Al Qaeda

FormedAugust 11, 1988
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackDecember 29, 1992: Two bombs were detonated at hotels in Yemen where U.S. soldiers were reportedly staying while on their way to service in Somalia. A bomb at the Gold Mahur hotel detonated without casualties, while a second bomb at the Aden Movenpick hotel detonated prematurely, killing 2 Australian civilians. (2 killed). [1]
Last AttackJuly 23, 2012: Multiple bomb and gun attacks targeting Shi'ite Muslims throughout the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) killed more than 115 people and wounded more than 300 others. The attack was claimed by Al Qaeda, marking the deadliest day since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011. (115+ killed, 300+ wounded) [2]
UpdatedNovember 28, 2012

Narrative Summary

Al Qaeda (AQ) is one of the longest-operating jihadist militant organizations in the Middle East and Asia, with followers and support around the world. Founded by Osama bin Laden on August 11, 1988 after nearly a decade of training and organization against Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has carried out some of the most violent and brutal attacks in the last 25 years.[3] AQ was founded around the individual ideologies of bin Laden, with minimal foreign influence permeating his command of the organization as it has grown into a global entity seeking to rid the Muslim world of foreign influence and establish a Shariah-based Islamic government. Hundreds of splinter groups have stemmed from the global jihad and violence Al Qaeda has waged over the decades, yet the core of AQ remains largely unrestrained by the influence of foreign governments or militant organizations.

AQ was initially comprised of Afghan mujahedeen fighting against Soviet influence in Afghanistan from the late 1970s through the 1980s. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had an integral role in shuttling arms and financial support through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency to the mujahedeen throughout the end of the Cold War in order to continue opposition to Communism.[4] During the late 1980s, conservative estimates valued U.S. support to the organization of bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mujahedeen leader with whom bin Laden was close, at more than $500-600 million USD. [5] Following Soviet withdrawal, bin Laden focused his efforts on increasing financial support for the mujahedeen and their affiliated groups, traveling to the Gulf on behalf of Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood multiple times.

AQ has carried out thousands of attacks around the globe since 1988, most notably the hijackings and bombings of the USS Cole (2000), World Trade Center in New York City (2001), Istanbul bombings (2003), the London Train bombings (2005), and numerous attacks on embassies in both Afghanistan and abroad. AQ has extensive reach throughout countries around the world, having forged strong relationships with terror groups in Africa (al-Shabaab, AQIM) and Southeast Asia (Abu-Sayyaf, Jemmah Islamiyah).


Ideology & Goals

Al Qaeda seeks to rid the Muslim world of Western influence, and seeks the installation of an Islamic caliphate that imposes strict Sunni interpretation of Shariah law. [6] In order to achieve these goals, the organization wages an extensive global jihad, carrying out attacks against any Western or foreign target that AQ considers opposition to their cause. [7] AQ is opposed to all non-Sunni interpretations of Islam, and justifies violence against Muslim civilians, women, and children on the principle that their interpretation of Islam is not the proper one, and that condemning civilians to death is a necessary aspect of their global jihad.[8] 

Name Changes

The name "Al Qaeda" comes from the name for one of the mujahedeen training camps established during the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. According to bin Laden in a tape interview with Al Jazeera in October 2001, the name was thought up by Abu Ebeida El-Banashiri in reference to one of these camps, and means "the foundation" or the "base".[9]

Size Estimates

The size estimates for core Al Qaeda members are relatively low. The organization, however, has an extremely tight-knit core leadership group, and mostly utilizes operatives from allied military groups such as Abu Sayyaf, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Islam, and AQ affiliate groups, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This drastically increases the scope and capability of the organization. Estimates of core membership are generally less than 1,000, though second tier membership lies in the thousands to tens of thousands and outer shell support could be up to 100,000.[10]



The original financing for Al Qaeda during its fight against the Soviet Union came from Osama bin Laden's personal wealth. As Al Qaeda and its operations grew, extensive drug trade, particularly in heroin, became a central part of its operational funding. As Afghanistan has 93% of the world's poppy/heroin, the profits have frequently been directed toward bin Laden's organization through proxy groups and smuggling organizations. Financial support has also come from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), as well as from donations by wealthy supporters in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic countries.[14] The Taliban, both while the official government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001) and as an insurgent group, provided safe haven for Al Qaeda leaders and militants alike.

