In the decade between 1989 and 1999, Al Qaeda, which was founded in 1988, emerged as an international jihadist organization with a truly global terrorist network operating in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. From its base in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda became a dynamic global entity with significant capabilities in evaluating, approving and supervising operations, as well as recruiting, indoctrinating and training jihadists.
Following the 9/11 attacks, which killed around 3,000 people in New York and Washington, the US and its allies launched a war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 breathed new life into Al Qaeda’s aspirations. Later, as Daesh dominated the jihadist landscape and global world news headlines, Al Qaeda continued to quietly strengthen its networks and build-up its presence. The policy of strategic patience, carefully shaped by Ayman Al Zawahiri, solidified the group’s presence in many unstable areas in the Muslim world. Seven years after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, Al Qaeda re-emerged as the biggest winner among extremists groups, and resumed its role as the vanguard of global jihad.
Al Qaeda is a transnational Salafi-jihadist extremist organization founded in 1988 in Afghanistan by Osama Bin Laden along with other foreign fighters, mainly Arabs who had come to the country to fight against the Soviet Union. The group seeks to use force against “apostate” Muslim governments and their Western allies, particularly the United States.
In the past two decades, Al Qaeda has carried out dozens of large-scale and complex attacks across the globe against the US and its allies, including the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 suicide operation against the the USS Cole in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks, the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and 2005 London attacks.
Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi businessman, joined the Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion and occupation in 1980. Soon, he became a key member of the Mujahideen movement that was fighting to oust the Soviets from the country, and created an organization called Mektab Al Khidma (Bureau of Services) in Peshawar, Pakistan, along with Abdullah Azzam, a prominent Palestinian preacher widely seen as the father of the modern jihadist movement.
The Bureau played a crucial role in establishing guest houses and training camps for Arab volunteers willing to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After nine years of a costly and bloody invasion in which it came up against stiff Afghan resistance, the USSR decided to gradually withdraw its forces from the country. The decisive victory against the Soviets made Bin Laden and Azzam aspire to transform the Afghanistan-based network they had carefully built for years into a transnational jihadist organization. Together, they established Al Qaeda, to bring together the experienced mujahideen under one organization with the aim of waging a Salafi-jihadist war against the West and its allies in the Muslim world and elsewhere.
Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Bin Laden shifted his focus to building up the international financial, administrative and military network of Al Qaeda. Two significant events convinced Bin Laden that he needed a transnational Islamist army: Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the US military presence in the Gulf it brought about. Al Qaeda’s ultimate goals were to forge alliances, look for new safe havens for its members, expand the geographical area of operations and secure new financial revenues.
In the decade between 1989 and 1999, the group emerged as an international jihadist organization with a truly global terrorist network operating in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. From its base in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda became a dynamic global entity with significant capabilities in evaluating, approving and supervising operations, as well as recruiting, indoctrinating and training jihadists.
In February 1998, Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and the leaders of three other extremist groups issued a fatwa, a legal Islamic decree, calling for jihad against the United States. The statement claimed the US had made a “clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims” through its “occupation” of Islam’s holy places and “aggression” against Muslims. Furthermore, the statement urged every Muslim to target American civilians and military personnel and their allies around the globe.
According to the fatwa, waging jihad was necessary to resist “the crusaders”. It declared the establishment of the ‘World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders’ – an alliance between Al Qaeda and Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and Pakistan’s Jamaat Al Ulema.
A few months after the fatwa, Al Qaeda carried out near-simultaneous truck bomb attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks killed 244 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded around 5,000. Many Muslims were among the dead and injured. The high-profile targets, complexity of the operation and the large number of casualties brought Al Qaeda to the world’s attention and established the group as a significant threat to the US, and its Western and Muslim allies.
Despite US diplomatic and military efforts to contain the growing threat posed by Al Qaeda, the group, by early 1999, was increasing its efforts to plan and execute attacks against targets on American soil. A plan called ‘planes operation’, hatched by key Al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was accepted by Bin Laden. Al Qaeda’s leadership concluded that the plan met most of the group’s objectives, such as inflicting a significant blow against the US, and showing the world, especially the group’s sympathizers and followers, that Al Qaeda was capable of executing the deadliest terrorist attack in history against the most powerful nation on earth.
