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


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


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