Militarily, in addition to their own fighters and core leadership, Al Qaeda draws on forces of dozens of militant organizations. Most notable among these are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekhistan (IMU), Hezbollah (Lebanon), the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.[15] As Al Qaeda suffers setbacks in personal and capability, the organization has become increasingly more reliant on the support and operatives of these allied groups.

External Influences

The external influences upon Al Qaeda are minimal, as the organization is guided by the individual beliefs of its leaders. Osama bin Laden's ideological foundations and goals for the group governed much of its activity and sentiment throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, until his death on May 2, 2011.[16] Current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who formerly commanded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, became close to bin Laden in the 1990s and 2000s, sharing his sentiment of hatred for the West and a desire to install a Shariah-based Islamic government in the Muslim world. Initial influences upon the organization, solely due to the location of its emergence, are suspected to have come from the group's foundations in Syria and Afghanistan.

Geographical Locations

Al Qaeda has suspected cells in more than 100 different countries. Notably, cells have been broken up in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Uganda, Somalia, Pakistan, Albania, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere. The core organization and leadership of AQ, however, is based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Particularly strong allied and/or affiliated groups can be found in Uzbekistan, Somalia, Mali, Egypt, Iraq, the Philippines, and Yemen.

Targets & Tactics

Al Qaeda uses a wide variety of tactics to achieve their goals. They employ suicide bombings, IEDs, rocket & small arms attacks, grenades, kidnapping & hostage-taking, ransoms, hijackings, and propaganda to further these goals against a number of different countries, both in the Middle East and around the globe. The targets of Al Qaeda are largely foreign forces or civilians who are seen as a threat to the Muslim world, or to the creation of a Shariah-based Islamic rule in Muslim regions. Most commonly, these are Coalition troops, Western civilians, and political figures who oppose Al Qaeda's operations.

Al Qaeda approaches many attacks with long-term effects in mind. In the September 11, 2001 attacks, evidence was recovered that the goal was not only to cause death and destruction to the United States and its people, or to provoke the West, but also to devastate the domestic and international economies.[17] The attacks were intended to collectively do more than $1 trillion in damage to New York City and the global economy.

Political Activities

Core Al Qaeda has never engaged in the political process on any level. Bin Laden personally advocated that followers focus on education and persuading others to join their cause, rather than political engagement with Islamic political parties.[18] Though advocating through several fatwahs that Muslims should engage in a jihad against foreign influence, particularly against the West, bin Laden neglected to engage with or utilize the political system to achieve his goals. The extent of AQ's political affiliation was during the Taliban's rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, when provision of a safe haven and extensive work between the Taliban and Al Qaeda suggests that Al Qaeda sought to use extended influence on the Taliban as a political arm for their movement. As the two groups began to grow apart, and openly opposed on another in the 2000s, this became less feasible for bin Laden's organization.

