Foundation and jihad

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Did Osama bin Laden name Al Qaeda after Isaac Asimov's Foundation series?

Meeting Dmitri Gusev here at Text By The Bay ("Rising sun", 4/25/2015) reminded me that I'd seen his name before. The context was a 2002 article in the Guardian, "What is the origin of the name al-Qaida?"  (picked up on LLOG in "Copy-editing terrorism", 7/28/2005):

 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.  

"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.

The author of the Guardian piece, Giles Foden, describes the parallels this way:

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.

So I asked Marc Sageman about this, and he responded that "it is the US media and US government that gave AQ its name around 1998", noting that "At the time, the group around bin Laden was simply known Al Jamaat al Sheikh, or the Sheikh’s group", and that "Originally, al-Qaeda referred to the military base that people sponsored by bin Laden trained at. It was not the name of an organization."

If Asimov's Foundation had been translated into Arabic, its title would plausibly have been al Qaeda, but apparently no such translation was ever published or even written. And there's no evidence that bin Laden or his followers ever read or were influenced by the English version.

Not the first time that a cute theory was killed by homely fact.

But apparently there are other world-historical figures for whom Asimov's Foundation was indeed a major influence — see Ray Smock, "Newt Gingrich the Galactic Historian",  History News Network, 12/8/2011.


  1. MattF said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

    Also, Paul Krugman:

  2. first approximation said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    Although on the opposite side of the political spectrum to Newt, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman has said that the Foundation inspired him to get into economics.

  3. Yuval said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

    Not a native speaker, but I think that should be "Jamaat al-Sheikh", without the leading Al-, or better yet "Jamaat Ash-Sheikh", if one wishes to be a pain about Sun Letters.

  4. Oona Houlihan said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

    There are several "etymologies" around the Al Quaeda/Al Quaida naming history. One is that it was actually the CIA's idea to call this "the list" or "the database" of recruits who were meant to seep into Afghanistan as insurgents against the Soviet invasion and slated to be armed by the US as well as taught the fundamentals of radical Islam through literature actually commissioned by the US with the help of a certain university … Just these last few days we had the 100th anniversary of another "Islamic" (in some eyes) atrocity – the extinction of a lot of the Armenians then living on the territory what is today modern Turkey. And again there are historians that cloud the waters on the issue. So whenever the clash between (predominantly) Christian and Islamic values becomes the subject of scientific or historic study, several obstacles get into the way. And one is that obviously different cultures frame different meanings and "halos" for otherwise seemingly straightforward verbal expressions.

  5. Levantine said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

    According to Wikipedia, there's evidence that the name goes back to the late '80s, and the words quoted from Osama bin Laden's 2001 interview certainly suggest an origin earlier than (and different from) the one specified by Marc Sageman: As Yuval has indicated, "Al Jamaat al Sheikh" is grammatically impossible in Arabic.

    What the Ottomans did to the Armenians was an imperial atrocity, not an Islamic one. No-one would use the framework of Christian fundamentalism to discuss the British massacring of Indians during the Raj.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

    In 2003, I looked into the origin of the name of this organization. I looked at a number of statements attributed to bin Ladin and I could find no evidence that he had ever used the name publicly except once and that was quoting a U.S. government statement. I could find no evidence that bin Ladin gave it the name or even used the name.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

    P.S. I found OBL's statement I referenced above:

    “A few days ago, they (the American military) hit what they claimed to be al-Qa’ida positions in Khost and dropped a guided missile on a mosque.” (Parenthetical comment is mine)

  8. Levantine said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

    GeorgeW, what about the interview I mentioned above? The English transcript is available here:

  9. Typhon said,

    April 26, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

    Funny that one would think of a parallel to Foundation, when those with Dune are much more obvious. To the point that Justin B. Rye had summarized it as 'Osama bin Laden conquers the galaxy'.

    "Usul" (Paul's name among the Fremen) and "Al-Qaeda" have quite a similar meaning, as far as I can tell.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 4:45 am

    Levantine: Interesting. That predates my reference by a couple of months. I was using LexisNexis for my search at the time.

    FWIW, the first reference I found to the name was August 1994 in al-Ahram Weekly (an Egyptian, English-language publication).It was in an article about “Afghan-Arabs” (Arabs who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets). In this article, there is a reference to Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida. The al-Qa’ida reference is included in describing Ayman El-Zawahri who is a leader of Islamic Jihad. The article says,
    “. . . It was during this period that he (Zawahri) met Osama bin Laden, who established al-qa'ida, a base for volunteers en route from Egypt to Afghanistan.”

