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 counterterrorism 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.
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