Major Attacks

  1. February 26, 1993: Ramzi Yousef detonated a car bomb parked beneath the World Trade Center in New York City. Evidence later arose that bin Laden had aided in the planning of the attack through Yousef's uncle, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad and the "Blind Sheikh", Omar Abdel-Rahman, the supposed leader of AGI. (6 killed, 1,042 wounded).[19]
  2. August 7, 1998: Two truck bombs detonated outside the U.S. embassies in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. The significant majority of casualties occured in Nairobi. The bombings took place on the 8th anniversary of U.S. troops' presence in Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. (223 killed, 4,000+ wounded).[20]
  3. October 12, 2000: A suicide bomber drove a small watercraft towards the side of the hull of the U.S.S. Cole naval ship, detonating a large bomb stored on the watercraft upon impact. (17 killed, 39 injured).[21]
  4. September 11, 2001: In the most destructive attack ever attribute to Al Qaeda, operatives hijacked four jetliners and piloted two into the World Trade Center towers and into the Pentagon building. The third plane crashed in Pennsylvania, probably on route to an additional target. It was the largest attack ever carried out on U.S. soil or against U.S. citizens. Following the attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan to find and prosecute those responsible for the attacks, causing bin Laden and his organization to flee for remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (2,996 killed, 6,000+ wounded).[22]
  5. November 15, 2003: Carried out over two days (11/15 and 11/20, 2003), four truck bombs ran into 2 Jewish synagogues, a bank, and the British Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The bombing at the British Consulate may have been coordinated with U.S. President Bush's meeting with Tony Blair, which occurred the day of the second bombing (11/20/2003). (67 killed, 700+ wounded).[23]
  6. May 29, 2004: 17 terrorists, members of the self-proclaimed "Jerusalem Squadron", attacked two oil industry buildings in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. The militants took 41 hostages, reportedly questioning and releasing only Muslim hostages prior to their standoff with police. Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, the leader of AQAP from 2003-2004, claimed responsibility for the attacks in an audio tape. (22 killed, 25 injured).[24]
  7. July 7, 2005: Four al Qaeda terrorists detonated 3 bombs on the London Underground and one on a double-decker bus during morning rush hour in London. (56 killed, 770+ injured).[25]
  8. November 23, 2006: Al Qaeda detonated a series of car bombs and carried out mortar attacks in Sadr City, Iraq. It was the deadliest sectarian attack since the beginning of the War in Iraq in 2003. (215+ killed, 257 injured).[26]
  9. June 2, 2008: A suicide car bomber detonated outside the Danish embassy in Pakistan. The attack is largely assumed to be a response for several Danish newspapers' publication of a cartoon depicting Mohammad the Prophet in 2005. (6 killed, 24 injured).[27]
  10. December 30, 2009: A suicide bomber detonated inside Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. The base was a stronghold of the CIA, specifically for the operation of drone strikes in Pakistan. The militant responsible was a "double-agent", having been an informant of the CIA and Jordanian intelligence prior to the attack. Though not directly carried out by an Al Qaeda operative, the attack was praised and likely supported by the organization. (10 killed, 6 injured).[28]
  11. July 23, 2012: Multiple bomb and gun attacks were carried out by al Qaeda militants, targeting Shi'ite Muslims throughout the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The attacks marked the deadliest day since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December. (116 killed, 300+ wounded).[29]

Relationships with Other Groups

Al Qaeda is the most complex and intertwined militant organization in the world. With cells in more than 100 countries and dozens of allied or affiliated groups, its reach is extensive and efficient.

Al Qaeda is most closely tied with its affiliate AQ organizations, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQY), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and Al Qaeda Kurdish Battalions (AQKB). Core AQ command is responsible for the general direction and some control over the actions of the group, but many of these affiliated movements remain relatively individual and strong in their respective regions.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is an Algerian-based Sunni Islamist militant group which supports the establishment of an Islamic state and the overthrow of the current Algerian government led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Initially formed as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 1998 from a split of militants from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the GSPC began to encompass the ideology of global jihad in addition to their foundational goal of establishing an Islamic state in Algeria. AQIM was formed in September 2006 as part of a merger between the regional GSPC and the broader Al Qaeda movement. The group utilizes smuggling, kidnapping, and bombings to further their goals in Algeria and Mali.

Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQY) was the Yemeni affiliate of the Al Qaeda organization. Coming into existence in 2000 with the USS Cole bombing AQY became the dominant jihadist player in Yemen. AQY targeted Western interests and individuals in Yemen as well as the Yemeni government. In 2009 it merged with its Saudi counterpart under the umbrella of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is known for its ability to remain active and strong, even after suffering major personnel and capability setbacks. Al Qaeda was nearly extinguished in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, yet remaining members merged in 2009 from AQY only to surface as one of the most active strains of Al Qaeda activity. AQAP is deeply embedded in Yemeni tribal society, which poses a great challenge to extrication. The group espouses militant Sunni ideology with the goal of creating an Islamic caliphate. AQAP's tactics are modern and innovative, as seen by their English magazine Inspire and their techniques used to penetrate security systems utilized in the Christmas Day bombing attack in 2009 and the parcel bombing attack in 2010.

Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has become more independent in the past several years than in its initial formation under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but following his death, the group has continued to align itself both ideologically and tactically with AQ. Notably, Zarqawi initially declined an invitation to join Al Qaeda from bin Laden in 2000. [30]

Al Qaeda Kurdish Battalions (AQKB)  is a militant Islamist organization founded after the disbandment of Ansar al-Islam in 2007. The group has a sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda, yet is not directly controlled by AQ core command. AQKB has carried out numerous attacks in Northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan) against the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Other groups with notable ties to Al Qaeda include:

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is a militant s a Filipino criminal and terrorist organization, with strong ties to Al Qaeda. They have pledged support for AQ since the 1990s. AQ has provided the ASG with finances and logistical support on multiple occasions. The ASG has housed AQ militants and aided in the planning and execution of AQ attacks.[31]

Al Shabab has suspected links to Al Qaeda and espouses global jihadi ideology. However, the group primarily focuses on creating a Shariah-run state in Somalia. [32] The U.S. believes that Al Shabab is able to carry out its attacks due to an influx of money and training from foreign jihadists linked to Al Qaeda.[33] While Al Shabab has openly claimed affiliation with Al Qaeda since 2007, the group has been accused of hosting terror training camps while also housing Al Qaeda cells while they were planning the 2002 twin attacks on Israeli targets close to the Kenyan resort of Mombasa. [34] [35] Also, the U.S. upholds that Al Qaeda militants who planned the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi fled to Somalia.[36] Furthermore, many Al Shabab leaders have trained at Al Qaeda camps, such as Al Shabab leader Ibrahim Haji Jama, who trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Tariq Abdullah who was Al Qaeda's leader in East Africa and is deemed to be the financier for its African operations. [37] In addition, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, killed in a U.S. raid in September 2009, was a senior All Qaeda leader who trained terrorists in Somalia and took the lead in consolidating relations between Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. [38] Adan Hashi Ayro, the first leader of Al Shabab, was according to the New York Times, "long identified as one of the Al Qaeda's top operatives in East Africa." [39] In March 2007, Shaykh Abu Yahy al-Liby, head of the Al Qaeda in Libya, called Al Shabab, "the lions of Somalia and champions of the deserts and jungles," while Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second in command, and Bin Laden have praised Al Shabab and issued statements to, "call on the international mujahedeen to rush to the aid of their Muslim brothers in Somalia."[40]

Ansar al-Islam (AI) is a Sunni extremist group made up primarily of Iraqi Kurds. Some AI members participated in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and have received financial and ideological support from Al Qaeda leaders.[41] AI provided Al Qaeda members safe-haven after they fled Afghanistan in September 2001. The relationship between these two groups, particularly in the last 5 years, has been primarily linked from AI-AQI, rather than to core AQ command.

The Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) is a militant organization that emerged in the late-1970s with the intention of overthrowing the secular Egyptian government and installing an Islamic administration. The group opposes Western influence in the Muslim world. In 2001, the EIJ shifted its ideological focus and aligned with Al Qaeda. The organization has reportedly been absorbed by Al Qaeda, though some scholars still believe that it operates independently in some capacity.

