What is al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda is a Sunni Salafi Jihadi network with affiliates and supporters spread all over the
globe. The network formed its roots during the 1980s when Islamist ideologues began to
recruit fighters from the Muslim world to oppose the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the
years that followed and up to today, al-Qaeda has continued to attract supporters around
the world with its international jihadist ideology. The group has gained much publicity in
the past decade following the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the
9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Whereas al-Qaeda is often envisioned as a well-defined group, it can be more
accurately described as a loosely affiliated network with very little hierarchical structure.
The diffused nature of the group poses many obstacles to intelligence collection and has
resulted in myriad contradictory and sensationalist accounts in open-source literature.
Many reports concerning al-Qaeda’s capability to conduct future attacks are focused on a
potential WMD capability. While the use of CBRN agents is a real security concern, the al-
Qaeda network is more likely to conduct future attacks by utilizing conventional weapons
in unconventional ways.
Al-Qaeda aims to expel Westerners and Muslims deemed ‘‘un-Islamic’’ from Muslim
countries and impose Islamic rule on countries in the Middle East. The group’s primary
goal during the 1990s was to force U.S. military and civilian establishments out of Saudi
Arabia.1 Since then, al-Qaeda’s objective has expanded to include the establishment of a
worldwide Islamic community, based on the concept of the umma (global caliphate).2
Current al-Qaeda affiliates aim to replace current, ‘‘corrupt’’ Islamic regimes and secular
Arab regimes with Shari’a Islamic law and to bring under control the regions of the world
616 SAMMY SALAMA AND LYDIA HANSELL
that were once under Muslim rule.3 A commonly cited, long-term goal is to undermine
Western hegemony by targeting U.S. allies as well as U.S. military establishments and
civilian populations.4 Osama bin Laden, the most prominent leader of the al-Qaeda
network, has specifically identified the United States as the ‘‘great Satan’’ and has called for
armed struggle against the country and its allies.5
The al-Qaeda network has historically supported three different kinds of militant
groups: those who target Muslim regimes viewed as ‘‘apostates’’ (e.g., Egypt, Saudi
Arabia); those struggling to create their own Islamic state (e.g., Chechnya); and those who
aim to overthrow regimes that are believed to repress their Muslim populations (e.g.,
Indonesia, Kosovo).6 Network affiliates and supporters are encouraged to wage an armed
jihad, or holy war, against all enemies of Islam.7