views updated May 18 2018


LEADER: Osama bin Laden


ESTIMATED SIZE: Thought to number in the thousands worldwide

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Al-Qaeda cells are thought to be currently operational in as many as 50 countries


Al-Qaeda (also known as Al-Qaida) was established from a core group of foreigners who came to fight in the Afghani jihad (holy war) against the Soviet invasion and occupation in the 1980s. Al-Qaeda today operates as a global network of independent terrorist cells. The group is working to drive Western forces from all traditionally Muslim lands, with a special emphasis on forcing the United States and its allies to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


Al-Qaeda (Arabic for "the base") was established in 1988, when Osama bin Laden, Mohamed Atef, and others began compiling a database to document the movements of Arab fighters from all over the Middle East who were coming to aid the mujahedeen (warriors in a jihad) in their fight against the Soviet Union. Al-Qaeda's original purpose may have been humanitarian: to provide information to families of jihadists who were inquiring about the fate and whereabouts of their relatives, and to channel money and supplies from international supporters to the resistance.

From at least 1989, al-Qaeda has also organized, sponsored, and supported terrorist training camps in Afghanistan for Islamic jihadists from around the world. Graduates of these camps and their own recruiting and support networks within their countries of origin form the loose global network of Islamic extremists and terrorists that are grouped under the umbrella of al-Qaeda.

In 1991, under intense scrutiny for his vocal opposition to the policies of the Saudi government, bin Laden fled Saudi Arabia, ultimately establishing a new base of operations in Sudan. Not coincidently, in 1992, the first terror attacks attributed to al-Qaeda began to occur, starting in Somalia and South Yemen (today the Republic of Yemen). In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed by a veteran of bin Laden's training camps. In 1995, truck-bombers linked to bin Laden carried out the first attack in Saudi Arabia itself. At various times, bin Laden has continued to deny direct involvement in each of these attacks, characterizing his role as that of instigator and enthusiastic supporter.

In 1996, bin Laden published his own "Declaration of War" against the United States, beginning a phase of active dialogue with Western and Arab journalists that would last for several years and culminate in a late 1998 on-camera interview in the mountains of Afghanistan with ABC's John Miller.

The salient points that emerged from this dialogue are as follows:

  • Bin Laden sees the United States as an occupying army in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government as having committed an unspeakable sacrilege in hosting the U.S. forces.
  • Bin Laden asserts that the first Gulf War and the subsequent economic sanctions against Iraq are but the latest acts of aggression in the centuries-old crusader-Zionist campaign to subjugate and plunder Muslim lands.
  • Bin Laden and other Islamist extremists argue that every faithful Muslim is obligated to participate in a defensive jihad against the U.S. forces occupying the Arabian Peninsula. This fatwa (religious ruling), also known as the 1996 "Declaration of War," was extended in February 1998 to include killing all American citizens, wherever they could be found.
  • Al-Qaeda leaders assert that secular Arab governments should also be targeted, but Muslims should first concentrate on driving the United States from the region. In doing so, the jihadists will have "cut off the head of the snake," rendering the rest of the secularist powers easier to deal with.

Within months of the issuance of the 1998 fatwa, the jihad began in earnest. In August, synchronized bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya killed hundreds and injured thousands. In November, a U.S. federal grand jury indicted bin Laden and al-Qaeda for the attacks.

In October 2000, two suicide bombers on a raft attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. U.S. officials immediately suspected al-Qaeda involvement, ultimately indicting bin Laden and his organization.

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda operatives flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, killing approximately 3,000 people in the single largest act of terror in U.S. history. Arial footage of the second plane hitting the towers was broadcast in real time across the globe by all the major U.S. news networks, searing the event into the consciousness of a generation of viewers. Bin Laden would eventually claim direct responsibility for the attacks in October 2004.

