Al Qaeda is a militant Islamic terrorist group that was founded by Osama Bin Laden in 1988. The name in Arabic means “the base.” Alternate spellings include “al-Qaida” and “al-Qa’ida.” Al Qaeda’s goal is to establish a worldwide caliphate, that is, an Islamic state that is ruled by a caliph (caliph is an Arabic word meaning “successor of Mohammad and ruler of the state”). The presence of and deadly attacks orchestrated by al Qaeda have led to drastic changes in surveillance and security, not only in the United States but in other Western countries as well. This entry examines the creation and founders of al Qaeda, reviews many of the organization’s most prominent terrorist attacks, and describes some of the changes instituted by the United States in response to those attacks.
Al Qaeda is responsible for some of the most well-known acts of terrorism, including the simultaneous bombings of the U.S. Embassy buildings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998; the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole; the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center; as well as the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing. Al Qaeda has also been responsible for a stream of smaller, though still deadly, terror attacks. The group uses suicide bombings, small-arms attacks, and complex attacks. Complex attacks are attacks on a building or compound that are initiated by an explosive, followed by small-arms fire. Complex attacks usually entail a minimum of five terrorists, though there is no upper limit on the number of parties involved. Al Qaeda conducts the majority of its attacks in the Middle East, though Europe, North America, and South America are occasional targets. Currently, al Qaeda has operatives throughout the world, though it does not have the capabilities that it did during the 1990s and early 2000s, as a result of the global War on Terror.
Al Qaeda was founded to establish a worldwide caliphate. The founders of the group, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, sought to eliminate Western influence from the Muslim world. Their views are largely based on the teachings of Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a right-wing political group established in the 1920s. Qutb taught that the failure to follow Islamic law and its moral codes caused failings in Islam. Furthermore, Qutb believed that people were no longer true Muslims if they embraced the influences of the Western world. According to Qutb, the only way to restore Islam is to remove Western influence from the Middle East. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri took this to mean that Westerners must be killed and all Western influence removed from Muslim territory. Only then could a worldwide caliphate be established.
Al Qaeda has many connections with other terrorist groups, as well as ideologically aligned nations. Offshoots of al Qaeda have been created, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. Ideological allies include the Haqqani Network, Tamil Tigers, Taliban, Abu Sayyaf Group, and Lashkar e-Taiba. The status of al Qaeda is deeply divided among the countries of the world. Some nations view al Qaeda as a terrorist group, whereas other nations offer shelter and support for its members. Al Qaeda has received support from several countries, including Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and Iran. A common trait of nations that oppose al Qaeda is that they are mostly Western countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and New Zealand.
Al Qaeda has a loose hierarchical structure. It has a top-down-driven management style, where direction comes from the group’s shura. A shura is a governing group consisting of the highest-level leaders of an organization. The al Qaeda shura comprised bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, and several others (an exhaustive list has never been released). Different elements are represented within the shura, such as operations, training, religion, Islamic study, finance, and law and military. Decisions from the shura are distributed through the Internet; however, operational information is kept a closely guarded secret. There are many separate cells of al Qaeda spread throughout the world. The cell-based structure allows al Qaeda to continue toward its goal even if one cell disbands. Should a cell be broken up by the authorities, the lack of information members have about one another limits the ability of law enforcement, the military, and the intelligence community to act.
Al Qaeda made its presence known to the world in 1992. The group set two bombs at Yemeni hotels. The goal of the bombings was to drive U.S. soldiers out of Somalia.
The next major attack was on February 23, 1993, when the World Trade Center in New York City was bombed. A truck bomb was parked in the basement of the World Trade Center, and it was detonated shortly after noon, killing 6 and injuring more than 1,000. The attack was coordinated by Ramzi Yousef and financed by Khaled Sheikh Mohammad. The planning for this attack began in 1991, while Yousef was in an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. The purpose of the attack was to force the United States to end aid to Israel, to have the United States cease relations with Israel, and for the United States to pull out military support from the Middle East.
In 1998, U.S. Embassy buildings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, were bombed. Two delivery trucks were parked outside the embassies and simultaneously detonated. As a result of these bombings, more than 200 people were killed, and more than 4,000 were injured. Responsibility for the attack lay with al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The two groups claimed that the bombings were revenge for U.S. involvement in the arrest, extradition, and torture of four Egyptian Islamic Jihad members. These bombings resulted in bin Laden earning a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list. In addition, the then president Bill Clinton authorized the use of cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda suicide bombers blew a large hole in the hull of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000. The attack occurred in the Yemeni port of Aden. Al Qaeda immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing. As a result of the attack, 17 sailors died, and 39 were injured. The vessel was still seaworthy, so after being repaired, it was placed back in service. Videos of the bombing and the aftermath taken by the insurgents have been used in al Qaeda recruitment videos. Two al Qaeda members, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Jamal Ahmad Mohammad Ali al-Badawai, were responsible for the planning of the attack, while bin Laden provided the funding.
The most well-known attack was on September 11, 2001. Nineteen al Qaeda hijackers took control of four airplanes, flying two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, with the fourth crashing into a Pennsylvania field, en route to the White House. As a result of this attack, the United States declared a “War on Terror” and ramped up efforts and presence in the Middle East. It was also speculated that al Qaeda was involved in mailing letters filled with anthrax in 2001; however, it was discovered that al Qaeda was not responsible, and the source was traced to domestic terrorism.
On October 12, 2002, al Qaeda and the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah attacked a nightclub in Bali. As a result of this attack, 202 people were killed and 209 injured. An audiotape released after the attack was connected to bin Laden, who claimed responsibility for the bombing. He claimed that the bombing was due to the United States’ War on Terror. A suicide bomber detonated an explosive device hidden in his backpack inside the nightclub. When people ran outside, a second bomb, hidden inside a van, was set off. It was later found that the attack was financed by al Qaeda and planned by Jemaah Islamiyah. The Muslim cleric Abu Baker Bashir, the religious head of Jemaah Islamiyah, planned the attack and recruited local insurgents to carry out the bombing.
Since 2002, al Qaeda has planned and carried out smaller attacks, though not on the scale of those previously described.
See also Terrorism ; Torture
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Ibrahim, Raymond. The Al-Qaeda Reader: The Essential Texts of Osama bin Laden’s Terrorist Organization. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2007.
Ryan, Michael W. S.Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013.