Qaʿida, al-

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Militant organization formed, not necessarily formally as a political party, sometime after 1986 by Osama bin Ladin, who settled in Afghanistan to help in the organization of Muslim Arab volunteers driven by hostility against Soviet communism.

Al-Qaʿida (also Al-Qaeda and Al Qaeda; literally, "the base") was founded by bin Ladin and his lieutenants to take advantage of the religious fundamentalist revival that was spurred by the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and has clearly left its mark on world affairs due to its practice of spectacular and largely indiscriminate violence worldwide. This small organization cannot be separated from the career and fortune, literally, of its founder, Saudi millionaire Osama bin Ladin.

Bin Ladin was born in Saudi Arabia in 1957 to a very wealthy father. He attended King Abd al-Aziz University in Riyadh, and obtained a degree in public administration and management. He fell under the spell of Palestinian fundamentalist advocate Abdullah Azzam, who popularized the cause of the "struggle against the Soviet infidels" after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Bin Ladin relocated to Pakistan to organize the efforts of Arab volunteers; he quickly distinguished himself with his organizational skills, but was not known as the overall leader. He still served more as an assistant to Azzam, and did not distinguish himself in battle. He used some of his fortune to help in the organization and recruitment efforts. After the death of Azzam, bin Ladin rose in stature, and founded in the mid-1980s (probably in 1986) the highly secretive organization that was later known as al-Qaʿida. It became a vehicle for the declaration of international military struggle against governments and Western representatives and institutions in the Muslim world. It would later carry the blood struggle worldwide. Its ideology is influenced by the fundamentalist worldview and militant piety and dogmatism of seventh-century Kharijites, Wahhabism, and contemporary extremist offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The organization benefited from the largesse of oil-rich Arab governments and the CIA during the 1980s. But when Iraq invaded Kuwait, bin Ladin broke with the Saudi royal family after years of a close alliance. He relocated in 1991 to Sudan, where he stayed until 1996. Bin Ladin continued to secretively recruit and form bases and cells in many parts of the Muslim world, and even among Muslim immigrants in Western countries.

After his expulsion from the Sudan in 1996, he sought refuge in Afghanistan, where the militant Taliban government was in power. He influenced the thinking of the Taliban, and joined ranks with the disaffected rejects of the Arab state prison systems. Fundamentalist militants who were wanted in their home countries flocked to Afghanistan to join the new movement. Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951), a physician and militant fundamentalist from Egypt who served time after the assassination of Egyptian president Sadat, became bin Ladin's deputy; they both announced the formation in 1998 of the Islamic Front for the Combat of Jews and Crusaders. This announcement clearly showed the influence of al-Zawahiri, who was an early advocate of indiscriminate violence in the name of Jihad. Bin Ladin was an enthusiastic partner, and the two complemented one another. Al-Zawahiri was the ideologue, but since he lacked charisma, he left it to bin Ladin to inspire the thousands of young recruits who passed through the training camps of Afghanistan. The agenda of al-Qaʿida was initially centered around the expulsion of all Christians and Jews from Arabia, relying for that on a reported Sahih hadith of the Prophet. The organization would later develop an agenda that contained a litany of complaints about Western intervention in the Middle East.

This secretive organization remains mysterious despite the new revelations about it that came out in the Western press after 11 September 2001. It is not structured like a regular political party, and the organization seems to be more horizontal than vertical. Groups are trained in camps, where they receive military training and ideological indoctrination, and are then dispatched to faraway places to either improvise an attack or implement a plan that had been set by bin Ladin and his aides. In 1998, the organization came to international attention with twin suicide bombings against U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. This was followed by U.S. strikes on al-Qaʿida bases in Afghanistan, intended to kill bin Ladin. Bin Ladin survived, and had most likely been busy with the planning for his most spectacular and violent act yet: 11 September 2001.

Al-Qaʿida has an unusual mix of traditional ideology with an adept utilization of modern technology for its violent ways. Members communicate through e-mails, and computers were found in caves after the eviction of al-Qaʿida from Afghanistan. This technical side perhaps reflects the construction business from which the bin Ladin family came. Bin Ladin has also a very keen sense of the value of propaganda, and the audio and video tapes that are produced by al-Qaʾida (through its affiliated propaganda outfit, Muʾassasat al-Sahhab) are quite sophisticated, although the language is crudely and vulgarly hateful against Jews and Christians (all Jews and all Christians). The organization has not tried to win mass appeal, and bin Ladin's repeated calls for jihad have fallen on deaf Arab and Muslim ears.

The United States went to war against al-Qaʿida after 11 September 2001, but has not succeeded in either capturing or killing bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri, or in eliminating the organization altogether. Al-Qaʿida's chief operational figure, the Egyptian Muhammad Atif (also Alef; 19442001), however, was reported killed in November 2001. Bin Ladin continues to issue messages through recorded audiotapes, but the movement suffered severe blows with the overthrow of the Taliban government and the consequent loss of a base of operation and training camps. Many top and middle-rank leader have been killed or captured by U.S. forces. While bin Ladin remains at large, his ability to rejuvenate the movement, or perhaps to strike at the United States at the scale of 11 September remains impaired. AlQaʿida's main success, however, has probably been in its war against the House of Al-Saʿud. The Saudi royal family was embarrassed with the revelation that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers of 11 September were Saudi nationals. The image of the royal family in Western countries, which has cost millions of dollars in propaganda expenditure, was probably irreparably damaged. Inside the kingdom, al-Qaʿida clearly has some presence, especially since its fanatical fundamentalist ideology is not that inconsistent with the Wahhabi doctrine, the ruling ideology of the kingdom. The corruption and hypocrisy of the royal family, and the decline of the economic fortunes of the kingdom, have all increased the dissatisfaction of youths, who have been targeted by bin Ladin. Series of bombings in the kingdom took place in 2003, and al-Qaʿida claimed responsibility through a variety of flyers and pamphlets, often disseminated on the Internet. It is unlikely that alQaʿida would last without bin Ladin, which explains the efforts of U.S. government to catch him.

see also bin ladin, osama; september 11, 2001.


AbuKhalil, As'ad. Bin Ladin, Islam, and America's New "War on Terrorism." New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.

as'ad abukhalil