The U.S. government quickly concluded that al-Qaeda was responsible for the September 11th attacks and decided to strike back. Al-Qaeda was known to have a number of bases in Afghanistan, where the Islaimic fundamentalist government known as the Taliban was friendly to al-Qaeda's cause. In October 2001, the United States launched an attack on Afghanistan with the support of numerous other nations and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance within Afghanistan. By March 2002, they had largely succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda's strongholds and driving the Taliban out of power. Bin Laden and most of his close aides, however, evaded capture. And long after large-scale fighting ceased, supporters of the Taliban and al-Qaeda continued to launch small-scale attacks against Afghanistan's new government and the U.S. troops in the region.


Bombings targeting U.S. troops in Aden and Yemen.
Al-Qaeda claims to have downed U.S. helicopters in Somalia.
Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Mohammed plot to destroy multiple airplanes over mid-Pacific. The plot is foiled. The extent of their al-Qaeda linkage at the time is uncertain.
Islamic dissident Osama Bin Laden is stripped of his Saudi nationality.
Bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Bombing of the U.S.S. Cole
September 11, 2001:
Al-Qaeda mounts simultaneous attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Richard Reid (also known as the shoe bomber), a self-proclaimed bin Laden loyalist, fails in his attempt to a destroy a transatlantic flight by lighting explosives hidden in his shoes.
A group claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaeda begin insurgent attack against U.S.-lead coalition force in Iraq.
A group claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaeda bombs commuter trains in Madrid.
A group claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaeda bombs subway cars and a bus in London.
Western analysts assert al-Qaeda is responsible for deadly bombing in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.

In April 2003, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, quickly subduing the Iraqi regular forces and capturing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a matter of months. Low-level fighting remained a constant for years thereafter, however, sometimes flaring up into sizable military operations. Iraqis unhappy with the U.S. invasion and the new government were joined by fighters from across the region as they fought U.S. and allied forces with guerilla tactics and launched numerous terrorist attacks against civilians. Al-Qaeda operatives claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombing attacks. In June 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a key figure in the fighting, beheaded an American civilian contractor on videotape and posted it on an al-Qaeda web site. In October, al-Zarqawi announced that he had sworn bayat, a personal oath of fealty, to bin Laden and that his group would now be known as al-Qaeda in Iraq.



Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1957, Osama bin Laden is the youngest son of a multi-millionaire construction mogul and his fourth and youngest wife.

Bin Laden's radicalism can be traced to his university days at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, where he was exposed to the teachings of Shaykh Azzam. In 1979, bin Laden joined the Afghanistan resistance to the Soviet invasion, using his family's money to aid the Afghani fighters.

Bin Laden's participation eventually evolved from financier to combat commander. By this time, bin Laden had formed al-Qaeda, which began as an organization to channel money and supplies from international supporters to the resistance.

In 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia to find that he had become famous as a leader of the resistance in Afghanistan. The Saudi public had strongly supported the resistance and followed the events of the conflict closely.

Bin Laden's radicalism and his popularity put him in conflict with the Saudi government. His passport was restricted, preventing him from leaving Saudi Arabia again. The Saudis were concerned that he would use his connections to open another front for terror.

King Fahd allowed the United States and its allies to occupy the Saudi kingdom as a staging grounds for the first Gulf War. Claiming that his religious sensibilities were offended, bin Laden was transformed by that event into an implacable foe of both the Saudi government and the U.S.

Today, bin Laden is considered to be the most dangerous terrorist in the world. The U.S. government charges that he is directly responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000, and the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Today, al-Qaeda has become something very much like a franchise, with localized cells claiming responsibility for lethal attacks in Madrid, Saudi Arabia, and London. These cells are thought to sometimes receive financial and logistical support from the top al-Qaeda circle that revolves around bin Laden (known to the CIA as Al-Qaeda Central), though not operational direction. Indeed, the Western intelligence community asserts that Al-Qaeda Central's ability to direct and mount large-scale attacks has been significantly degraded in recent years by the killing and/or capture of a number of key leaders, including Mohamed Atef, Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Those that have not been killed or captured are hindered by the relentless pursuit of western governments.

The threat from localized al-Qaeda cells in western cities and moderate Arab states, however, remains very high. The March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid; the July 7, 2005, attacks on the London transit system; and the synchronized bombing of an Egyptian resort on July 23, 2005 are all thought to be the result of groups within the al-Qaeda network.


