Terrorism Profiles

Al Qaida (Core)

Alternative Names:

Al Jihad (AJ), Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), Vanguards of Conquest (VOC), The Islamic Army, Islamic Salvation Foundation, The Base, Group for the Preservation of the Holy Sites, Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places, World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, Osama Bin Ladin Network, Osama Bin Ladin Organization and Qa’idat al-Jihad

Location:

Al Qaida core does not have a single headquarters: from 1991-1996 it operated out of Pakistan along the Afghan border. However, during the Taliban regime this was moved to Afghanistan. Logically, once the US-led war in Afghanistan began, Al Qaida once again began to operate out of Pakistan. That being said, it has been documented that Al-Qaida has about 100 underground autonomous cells in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Albania, and Uganda.

Leadership:

Founded by Osama bin Laden in the 1980’s.

Membership:

According to a 1998 U.S. federal indictment, a council that discusses and approves major undertakings governs Al Qaida. The founder, Osama Bin Laden was the leader until U.S. Special Forces killed him on May 1, 2011. A month after his death, Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed the leadership position.  During the War on Terror, several senior leaders in the network have been killed or detained. It is impossible to estimate the number of members in Al Qaida as it is highly decentralized. Estimates range from several hundred to several thousand members.

Funding Sources:  

There are four main ways Al Qaida raises money; however, there are many more informal methods that have been developed post 9/11.

(a)   hawala networks

(b)   commercial companies

(c)   charitable organizations

(d)   fundraisers

Origins:

Al Qaida was founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden and it serves as the strategic hub and driver for the global Islamist terrorist movement. Al Qaida has created relationships with other like-minded Islamist terrorist groups and provides encouragement, inspiration, and funding to these groups. Al Qaida is most well known for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The organization began from a clearinghouse for the international Muslim brigade in opposition to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The services office recruited, trained, and financed thousands of foreign mujahedeen from more than fifty countries. Bin Laden wanted these fighters to continue the “holy war” beyond Afghanistan; therefore, he formed Al Qaida around 1988. With bin Laden’s death in May, 2011 Al Qaida suffered a significant blow but its networks around the world remain strong. Al Qaida’s affiliates have grown in strength and size over the years. Al-Qaida, which was once described as a defined and hierarchical group, is seen to have metastasized into a multinational movement and franchise operating in at least 16 countries. 

Timeline of Events:

  • August 1988: Osama bin Laden and some of his top associates meet in a suburb of Peshawar, Pakistan. With Soviet forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, the idea of global jihad seems possible, and Al Qaida, literally “the Base”, is born.
  • 1991 – 1998: Bin Laden moves his base of operations to Sudan, where he forges links with militants across the Middle East and North Africa who play a role in numerous terrorist attacks. In February 1998, after being expelled from Sudan and returning to Afghanistan, he issues a fatwa against the US. Later that year, he orders the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which kill 224 people.
  • October 7, 2001: The War on Terror begins after the Taliban regime fails to produce Bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks. The bulk of Al Qaida has been driven into Pakistan, where the organization reconstitutes itself and proceeds to play a role in bombings from Bali in 2002 to Madrid in 2004 to London in 2005.
  • May 12, 2003: Al Qaida launches a sustained insurgency against Saudi Arabia, carrying out a series of bombings in Riyadh. In November, the indigenous wing of bin Laden’s organization becomes the first to take on the “Al Qaida” formulation, dubbing itself Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
  • October 17, 2004: al-Zarqawi pledges allegiance to bin Laden and founds al Qaida in Iraq (AQI). Around this time, the CIA begins using the terms AQCore for Al Qaida Core, to distinguish between bin Laden’s Pakistan-based group affiliates.  
  • July 2005: Bin Laden’s deputy, al-Zawahiri, chastises Zarqawi for his extreme tactics, warning that AQI’s brutal beheading videos could alienate potential supporters. Terrorism analysts see this as evidence that Al Qaida core is not in control of its affiliates.
  • February 3, 2006 – 23 Al Qaida suspects escape from a Yemeni prison. Widely considered the moment of conception for a “new” Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • September 11, 2006 – Zawahiri announces the union of Al Qaida and the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Four month later, GSPC rebrands itself Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and carries out a series of deadly attacks in Algeria. 
  • July-October 2010 – Bin Laden asks a senior Al Qaida associate in Pakistan to draft a memorandum requiring regional Al Qaida affiliates to consult with “Al Qaida central” before carrying out operations.
  • May 2, 2011 – US Navy SEALs storm a nondescript compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and kill bin Laden. Zawahiri is tapped to succeed him, but the death of its longtime leader is seen as a near-knockout blow for Al Qaida core.
  • February 2012 – Al Qaida merges with Somali group al-Shabab. The following year, al-Shabab kills 61 civilians in Nairobi’s Westgate mall.
  • September 2012 – Zawahiri calls on his followers to exploit the violence in Syria, where rebels are battling Bashar al-assad’s regime. Seven months later, Al Qaida in Iraq changes its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to emphasize its growing involvement in the Syrian conflict. 
  • June 15, 2013 – ISIS becomes the first Al Qaida affiliate to go rogue, defying an order from Zawahiri to quit fighting in Syria and return to Iraq. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declares in, February 2014, that Al Qaida’s central command washes its hands of ISIS.