Following the 9/11 attacks, which killed around 3,000 people in New York and Washington, the US and its allies launched a war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban backers in Afghanistan. The US-led invasion toppled the Taliban government and significantly degraded Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
In addition to losing its safe heavens in Afghanistan, the unprecedented global cooperation to identify, track and dismantle terrorist cells made it more difficult for Al Qaeda members and sympathizers to conduct large scale attacks. Furthermore, a significant number of Islamists around the world started to seriously question the wisdom of Bin Laden’s war on America, which had ultimately led to the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, widely seen by extremists then as the only ‘authentic’ Islamic government in the world.
Nevertheless, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 breathed new life into Al Qaeda. Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders successfully portrayed the fall of Baghdad, a glorious imperial and historical city in the minds of millions of Muslims, as a ‘crusader aggression’ aimed at destroying a land cherished by the Islamic ummah, the global community of believers.
The political and military turmoil that followed the invasion, and the growing tensions between Shiites and Sunnis, meant that Iraq became the new hotbed of Al Qaeda activities. Thousands of foreign fighters joined Al Qaeda to fight American and allied Western troops in the country, and also the nascent Iraqi security forces.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda was able to stretch the center of gravity of transnational terrorism to Europe, the Levant, the Gulf, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. At a time when Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who pledged loyalty to Al Qaeda, was waging a bloody and vicious sectarian war in Iraq, the group’s followers in Europe managed to conduct large scale and dramatic attacks in Spain on March 11, 2004 and in the UK on July 7, 2005, which left more than 250 people dead.
The London attack was possibly the last operation planned and coordinated by the core leadership of Al Qaeda. In fact, for the period between 2006 and 2011, after setbacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, Al Qaeda mutated into a global network composed of local or regional groups enjoying different levels of autonomy. Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri continued to provide theological guidance and strategic advice from their hideouts in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They also supervised the group’s operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and supported the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, some of the organization’s affiliates operating across the Middle East and North Africa, the Sahel, and Southeast Asia, became the new power centers for Al Qaeda.
The decision by the Obama administration to significantly increase drone strikes against the senior leadership of Al Qaeda seriously weakened the core along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. However, the killing of Bin Laden by American commandos in May 2011 in a residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, dealt a major strategic blow to the group. Not only did Al Qaeda lose its founder and leader but also its most charismatic speaker and thinker. Bin Laden’s right-hand man Al Zawahiri, who once led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, became the new Emir of Al Qaeda. Despite his lack of charisma, Zawarahi managed to uphold the group’s spirit and provide strategic directives to affiliates around the world.
The uprisings that broke out in some Arab countries in 2011 caught the Al Qaeda leadership by surprise. But, as some of these revolts degenerated into civil wars, Al Qaeda sensed an opportunity: It felt it could use the growing instability to further its ideological interests. Al Qaeda sought to gain influence and expand its networks in vulnerable communities amid the breakdown of security and political institutions. While doing so, Al Qaeda made some significant shifts in its strategy.
While continuing to emphasize its global reach, Zawahiri advised Al Qaeda members to focus on building a solid presence in one particular place. This localization strategy was aimed at expanding the Salafi-jihadist base of the group, hijacking and redirecting uprisings, and mobilizing local populations against governments.
As the war escalated between the Syrian government and opposition forces, Al Qaeda began to see Syria as the new strategic base for the jihad against the ‘near’ enemy, the ‘un-Islamic’ (secular) and/or pro-Western Muslim governments. In January 2012, Al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra, emerged on the scene. However, a few years later, Al Qaeda found itself in competition with a fast-rising and even more extreme terrorist group – Daesh.
