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Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden
Ayman al-Zawahiri
Ayman al-Zawahiri

Al-Qaeda (Arabic: القاعدة, "the foundation" or "the base") is the name given to a worldwide network of militant Islamist organizations. Built on the mujahideen resistance movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it seeks to defend, via military and terrorist tactics, other Islamic communities that it considers to be under siege, including those in Kashmir, Chechnya, and Palestine. The group places itself in confrontation with the United States, due to the United States' support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other regimes that al-Qaeda perceives as oppressing Muslims. Another reason for their conflict with the United States is their perception (shared by some other Muslims) that certain aspects of Western culture and values are incompatible with Islam. The United States claims that this group has been involved in attacks against both civilian and military targets around the world. Al-Qaeda is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and many other governments.

Al-Qaeda gained worldwide notoriety after it was blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in the Washington, D.C., area. The group is ostensibly led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, although al-Qaeda's true size and organizational structure are unknown. According to Vincent Cannistraro, former top CIA counter-terrorist official, "Zawahiri is the guy-he's the operational commander...number one, on the right hand side of Osama." The International Institute for Strategic Studies states in a 2004 reports that more than 18,000 "potential militants" are scattered around the world operating in more than 60 countries which could be recruited by Al-Qaeda. In terms of real numbers, some question whether this murky entity has more than a handful of true members. [1]



Although "al-Qaeda" is the name of the organization used in popular culture, the organization does not use the name to formally refer to itself. The name "al-Qaeda" was coined by the American Federal Government based on the name of a computer file of bin Laden's that listed the names of contacts he had made in Afghanistan, which talks about the organization as "the base" of the jihad.

Al-Qaeda's religious inspiration comes mostly from the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, whence many of its senior members came. Though it adheres to no particular sect, in general its philosophy is Salafist. Some say the ultimate goal of al-Qaeda is to re-establish the Caliphate across the Islamic world, by working with allied Islamic extremist groups to overthrow secular or Western-supported regimes. This is disputed by Jason Burke , author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, and by the claims of alleged members of al-Qaeda itself. Anti-semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments are often expressed by al-Qaeda members in those speeches and messages.

Al-Qaeda believes that western governments, and particularly the American government, interfere in the affairs of Islamic nations against the interests of Muslims through economic and military support of regimes that oppress Muslims, such as by giving billions every year to Israel and vetoing every otherwise-unanimous United Nations condemnation of its alleged atrocities, invading and conquering Islamic countries, meddling in the affairs of Islamic governments and communities, causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Muslims via economic sanctions, and supporting tyrannical governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan with weapons, troops, and billions of dollars.

Besides the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., al-Qaeda is also suspected of carrying out the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole, as well as many attacks on people in and of other nations around the world.

The military leader of al-Qaeda is widely reported to have been Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was reportedly arrested in Pakistan in 2003. Its previous military leader, Muhammed Atef, was allegedly killed in a U.S. bombing raid on Afghanistan in late 2001.

History of al-Qaeda

Afghan jihad

Al-Qaeda evolved from the Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK) — a mujahideen resistance organization fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Osama bin Laden was a founding member of the MAK, along with Palestinian militant Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. The role of the MAK was to channel funds from a variety of sources (including donations from across the Middle East, as well as funding, equipment, and training from the American government) into training mujahideen from around the world in guerrilla combat, and to transport the combatants to Afghanistan. Bin Laden and the MAK were aided by the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Philosophically, members of this group, and those which came from it, are often Wahabi Muslims, and/or once attended Saudi-backed schools which teach Salafism or Wahabism, which are both Sunni Islamic movements.

Toward the end of the Soviet occupation, many mujahideen wanted to expand their operations to include Islamist struggles in other parts of the world. A number of overlapping and interrelated organisations were formed to further those aspirations.

One of these was the organization that would eventually be called al-Qaeda, which was formed by Osama bin Laden in 1988. Bin Laden wished to extend the conflict to nonmilitary operations in other parts of the world; Azzam, in contrast, wanted to remain focused on military campaigns. After Azzam was assassinated in 1989, the MAK split, with a significant number joining bin Laden's organization.

