This publication is now archived.
Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist network, is considered the top terrorist threat to the United States. The group is wanted for its September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as a host of lesser attacks. To escape the post-9/11 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s central leadership fled eastward into Pakistan, securing a safe haven in loosely governed areas there. In July 2007, U.S. intelligence agencies found that the organization was regrouping and regaining strength in these tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, though targeted killings of senior al-Qaeda leaders have since diminished the group’s command and control capabilities. In February 2009, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told lawmakers that the group’s core "is less capable and effective than it was a year ago." The killing of al-Qaeda’s top leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan in May 2011 served a significant blow to the organization, but analysts say al-Qaeda remains deadly with its networks spread all over the world. Plus, a number of affiliated groups have gained prominence in recent years, complicating the task of containing the organization.
What is al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda, Arabic for "the Base," is an international terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s. It seeks to rid Muslim countries of what it sees as the profane influence of the West and replace their governments with fundamentalist Islamic regimes. After al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States launched a war in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda’s bases there and overthrow the Taliban, the country’s Muslim fundamentalist rulers who harbored bin Laden and his followers. Like his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama has committed U.S. strategy to destroying al-Qaeda’s safe haven in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and limiting the group’s ability to strike U.S. targets.
What are al-Qaeda’s origins?
Al-Qaeda grew out of the Services Office, a clearinghouse for the international Muslim brigade opposed to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Services Office--run by bin Laden and the Palestinian religious scholar Abdullah Azzam--recruited, trained, and financed thousands of foreign mujahadeen, or holy warriors, from more than fifty countries. Bin Laden wanted these fighters to continue the "holy war" beyond Afghanistan. He formed al-Qaeda around 1988.
Where does al-Qaeda operate?
There is no single headquarters. From 1991 to 1996, al-Qaeda worked out of Pakistan along the Afghan border, or inside Pakistani cities. During the Taliban’s reign al-Qaeda shifted its base of operations into Afghanistan. To escape the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s leadership once again sought refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas after September 11, 2001. Analysts also believe bin Laden’s group is training or has trained most of the terrorist groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas; it has introduced its practice of suicide bombings to both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, as well as affiliated groups in Iraq, Yemen, and North Africa. One such bombing killed former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 at an election rally. But in Pakistan, at least, public sentiment for the group appears to be limited. In a poll (PDF) released in February 2008, Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonprofit group, found that only 24 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of bin Laden in 2008 as compared to 46 percent in August 2007. Similarly, al-Qaeda’s popularity dropped from 33 percent to 18 percent.
Al-Qaeda has autonomous underground cells in some 100 countries, including the United States, officials say. Law enforcement has broken up al-Qaeda cells in the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Albania, Uganda, and elsewhere.
Is al-Qaeda connected to other terrorist organizations?
Yes. Among them:
- Egyptian Islamic Jihad
- The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Qaeda in Iraq
- Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad (Kashmir)
- Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
- Al-Qaeda 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)
These groups share al-Qaeda’s Sunni Muslim fundamentalist views. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts also say that al-Qaeda has stepped up its cooperation on logistics and training with Hezbollah, a radical, Iran-backed Lebanese militia drawn from the minority Shiite strain of Islam.
Some terror experts theorize that al-Qaeda, after the loss of its Afghanistan base, may be increasingly reliant on sympathetic affiliates to carry out its agenda. Former intelligence chief, J. Michael McConnell, in his February 2008 testimony to the Senate, said al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch "remains al-Qaeda’s most visible and capable affiliate."A 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed that al-Qaeda’s association with al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, helped it to "energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks." U.S. military commanders believe the Iraqi al-Qaeda variant has been weakened by a sustained campaign against them. But the group remains capable of high-profile attacks.
Analysts believe [al-Qaeda] has trained most of the terrorist groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas; it has introduced its practice of suicide bombings to both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, as well as affiliated groups in Iraq, Yemen, and North Africa.
In addition to AQI, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is based in Algeria, remains one of al-Qaeda’s most robust affiliates. Formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, AQIM merged with al-Qaeda in September 2006, and has broadened its target list to include U.S., UN, and Western interests. In Yemen, the resurgence of al-Qaeda operatives since 2006 is also seen as a U.S. and regional security challenge. Known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), this regional affiliate seeks to destabilize the Al Saud regime in Saudi Arabia and eradicate a Western presence in the Gulf. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect behind the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing aboard a U.S. airliner, confessed to receiving weapons training from al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. The group has also claimed responsibility for the September 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, which killed eighteen people.
Who are al-Qaeda’s leaders?
According to a 1998 U.S. federal indictment, al-Qaeda is administered by a council that "discussed and approved major undertakings, including terrorist operations." Bin Laden was at the top until he was killed on May 1, 2011, by U.S. forces. A month later, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had long served as bin Laden’s deputy and al-Qaeda’s ideological adviser, took over the leadership.
Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, an Egyptian, is an original member of al-Qaeda’s leadership council and was an adviser to bin Laden for more than a decade. He served time in prison in the early 1980s with al-Zawahiri for their role as conspirators in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Another important figure is Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian, who is rumored to be under house arrest in Iran along with some other top leaders of the organization, including Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian and financial officer of al-Qaeda. Adel and Abdullah are wanted for their role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than two hundred people.
