer's day in 1996 a plane carrying Osama bin Laden and a few friends and family landed at a runway just outside the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. The Saudi-born Islamic activist had little equipment, few followers and minimal local support. Yet within five years he had built an organisation that was to carry out the most shocking and devastating terrorist attack in history. 'Al-Qaeda' is now the most over-used and misunderstood term in the media. In Arabic, it is simply an abstract noun, meaning 'resource', 'network' or 'base'. In the West, it symbolises the greatest threat to global security: though its Afghan training camps have now been reduced to dust, no one believes that al-Qaeda was destroyed with them. But what is al-Qaeda? Is it a disciplined, motivated, structured terrorist organisation led by a single criminal mastermind or no more than an idea, a language in which angry young Muslim men can articulate their rage? Bin Laden's aim to provoke conflict between militant Islam and the West appears closer to fulfilment than ever. But is al-Qaeda the catalyst of this conflict, or merely a symbol of it? Drawing on his unparalleled experience Jason Burke provides
Jason Burke is the prize-winning Chief Reporter for The Observer, London. He has spent the last five years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, on the trail of Osama bin Laden and his followers.