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Al-Qaeda

Osama bin Laden's Network of Terror

by Laura Hayes, Borgna Brunner, and Beth Rowen
Osama bin Laden

Al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden

Attacks Attributed to al-Qaeda

  • 2/1993: Bombing of World Trade Center; 6 killed.
  • 10/1993: Killing of U.S. soldiers in Somalia.
  • 1994: Investigation of the WTC bombing reveals that it was only a small part of a massive attack plan that included hijacking a plane and crashing it into CIA headquarters.
  • 6/1996: Truck bomb explodes outside Khobar Towers military complex in Saudi Arabia; 19 American servicemen killed, hundreds of others injured.
  • 8/1998: Bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa; 224 killed including 12 Americans.
  • 12/1999: Plot to bomb millennium celebrations in Seattle foiled when customs agents arrest an Algerian smuggling explosives into the U.S. Other Algerians subsequently arrested were "Afghan alumni."
  • 12/1999: Jordanian police arrested members of a cell planning attacks against Western tourists.
  • 10/2000: Bombing of the USS Cole in port in Yemen; 17 U.S. sailors killed.
  • 9/11/2001: Destruction of WTC, attack on Pentagon.
  • 4/11/2002: Explosion at ancient synogogue in Tunisia leaves 17 dead, including 11 German tourists.
  • 5/2002: Car explodes outside hotel in Karachi, Pakistan, killing 14, including 11 French citizens.
  • 6/2002: Bomb explodes outside American Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, killing 12.
  • 10/2002: Nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, kill 202, mostly Australian citizens.
  • 10/2002: Suicide attack on a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, kills 16.
  • 5/2003: Suicide bombers kill 34, including 8 Americans, at housing compounds for Westerners in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  • 5/2003: Four bombs kill 33 people, targeting Jewish, Spanish, and Belgian sites in Casablanca, Morocco.
  • 8/2003: Suicide car bomb kills 12, injures 150, at Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia.
  • 11/2003: Explosions rock a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, housing compound killing 17.
  • 11/2003: Suicide car bombers simultaneously attack two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey, killing 25 and injuring hundreds. The following week a British bank in Istanbul is bombed.
  • 3/2004: Ten terrorists bombs explode almost simultaneously during the morning rush hour in Madrid, Spain, killing 202 and injuring more than 1,400. A Moroccan affiliate of al-Qaeda claims responsibility.
  • 5/29–31/2004: Terrorists attack the offices of a Saudi oil company in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, then take foreign oil workers hostage in a nearby residential compound. After a stand-off, three of the four assailants escape, leaving 22 people dead, all but three of them foreigners.
  • 6/11–19/2004: Terrorists kidnap and execute Paul Johnson, Jr., an American, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Nearly a week after his capture, photos of his body are posted on an Islamist website. Saudi security forces find and kill four suspected terrorists, including the self-proclaimed military leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, after they are seen dumping a body.
  • 12/6/2004: Militants, believed to be linked to Al-Qaeda, drive up to the U.S. consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, storm the gates, and kill 5 consulate employees, none of whom were American. Saudi security forces subdue the attackers, killing four.
  • 7/7/2005: Bombs exploded on 3 trains and a bus in London, England, killing 52.
  • 10/1/2005: 22 killed by 3 suicide bombs in Bali, Indonesia.
  • 11/9/2005: 57 killed at 3 American hotels in Amman, Jordan.
  • 1/9/2006: Two suicide bombers carrying police badges blow themselves up near a celebration at the Police Academy in Baghdad, killing nearly 20 police officers. Al-Qaeda in Iraq takes responsibility.
  • 8/10/2006: Police arrest 24 British-born Muslims, most of whom have ties to Pakistan, who had allegedly plotted to blow up as many as 10 planes using liquid explosives. Officials say details of the plan were similar to other schemes devised by al-Qaeda.
  • 4/11/2007: Some 35 people are killed and hundreds are wounded when suicide bombers attack a government building in the capital, Algiers, and a police station on the outskirts of the capital. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claims responsibility for the attack.
  • 4/12/2007: Eight people, including two Iraqi legislators, die when a suicide bomber strikes inside the Parliament building in Baghdad. An organization that includes al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia claims responsibility for the bold attack. In another attack, the Sarafiya Bridge that spans the Tigris River is destroyed.
  • 12/11/2007: As many as 60 people are killed in two suicide attacks near United Nations offices and government buildings in Algiers, Algeria. The bombings occur within minutes of each other. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly called the Salafist Group for Preaching, claims responsibility. It's the worst attack in the Algeria in more than 10 years.
  • 1/1/2008: In the worst attack in Iraq in months, a suicide bomber kills 30 people at a Baghdad home where mourners were paying their respects to the family of a man killed in a car bomb. The Iraqi military blames the attack on al-Qaeda in Iraq.
  • 2/1/2008: Nearly 100 people die when two women suicide bombers, who are believed to be mentally impaired, attack crowded pet markets in eastern Baghdad. The U.S. military says al-Qaeda in Iraq has been recruiting female patients at psychiatric hospitals to become suicide bombers.
  • 4/15/2008: A suicide car bomber, believed to be a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq, kills 40 people in Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province in Iraq.
  • 4/17/2008: A suicide bomber attacks the funeral for two nephews of a prominent Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Kareem Kamil al-Azawi, killing 30 people in Iraq's Diyala Province.
  • 6/26/2008: At least 30 people are killed in two separate attacks in Anbar Province and the city of Mosul. The suicide bombing in Anbar occurred at a meeting of the Awakening Council, an alliance of moderate Sunnis who joined the U.S. in its attempt to crush al-Qaeda in Iraq.
  • 8/14-16/2008: About two dozen worshippers are killed in three separate attacks as they make their way toward Karbala to celebrate the birthday of 9th-century imam Muhammad al-Mahdi. Iraqi officials blame al-Qaeda in Iraq for the attacks.
  • 8/19-20/2008: At least 55 people die in two separate suicide attacks in Algeria. No group takes responsibility for either attack, but Algerian officials say they suspect Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is behind the bombings.
  • 9/16/2008: A car bomb and a rocket strike the U.S. embassy in Yemen as staff arrived to work, killing 16 people, including 4 civilians. At least 25 suspected al-Qaeda militants are arrested for the attack.