Bin Laden has been very clear about the philosophy and objectives of al-Qaeda, beginning with the publication of his 1996 fatwa and continuing to the present day. He carefully casts his conflict with the United States and its allies in theological terms, invoking the memory of the crusades. As proof of what he calls a crusader-Zionist conspiracy, he points to the plight of Muslims in Palestine, Lebanon, and Africa, and to the conditions created in Iraq by UN sanctions. His stated objective is to drive Western forces out of all traditional Muslim lands, beginning with Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden intends to achieve this goal by globalizing al-Qaeda as a movement, calling on all the world's Muslims to participate in a jihad to return the Middle East to fundamentalist Islamic rule and by inflicting mass casualties upon U.S. troops and U.S. citizens. His experiences in Afghanistan and Somalia have convinced him that the so-called superpowers are nothing more than "paper tigers" that are unwilling to sustain significant casualties in the service of achieving their military objectives.

At the time of the 1998 fatwa, al-Qaeda was a loose network of extremists led by a shura, or consultative council of senior operatives, with bin Laden as their emir, or prince. Their tactic of choice is the painstakingly planned and patiently executed series of synchronized suicide attacks used so effectively in East Africa and in the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York City. Bin Laden has a self-proclaimed passion for martyrdom, and he has been very successful in inducing young Arab men to give their lives in the service of his cause. Al-Qaeda attacks are meticulously planned, well-funded, nearly impossible to defend against in open societies, and lethal.

Terrorist Known Before 9/11, More Say

A Defense Department inquiry has found three more people who recall seeing an intelligence briefing slide that identified the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks a year before the hijackings and terrorist strikes, Pentagon and military officials said Thursday.

But the officials said investigators who reviewed thousands of documents and electronic files from a secret counterterrorism planning unit had not found the chart itself, or any evidence the chart ever existed.

The officials acknowledged that documents and electronic files created by the unit, known as Able Danger, were destroyed under standing orders that limit the military's use of intelligence gathered about people in the United States.

At a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, four intelligence or military officials said investigators had interviewed 80 people who served directly with Able Danger, a team organized to write a counterterrorism campaign plan, or were closely associated with it.

Of those 80, 5 in all now say they saw the chart, including Capt. Scott J. Phillpott of the Navy and Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer of the Army, whose recent comments first brought attention to Able Danger.

At the briefing, the officials said that four of the five recalled seeing a picture of Mohamed Atta, the member of Al Qaeda who planned and carried out the attacks, while one said the chart contained only Mr. Atta's name.

The officials stressed that their inquiry was continuing, and that they still could not definitively prove or disprove whether the unit identified Mr. Atta—and, perhaps, other members of the hijacking team—before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The witnesses "are credible people," said Pat Downs, a senior policy analyst for the under secretary of defense for intelligence. But investigators "can't find the document," Ms. Downs said.

Another official who described the inquiry, Cmdr. Christopher Chope of the United States Special Operations Command, said there was no evidence that the destruction of Able Danger documents had been anything other than a routine application of privacy regulations.

Commander Chope also said there was no evidence that military lawyers issued orders preventing Able Danger personnel from sharing data they had gathered with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as Colonel Shaffer has said.

                            Thom Shanker

Source: New York Times, September 2, 2005

Besides hoping to instill terror and amass large numbers of casualties, bin Laden has said that al-Qaeda attacks are designed to weaken the economy of the target country.

This early version of al-Qaeda, or Al-Qaeda Central, however, is thought to have been decimated by the capture and killing of many of its top leaders in the years since September 2001. The surviving leaders are hindered by the relent-less pursuit of Western governments that are intent on their destruction and they are thought to be no longer capable of conducting major, long-range, coordinated attacks.

Today's al-Qaeda has devolved into a global movement, a decentralized web of localized, independent cells that are only loosely connected to Al-Qaeda Central. These receive little more than inspiration from bin Laden, though some cells in the Middle East and Europe are thought to receive financial and logistical support. These localized al-Qaeda franchises have claimed responsibility for major bombings in Iraq, Madrid, London, and Egypt.