The dramatic emergence of Daesh posed a serious threat to Al Qaeda, in terms of its ability to attract fighters and its propaganda. Daesh’s sophisticated online promotion, extreme violence, and its severe version of Salafi jihadism, drew thousands of jihadists who flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the group. Most importantly, a number of terrorist affiliates defected from Al Qaeda and pledged loyalty to Daesh. However, Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Syria, the Maghreb, the Sahel, and Yemen and their top commanders, remained loyal to Zawahiri. The group’s leadership rightly concluded that Daesh’s approach of taking over entire cities and waging a global war against everyone would only achieve short-term victories and ultimately fail.
While Daesh dominated the jihadist landscape and global headlines, Al Qaeda continued to quietly strengthen its networks and build-up its presence. The strategy of strategic patience, carefully shaped by Zawahiri, solidified the group’s presence in most of the unstable spots in the Muslim world. Seven years after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, Al Qaeda re-emerged as the biggest winner among extremist groups, and resumed its role as the vanguard of global jihad. Meanwhile, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the St Petersburg bombing in 2017 proved the group was still capable of carrying out significant attacks in the West and in Russia.
Although its affiliates continued to gain strength, especially in the African continent, Al Qaeda has seen a number of its top commanders getting killed in recent years. In 2019, the French military operating in the Sahel region eliminated Ali Maychou, a senior leader in Jamaat Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). In another blow to one of the most powerful affiliates of Al Qaeda, Abdel Malek Droukdel, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed in a French army operation in northern Mali. In the same year, Abu Mohamed Al Masri, a founding member of Al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, was reportedly killed in Iran by agents of Israel’s Mossad acting at the behest of the Americans.
Eleven years after Bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 31, 2022. Despite Al Qaeda being the most targeted terrorist organization in the world, the killing of Zawahiri will open the door to only the third transition in the group’s leadership. Despite his lack of charisma and old-fashioned video sermons, Zawahiri had successfully maintained the cohesion of the organization and managed to reposition Al Qaeda as the most prominent jihadist organization, despite the pressure from Daesh and the defection of a strong affialite, the Syria-based Jabhat Al Nusra, in 2016.
Al Qaeda today could be defined as a global network of regional affiliates. With the death of Zawahiri, what remains of the central planning in the core leadership of the group is likely to transition to its regional branches. Zawahiri believed the affiliates were not only important in weakening ‘apostate’ governments but were also critical to convincing Muslim communities to support the group’s core mission of fighting the West. Since the Arab uprisings, the affiliates were encouraged to support local causes within vulnerable communities to build the trust and legitimacy necessary for Al Qaeda’s long-term project.
Today, the main affiliates of the group are:
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
AQIM first emerged in Algeria as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 1998. It was one of the largest and most active terrorist groups in Algeria in the 1990s. On January 11, 2007, the GSPC became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Due to counter-terrorism pressure inside Algeria, the group moved the base of its operations to the Sahel, starting from 2008. In the Sahel’s vast, poorly-governed areas, the group successfully exploited political and socio economic grievances, and also gained support from rebel and criminal groups.
The 2011 uprisings in North Africa helped the extremist group gain more space to operate, and more importantly, to get its hands on the large number of weapons moving between Libya and northern Mali, following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli. AQIM also took advantage, through cooperation with local Tuareg groups, of the chaos that ensued from a coup d’etat in Mali in 2012 to control a number of towns in the north of the country, where it enforced its extremist interpretation of Islamic law.
Nevertheless, a number of groups started to emerge within AQIM along tribal and personal lines. The most important of these semi-autonomous groups was Al Mourabitoun, founded in 2013, by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian terrorist, and Ansar Al Din, formed in 2012 by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Tuareg militant leader.
A French-led operation in 2013 in Mali significantly reduced AQIM’s capabilities in the Sahel. In addition to recapturing all the cities in northern Mali from AQIM, French troops killed AQIM’s leader in the Sahel, Abu Zaid, in 2013. Other leaders of the group fled to desert areas in south-western parts of Libya.