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After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda (or al-Qa'ida, pronounced al-KYE-da) surpassed the IRA, Hamas, and Hezbollah as the world's most infamous terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda—"the base" in Arabic—is the network of extremists organized by Osama bin Laden.

The Mujahideen

Al-Qaeda has its origins in the uprising against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Thousands of volunteers from around the Middle East came to Afghanistan as mujahideen, warriors fighting to defend fellow Muslims. In the mid-1980s, Osama bin Laden became the prime financier for an organization that recruited Muslims from mosques around the world. These "Afghan Arab" mujahideen, which numbered in the thousands, were crucial in defeating Soviet forces.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, bin Laden returned to his native Saudi Arabia. He founded an organization to help veterans of the Afghan war, many of whom went on to fight elsewhere (including Bosnia) and comprise the basis of al-Qaeda.

Bin Laden also studied with radical Islamic thinkers and may have already been organizing al-Qaeda when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Bin Laden was outraged when the government allowed U.S. troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. In 1991 he was expelled from Saudi Arabia for anti-government activities.

The Rise of al-Qaeda

After his expulsion from Saudi Arabia, bin Laden established headquarters for al-Qaeda in Khartoum, Sudan. The first actions of al-Qaeda against American interests were attacks on U.S. servicemen in Somalia. A string of terrorist actions suspected to have been orchestrated by al-Qaeda followed (see sidebar), and in August 1996 bin Laden issued a "Declaration of War" against the U.S.

Al-Qaeda also worked to forge alliances with other radical groups. In February 1998, bin Laden announced an alliance of terrorist organizations—the "International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders"—that included the Egyptian al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Harakat ul-Ansar, and other groups.

In 1994 Sudan—under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—expelled bin Laden, who moved his base of operations to Afghanistan. Bin Laden was the "guest" of the Taliban until the U.S. drove them from power in Nov. 2001. Al-Qaeda set up terrorist training camps in the war-torn nation, as it had in Sudan.