The Jordanian radical Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who established the Sunni Muslim extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and directed a series of deadly terror attacks in Iraq--including the beheadings of kidnapped foreigners--was also associated with al-Qaeda. Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to bin Laden in October 2004, and bin Laden praised Zarqawi as "the prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq." Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad in 2006. Abu Ayyub al-Masri, one of al-Zawahiri’s disciples since joining the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1982, is believed to have succeeded Zarqawi as AQI leader. In North Africa, AQIM is headed by explosive expert Abdelmalek Droukdel. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda is run by Nasser al-Wahishi, a Yemeni citizen and former secretary to bin Laden. His deputy, Saeed al-Shihri, is a Saudi national repatriated from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.
U.S. officials say several top al-Qaeda leaders are in their custody. These include a senior lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002, and Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a senior commander in Afghanistan. In March 2003, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and al-Qaeda’s treasurer, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, were also captured in Pakistan. They, along with four others detained at Guantanamo Bay, were charged with murder, terrorism, and violating rules of war in February 2008.
Besides being detained, several senior leaders in the network have died or been killed in the U.S.-led war against terrorists. A CIA drone strike in Islamabad, Pakistan, in June 2012 killed Abu Yahya al-Libi (NYT), who became al Qaeda’s deputy leader after al-Qaeda’s then-second-in-command (al-Jazeera), Atiyah Abd Rahman, was killed in August 2011 in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, also reportedly in a drone attack. In January 2008, Abu Laith al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s senior military commander and a key link between the group and its affiliates in North Africa, was killed in Pakistan’s tribal areas in a secret U.S. missile strike. Media reports (BBC) said Abu Obaidah al-Masri, a senior al-Qaeda leader believed to be involved in the 2005 London subway and bus bombings and in planning attacks in Afghanistan, died of hepatitis in Pakistan in April 2008. In April 2006, Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir and Abu Bakr al-Suri, two of al-Qaeda’s top bomb makers (PDF), were killed in Pakistan. And a senior al-Qaeda commander, Muhammad Atef, died in the November 2001 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan. GlobalSecurity.org lists senior leaders who have been detained or killed; Longwarjournal.org documents high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets killed in U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan since 2004.
How does Osama bin Laden’s death affect the organization’s future?
Bin Laden’s death will serve as a deterrent for many wannabe radicals who were inspired by his notional invincibility, argues Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker. "Such vertical, quasi-religious death cults always rely upon the leader, because the leader’s survival is the key to perpetuating the belief that utopia is possible," he says. Lawrence Wright, an expert on al-Qaeda, says the organization will have a difficult time finding a successor.
Bin Laden’s death also comes amid pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world that some analysts say have discredited al-Qaeda’s ideology. CFR’s Ray Takeyh writes the Arab revolt is a denunciation of radicalism in all its hues: whether autocrats ruling in the name of modernization or Islamists pledging redemption through terror.
But some experts express caution. CFR President Richard N. Haass says, "It is a milestone, not a turning point, in what remains an ongoing struggle without a foreseeable end." Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid notes the network has decentralized over the years with its philosophy becoming "one man, one bomb" (BBC), and remains deadly.
How big is al-Qaeda?
It’s impossible to say precisely, because al-Qaeda is decentralized. Estimates range from several hundred to several thousand members. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 report on terrorism, while the largest concentration of senior al-Qaeda members now reside in Pakistan, the network incorporates members of AQI and other associates throughout the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and Central Asia who continue working to carry out attacks against U.S. and Western interests.
"Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and allies ’remain dangerous and adaptive enemies’ keen on attacking U.S. and European targets." -- Dennis C. Blair, Director of National Intelligence
The international crackdown that followed the 9/11 attacks greatly cut into al-Qaeda’s resources and many of al-Qaeda’s former leaders were captured or killed, leading experts to question the relevance of al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In these years, al-Qaeda transformed from what was once a hierarchical organization with a large operating budget into an ideological movement. Whereas al-Qaeda once trained its own operatives and deployed them to carry out attacks, it is just as likely to inspire individuals or small groups to carry out attacks, often with no operational support from the larger organization. Experts say al-Qaeda is able to spread its ideology effectively through the Internet and al-Sahab, its media wing (NPR). As Blair noted in his 2009 assessment, al-Qaeda and its affiliates and allies "remain dangerous and adaptive enemies," keen on attacking U.S. and European targets.
What major attacks has al-Qaeda been responsible for?
The group has targeted American and other Western interests as well as Jewish targets and Muslim governments it sees as corrupt or impious-above all, the Saudi monarchy. Al-Qaeda-linked attacks include:
- The attempted December 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
- 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-Qaeda.
- The February 2006 attack on the Abqaiq petroleum processing facility, the largest such facility in the world, in Saudi Arabia.
- The July 2005 bombings of the London public transportation system.
- The March 2004 bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains, which killed nearly 200 people and left more than 1,800 injured.
- The May 2003 car bomb attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
- 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 September 11, 2001, hijacking attacks on four U.S. airplanes, two of which crashed into the World Trade Center, and a third of which crashed into the Pentagon.
- The October 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing.
- The August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Al-Qaeda is also suspected of carrying out or directing sympathetic groups to carry out the December 2007 bomb and suicide attacks in Algiers; May 2003 suicide attacks on Western interests in Casablanca, Morocco; the October 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia; and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blamed al-Qaeda for two attempts on his life in December 2003. In December 2009, al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghrib kidnapped two Italian citizens (al-Jazeera) in Mauritania, claiming the abductions were to avenge Italy’s involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Earlier that month, three Spanish aid workers were also captured in Mauritania (CNN) by AQIM operatives; the group said that attack was because of AQIM opposition to the detention of fourteen Islamic militants in Spain, sentenced for involvement in the 2004 Madrid train bombing.