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Al-Qaeda's flag. It can sometimes be hard to tell exactly which group is which because several other jihadist groups have also used this flag design.
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Turning towards Mecca
Al-Qaeda's home grown terrorists have a near perfect track record of failing in almost every single terrorist attack — because the only people they're able to recruit now are idiots.
—Alejandro Beutel, Muslim Public Affairs Council.[1]

al-Qaeda (also transliterated al-Qa'ida, Arabic for "The Base" القاعدة‎) is an Islamist terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, adhering to a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam that originally promoted unity among Muslim sects. It sprung out of the Egyptian Jihadist movement and the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda is estimated to consist of approximately 200 people[note 1] mostly Osama bin Laden's former friends and close followers. The organization does not, as a general rule, recruit members, but rather trains like-minded groups to wage jihad. This terroristic outsourcing makes it difficult to capture actual al-Qaeda members, as distinct from dirt-poor and impressionable insurgents who have merely been trained by al-Qaeda but know nothing about the organization.


The anti-Soviet jihad[edit]

In 1979, bin Laden answered the Saudi Kingdom's call for jihad against the Soviet Union which had invaded the Muslim lands of Afghanistan. From Pakistan he and the spiritual leader of the jihad, Imam Abdullah Azzam, "funneled money, arms and fighters from the outside world into the Afghan war"[2] through an organization which by 1984 was known as Maktab al-KhidamatWikipedia (Services Bureau), or MAK. MAK "was nurtured by Pakistan’s state security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), the CIA’s primary conduit for conducting the covert war against Moscow’s occupation."[2]

By the war's end, bin Laden and a few other leaders established al-Qaeda, which was composed of the more extremist elements in MAK.[2]


Victors of the anti-Soviet jihad[edit]

In late 1988 the Soviet Union 'declared victory' and went home, the Afghanis began fighting among themselves, and the Arab jihadis plotted their next moves. Azzam and bin Laden began planning to keep the movement together, but there was no consensus on the next objective.[3] Azzam wanted to liberate Palestine; Zawahiri wanted to liberate Egypt from its secular leaders; and men like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had designs on the secular apostate regimes of their homelands, the "near enemies" who needed to be destroyed along the road to retaking Jerusalem. Bin Laden was odd man out — he was then still a loyalist to the Saudi crown, and had been welcomed home as a hero. Azzam's untimely death made bin Laden the undisputed leader of the movement.

In 1991 an opportunity presented itself to use the victorious mujahideenWikipedia in battle again when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; bin Laden offered them to the House of SaudWikipedia to defend the Kingdom, but was rejected. Bin Laden took it personally and nursed a chip on his shoulder. Many jihadis later refused to join al-Qaeda, viewing it as personal enterprise built by bin Ladin to force his former patrons, the Saudi royal family, to recognize him as a political force and restore his wounded pride.[4] Zawahiri and his Egyptians however, hooked up with bin Laden, largely because Zawahiri's breakaway group in exile was losing influence back home in Egypt and needed bin Laden's financial support.


The far enemy[edit]

Bin Laden had peculiar views that were outside the traditional mainstream of the Sunni mujuhadeen. Since the time of Sayyid Qutb jihadists viewed the secular regimes of their homelands as agents and stooges of the global infidel alliance which divided Islam into nation states. These local regimes were regarded as "the near enemy" and prevented the resurrection of an Islamic caliphate and Islamic state. Zawahiri was the very embodiment of this tradition and strategy.

Mecca is the heart of Islam, which presently is controlled by the Saudis, who are in bed with Western infidels, who in turn support Israel, and who are all backed up by the economic and military power of the United States. Therefore, argued bin Laden, the best, quickest, and most surefire way to retake Jerusalem and Mecca and bring back a caliphate was to attack the far enemy, the United States. Bin Laden shared with the ruling clerical, military, and intelligence circles of Iran a focus on this common enemy. Most Sunni jihadis thought that this was crazy, but Zawahiri needed bin Laden's money, had an organization already, and helped recruit the suicide bombers willing to help carry out bin Laden's plans.