Since other parts of the world were often not in such open warfare as Afghanistan under the Soviet occupation, the move from MAK to al-Qaeda involved more training in terrorist tactics. Other organizations were formed, including others by Osama bin Laden, to carry out different types of terrorism in different countries.

Gulf War and start of US enmity

After the Soviet union withdrew from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia, while training operations in Afghanistan continued. He spoke against the Saudi government during the Gulf War for harboring American troops on Saudi soil and was encouraged to leave Saudi Arabia.

Sudan operations

In 1991, Sudan's National Islamic Front, an Islamist group that had recently gained power, invited al-Qaeda to move operations to their country. For several years, al-Qaeda ran several businesses (including an import/export business, farms, and a construction firm) in Sudan. They also ran a number of camps where they trained aspirants in the use of firearms and explosives.

In 1996, Osama bin Laden was expelled from Sudan after possible participation in the 1994 attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while his motorcade was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. According to some accounts, during this period the Sudanese government offered to give bin Laden over to the United States. According to Bill Clinton, U.S. president at the time, due to the lack of a legal basis for holding bin Laden the offer was rejected; the United States instead elected to merely remove bin Laden from Sudan and thus sever his valuable business and financial ties there [2].

Return to Afghanistan

Taking advantage of an invitation from some Afghan warlords, al-Qaeda returned to Afghanistan. There, bin Laden quickly established ties with the fledgling Taliban group, led by Mohammed Omar, and by providing funds and weapons at a crucial time helped the group rise to power. Thereafter al-Qaeda enjoyed the Taliban's protection and a measure of legitimacy as part of their Ministry of Defense.

Al-Qaeda training camps trained militant Muslims from around the world, some of whom later applied their training in various conflicts in places such as India, Algeria, Chechnya, the Philippines, Egypt, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Somalia, Yemen, Kosovo, and Bosnia. Other terrorists came from parts of Africa, the People's Republic of China (Uighurs), and, in one case, the United Kingdom. These terrorists intermingled at their camps, causing all of those causes to become one. Despite the perception of some people, al-Qaeda members are ethnically diverse and are connected by their fundamentalist version of Islam.

Start of militant operations against civilians

On February 23, 1998, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri of Egyptian Islamic Jihad issued a fatwa under banner of "the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders" saying that "to kill Americans and their allies, civilians, and military is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able." This was also the year of the first major terrorist act reliably attributed to al-Qaeda, the embassy bombings in East Africa, which resulted in upward of 300 deaths. In 1999, Egyptian Islamic Jihad officially merged with al-Qaeda, and al-Zawahiri became bin Laden's right-hand man.

September 11 attacks

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda, the United States began to build up military forces in preparation for an attack on Afghanistan (whose government was said to harbor bin Laden's organization) in response. In the weeks before they did so, the Taliban twice offered to turn over bin Laden to a neutral country for trial if the United States would provide them with evidence of bin Laden's complicity in the attacks. The Americans, perhaps feeling this would compromise their intelligence networks, refused, and soon thereafter invaded Afghanistan, deposing the Taliban government.

Battles between the United States and the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces continue as of 2005. As a result of this invasion, the al-Qaeda training camps were destroyed, and much of the existing operating structure of al-Qaeda was temporarily disrupted. The American government now claims that two-thirds of the people who were top leaders of al-Qaeda in 2001 are currently in custody (including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Saif al Islam el Masry , and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri) or dead (including Mohammed Atef), though it warns the organization is not yet defeated and is still very determined to continue the fight.

Activity in Iraq

See also Links between Al-Qaeda and Iraq

Al-Qaeda first took official interest in Iraq when that country invaded Kuwait in 1990, giving rise to concerns that the secular, socialist Baathist government of Iraq might next set its sights on Saudi Arabia, homeland of bin Laden and of Islam itself.