Ideological Roots:

Al Qaida holds Sunni Muslim Fundamentalist views. Al Qaida gains power from this ideology by associating itself with other organizations who hold the same ideology. A partial list of terrorist organizations who share Al Qaida’s Sunni Muslim Fundamentalist views are:

  • Egyptian Islamic Jihad
  • The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
  • Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula
  • Al Qaida in Iraq
  • Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad (Kashmir)
  • Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
  • Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Algeria) (formerly Salafist Group for Call and Combat)
  • Armed Islamic Group (Algeria)
  • Abu Sayyaf Group (Malaysia, Philippines)
  • Jemaah Islamiya (Southeast Asia)

Objectives:

After the 9/11 attacks, the objectives of Al Qaida have been defined by, and propelled by, the United States. Consistently the US government (including both the Bush and Obama administrations) state that Al Qaida’s political goal is carrying out terrorist attacks on the US and their allies while leaving affiliates to focus on local agendas. However, a recent excerpt from a declassified part of a National Intelligence Estimate released in April 2006 asserts that there is a discrepancy between intelligence and the positions of the Bush and Obama administrations. The NIE reports states that Al Qaida’s political goal is an “ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world.” Other terrorism analysts argue that the group’s goals include uniting Muslims to fight the United States and other Western powers deemed “non-Islamic” and to expel Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries.  

Tactics:

Al Qaida is known for suicide attacks, bombings, plane hijackings, and explosions. Note below a partial list of Al Qaida-linked attacks:

  • The August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
  • The October 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing.
  • The September 11, 2001, hijacking attacks on four U.S. airplanes, two of which crashed into the World Trade Center, and a third which crashed into the Pentagon.
  • The November 2002 car bomb attack and a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli jetliner with shoulder-fired missiles, both in Mombasa, Kenya.
  • The October 2002 attack on a French tanker off the coast of Yemen.
  • Several spring 2002 bombings in Pakistan.
  • The April 2002 explosion of a fuel tanker outside a synagogue in Tunisia.
  • The May 2003 car bomb attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  • The March 2004 bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains, which killed nearly 200 people and left more than 1,800 injured.
  • The July 2005 bombings of the London public transportation system.
  • The February 2006 attack on the Abqaiq petroleum processing facility, the largest such facility in the world, in Saudi Arabia.
  • An October 2007 suicide bombing that narrowly missed killing former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Two months later, another bomber succeeds in killing the former prime minister; Pakistani officials blame Baitullah Mahsud, a top Pakistani Taliban commander with close ties to Al Qaida.
  • The attempted December 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.

 Updated on November 13, 2015

References


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