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Terrorism - In the Spotlight: Al Qaeda (The Base)
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In the Spotlight:
Al Qaeda (The Base)
Dec. 30, 2002 Standard Version

Al Qaeda (Arabic for "the Base") became synonymous with international terrorism after being identified as responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States. Despite on-going American-led military operations in Afghanistan to dismantle the group's infrastructure and training camps, and an international coalition effort to uncover, eliminate and jail its operatives worldwide, independent cells connected to the terrorist network continue to carry out attacks against American and allied targets.

Al Qaeda began as the Afghan Service Bureau. Also known as MAK (from its Arabic name Maktab al Khidmat lil Mujahidin al-Arab), this organization was founded in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984 by Osama bin Laden — who came from a prominent Saudi family that had moved there from Yemen in the 1930s — and his mentor, Sheikh Dr. Abdullah Azzam (a Jordanian Palestinian), to cater for those foreigners — especially Arabs — fighting alongside the Afghan resistance in their ongoing war against Soviet occupation forces. MAK established guesthouses and training camps for these foreign fighters, also distributing some $200 million in Middle Eastern and Western (mainly American and British) aid to those involved in the anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan. By 1988, MAK — whose leaders worked closely with Pakistan's Inter-Services-Intelligence agency — had evolved into al Qaeda. Azzam, by then the group's spiritual leader, was murdered in a bomb attack a year later in Peshawar along with his two sons. This left bin Laden (who had previously split from Azzam over differences as to how MAK/al Qaeda should evolve and was suspected by some to have been behind his murder) firmly in charge of al Qaeda which he then proceeded to reshape into his own vision. Unlike Azzam, bin Laden saw al Qaeda as an international force, and had no compunction about targeting enemy non-combatants. Often using funds from his own inheritance (once estimated by Swiss sources at $250-300 million), bin Laden established more training camps and an extensive social and logistical infrastructure under the protection of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

At these training camps, and through a series of videotaped missives that were distributed throughout the Muslim world, bin Laden called for the establishment of a pan-Islamic Caliphate — an ancient system of government based on Islamic law (Sharia) under a sole leader called the Prince of Believers. He also encouraged other terrorist groups throughout the Muslim world, often issuing statements in which he praised individual terrorist attacks — without claiming direct responsibility for them.

At first, bin Laden's principle opponents were the secular, and often corrupt, governments in the Arab world, especially those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Such "Non-Islamic" regimes and other influences, such as Westerners and non-Muslims, were among the group's first targets. More specifically, bin Laden and other top Qaeda leaders have called for the "liberation" of the three holy places of Islam: Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina. They are further incensed by the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, and by the cooperation (albeit often tacit) Arab governments afford the United States on issues concerning the Middle East.

During the 1990s, bin Laden's mandate to wage jihad (holy war) increasingly encompassed American targets, both civilian and military, which he views as ultimately responsible for what he considers the secular, debased state of the Arab world. In February 1998, bin Laden issued a religious ruling (fatwa) from the newly formed umbrella organization "The World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders," which called on all Muslims to kill U.S. citizens and their allies. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to infiltrate and merge with a number of major Islamic terrorist organizations from around the globe. It is this international, semi-corporate amalgamation of terrorist cells, which grew to include nearly any Muslim affiliated terrorist group with a grudge against the United States or its allies, that authorities are currently trying to stop. The very nature of this terrorist network makes this a Herculean task.

While al Qaeda has tended to be highly selective in its recruitment, allowing only the most capable and committed operatives to become fully-fledged members, its call to jihad is an order to all Muslims. Although the network of terrorist cells has an established leadership and command structure, direct approval from the top is not necessarily needed to commit an act of terrorism in al Qaeda's name. Militants operating within the al Qaeda structure are divided into small, independently operating cells. These cells may receive orders and financial support from top Qaeda lieutenants or they may raise funds and plan operations on their own. Training manuals obtained by the U.S. government show that al Qaeda has trained operatives in warfare ranging from assassination and suicide bombings to the use of chemical weapons and explosives.

