How do you parse "al Qaeda"? (as variously spelt)

Today’s headline reads “Man found guilty in Bush Qaeda plot” without the “al”.
What does “al” mean or do? Why do we always hear “al Qaeda” instead of just Qaeda?

Al Qaeda means “the foundation” or “the base” in Arabic, and is of course the proper name for the terrorist group. The “al” is simply the Arabic definite article, parallel to “the” (Compare “The Dalles,” Oregon, or “The Pas,” Manitoba, where the “the” is a part of the proper name. I noted that the typographically anal retentive have noted that the “al” should always be rendered in lower case unless beginning a sentence or headline.

Polycarp’s got it. I’ll offer some analogies in English:

Vinny is in the Mob vs. *Vinny is in Mob

The Sierra Club backs environmentally-friendly legislation vs. *Sierra Club backs environmentally-friendly legislation

Now, if you want to know why Hammas is Hammas and not al Hammas … I couldn’t say.

Hamas is an acronym - Harakat al Muqaawama al Islamiyya. “The Islamic Resistance movement”, something like that. Note the "al"s in the extended version - it is definite in that form. When it’s in its acronym form, Hamas, it is indefinite and means something like “courage”. The nature of Arabic means that you can make all kinds of word-based three-letter acronyms. Fatah, Arafat’s old organization, is another example, and I think the Lebanese Amal may be another.

“The Base” is probably literally closer. Bin Ladin claimed in an interview that the name was originally applied to a training base, and eventually became a name for the whole ‘organization’.

I am impressed. Some days you guys don’t need me here at all!

It’s a mistake. English-speakers do the same with various Hebrew terms, too - for instance, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency isn’t “Mossad”, it’s “the Mossad”; Ariel Sharon’s former party isn’t “Likud”, it’s “the Likud.”

As both Hebrew and Arabic lack both an indefinite article and capital letters, remembering to use the definite article is very important. It’s the difference between “a base” and “The Base.”

There’s a lot of controversy regarding Osama’s group: how many members, it’s names, it current level of effectiveness, etc. Here’s the WikiPedia article on it. Pay special note to the info and links to the BBC investigation into Osama’s group.

I’m going to try and stick to info on the name only that may be of interest to the OP. But keep in mind, that there’s a lot of stuff that is unclear.

  1. Some people (mainly Saudis) used the term “Al-Qaeda” in their documents (including the title of one prominent one) going back at least to the late 1980s. It was just one of many terms that one might find in religious Islamic literature of the times.

  2. The US intelligence community started using the label “Al-Qaeda” as a collective term for a large set of Islamic groups in the 1990s. It was apparently not used to describe a specific group nor was actually used by any group at the time.

  3. Osama bin Laden did not use the term “Al-Qaeda” for quite some time. E.g., one label he gave for his group was “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders”.

  4. Due to the US popularization of the name, many extremists have now themselves adopted the US created term! Even Osama started using the term after 9/11. There is no rule as to who can call themselves “Al-Qaeda”. The term has been used by people who have never had anything to do with Osama or any of his groups.

So, “noted in passing for the benefit of the OP”: The chances the Bush plotter has anything to do with Osama’s group or any group that we would think of actually being “Al-Qaeda” is nearly 0. Don’t you just love the US “news” media?

The way I heard it, the three letters in the Arabic spelling of Fatah came from a phrase Harakat Tahrir Filastin, or Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastini, which means ‘Palestine Liberation Movement’. That would give the acronym HTF. For some reason that escaped me, they decided to run that backwards, giving FTH, which spells the word fath, ‘victory’. The conventional spelling inserts an extra vowel between the T and H in fath, to remind non-Arabs that the T and H are two separate consonants. I also heard about Amal being an acronym, but can’t remember what it was. As a regular word, amal means ‘hope’.