Nevertheless, as the French mission transitioned from an operation to reestablish the Malian government’s authority in the north to a regional counter-terrorism effort, AQIM’s operations surged, mainly targeting UN peacekeepers and the Malian army. The group’s threat also evolved in 2015, leading to several high-profile attacks in large urban centers, such as the mass shooting at Mali’s Radisson Blu hotel in November 2015, and other assaults in northern Burkina Faso, Niger and Ivory Coast. In March 2017, the JNIM was created. The new terrorist entity was meant to act as a coalition between AQIM-aligned groups to drive foreign forces (especially French and UN troops) out of Mali, and establish an Islamic state in the northern parts of the country. The organization, under the leadership of Ghaly, comprised Al Mourabitoun, Ansar Al Din, Katiba Macina and AQIM.
Attacks linked to JNIM and AQIM increased significantly between 2017 and 2020. The jihadist war displaced millions and left about 8,000 people dead. JNIM’s attacks spread to northern, central and eastern Burkina Faso. In June 2020, with the support of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), a French-led operation killed Droukdel, the leader of AQIM, near the Algerian border with Mali. Droukdel was the mastermind behind the expansion of AQIM in the Sahel, and the group’s leader since it was created in 2007. Five months after his death, AQIM appointed Abu Ubayda Yousuf Al Annabi, an Algerian veteran terrorist, as its new Emir.
Harakat Al Shabaab Al Mujahidin
Harakat Al Shabaab Al Mujahidin – commonly known as Al Shabaab or ‘the Youth’ in Arabic – is one of the largest and deadliest Al Qaeda affiliates in the world. The group emerged as an offshoot of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union. The ICU was a coalition of Islamic jurists that evolved from a judicial organization to a political system governing territory in Somalia as a response to the turmoil that followed the ouster of President Siad Barre in 1991. The ICU ruled Somalia for six months in 2006 after driving out the last warlords.
Al Shabbab was formally established in 2006 but became a prominent militant group following the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, which led to the ouster of the ICU from Mogadishu in the same year. The Ethiopian military operation, which came at the request of Somalia’s transitional government, boosted Al Shabaab’s capacity to recruit, expand and gain control over vast areas in central and southern Somalia. In 2012, Al Shabaab pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. Since this declaration, the Somali group has acted as Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in East Africa. In 2014, Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Al Shabaab since 2008, was killed in an American airstrike. Under Godane’s leadership, Al Shabaab had carried out attacks outside Somalia, including the bombing in the Ugandan capital Kampala in 2010, the attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, and the 2014 suicide attack at a restaurant in Djibouti.
As of 2022, and despite years of multilateral efforts to weaken the group, Al Shabaab maintains the capability to wage a prolonged insurgency against the government in Mogadishu, and the African Mission forces in Somalia. Today, the group enjoys a solid presence in the south, where it collects taxes, exercises political and judicial power, and even controls some major supply routes.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the organization’s affiliate in Yemen. The group was founded in 2009 and remains one of the most lethal branches of Al Qaeda in the region. The origins of AQAP in Yemen date back to the 1980s when hundreds of Yemeni and Arab jihadists who had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan returned. A number of these battle-hardened militants formed the first cells of Al Qaeda in Yemen. A few years later, attacks by the nascent Al Qaeda in Yemen against the US started to proliferate, such as the unsuccessful assault against US marines in Aden in 1992. In 2000, Al Qaeda in Yemen attacked the destroyer USS Cole stationed at the port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. Following the USS Cole and 9/11 attacks, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the then president of Yemen, started an aggressive counter-terrorism campaign again the group. However, the dramatic escape in 2006 of 23 Al Qaeda leaders from a prison in Sanaa helped revive the group’s terror campaign. In addition to the prison break, dozens of Saudi jihadists fled to Yemen, to escape Riyadh’s mounting counter-terrorism pressure.
Both trends resulted in the creation of AQAP in 2009 and the merger of Al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise with the Saudi one. In a video marking the announcement, Nasir Al Wuhayshi, the late leader of the group, promised his followers the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate and the implementation of Sharia law. Wuhayshi was killed in an American drone attack in June 2015.
