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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-Qaeda’s 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-Qaeda’s 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-Qaeda–linked 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 Laden’s 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-Qaeda’s ideology is that of “defensive jihad,” according to which it is every Muslim’s religious obligation to fight the attackers, seen as the Western countries headed by the United States.
This ideology molded Al-Qaeda’s 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 Laden’s 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.
- 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. http://www.911commission.gov/.
- Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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