Even though this loosely connected version of al-Qaeda has less resources for mounting major, long-range operations, in one sense this shift represents the accomplishment of one of bin Laden's most important goals. From his earliest statements to the world press, he has sought to inspire a global movement of homegrown Islamist jihadists who would rise up to wreak havoc in their native countries. He describes himself as instigator.

In some respects, the new al-Qaeda represents an even more formidable challenge to Western governments than the old organization. With the old al-Qaeda, there was a central hierarchy that could be targeted and a network that could be traced. Now there are isolated, self-started cells whose capture or destruction has little effect on the global movement.

The 2004 Madrid bombings were a turning point in the world's understanding of this new development. In the wake of the attacks, counterterrorism forces looked for links to Al-Qaeda Central. They quickly found there were none. Instead, the plan for the attack was put together in a mere eight weeks, using bombs constructed by the leader of the cell, who had links to veteran jihadists trained in Afghanistan. There were apparently no orders issued from bin Laden's group.



Al-Qa'ida was established by Usama Bin Ladin in 1988 with Arabs who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Helped finance, recruit, transport, and train Sunni Islamic extremists for the Afghan resistance. Goal is to unite Muslims to fight the United States as a means of defeating Israel, overthrowing regimes it deems "non-Islamic," and expelling Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries. Eventual goal would be establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the world. Issued statement in February 1998 under the banner of "The World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders" saying it was the duty of all Muslims to kill US citizens, civilian and military, and their allies everywhere. Merged with al-Jihad (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in June 2001, renaming itself "Qa'idat al-Jihad." Merged with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's organization in Iraq in late 2004, with al-Zarqawi's group changing its name to "Qa'idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn" (al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers).


In 2004, the Saudi-based al-Qa'ida network and associated extremists launched at least 11 attacks, killing over 60 people, including six Americans, and wounding more than 225 in Saudi Arabia. Focused on targets associated with US and Western presence and Saudi security forces in Riyadh, Yanbu, Jeddah, and Dhahran. Attacks consisted of vehicle bombs, infantry assaults, kidnappings, targeted shootings, bombings, and beheadings. Other al-Qa'ida networks have been involved in attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2003, carried out the assault and bombing on May 12 of three expatriate housing complexes in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 30 and injured 216. Backed attacks on May 16 in Casablanca, Morocco, of a Jewish center, restaurant, nightclub, and hotel that killed 33 and injured 101. Probably supported the bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 5, that killed 12 and injured 149. Responsible for the assault and bombing on November 9 of a housing complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 17 and injured 122. The suicide bombers and others associated with the bombings of two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey, on November 15 that killed 20 and injured 300 and the bombings in Istanbul of the British Consulate and HSBC Bank on November 20 that resulted in 41 dead and 555 injured had strong links to al-Qa'ida. Conducted two assassination attempts against Pakistani President Musharraf in December 2003. Was involved in some attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2002, carried out bombing on November 28 of a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 15 and injuring 40. Probably supported a nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, on October 12 by Jemaah Islamiya that killed more than 200. Responsible for an attack on US military personnel in Kuwait on October 8 that killed one US soldier and injured another. Directed a suicide attack on the tanker M/V Limburg off the coast of Yemen on October 6 that killed one and injured four. Carried out a firebombing of a synagogue in Tunisia on April 11 that killed 19 and injured 22. On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qa'ida suicide attackers hijacked and crashed four US commercial jets—two into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon near Washington, DC, and a fourth into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania—leaving nearly 3,000 individuals dead or missing. Directed the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, on October 12, 2000, killing 17 US Navy sailors and injuring another 39.

Conducted the bombings in August 1998 of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed at least 301 individuals and injured more than 5,000 others. Claims to have shot down US helicopters and killed US servicemen in Somalia in 1993 and to have conducted three bombings that targeted US troops in Aden, Yemen, in December 1992.