Since its inception, AQAP has emerged as an important support base for Al Qaeda’s global network. Al Qaeda’s new members are able to train and gain the necessary capabilities not only to fight local actors in Yemen but also to plan and carry out sophisticated attacks against the West. This crucial role in global jihadism was reflected in the group’s attacks against Western and other international targets, including civilians and military personnel. In 2009, AQAP carried out a suicide bombing in Yemen against South Korean tourists, and in 2015, it was behind the deadly Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Another major AQAP plot was the failed attempt to bomb a US airliner, which came to be known as the ‘underwear bomber’ operation. Meanwhile, in 2014 alone, the group conducted around 150 attacks inside Yemen against local government, civilians and the Houthis.
Today, although seriously weakened by counter-terrorism pressure, AQAP remains a persistent threat to the Gulf countries and the US. Under its current leader, Khaled Batarfi, the group still has the capability to regenerate and carry out significant terror attacks.
Since its inception, Al Qaeda’s main ideology remained consistent while the goals and strategy of its core leaders and affiliates evolved in accordance with the group’s conditions, capabilities and geographical presence at a given time. The group’s ultimate objective is to end Western influence in the Muslim world, build a caliphate to unify the Islamic Ummah under one Islamic rule in accordance with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Ideologically, most of the intellectual foundations of Osama Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Ayman Al Zawahiri came from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political and religious thought. Founded by Hassan Al Banna in early 20th century, the Muslim Brotherhood is a religious political movement that rejects Western culture, modernity, and political thought. Instead, it champions the restoration of the Islamic caliphate as the ideal political system for Muslims. The Salafi jihadist movement, including Al Qaeda, venerated Sayyid Qutb, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood radical thinker, who is considered the first theorist of the jihadist school of thought.
Qutb’s writings denounced Western values, ideologies and secularism. But his most significant work was the reconceptualization of two classical Islamic ideas: Jahiliyyah (widely defined as the pre-Islamic period of ignorance in Arabia) and Hakimiyyah (God’s sovereignty). Qutb concluded that any Muslim society that is not governed by Allah’s rule, in other words strict Islamic law, is living in a state of Jahiliyaah. Under secular governance, even if Muslims have faith, they live in a state of kufr (unbelief). He, therefore, considered Muslim governments un-Islamic as they, in his opinion, substitute divinely inspired laws with Western legislation.
As a result, Qutb believed that Islam couldn’t exist under such a Western-inspired political and social order. The solution to end Jahiliyya, in Qutb’s reasoning, was to wage jihad against those who prevent its genuine application. Qutb was executed in Egypt in 1966. Al Qaeda’s view of the necessity to wage violent jihad against Western powers and governments in the region is in line with Qutb’s ideology.
The second source of Islamist thought that contributes to Al Qaeda’s ideology is Salafi jihadism, a distinct ideological movement within political Islam. Its theoretical framework is built on an extremist interpretation of Islam’s foundational texts. Salafism emphasizes the necessity of returning to a “pure” Islam of the Salaf, the pious early Muslims. The doctrinal origin of Salafism goes back to Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), a medieval scholar who is widely quoted by Al Qaeda’s jihadists.
Ibn Taymiyya had a great influence on jihadist ideology, and its main thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, the Pakistani religious scholar Abu Ala Maudidi and Abdullah Azzam. Ibn Taymiyya, driven by the threat posed by Mongols’ conquests in the Muslim world, believed that jihad was one of the most important obligations in Islam. However, Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings were profoundly linked to the volatile geopolitical and religious context he personally experienced and studied. Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have consistently attempted to distort and misquote medieval Islamic thinkers’ teachings to authenticate and justify their acts of terrorism and violence.
Al Qaeda uses a theological framework heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism to justify its war to topple existing governments in Muslim countries and replace it with a caliphate. However, Al Qaeda’s intent is to target the US and its allies (the far enemy, Al Adou Al Baeed) who support the ‘apostate’ governments in the region militarily and politically. By attacking US interests, Bin Laden and Zawahiri aimed to push Washington to end its presence in the region and, most importantly, its support for governments in Muslim countries. Al Qaeda strongly believes that without Western support, governments in the region would fall under a mass, violent mobilization of Islamists.
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