Al-Qaida and Taliban

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At the end of the Cold War (1946–1991) counterterrorist efforts had little impact on American society because they were confined to clandestine operations, criminal prosecution, and an occasional military strike against suspected terrorist camps. After 9-11 America declared war against international terrorism. The subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as new measures to ensure homeland security, have profoundly affected American society and culture.

a new enemy

Americans are at war in the twenty-first century against a new enemy that includes groups such as al-Qaida and the Taliban. Al-Qaida refers to a loosely-knit international terrorist organization established and led by Osama Bin Laden, son of a wealthy Yemeni family now based in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden formed al-Qaida to bring together Muslims who had fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In Arabic, "al-Qaida" means "the base," and Bin Laden meant it to be the foundation for his vision of a restored Islamic Caliphate, an empire that would recreate past glories by overthrowing governments deemed "non-Islamic" and expelling non-Muslims from Islamic countries. The group is thought to have several thousand members worldwide.

Al-Qaida started in anti-Soviet training camps in Afghanistan but gradually spread to more than fifty countries around the world. Al-Qaida's formal structure includes various committees tasked with moneymaking ventures, military issues, media operations, charitable giving, and religious rulings. In its earliest days, al-Qaida received financial and other material aid from the United States to support its war against the Soviet-sponsored regime in Afghanistan. This aid was part of American Cold War policy to combat the expansion of Soviet influence.

Bin Laden moved al-Qaida's base of operations to Sudan in the early 1990s, but then returned to Afghanistan when an extremist Islamic group called the Taliban rose to power there. The Taliban was made up largely of members of the Pashtun ethnic group, and drew its followers from madrassas, Islamic theological schools. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Taliban continued to fight the follow-on regime. With financial backing from Bin Laden and support from the Pakistani government, the Taliban rapidly became dominant in Afghanistan, bringing almost two-thirds of that nation under its control by the time Bin Laden and his al-Qaida network returned in 1996. In a country that had been ravaged by warfare for decades, the Taliban was

popular; the group brought a semblance of peace, although it continued to face resistance from rival warlords and was never able to rule the entire country.

Taliban rule was harsh: It imposed a strict form of Islam on the Afghani population, barring women from education and employment, forcing both men and women to conform to strict rules of dress and behavior, and brutally suppressing all forms of dissent and most forms of entertainment. A symbiotic relationship developed with the al-Qaida network, which viewed the Taliban's Afghanistan as the only country in the world that had adopted "pure" Islam as its governing ideology. The Taliban allowed al-Qaida to train and operate from within Afghanistan, and it was from there that al-Qaida began its declared jihad, or armed struggle, against the United States and other secular states.

Al-Qaida's first major operation on U.S. soil was the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, an attack that resulted in six dead and hundreds wounded. At that time, however, few Americans were familiar with al-Qaida. Most Americans first learned of al-Qaida's existence in 1995, when Bin Laden in a public letter denounced the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. In February of 1998, Bin Laden declared it the religious duty of all Muslims to kill Americans and their allies everywhere. Al-Qaida made a series of terrorist attacks on U.S. targets overseas, including U.S. embassies and a warship. The United States launched a few missiles at al-Qaida camps but felt legally unable to initiate serious military action.

attack on the u.s. homeland

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaida carried out a horrific and highly coordinated attack inside the United States, hijacking four civilian airplanes and flying three of them into the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth plane crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside as its passengers fought the hijackers. The sophisticated nature of the attack stunned America and the world; few had thought that al-Qaida was capable of bringing such destruction to U.S. soil. The name "al-Qaida" became a household word overnight.

Following the September 11 attack, the U.S. Congress authorized President George W. Bush to use "all necessary and appropriate" military force against the attackers and any of their sponsors. This authorization was criticized for being as open-ended as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of the Vietnam War. Under the 2001 authorization, the president sent military forces to Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban regime. The United States did not attempt a large conventional invasion, but instead opted to rely mostly on special operations forces working with local Afghan forces. These tactics succeeded, and by early 2002 the Taliban had lost control of Afghanistan. Hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida members were captured, but many fled to the surrounding mountains and escaped. Others continued to launch small-scale attacks in an attempt to regain power in outlying areas.

The authorization for the use of force was also cited as authority for the unprecedented way in which the United States treated suspected al-Qaida members who were captured. The Bush Administration argued that al-Qaida and Taliban members were "unlawful combatants," persons not entitled to the full protection of the Geneva Prisoner of War Conventions. Those al-Qaida and Taliban members captured outside the United States were not tried through the civilian criminal courts; instead, they were held at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other overseas locations. President Bush expressed his intent to try them criminally before special military tribunals, a decision that generated enormous controversy and eventually resulted in U.S. Supreme Court decisions upholding their right of access to U.S. civilian courts.

Al-Qaida's attack on the United States caused the U.S. military to create a new combatant command, Northern Command, with the mission of homeland defense. Also, the need to fight al-Qaida was cited as justification for broad-ranging changes to U.S. domestic laws. On October 26, 2001, Congress enacted the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, citing the need to empower U.S. law enforcement authorities against al-Qaida operatives in the United States. The USA PATRIOT Act generated criticism, and politicians on both the left and the right spoke against some of its more controversial provisions. Meanwhile, al-Qaida engaged in quick-hit terrorist attacks in numerous countries—including Spain, Indonesia, Turkey and Iraq—and remained the hated symbol of international terrorism.


Benjamin, Daniel amd Simon, Steven. The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War Against America. New York: Random House, 2003.

Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

Gunaratna, Rohan. Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. New York: Norton, 2004. Available from <>.

Margaret D. Stock

See also:Bush, George H. W.; Bush, George W.; Homeland Security; 9-11; Powell, Colin; Terrorism, Fears of .

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Al-Qaida and Taliban