Al-Qa'ida is linked to the following plans that were disrupted or not carried out: to bomb in mid-air a dozen US trans-Pacific flights in 1995, and to set off a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. Also plotted to carry out terrorist operations against US and Israeli tourists visiting Jordan for millennial celebrations in late 1999 (Jordanian authorities thwarted the planned attacks and put 28 suspects on trial). In December 2001, suspected al-Qa'ida associate Richard Colvin Reid attempted to ignite a shoe bomb on a trans-Atlantic flight from Paris to Miami. Attempted to shoot down an Israeli chartered plane with a surface-to-air missile as it departed the Mombasa, Kenya, airport in November 2002.


Al-Qa'ida's organizational strength is difficult to determine in the aftermath of extensive counterterrorist efforts since 9/11. However, the group probably has several thousand extremists and associates worldwide inspired by the group's ideology. The arrest and deaths of mid-level and senior al-Qa'ida operatives have disrupted some communication, financial, and facilitation nodes and interrupted some terrorist plots. Al-Qa'ida also serves as a focal point or umbrella organization for a worldwide network that includes many Sunni Islamic extremist groups, including some members of Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Harakat ul-Mujahidin.


Al-Qa'ida has cells worldwide and is reinforced by its ties to Sunni extremist networks. It was based in Afghanistan until Coalition forces removed the Taliban from power in late 2001. Al-Qa'ida has dispersed in small groups across South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and probably will attempt to carry out future attacks against US interests.


Al-Qa'ida maintains moneymaking front businesses, solicits donations from like-minded supporters, and illicitly siphons funds from donations to Muslim charitable organizations. US and international efforts to block al-Qa'ida funding have hampered the group's ability to obtain money.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

Instead of a network, the structure of the global movement has been described as a web of influence that is much more difficult to track and disrupt. Indeed, the Western intelligence community presumes that the death or capture of bin Laden himself would have little effect on this web.

Some analysts and political groups argue that the war in Iraq has created a new breeding and training ground for Sunni extremists worldwide. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has created a new, smaller al-Qaeda splinter group in Iraq, whose penchant for suicide attacks, mass casualties, civilian targets, and the execution of those viewed as collaborators closely mirrors the tactics of the original al-Qaeda. The jihadists who survive the war in Iraq will leave with invaluable experience in urban guerrilla warfare, potent tools that can be used to destructive effect in their own countries.

Some argue that in the event of bin Laden's death, al-Zarqawi will become the new de facto leader of the global jihadist movement, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda Central has its own plan of succession, with Ayman al-Zawahiri designated to assume leadership upon bin Laden's death. In such a scenario, as the leadership shifts to al-Zarqawi, the base of operations will shift to Iraq. Alternately, other extremist groups like the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiya could assume the mantle of the primary Islamic terror group.


Most Muslims denounce bin Laden as an extremist and al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization, but to Islamist extremists worldwide, bin Laden is a hero of almost messianic proportion. Bin Laden's legend continues to grow, even as he is forced deeper and deeper underground to evade international pursuit.

There are signs that support for bin Laden and al-Qaeda is waning. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that support for bin Laden is shrinking in the Middle East, especially in those Arab nations that have themselves been the target of terror attacks. In Lebanon, for example, support for al-Qaeda's fight has dropped from 73% down to 39%. Similar drops were seen in Jordan, and smaller drops in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Morocco. The trend is even more dramatic among Muslims living in Western Europe. The Islamic Commission of Spain has gone so far as to issue a fatwa against bin Laden himself, denouncing him as apostate and calling on other Muslim clerics to do the same.


Since its beginnings in Afghanistan in 1988, al-Qaeda has evolved from an organized, hierarchical network capable of major long-range operations in 2001 to a shadowy global web of independent cells that receive inspiration and little else from bin Laden and his organization in 2005. The Western intelligence community believes that the original leaders of al-Qaeda are mostly dead, captured, or in hiding, and that the organization as it existed in 2001 has been significantly degraded, unable to provide operational direction to its remaining cells.

Al-Qaeda the movement, however, is alive and well, with independent, self-starting cells carrying out lethal attacks in Madrid, London, Egypt, and especially in war-torn Iraq. Western observers fear that the conflict there is creating a new generation of Islamists from across the region: younger, more sophisticated, with tested experience in urban terror operations.