During the Gulf War, the organization's interests became split between outrage with the intervention of the United States of America in the region and hatred of Saddam Hussein's secular government, as well as expression of concern for the suffering that Islamic people in Iraq were undergoing.

Bin Laden referred, in his speeches and recorded/written announcements, to Hussein (and the Baathists) as evil, a demon or devil worshipper, calling for his overthrow by the people of Iraq. Organizations that would later come to identify with al-Qaeda were set up in northeastern Iraq, in areas controlled by the anti-Saddam Kurds and the United States.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda took more formal interest in the region and is known to have been responsible for actively organising and aiding local resistance to the occupying coalition forces. During Iraq's historic elections in January 2005 al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for nine suicide blasts in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal Jihad and alleged ally of al-Qaeda, formally merged with al-Qaeda on 17th October 2004. The organization started to use the banners of "Al-Qaeda in the Land Between the Two Rivers", instead of old Jama'at al-Tawhid wal Jihad banners. In the merger al-Zarqawi declared loyalty to Osama bin Laden.

Incidents for which al-Qaeda is believed by some to be responsible

Note: Al-Qaeda does not have a habit of taking credit for actions, resulting in a great deal of ambiguity over how many attacks the group has actually conducted. In addition following the U.S. declaration of the War on Terrorism in 2001, the U.S. government has made a great effort to connect as many groups and actions as possible to al-Qaeda, which might result in erroneous attributions.

The first militant attack that al-Qaeda allegedly carried out consisted of three bombings which were targeted at U.S. troops in Aden, Yemen, in December 1992. A Yemeni and an Austrian tourist died in the bombing.

There are claims that al-Qaeda operatives assisted in the shooting down of U.S. helicopters and the killing of U.S. servicemen in Somalia in 1993. (see: Battle of Mogadishu)

Ramzi Yousef, who was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (though probably not an al-Qaeda member at the time), and Khalid Sheik Mohammed planned Operation Bojinka, a plot to destroy airplanes in mid-Pacific flight using explosives. An apartment fire in Manila, Philippines exposed the plan before it could be carried out. Youssef was arrested, but Mohammed evaded capture until 2003.

They are believed to be responsible for a bombing at a U.S. military facility in Riyadh in November 1995, which killed two people from India and five Americans. Al-Qaeda is also thought by some to be responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing which killed American military personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, though this attack and the previous one are usually ascribed to Hizbullah.

Al-Qaeda is believed to have conducted the bombings in August 1998 of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 5,000 others.

In December 1999 and into 2000, al-Qaeda planned attacks against U.S. and Israeli tourists visiting Jordan for millennial celebrations; however, the Jordanian authorities thwarted the planned attacks and put 28 suspects on trial. Al-Qaeda also attempted the bombing of the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California during the millennium holiday, although the bomber Ahmed Ressam was caught at the US-Canadian border with bombs in the trunk of his car. Also, al-Qaeda planned to attack the USS The Sullivans on January 3, 2000, but that effort failed due to too much weight being put on the small boat meant to bomb the ship.

For more information about those three plots, see: 2000 millennium attack plots

They are also thought to be responsible for the October 2000 USS Cole bombing. German police foiled a plot to destroy a cathedral in Strasbourg, France in December 2000. Al-Qaeda is thought to be responsible. See: Strasbourg cathedral bombing plot

The most destructive act ascribed to al-Qaeda was the series of attacks in the USA on September 11th, 2001.

Several attacks and attempted attacks since September 11, 2001 have been attributed to al-Qaeda. The first of which was the Paris embassy attack plot, which was foiled. The second of which involved the attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid (who proclaimed himself a follower of Osama bin Laden) who got close to destroying American Airlines Flight 63)

More subsequent plots included the El Ghriba synagogue bombing in Djerba, Tunisia and attempted attacks in Jordan, Indonesia, Morocco, and Singapore. See: Singapore embassies attack plot. The network has also been implicated in the Limburg tanker bombing, of complicity in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and in numerous bombings in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has been linked through other groups to the assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan, a terrorist car bombing in Kenya in November 2002, the Riyadh Compound Bombings, and the Istanbul Bombings in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2003.