Leadership and Structure

Although al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have become virtually synonymous, bin Laden does not run the organization single-handedly. His top advisor is Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's theological leader and bin Laden's probable successor. Al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian surgeon from an upper-class family. He joined the country's Islamist movement in the late 1970s. He served three years in prison on charges connected to the assassination of Anwar Sadat, during which time he was tortured. After his release he went to Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden and became his personal physician and advisor. He was likely instrumental in bin Laden's political evolution.

Al-Zawahiri is suspected of helping organize the 1997 massacre of 67 foreign tourists in the Egyptian town of Luxor and was indicted in connection with the bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. In 1998, he was one of five Islamic leaders to sign on to bin Laden's declaration calling for attacks against U.S. citizens. He is wanted by the FBI and has been sentenced to death by Egypt in absentia. In March 2004 the Pakistani military began an assault on al-Qaeda troops along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These troops were believed to be defending al-Zawahiri, who managed to escape.

Al-Qaeda's leadership oversees a loosely organized network of cells. It can recruit members from thousands of "Arab Afghan" veterans and radicals around the world. Its infrastructure is small, mobile, and decentralized—each cell operates independently with its members not knowing the identity of other cells. Local operatives rarely know anyone higher up in the organization's hierarchy.

Al-Qaeda differs significantly from more traditional terrorist organizations. It does not depend on the sponsorship of a political state, and, unlike the PLO or the IRA, it is not defined by a particular conflict. Instead, al-Qaeda operates as a franchise. It provides financial and logistical support, as well as name recognition, to terrorist groups operating in such diverse places as the Philippines, Algeria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Kashmir. Furthermore, local groups may act in the name of al-Qaeda in order to bolster their own reputation—even if they are not receiving support from the organization.

Ideology and Goals

The principal stated aims of al-Qaeda are to drive Americans and American influence out of all Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia; destroy Israel; and topple pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East. Bin Laden has also said that he wishes to unite all Muslims and establish, by force if necessary, an Islamic nation adhering to the rule of the first Caliphs.

According to bin Laden's 1998 fatwa (religious decree), it is the duty of Muslims around the world to wage holy war on the U.S., American citizens, and Jews. Muslims who do not heed this call are declared apostates (people who have forsaken their faith).

Al-Qaeda's ideology, often referred to as "jihadism," is marked by a willingness to kill "apostate" —and Shiite—Muslims and an emphasis on jihad. Although "jihadism" is at odds with nearly all Islamic religious thought, it has its roots in the work of two modern Sunni Islamic thinkers: Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb.

Al-Wahhab was an 18th-century reformer who claimed that Islam had been corrupted a generation or so after the death of Mohammed. He denounced any theology or customs developed after that as non-Islamic, including more than 1,000 years of religious scholarship. He and his supporters took over what is now Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism remains the dominant school of religious thought.

Sayyid Qutb, a radical Egyptian scholar of the mid-20th century, declared Western civilization the enemy of Islam, denounced leaders of Muslim nations for not following Islam closely enough, and taught that jihad should be undertaken not just to defend Islam, but to purify it.

The War on Terrorism

In response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the WTC and Pentagon, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Al-Qaeda's infrastructure in the country was destroyed and their military commander, Muhammed Atef, was killed. Abu Zubaydah, another top operative, was captured in Pakistan. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, however, escaped and are presumed alive. They release audio and video messages to the Arab media from time to time.

In March 2003 the U.S. widened the war on terrorism by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein and his Baath party (see Iraq profile). The decision to encompass Iraq in "the war on terror" has been highly controversial. Although President Bush asserted that there was a working relationship between Hussein and al-Qaeda, no solid proof of collaboration between them—specifically on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, or on any other terrorist activities—has emerged.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq

As the Iraqi insurgency has continued, however, suspected al-Qaeda terrorists have moved into the country and are likely responsible for kidnappings and a string of suicide-bomb attacks. In February 2004, U.S. forces intercepted a letter believed to have been written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian radical. The letter outlined plans to destabilize Iraq by igniting sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Al-Zarqawi is thought to have been the mastermind behind the 1,000 to 3,000 foreign insurgents fighting in Iraq. For a time, al-Zarqawi appeared to position himself as a rival to bin Laden, but in Oct. 2004 he officially declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, changing the name of his organization from Unification and Jihad to al-Qaeda in Iraq. In an audiotape a few months later bin Laden declared that "the dear mujahed brother Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq," and announced that "we, in al-Qaeda organization, welcome him joining forces with us."