Cook, David. Understanding Jihad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Jacquard, Roland. In the Name of Osama bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the bin Laden Brotherhood, Revised and Updated Edition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Moore, Robin. The Hunt for bin Laden. New York: Random House, Inc., 2003.


Shanker, Tom. "Terrorists Known Before 9/11, More Say." New York Times. September 2, 2005.

Web sites "Special Report, War Against Terror: Osama bin Laden." 〈〉 (accessed September 22, 2005). "Poll Finds Muslim Support for bin Laden Waning." 〈〉 (accessed September 22, 2005). "U.N. Seeks First Political Definition of Terrorism." 〈〉 (accessed September 22, 2005). "Inside al-Qaeda." 〈〉 (accessed September 22, 2005).


Jemaah Islamiya (JI)


views updated May 29 2018



Al-Qaeda, an Arabic word meaning base, is an international Islamic terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden, who founded Al-Qaeda along with Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989) in Afghanistan in 1988 (9-11 Commission Report, p. 56). Al-Qaedas administrative and recruitment foundation sprang from the associations of Muslim warriors (mujahideen ) that had formed in the early 1980s to fight the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. These fighters later became the backbone of Al-Qaedas forces.

After the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in February 1989, bin Laden returned to his native Saudi Arabia. When Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, bin Laden offered to raise a volunteer Islamic army to fight Iraq. The Saudi government refused, preferring to seek help from the United Nations. During the ensuing war, bin Laden opposed American involvement, calling the United States an enemy invader. Following his disagreement with the Saudi regime, bin Laden and his supporters went to Sudan in 1991 (9-11 Commission Report, p. 57). International pressure on the Sudanese government later obliged bin Laden to return to Afghanistan in 1996, where he and his supporters remained until the Taliban government was defeated following the invasion of the American-led coalition forces in 2001.

Since 1991 Al-Qaeda has launched several attacks on various Western targets: suicide car bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 7, 1998; the suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen on October 12, 2000; the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in the United States in 2001; and the suicide attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 12, 2003. When American-led coalition forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, Al-Qaedalinked groups swung into action. On October 21, 2004, they united as Al-Qaeda in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who was killed by American forces on June 7, 2006.

Al-Qaeda and its ideology were established on a background of the decline of socialism and communism in the face of Western culture and capitalism and increasing Islamic influence. Al-Qaeda was influenced mainly by the extreme ideologies of the Salafi stream of Islam, particularly those of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian religious theoretician. Qutb viewed the West and its culture as the greatest threat to Islam and advocated the establishment of an Islamic state based on Muslim religious law. This idea became associated with bin Ladens contention that Westerners violate the honor of Muslims, humiliate them, and try to possess their lands. Muslims must therefore fight against the West in a jihad holy war. The concept that best represents Al-Qaedas ideology is that of defensive jihad, according to which it is every Muslims religious obligation to fight the attackers, seen as the Western countries headed by the United States.

This ideology molded Al-Qaedas goals, which are: (1) to establish Islamic regimes like the Taliban, based on Islamic religious law, in all the Arab states; (2) to free all Islamic lands from any Western presence or influence; and (3) to establish the pious caliphate (a pan-Arabic Islamic kingdom) over all the Muslim lands. These goals were expressed in bin Ladens fatwa (religious legal proclamation) of February 23, 1998, although he himself has no religious authority. In the fatwa, bin Laden asserted that the United States, through its policies in Muslim lands, had declared war on God, his Messenger, and all Muslims.

Al-Qaeda is one of the few terrorist groups structured with a distinct separation between the majlis a-shura (the core leadership) and the action groups. This structural difference makes it easier for Al-Qaeda to function without a home country as a base that provides it with political and military sponsorship and hosts its training camps and administrative headquarters. As a result, cells of activists have become semi-independent centers of activity. Each cell is composed of a few members, some natives of their locale, all ready to die for their cause when the leadership so orders. Al-Qaeda cells are scattered throughout the world, with a conspicuous presence in Europe, and often have only Internet connections with the leadership.

