Is the term "Al Qaeda" made up by the CIA or the FBI? (Tweet of a colleague, citing Adam Curtis' documentary "The Power of Nightmares")

Even OBL hadn't heard the name "Al Qaeda" until the FBI/CIA decided it needed a name.

Alternatively, I've heard that it really means The Database

Shortly before his untimely death, former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told the House of Commons that "Al Qaeda" is not really a terrorist group but a database of international mujaheddin and arms smugglers used by the CIA and Saudis to funnel guerrillas, arms, and money into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Courtesy of World Affairs, a journal based in New Delhi, WMR can bring you an important excerpt from an Apr.-Jun. 2004 article by Pierre-Henry Bunel, a former agent for French military intelligence.

  • Wikipedia's article on Al Qaeda cites CNN of an Al Jazeera interview with OBL where he claims how the term came about. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Qaeda#Etymology Whether you find trustworthy all of Wikipedia, CNN, Al Jazeera and bin Laden might be a stretch though.
    – Golden Cuy
    May 26, 2011 at 11:08
  • My unsubstantiated knowledge is that USA thought it meant "The Database" due to a bad translation which is why they picked it to describe thier database of muslim terrorists who were not affiliated.
    – Ardesco
    May 26, 2011 at 11:45
  • I read that the name was made up by Jamal al-Fadl in his testimony. The story goes that the government needed Bin Laden to be the head of a criminal organization to try him in absentia. al-Fadl supposedly made up the name Al-Qaeda as part of his deal since that's what the authorities wanted to hear.
    – Apreche
    May 26, 2011 at 11:56
  • AQ of course never was a single organisation, but rather seems to be a cooperative of other, smaller, organisations working towards a shared goal and having good use of a central planning and organisation committee (OBL and his cronies) as well as funding.
    – jwenting
    May 26, 2011 at 12:55
  • 1
    Al Qaeda القاعدة actually means "the basis". May 26, 2011 at 17:06

1 Answer 1


I've never heard any claim that it was made up by CIA or FBI. Bin Ladin himself claimed the term was originally for "training camps for our mujahedeen against Russia's terrorism" in a videotaped interview (Since I don't speak Arabic, I didn't seek out the original video tape, but trusted the English transcript), crediting Abu Ebeida El-Banashiri with the naming. I've always heard the translation being "the base," not "the database," which doesn't make much sense to me.

There's even an assertion that the name was adapted from Isaac Asimov's "The Foundation". That seems a bit far fetched to me, but I suppose it's possible. I think it's more likely a coincidence, and the explanation given by bin Laden makes a lot more sense to me (being the simpler explanation, and seeing as it explains the name growing naturally from the movement before it formed into an organization).

  • “which doesn't make much sense to me” – read the post linked in the question: it actually makes a lot of sense to be using “base” as an abbreviation of “database”. Jun 28, 2011 at 11:49
  • I mean that given the context the term is used in, having it come from a database doesn't make much sense to me. These guys aren't likely to be lead by DBAs, not are they likely to embrace a name given to them by the west, so the claim that the name comes from a name given to them by British and American intelligence agencies doesn't seem plausible to me. That's merely my opinion, though. Jun 29, 2011 at 0:42
  • +1, but an answer citing something specifically addressing the "made up name" claim would be ideal.
    – Golden Cuy
    Jun 25, 2012 at 7:27
  • The name wasn't taken from Asimov but the word Foundation in his series (surprisingly popular in the Arab world) was definitely translated as 'al Qaeda'. Maybe they use a different translation in newer editions? Jun 30, 2016 at 13:56

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