Between 1991 and 1996 bin Laden was exiled to Sudan. According to the 9-11 Commission, Sudanese officials facilitated meetings between al-Qaeda operatives and Iranian officials. The relationship demonstrated that Sunni-Shia differences did not pose a barrier to bin Laden or his Iranian accomplices.[5]

In 1996 bin Laden was booted out of Sudan and relocated to Afghanistan where the Taliban had just seized power. They allowed him to set up several terrorist training camps attracting a stream of young jihadists, many of whom traveled through Iran. Iranian border inspectors were told not to stamp the passports of 8 to 10 of the 9/11 hijackers because evidence of travel through Iran would have prevented the hijackers from obtaining visas at U.S. embassies abroad or gaining entry into the United States.

In June 1996, a truck bomb demolished the Khobar TowersWikipedia apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen and wounding hundreds of others. The attack was carried out primarily by Saudi Hezbollah, a creation of the government of Iran.


Parallel to Afghanistan was the call for jihad to protect the Bosnian Muslims during the three-way civil war in Yugoslavia.[6] While by the war's end, all three sides were guilty of mass rape and ethnic cleansing (a term created specifically to describe the atrocities of that war), many Muslims who had joined to 'protect' other Muslims had become further radicalised. A number of Mujihadeen were disappointed that all "their hard work" would result in a secular Bosnian state, and eventually joined up with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. At least 2 of the 9/11 hijackers were veterans of the Bosnian War.

As a vehicle for the Salafi creed[edit]

To be legit for Sunni recruits, al-Qaeda needed the backing of Sunni religious scholars. By the mid-1990s Abu Qatada al-FilistiniWikipedia and Abu Musab al-SuriWikipedia joined the organization's inner council and converted bin Laden to their ideas. Al-Qaeda became the vehicle for recruitment and training for their radical Salafi-jihadist thinking. Bin Laden however, envisioned a unity alliance of all Muslims, Sunni and Shia, (with himself as head, of course) against the Zionists and Crusaders. So bin Laden, trained as an engineer, and Zawahiri a physician, began issuing their own religious fatwas, refuting the Saudi religious establishment scholars.

By 2000, Abu Musab al-Suri wrote of the new evolving ideas for global jihad,

Al Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be… it is a call, a reference, a methodology.

Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker[7] says Suri predicted,

the next stage of jihad will be characterized by terrorism created by individuals or small autonomous groups (what Suri calls "leaderless resistance") [lonewolves], which will wear down the enemy[8] and prepare the ground for the far more ambitious aim of waging war on "open fronts" — an outright struggle for territory. Suri says, "Without confrontation in the field and seizing control of land, we cannot establish a State, which is the strategic goal of the resistance."[note 2]

Al-Suri's legacy was to codify the doctrines that animated jihad, so that Muslim youths of the future could discover the cause and begin their own, spontaneous religious war.

Terrorist attacks[edit]

Then came the events of the Blessed Tuesday, and the thrones of the kuffar were shaken. And the preachers of the Truth were oppressed… the Shaykh issued a verdict regarding the permissibility of these blessed operations, and he wrote a treatise with the title, This is What I Take as My Din to Allah, in which he expounded upon the legality of these operations, and the permissibility of targeting that people with these types of operations, and even operations which are more severe than those.[9][10]

Among the acts for which they have credibly claimed responsibility are the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001, the bombing of the USS ColeWikipedia, attacks on the US embassiesWikipedia in Kenya and Tanzania.[11] the Assassination of Benazir BhuttoWikipedia[12] and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The group has also carried out multiple attacks against Shiites.[13]


Priority operations devolved upon al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, al-Qaeda Central (Pakistan and the Pakistan Taliban), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (primarily Yemen and the Hejaz), al Nusra Front, and Boko Haram.

Global jihad[edit]

In 2005 Zawahiri outlined the plan for global jihad and world dominion to Der Spiegel magazine:

  • 2000 – 2003 “The Awakening Phase” in which the West will be provoked (via 9/11) unto war with the Islamic world.
  • 2004 – 2006 “The Opening Eyes Phase” in which jihad would become a social movement and experience a huge recruitment drive. The Iraq insurgency will be the operational center for their army of Jihadis.
  • 2007 – 2010 “The Arising and Standing Up Phase” which will focus on destabilizing Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
  • 2010 – 2013 “The Unification Phase” which will be aimed at the collapse of the near enemy (the Middle Eastern) governments. This coincided with the Arab Spring.
  • 2013 – 2016 “The Caliphate Rising Phase” a new Caliphate will be declared. This strategy was carried out on 29 June 2014 by the group formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, elbowing Zawahiri aside for the top job of Caliph.
  • 2016 – 2018 “The Total Confrontation Phase” in which the empowered Caliphate will use its Islamic Army to fight the unbelievers.
  • 2018 – 2020 “The Definitive Victory Phase” in which the world “unbelievers” will be defeated after a two year war by a unified Muslim army of 1.5 billion men (Seems very unlikely considering many Muslims don't share Al-Qaeda's views).[14]