SEE ALSO Al Jazeera; Arab League, The; Arabs; Arafat, Yasir; bin Laden, Osama; Fundamentalism, Islamic; Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); Palestinian Authority; Palestinians; Pan-Arabism; September 11, 2001; Terrorism; Terrorists; Violence in Terrorism


Burke, Jason. 2004. Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. Updated ed. London: Penguin.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. 2004. The 9-11 Commission Report.

Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ami Pedahzur

Alexandr Bialsky


views updated Jun 08 2018


Al-Qaeda (pronounced al KYE-dah; Arabic for “the base”) is a worldwide terrorist network of organizations and individuals dedicated to jihad (“struggle” or “holy war”) for the cause of Islam. Its goal is to rid Muslim countries of what it perceives is the corrupting influence of Western culture and to install fundamentalist Islamic regimes—governments that rule according to a literal interpretation of the Muslim sacred texts (the Koran and the Hadith) and enforce sharia (Islamic law). Al-Qaeda is only one of a number of closely linked Islamic terrorist and insurgency groups. The size of al-Qaeda is not known, but estimates run between several hundred to several thousand members. Some scholars believe, however, al-Qaeda is actually a small group that has received undue publicity for acts that have originated with other, connected terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda became notorious in the United States for its actions in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks , when members of the group hijacked four U.S. airplanes. Two of the aircraft destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City; a third crashed into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. ; and the fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania .

Roots of al-Qaeda

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Muslim leaders around the world called for a jihad, fearing the Soviets would establish a secular (nonreligious) government in the Muslim country. Thousands of Muslim men, primarily of Arab origin, volunteered to assist the Afghan resistance fighters against Soviet troops. With assistance from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, the Afghans and foreign fighters—or mujahideen (holy warriors), as they came to be known—defeated the Soviet Union in February 1989. The victory was celebrated as a triumph for God by the “Afghan Arabs,” Muslims who had traveled to Afghanistan from Arab countries and joined the war in the name of Islam.

Osama bin Laden (1957–) was among the thousands of mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan. From a wealthy and prominent Saudi Arabian family, bin Laden brought financial support to the cause. After the war with the Soviet Union, bin Laden and his associates started to recruit soldiers and develop training camps. Bin Laden believed that defeating the Soviet Union was only the first step in a worldwide jihad campaign to support Muslims and promote Islamic governments. In Afghanistan, bin Laden's early supporters included members of the radical Egyptian group al-Jihad al-Islami, which was involved in the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat (1918–1981) of Egypt in 1981. Bin Laden soon joined forces with the prominent al-Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951–), who favored terrorism and violence as the means by which to wage this international jihad.

Many “Afghan Arabs” returned home after the defeat of the Soviet Union ready to spark jihad in their own societies. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia for a short period, but he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 because of his extremist views. He set up his organization briefly in Sudan, but soon international pressure forced Sudan to crack down on him. Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan in 1996, where he was sheltered by the Taliban, the tyrannical ruling Islamist group.

In Afghanistan, bin Laden set up new training camps for militant recruits from all over the world, and his organization came to be known as al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was one of several primary leaders, including al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda represents itself as an Islamic group based on religious ideas, but its versions of the fundamental teachings of the Koran (the Muslim holy book) often differ greatly from mainstream interpretations. For example, bin Laden reinterpreted the concept of fatwa, a formal legal opinion. In Islam, believers are encouraged to seek answers to questions they have about Islam by submitting them to an Islamic cleric, or teacher. The teacher issues a fatwa in response to the question, clarifying the issue based on the writings of the Koran. Bin Laden issued his own “fatwas,” which were neither responses to questions nor issued by Islamic clerics.

Declaration of jihad against the United States

During the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War (1991) against Iraq, the United States established military bases in Saudi Arabia. In bin Laden's view, this was an occupation of the holy land of Islam in Arabia, where the holy Islamic sites of Mecca and Medina are located. On August 23, 1996, bin Laden issued his first fatwa identifying the United States as an enemy and urging Muslims to kill American military personnel abroad. In 1998, he issued a second fatwa, this time in the name of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders, urging all good Muslims to kill not only U.S. military personnel but also U.S. civilians.