Al-Qaeda has strong alliances with a number of other Islamic militant organizations including the Indonesian Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah. That group was responsible for the October 2002 Bali bombing.

Although there have been no identified al-Qaeda attacks within the territory of the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks, numerous al-Qaeda attacks in the Middle East, Far East, Africa and Europe have caused extensive casualties and turmoil. In the aftermath of several March 11, 2004 attacks on commuter trains in Madrid, a London newspaper reported receiving an email from a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, claiming responsibility and a videotape claiming responsibility was also found.

The chain of command

Though the current structure of al-Qaeda is unknown, information mostly acquired from the defector Jamal al-Fadl provided American authorities with a rough picture of how the group was organized.

Bin Laden is the emir of al-Qaeda (although originally this role may have been filled by Abu Ayoub al-Iraqi ), advised by a shura council, which consists of senior al-Qaeda members, estimated by Western officials at about twenty to thirty people.

  • The Military committee is responsible for training, weapons acquisition, and planning attacks.
  • The Money/Business committee runs business operations. The travel office provides air tickets and false passports. The payroll office pays al-Qaeda members, and the Management office oversees money-making businesses.
  • The Law committee reviews Islamic law and decides if particular courses of action conform to the law.

There was once a Media committee, which ran the now-defunct newspaper Nashrat al Akhbar and did public relations.

Organizational specialists point out al-Qaeda's network structure, as opposed to hierarchical structure is both its strength and a weakness. The decentralized structure enables al-Qaeda to have a worldwide base; however, acts involving a high degree of organization, such as the September 11 attacks, take time and effort. American efforts to disrupt al-Qaeda have had mixed success.

This lack of clear structure makes the very existence of al-Qaeda as a real organisation debatable. According to the controversial BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, al-Qaeda is so weakly linked together that it is hard to say it exists apart from Osama bin Laden and a small clique of close associates. The name itself was not used by bin Laden himself until after the September 11 attacks, upon realizing that that is the name the Americans had assigned. Previous attacks attributed to bin Laden and al-Qaeda were, at the time, claimed by organisations under a variety of names. Furthermore, the lack of convicted al-Qaeda members despite a large number of arrests on terrorism charges is cited by the documentary as a reason to doubt whether an entity that meets the description of al-Qaeda exists at all. [3]

Internet activities

Al-Qaeda has been accused of running several websites. Several others offered al-Qaeda content. Some of the websites were taken over by American crackers. and were perhaps the most significant of the websites. Alneda was initially taken down by an American, but the operators kept trying to put the website back up.

Al-Qaeda also claimed responsibility for two of its attacks on Its members had also allegedly signed up for free electronic mail accounts and used steganography to transmit messages.

Some believe that al-Qaeda is actively trying to recruit members using the Internet. They are believed to use public internet cafes.

A website associated with al-Qaeda posted a video of a man named Nick Berg being decapitated in Iraq. Other decapitation videos and pictures, namely that of Paul Johnson and Kim Sun-il, were first posted onto internet websites. The Daniel Pearl video was leaked to a jihadist site and also has a presence on the internet.

Notes on naming

Al-Qaeda's name can also be transliterated as al-Qaida, al-Qa'ida, al-Quaida, el-Qaida, or al Qaeda. In Arabic it is spelled القاعدة. Its Arabic pronunciation (IPA ) can be approximated as IPA /ɛl 'kɑ:-idʌ/, which for American English speakers could be spelled "el-KAW-ee-duh". However, English speakers more commonly pronounce it in a manner influenced by its spelling - IPA /ɑɫ 'kaɪdɑ/ for American English, /ɑ:ɫ 'kaɪdɑ:/ in British English. Listen to the US pronunciation (RealPlayer).

Al-Qaeda has other names, such as:

  • Islamic Army
  • Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places
  • Osama bin Laden Network
  • Osama bin Laden Organization
  • Islamic Salvation Foundation
  • The Group for the Preservation of the Holy Sites

See also

External links

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