Post-bin Laden era[edit]

When Caliph Ibrahim al-Badri sought to consolidate the Syrian and Iraqi al-Qaeda factions into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it was a direct challenge to Zawahiri's leadership, not as the successor of bin Laden's organization but as leader of the global jihad.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered seasoned al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq to cross the border into Syria, join up with sympathetic rebel camps, and gain experience. A few hundred did this, and over many months, they gained clout with rebels, who realized what good anti-government fighters they were. They formed an official al-Qaeda branch called Jabhat al-Nusra, meaning the Support Front. Many Islamists joined up with this group after watching it succeed in battles with the government, and al-Nusra slowly gained strength and support from the rebel movement. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, ordered his Iraqi fighters into Syria as well, who worked independently from al-Nusra. Zawahiri didn't want this, insisting on separate branches for Iraq and Syria. Al-Baghdadi disagreed, wanting a united jihad that he was to lead. When Zawahiri ordered his group, Islamic State of Iraq, out of Syria, Baghdadi refused. Zawahiri then disowned him, leading al-Nusra to fight Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh). This was a showdown that resulted in a partition that benefited ISI the most, as it secured dozens of towns within days. Al-Nusra rebranded itself to try to separate itself from the image of al-Qaeda, believing that this would give them a better image. Although western powers didn't fall for it, it secured al-Qaeda's place as a critical player in the Syrian rebel movement.

With the death of Mullah OmarWikipedia, the dispute with the Islamic State for leadership of the Global Jihad eclipsed al-Qaeda's role for few years until the Islamic State showed signs weakening from fallaing recruiting and desertitions. While al Nusra, the al Qaeda Syrian affiliate, is focused on overthrowing the Alewhite regime allied with Iran, al Qaeda and Iran have continued operational cooperation in Yemen and elsewhere.[15] Al Qaeda is active in unstable countries, notably Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and the Russian federal Republic of Chechnya, and has been especially difficult to pin down for a variety of reasons, among which are its intentionally limited use of technology and its highly decentralized, cellular structure (in fact, it is as much an idea as an organization).

On 31 July, 2022, Ayman al-Zawahiri was looking up into the sky on his balcony until a US missile killed him.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. Wikipedia estimates 5000+ in both Somalia and Syria with another 2000 worldwide, so it may claim a fighting force of approximately 12,000+ globally. But it would not be unfair to say 200 actually know who and what they are fighting for.
  2. Islamism is basically a Resistance movement to Westernization.


  1. BBC News — An American face of Islam
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Bin Laden comes home to roost: His CIA ties are only the beginning of a woeful story". MSNBC. August 24, 1998. [1]
  3. Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Organizational, Strategic, and Ideological Fissures, Assaf Moghadam & Brian Fishman, Taylor & Francis, May 10, 2011, p.49.
  4. The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, Fawaz A. Gerges, Cambridge University Press, Apr 13, 2009, p. 190 pdf.
  5. "The Foundation of the New Terrorism," 9-11 Commission Report, pp. 60-61.
  6. Early leader of al-Qaeda turned British spy
  7. The Master Plan, For the new theorists of jihad, Al Qaeda is just the beginning, Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, 9/11/2006, Vol. 82, Issue 28, p. 3-4.
  8. in "vexation and exhaustion operations"; see The Management of Savagery, 2004, p. 36-50 pdf, et seq.
  9. Democracy: A Religion!, Abu Musab al-Maqdisi, Al Furqan Islamic Information Centre, 2012, About the Author, p.11 pdf.
  10. Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad – Major Jihadi Website Inciting Attacks on the U.S. – Hosted in NJ, MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3960, July 1, 2011. "Following the 9/11 attacks, [Maqdisi] issued an unprompted fatwa approving their religious legality."
  11. "Al-Qaeda Commander: Islam Doesn't Distinguish Between American People, American Gov't – Both Are Infidels and At War with Islam." The Middle East Media Research Institute. July 24, 2008. [2]
  12. Al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid took credit. It is believed that the decision to kill Bhutto was made by Ayman al-Zawahiri in October 2007.
  13. Surging South of Baghdad, Dale Andrade, page 261, 2010