Al-Qaeda's structure is based on secrecy. It is a worldwide network of organizations and cells (small groups of three to five people, who are secretly part of the organization but live undercover in society). Terrorist attacks are often planned, organized, and carried out by small groups called “sleeper cells,” which remain dormant, or inactive, in foreign countries for long periods of time. Some of the September 11 hijackers, for example, lived in the United States for several years, using the time to plan the attack and learn the skills they needed (in this case, piloting commercial aircraft). To ensure secrecy, most members of terrorist cells do not know the identity of or the nature of the tasks carried out by other members of the organization or even their leaders. By maintaining

secrecy in this way, al-Qaeda has been able to evade most counter terror-ism efforts.

Al-Qaeda has a sophisticated structure. A primary factor has been bin Laden's access to money. He inherited about $250 to $300 million from his father. With a college education in business, bin Laden was able to set up a complex financial network. To collect money under the guise of religious purposes, he created a number of Muslim charities around the world, including in the United States. Although stationed in remote areas, al-Qaeda employed satellite communications (the use of artificial satellites stationed in space for communications using radio technology at microwave frequencies) for access to the Internet, television, radio, and other international media. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri used the international media to voice their beliefs and goals and, most importantly, to gain worldwide attention. Some experts believe that they placed hidden messages in their media statements to communicate to al-Qaeda cells awaiting instructions.


The U.S. government began to identify bin Laden publicly as an international terrorist in the mid-1990s, when evidence connected him to attacks on U.S. military personnel and assets in Somalia (1992) and Saudi Arabia (1995–96). In addition, bin Laden was tied to several unsuccessful terrorist plots, including plans to assassinate Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) in 1994 and U.S. president Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) in 1995.

On August 20, 1998, in the wake of the al-Qaeda–led bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and injured thousands, President Clinton added al-Qaeda to the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. On June 7, 1999, bin Laden was added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation ’s Ten Most Wanted list, with a $5 million reward offered for his capture. The U.S. government displayed his picture on wanted posters, matchbooks, and leaflets distributed worldwide in nearly a dozen languages. Unfortunately, this led many to believe that bin Laden was single-handedly taking on the most powerful country in the world, turning him into a popular hero in some places. In response to the embassy bombings in Africa, President Clinton ordered air strikes against a bin Laden camp in Khost, Afghanistan, as well as what was believed to be an al-Qaeda chemical weapons facility in Sudan.

Bin Laden evaded capture and continued his campaign of terror. Nineteen U.S. servicemen and women were killed when the USS Cole, a navy destroyer ship, was bombed in Yemen in October 2000. The bombing was eventually connected to al-Qaeda and is now seen as a forerunner of what was to come on September 11, 2001. On that day nineteen al-Qaeda members hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania. It was the worst single terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the country's history, killing nearly three thousand people. Al-Qaeda links have been cited for most of the large terrorist acts worldwide since then, but other powerful and deadly terrorist organizations may be responsible for some of the violent deeds.

On the run?

After the attacks on September 11, a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan forced al-Qaeda into hiding in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda's operations were damaged, but the organization remained powerful. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and deposed its dictator, Saddam Hussein (1937–2006). (See Iraq Invasion .) Iraq quickly grew unstable, partly due to differences between the two major Muslim groups, the Shiites and the Sunnis. As the Iraqi conflict grew, al-Qaeda operators apparently moved into the country and recruited Iraqi rebels into the organization, attempting to further destabilize Iraq by igniting sectarian conflict. A new terrorist group arose called al-Qaeda-in-Iraq.

In mid-2007 the location of al-Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri remained unknown. Individual cells remained secret, and many financial assets were in the hands of al-Qaeda members. Political and social conditions around the world continued to produce anger and resentment against the West, resulting in a constant supply of new recruits for al-Qaeda and connected terrorist groups.


views updated May 23 2018

Al-Qaeda a network of Islamic fundamentalist groups, founded in 1988 and associated with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. The name comes from Arabic, meaning literally ‘the base’.


views updated Jun 27 2018

al-Qaeda See Qaeda, al

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