  11. Adam Roberts said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 4:49 am

    Aum Shinrikyo, the organisation behind the Tokyo Subway sarin attacks in 1995 were directly influenced by Asimov's Foundation books:

  12. David L said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 11:57 am

    I wonder if the CIA's introduction of names like "the base" or "the list" was at all influenced by this famous parable from the Book of Python:

    At the age of fifteen Doug and Dinsdale started attending the Ernest Pythagoras Primary School in Clerkenwell. When the Piranhas left school they were called up but were found by an Army Board to be too unstable even for National Service. Denied the opportunity to use their talents in the service of their country, they began to operate what they called 'The Operation'…

    and later:

    Doug and Dinsdale Piranha now formed a gang, which they called 'The Gang' and used terror to take over night clubs, billiard halls, gaming casinos and race tracks.

  13. Gene Callahan said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

    @first approximation: "Although on the opposite side of the political spectrum to Newt, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman…"

    Nooo! Krugman sits about 5 degrees left of center, and Gingrich about 5 degrees right of center.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

    It is not impossible that the same Arabic word could mean both "base" in the sense of "military base" and "database" (especially if the latter had been calqued from English), but also not obvious that that should be the case. Can anyone with greater knowledge of Arabic address that aspect of the rival-etymology claims?

    I am amused to learn that Arabic wikipedia has an article on "All your base are belong to us":

  15. Patrick B said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

    Reading up on North Indian music a couple years ago, I was startled to learn that Qaida is a technical term in tabla playing (a theme-&-variations form). This article by David Courtney explains (eventually…)

    Courtney spells Qaida with a k & says it means "rule". But I have found the q version almost everywhere else, & I assume it is the same word borrowed from Arabic at some point. With shift of meaning. …?

    I feel for the Pakistani tabla players just trying to do their job & drawing the wrath of the CIA.

    "What? Spell bolour with a k?…"

  16. EndlessWaves said,

    April 28, 2015 @ 6:21 am

    It would seem an odd choice of name given the fate of the Foundation. Even in the original trilogy the Foundation gets derailed and ends up losing touch with reality, in the later sequels it gets completely absorbed by a different culture.

    I can think of quite a few better options among classic science fiction if you wanted to pick a name for a group aspiring to institute a new world order.

  17. tpr said,

    April 29, 2015 @ 3:53 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    According to the Arabic speaker I consulted about this a long time ago, "al-qaeda" is used in the root or foundation sense of "base" including mundane things such as the base of a lamp, but also a military base, which, if you wanted to be specific, would be "al-qaeda al-askariya". This informant said it could not and would not be used for "database" in Arabic.

    The theory that "al-qaeda" referred to a list or database seems to have gained traction when the Former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook mentioned it in a speech to the House of Commons, apparently erroneously if we believe my informant.

    On a separate note, one problem with determining when "al-qaeda" became the name of an organization is that Arabic script doesn't distinguish upper and lower case, or provide any other method of distinguishing a proper noun from a common one, so it will be possible to find references to "al-qaeda" in Arabic media referring to mundane things like the base of a lamp and so on well before Bin Laden's organization acquired that name.

  18. ExOttoyuhr said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    @EndlessWaves: The version of this account that I heard says that bin Laden was inspired by the Second Foundation, not the First. The Second Foundation was a hidden network of special operators who covertly monitored the course of events, and intervened at key junctures to ensure that it continued to go the way they wanted it to. Several cults and terror organizations have explicitly claimed to be inspired by the Second Foundation, and I wouldn't be surprised if bin Laden, who had a pretty Westernized education, also had them in mind.

    Remember how bin Laden liked to release videos of uncertain date, in which he predicted near-future events. One of the key points of the Foundation Trilogy was that Seldon had created a set of videos during his lifetime, to be viewed at certain scheduled times after his death, offering advice on how the problems of the near future should be resolved; bin Laden never had Seldon's prescience (thank goodness), but I think his videos might have been intended to be like those.

    @Typhon: read The Sabers of Paradise, an account of the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus and Imam Shamyl's resistance to them. (It was long out of print, but had a new edition in 2003 or 2004.) Dune was probably based on that book, or at least enormously influenced by it.

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