Prior to the attacks on September 11, al Qaeda was identified as being responsible for a series of attacks in the past decade, including the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000; the simultaneous bombing of American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998; the destruction of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996; an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995; and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

Most recently al Qaeda has been linked to a string of attacks around the world, including the bombing of two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, an attack on U.S. soldiers conducting exercises in Kuwait and the destruction of an Israeli-owned hotel and an attempted strike on an El-Al jetliner through the use of surface-to-air portable missiles — both in Kenya. Citing these recent attacks, CIA Director George Tenet warned U.S. officials in late October 2002 that though progress had been made to shut it down, the al Qaeda network was still operating and pursuing efforts to attack American interests.

One problem in the pursuit of Qaeda militants has been their ability to move and regroup outside of Afghanistan. For instance, al Qaeda is believed to be currently operating under the same infrastructure and leadership command in the Mirim Shah area of northern Pakistan that it used in Afghanistan. Other recent reports suggest al Qaeda is even attempting to move back to its former strongholds across the Afghan border.

While the al Qaeda network has certainly been dealt a serious blow by military operations in Afghanistan and joint efforts by governments worldwide, these same efforts have caused al Qaeda to diversify into even smaller cells around the world. These cells, though possibly currently limited in their ability to carry out "spectacular" large-scale terrorist attacks (albeit perhaps temporarily so) are, by the same token, more difficult to detect and eliminate. They can operate totally independently, organizing strikes according to their own whims and timetables and without the type of communication traffic that often warn authorities of impending attacks.

The same is true on the financial front. International measures to dam the flow of terrorist funding have been fairly successful in the formal financial sector. While millions of dollars in assets connected to terrorism have been seized or frozen, this has only served to drive al Qaeda to diversify. For example, the group has exchanged currency for gold and diamonds, which are easier to hide and smuggle across borders, and increased its reliance on informal money transfers, known as hawalas, that are virtually untraceable. Cells are also able to raise funds independently through legitimate and illegitimate businesses, drug smuggling, and other petty crimes.

The U.S.-led offensive against al Qaeda is enjoying some success. According to the CIA, since the Sept. 11, 2002 attacks over 3,000 al Qaeda militants have been arrested, with more than one-third of the group's top leaders killed or captured. The organization has also lost its main training camps in Afghanistan as a result of the year-long allied campaign there — although a recent UN study claims that new smaller Qaeda bases are being established in the country. While bin Laden and his chief lieutenants remain at large, al Qaeda has suffered a degree of disruption in the past year. However, such successes notwithstanding, as seen, the group remains active, and according to the UN have been linked to at least seven terrorist incidents between Aug. 9 and Nov. 28, 2002 alone. These incidents occurred as far a field as the Philippines, off the coast of Yemen, Kuwait, Indonesia, Russia, and Kenya, showing that bin Laden's organization, often working in conjunction with its regional nodes and franchises, retains an operational capacity and a global reach. As such, the threat of attacks by al Qaeda on U.S. interests abroad is still a primary concern of U.S. officials. The likelihood of another strike on American soil also remains high.


Elliott, Michael, "How Al-Qaeda got Back on the Attack," Time Magazine, Oct. 20, 2002.

Federation of American Scientists, Intelligence Resource Program: al-Qa-ida (The Base)

Garamone, Jim, "Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda Network," American Forces Press Service, Sept. 21, 2001.

Gilmore, Gerry J., "At War With America," American Forces Press Service, Sept. 21, 2001.

Gunaratna, Rohan, Inside al Qaeda: Global network of Terror, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Teather, David, "Al-Qaeda 'has regrouped,'" The Guardian, Oct. 18, 2002.

United Nations, Second Report of the Monitoring Group Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1363(2001) and extended by resolution 1390 (2002), Sept. 30, 2002

United Nations, Third Report of the Monitoring Group Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1363(2001) and extended by resolution 1390 (2002), Dec. 4, 2002

United States Department of Justice, DOJ Response to Terrorist Attacks - Al Qaeda Training Manual, Oct. 8, 2002

United States Department of State, "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002"

United States Treasury Department, Contributions by the Department of the Treasury to the Financial War on Terrorism Fact Sheet, September 2002.


Colin McCullough
CDI Research Assistant

Anthony Keats
CDI Research Assistant

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CDI Research Analyst

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