"When did al-Qaeda begin?" a panel at the Frontline Club was asked during a symposium on the group a few weeks ago. Various pundits gave different version of a conceptual answer, about the mujahadeen, 1979, Al-Qutb, etc, etc, and then it came the final speaker's turn. "When did al-Qaeda begin?" said Noman Benotman, "about the second week of April 1988".

Benotman, a sharp-faced man in a sharp suit, had been introduced as a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al-Qaeda affiliate formed by former mujahadeen. He'd left the group after 9/11, and later became part of Quilliam, an anti-violent Islamist think tank. The rather wonkish evening suddenly got a lot more interesting.