The Haqqani Network is a militant organization based out of the FATA regions in Northern Pakistan, seeking to carry out violence against coalition forces and Afghan police. Al Qaeda has supplied the Network with financial support, weaponry, and militia since the mid-1990s. The HN is suspected to have more than 10,000 members, many of whom are militants tied to either the Taliban or AQ in Afghanistan.

Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) is a Sunni Islamist group based in Kashmir. Osama bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda are the key sources of inspiration for HUM's ideology. Several Al Qaeda operatives have served as leaders of HuM over time. [42]

Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI): The group's leader and founder, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, commanded Al Qaeda's Brigade 313. [43] Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have also directly supported the organization.[44] The organization is based in the Pakistani region where Al Qaeda core leadership had settled for several years following the Coalition invasion in 2001.

Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is an Islamist militant group who has sought to install a Shariah-based Islamic government in Uzbekistan since 1991. The group operates in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and has been closely tied to Al Qaeda training camps, financial institutions, and weapons exchange for nearly two decades.

Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) is an extremist group that has been linked to Al Qaeda and other regional terrorist groups and has cells operating throughout Southeast Asia. Al Qaeda has provided financial support, training, and funding for JI since the mid-1990s.

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has held active ties with Al Qaeda since the early 1990s through its operational commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who is the brother-in-law of a bin Laden deputy, Abu Abdur Rahman Sareehi. [45] LeT actively collaborated with Al Qaeda post-9/11. LeT leaders were paid $100,000 USD to protect Al Qaeda leaders of Arab origin in Pakistan, house their families and arrange for their travel from Pakistan. In March 2002, senior Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was captured at an LeT safe house in Faisalabad.[46] 

Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) is believed to have received support from both Al Qaeda, [47] and Osama bin Laden individually. [48]

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is the Pakistani Taliban, based out of the numerous Pakistan provinces and carrying out attacks only within Pakistan. The TTP was closely allied with Al Qaeda, and heavily relies on it for financial, logistical and ideological support. TTP allegedly trains militants, finances AQ operations, and aids in the carrying out of attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.{"Transcript of John Brennan on CNN," May 9, 2010. Accessed August 2, 2012. As time went on, however, bin Laden became personally opposed to the tactics and methods of the TTP, leading to a strained relationship.

The Taliban has a complex, back-and-forth relationship with Al Qaeda's core leadership. The Taliban and Al Qaeda share simliar goals, yet the Taliban has taken a more political route that leaves a significant gap between the two groups' methodologies and tactics. The Taliban has repeatedly tried to separate themselves from Al Qaeda, largely due to friction between the two groups' leaders, bin Laden and Mullah Omar. [49] The groups have shared militia and resources, and are commonly perceived to be more closely aligned than they truly are. Mullah Omar split from Al Qaeda in order to separate his movement from the actions of bin Laden, whom he perceived to be targeting civilians far too frequently.

Finally, several other groups are suspected of having close ties to Al Qaeda, though these relationships remain somewhat ambiguous due to some groups' sizes or the lacking of substantial intelligence evidence of the details of such relationships. These include the East Turkistan Islamist Movement (in China), Fatah-al Islam, Jundallah, the Mujahedeen Patani Movement, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (split from AQIM in 2011).

Community Relationships

Al Qaeda is known for its ability to make membership seem lucrative and its maintenance of a compact, efficient command structure. Recruiting trainees and militants largely occurs through engagement with local tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with offers of pay new recruits between $1,000-$1,500 per month plus numerous benefits and vacations in exchange for sworn allegiance and secrecy.[50] Once they become trained members of AQ, pay ranges from $300-500 per month for militants, and includes additional benefits.

The majority of supporters for Al Qaeda during its inception and development were mujahedeen fighters in the post-Cold War environment, seeking to install Islamic government in the Muslim world. Currently, a significant portion of Al Qaeda are tribal leaders and former madrasa students, oftentimes of Pakistani dissent. Al Qaeda has a notable relationship with the Pastun community; bin Laden himself was Pashtun and frequently referenced it in his statements.


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