The name of the radical organization al-Qa˓ida (also spelled al-Qaeda) has the literal meaning of "the foundation" or "the base." The organization arose in the last quarter of the twentieth century to oppose the military and economic intervention of non-Muslim states in predominantly Muslim lands. It came to the attention of the public in the United States and around the world on 11 September 2001, immediately following the deadly attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., that killed more than three thousand people and terrified those who witnessed the well-covered event on television. The broader association of al-Qa˓ida and its leader, Usama bin Ladin, with terrorism was immediate and pervasive in media coverage and political discourse in America and elsewhere.
Al-Qa˓ida was the first of the militant Islamist organizations to operate on a global scale. It did so in part by adopting many of the technologies and communications methods of the very global organization whose famous twin-tower buildings in New York it allegedly destroyed on 11 September 2001. Although a considerable amount of data on al-Qa˓ida and its operatives has been gathered and published by governmental security agencies and investigative reporters, as of 2003 a thorough academic study of the organization or, more properly speaking, of the cluster of radical Muslim organizations going by the name of al-Qa˓ida, had yet to be undertaken by specialists on Islam.
The ideological founder of al-Qa˓ida (sometimes al-Qa˓ida al-sulba: "the solid foundations") was ˓Abdallah ˓Azzam, a Palestinian born in 1941. ˓Azzam grew up under Israeli occupation of his homeland. He earned a doctorate in shari˓a studies at al-Azhar University in Cairo, after which he taught in various Middle Eastern universities. He was dismissed from his teaching post at King ˓Abd al-˓Aziz University in Saudi Arabia in 1979 for engaging in Islamist activism. He then went to Pakistan on the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan by armed forces of the Soviet Union. There he met and became a religious mentor to Usama bin Ladin, who brought to the growing anti-Soviet effort (jihad) considerable financing and experience in building the kind of infrastructure needed to conduct effective counterattacks.
In 1984 ˓Azzam and bin Ladin established the Afghan Service Bureau Front, known by its Arabic acronym M.A.K. (maktab al-khidma li-l-mujahin al-˓arab, literally, office for services for Arab freedom fighters). Among the services they provided was keeping track of young Muslim males who joined the cause from countries around the world, particularly from Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and they apparently provided relief services to those who were wounded and to the families of those killed in battle. Very soon thereafter M.A.K. began to recruit, indoctrinate, and train its volunteers in effective resistance methods, including terrorist tactics. ˓Azzam held a particularly hard-line doctrine of jihad, which, according to his understanding of the Qur˒an and sunna of the prophet Muhammad, required militant opposition to Islams perceived enemies. This view was adopted by Usama bin Ladin, although at what point is not clear. Another important influence in the al-Qa˓ida network of organizations is Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951– ), an Egyptian physician who joined the radical al-Jama˓a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) and affiliated with bin Ladin during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
During the Afghan war against the Soviet military, the organized resistance efforts of M.A.K. also became known as al-Qa˓ida. Other names were adopted by Usama bin Ladin, such as The Islamic Global Front for Combating Jews and Crusaders [Christians]. Indeed, such names, including al-Qa˓ida, do not refer to a single organization with a single central command headquartered in a known place, but rather to a cluster or complex of organizations and movements whose affiliations and organizational structure are not yet well known or understood. In the 1980s al-Qa˓ida functioned as an ally of United States against the Soviet Union, receiving covert funds through the C.I.A. When the war wound down with the defeat of the Soviets in 1988, the organizations interests expanded globally, to include other Muslim fronts that suffered non-Muslim interventions, including Chechnya, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and Indonesia. This new, more global involvement included an attempt to blow up one of the towers of the World Trade center in New York (23 February 1993), simultaneous lethal bomb blasts at two U.S. embassies in east Africa (1998), an attack on the U.S.S. Cole as it came into port in the Yemen (2000), and suicidal attacks using commandeered airplanes against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001.
Many well-meaning Muslims and non-Muslims have regarded al-Qa˓ida, its leaders and operatives, as beyond the pale of the Islamic faith because of the extreme and violent methods they advocate using against moderate Muslim governments and non-Muslim states. Yet it is clear that ˓Abdallah ˓Azzam, Usama bin Ladin and other leaders and mentors of al-Qa˓ida regarded themselves as good Muslims, as being among the vanguard of reformers who aim to restore the true faith of the founding generations of Islam (the salaf), and as followers of a legitimate Sunni school of interpretation in Islam, the Wahhabi-Hanbali school that predominates in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf states. They proposed a radical Islamic response to modernism and to the constraining military and political forces of non-Muslim states and their secular agendas, basing that response on interpretations of Islam that were already circulating in the mid-twentieth century.
Chief among these interpretations are the writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), whose books and pamphlets continue to be widely read and appreciated throughout the Muslim world, even by moderate Muslims who regard their faith as greatly misunderstood by non-Muslims and under assault by secular modernity. Thus, while willful, murderous acts against innocent victims is regarded as morally reprehensible by most Muslims and non-Muslims alike, many scholars believe that the Islamic self-understanding promoted by the leadership and ranks of al-Qa˓ida members must also be analyzed without the attempt to classify them as authentic or inauthentic religious beliefs. Other scholars see al-Qa˓ida as a forceful response to Western imperialism during the colonial and post-colonial periods and to the rapid globalization of market capitalism and secularism since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Most scholars of Islam warn against an ill-founded tendency on the part of some religious leaders and media commentators to equate al-Qa˓ida with Islam, that is, to define and grasp Islam in terms of the public manifestations of al-Qa˓ida and similar radical groups.
Gunaratna, Rohan. Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Richard C. Martin