On the day after the July 7th, 2005 bombings on London transport, former foreign secretary Robin Cook MP wrote what turned out to be his penultimate newspaper column for the Guardian. In it he revealed something about al-Qaeda that perhaps he shouldn't have.
Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the west.
As far as I know, this was the first time publicly, in the anglophone world, that the al-Qaeda name had been explained as referring to a computer database.
In the francophone world, a colourful former French military intelligence officer, Pierre-Henri Bunel, had had a book published in 2004, "Proche-Orient, une guerre mondiale?", extracts of which appeared [in French] on a French conspiracy website. The extract went into some detail of how al-Qaeda originally referred to a computer database of Islamist fighters. But, AFAIK, it was not until after Robin Cook had revealed the same in the Guardian, and after his death a month later, that an English translation of Bunel's words appeared on the web. It's a rough translation, which doesn't read well. But the basic outline of his account accords with what Cook had revealed.
Here's my suspicion: that Robin Cook knew nothing about P-H Bunel's book or article, and that his knowledge of the origin of the Qaeda name stemmed solelyfrom his time at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In other words, that both men had, independently of each other, revealed that, as they understood it, the designation 'al-Qaeda' had originally referred to a computer database. And, according to Bunel, that that name had been operative at least by the mid-'80s.
MI5 the government published its 'narrative' of the July 7th bombings [.pdf]. Annex 3 of the whitewash was a chronology of the development of modern jihadism. Extract:
c1984 Radical preacher Abdullah Azzam set up an organisation called Maktab al-Khidmat (MAK) "Bureau of Services" to disseminate propaganda about jihad in Afghanistan. Usama bin Laden (UbL) joins.
1989 Withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. UbL returns to Saudi Arabia. Decision by MAK to continue to support jihadist causes. Thinking around "the base" or "foundation" (translation: Al Qaida) for further operations articulated.
1988-89 UbL disagreement over focus of the cause and starts to form Al Qaida. [...]
So, MI5's version of the aetiology of the 'Qaeda' name makes no mention of computer databases, or its use by western intelligence agencies before 1989, and it repeats previous explanations as to its origins. So, either Cook and Bunel were wrong, or they were right but wrong to reveal it. And while Bunel is a peripheral figure lacking credibility, Robin Cook was neither.
When I first read Cook's July 8th article, and the zinger about 'al-Qaeda' as a database, I wondered about what secret he might reveal to us next. But now I wonder about what, say, MI6 thought about the possibility of the former foreign secretary, who had signed the Official Secrets Act for life, revealing other things that he shouldn't (if, that is, the database story were true). Then, it would have become a matter of national security. How could they prevent him from repeating his mistake? Could they have had him arrested and charged under the OSA? Did they try to speak to him, between July 8th and August 6th, 2005, to warn him as to his future conduct?
If Robin Cook was starting to spill secrets, his sudden death one month later would have saved the defence, intelligence and security services from having to confront a difficult problem, one which would have had no obvious, certain solution.