Despite the U.S. "war on terror," al-Qaeda continues to be a threat world-wide. There have been more than a dozen major attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists since September 11, 2001. Both Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, although in hiding, still play an important role in shaping the group's mission. In April, 2004, bin Laden offered a truce to Europe, saying that al-Qaeda would not attack any country, with the exception of the U.S., that withdrew its troops from the Islamic world within three months. European leaders quickly rejected the offer.

In December 2007, Gen. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, reported that al-Qaeda in Iraq remains the greatest threat to Iraq's security. Indeed, in January 2008, the U.S. military reported that in 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for some 4,500 attacks against civilians that killed 3,870 people and wounded almost 18,000. By September 2008, however, al-Qaeda in Iraq had been sharply weakened, if not diminished entirely. The success in routing out the terrorist group has been attributed to Sunni Awakening Councils, former tribal leaders and insurgents who turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq as it became increasingly sectarian, and sided with the U.S.

2004—The Madrid Bombing

On March 11, 2004, Spain's most horrific terrorist attack occurred: 202 people were killed and 1,400 were injured in bombings at Madrid's railway station. Evidence soon emerged that al-Qaeda was responsible. By April, a dozen suspects, most of them Moroccan, were arrested for the bombings. On April 4, several suspects blew themselves up during a police raid to avoid capture. Many Spaniards blamed their prime minister's staunch support of the U.S. and the war in Iraq for making Spain an al-Qaeda target. [More on the Madrid bombing.]

2005—The London Bombing

On July 7, 2005, London suffered a terrorist bombing, its worst attack since World War II. Four bombs exploded in three subway stations and on one double-decker bus during the morning rush hour, killing at least 52 and wounding more than 700. A group calling itself the Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe claimed responsibility on a Web site, asserting that the attacks were a retaliation for Britain's involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A year after the bombing, British investigators concluded that the links between the bombers and al-Qaeda were marginal. The four bombers, all born in Britain, had all visited Pakistan, but there was no evidence of any direct support from al-Qaeda.

Zarqawi Killed

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq (see above), was killed in June 2006 when U.S. warplanes dropped 500-lb. bombs on his safe house. Zarqawi's death is considered America’s single biggest victory in nearly five years of fighting Islamist terror. Zarqawi was responsible for many of the most brutal and horrific attacks in Iraqi.

The Splintering and Proliferation of Al-Qaeda

In recent years, many of the most horrific bombings attributed to al-Qaeda—most notably Bali, Madrid, London, and Algeria—are believed to have been carried out by terrorist groups linked more in spirit than in substance to al-Qaeda. Al-Zarqawi, the most active terrorist in recent years, for example, only officially joined al-Qaeda in the years after he initiated his reign of terror in Iraq. Al-Qaeda has been more than happy to take credit for the various bombings, but it is thought that it has offered philosophical motivation more than a direct support for the atrocities committed by these splinter groups. While al-Qaeda encourages its reputation as a vast global network, many experts believe that at this stage al-Qaeda itself has just a small core of adherents, but serves as the virulent inspiration to countless violent Islamic extremists.

While the war on terror has cost the United States some $1 trillion, al-Qeada remains a global threat. In fact, in August 2008, Ted Gistaro, the U.S. government's senior terrorism analyst, said in a report that by forging closer ties to Pakistani militants, al-Qaeda is more capable of launching an attack in the United States than it was in 2007. The Pakistani militants have given al-Qaeda leaders safe haven in remote areas to train recruits.

John Brennan, President Barack Obama's senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, said in August 2009 that although al-Qaeda "has been seriously damaged and forced to replace many of its top-tier leadership with less experienced and less capable individuals," the terrorist group remains the country's No. 1 threat.

Did you know?
For more than a billion Muslims around the world, Ramadan is a "month of blessing" marked by prayer, fasting, and charity.