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Qaʿida, al-

By:
Natana J. DeLong-Bas
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Qaʿida, al-

Al-Qaʿida (“the base” in Arabic) was founded in 1988/1989 by Osama bin Laden to provide social services to Afghan veterans and their families and to continue the jihad begun in Afghanistan against the communist Soviet Union. Al-Qaʿida expanded into a global jihadist organization in the 1990s and metamorphosed into an umbrella ideology and movement for jihadist activities globally by the mid-2000s, building its power-base on perceived economic, political, and social injustices inflicted upon Muslims by U.S. foreign policy and imperialism through its support for corrupt domestic authoritarian regimes that oppress and abuse their own people.

Ideology.

Al-Qaʿida does not represent mainstream Islamic ideology or majority Muslim religious opinion. Many aspects of al-Qaʿida's ideology stand in marked contrast not only to classical scholarship, but also to the example of the prophet Muhammad: al-Qaʿida's permission to attack civilians, including women and children, and to engage in the mass destruction of property, for example, are both strictly forbidden by Muhammad and Islamic law. Al-Qaʿida has expanded the definition of “defensive” jihād beyond the classical interpretation focusing on physical attacks against a specific community, to include economic and political policies, and cultural offensives as requiring “defense” of the Muslim community. In addition, al-Qaʿida has defined jihād as an individual duty (farḍ ʿayn) for every Muslim, rather than a collective duty (farḍ kifāyah) for all, making jihād the responsibility of each individual, rather than the community, and admitting no legitimate reason for failure to participate.

Ideologically, al-Qaʿida drew initially upon the writings of the Egyptian political activist Sayyid Quṭb, who envisioned unending, uncompromising global jihād as a reflection of the cosmic conflict between good and evil in which Muslims are obligated to participate and in which martyrdom is a desirable possibility, although not a predetermined outcome. Its founders also drew upon the writings of the Palestinian scholar and activist, Dr. Abdullah al-Azzam, who called on Muslims worldwide to “Join the Caravan” by coming to the defense of other Muslims experiencing occupation or aggression by outside powers, beginning in Afghanistan, and who declared jihād to be the “sixth pillar of Islam.” Inspiration has also been drawn from certain elements of the Wahhābī and Salafī traditions with varying emphasis over time, including tawḥīd (absolute monotheism) as the driving motivating factor for action; takfīrī ideology (the labeling of other Muslims as non-Muslims [kuffār] because of disagreement on interpretation); anti-Shīʿī rhetoric; literal, selective and decontextualized interpretation of the Qurʿān and ḥadīth; reference to the writings of the medieval jurist and scholar Ibn Taymīyah; literalism in following the practices of the prophet Muhammad and the Companions; and a desire to reestablish the Caliphate.

As the organization has changed, the ideology has become less theologically oriented and more politically driven; attacks against Muslim civilians, particularly in Iraq, and “suicide” missions are now permissible. Whereas early writings and statements from Osama bin Laden cited the Qurʿān and ḥadīth extensively, later statements issued by activists claiming al-Qaʿida affiliation have not always been as scripturally grounded and often, in the case of Iraq, focus more on fighting and liberation from occupation than on theological concerns, although they are still framed in Islamic terms. In addition, theological and tactical disputes have arisen between activists claiming to work under the al-Qaʿida umbrella, such as debates about whether the “near” enemy of domestic regimes ought to be eradicated before engaging the “far” enemy of the United States and the West, and whether more emphasis should be given to Islamic law and legal interpretation or to broad geopolitical concerns, such as whether a temporary alliance with the Shīʿah in Iraq might be permissible in order to fight the common enemy of the occupying U.S. forces, with the understanding that removal of the occupying forces would result in the resumption of theological opposition to certain Shīʿī practices. In addition, in 2004, bin Laden offered the possibility of a truce to European countries willing to withdraw their troops from Muslim lands, a marked contrast to the prior doctrine of uncompromising global jihād.

Organization and Structure.

Organizationally and structurally, al-Qaʿida has passed through five distinctive phases, leading some to argue that its infrastructure is damaged and its membership is increasingly dispersed and uncoordinated, and others to assert that this is a natural, expected, and deliberate evolution that demonstrates al-Qaʿida's ability to adapt quickly to new and changing contexts as it is transformed from a local organization into a global movement.

Al-Qaʿida is believed to have consisted originally of a small group of hard-core activists in Afghanistan who sought to continue jihadist activities outside the borders of Afghanistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unable to agree upon a specific country as a target, it underwent its first transformation, fragmenting geographically as many Arab veterans of the Afghan jihād returned to their home countries after 1989 to take on the “near enemy” with the goal of overthrowing domestic authoritarian regimes and installing Islamic governments in their place. Examples include the rise of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) in Algeria, ongoing attacks against the Murabak regime in Egypt by various jihadist groups, and the emergence of Osama bin Laden as a Saudi dissident who called initially for reform within both the royal family and the religious establishment but ultimately declared the need to replace the Saudi monarchy and the Grand Mufti altogether.

Bin Laden's exile from Saudi Arabia led to the re-formation of some of the central core of al-Qaʿida at a new base in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, marking the second transformation in the organization. Some physical infrastructure was built to provide financial support to jihadist activities and to provide training facilities for would-be activists. At the same time, al-Qaʿida began to expand its vision beyond domestic affairs to international issues of concern to Muslims, such as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq under economic sanctions, while continuing its criticism of domestic regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, for its “occupation” by American troops. Defensive jihād against the United States was declared for the first time in 1996.

Bin Laden's expulsion from Sudan and return to Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban regime in 1996 marked a change in al-Qaʿida's geographic base but not in its tactics. From its new base in Afghanistan, al-Qaʿida kept its attention on international issues that resonated with the global Muslim community, probably in the strategic hope of expanding its base of sympathizers and affiliates. The security and protection enforced by the Taliban provided a familiar environment for support and training and for exercising centralized authority over operations. During this time, al-Qaʿida is believed to have operated under a corporate board of directors, receiving and either approving or rejecting plans for terrorist attacks and either providing or denying funds and support and logistical services accordingly. The planning and operation of the attacks appears to have been the responsibility of those making the proposal once it was approved.

By 1998, the third transformation of al-Qaʿida became official with the formation of the World Islamic Front to Declare Global Jihad Against Christian Crusaders and Zionist Jews by bin Laden (representing himself and, presumably, al-Qaʿida), Dr. Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (representing the Jihad Group in Egypt), Abū Yāsir Rifāʿī Aḥmad Ṭaha (representing the Egyptian Islamic Group), Sheikh Mir Hamza (representing the Jamʿīyatul-ʿUlamāʿ-i Pākistān), and Fazlur Rahman (representing the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh). This third transformation shifted the focus of the jihād to the “far” enemy of the United States and the West. That each signatory retained his affiliation with his original group suggests that the World Islamic Front was designed to act as an umbrella organization to promote regional cooperation among jihadists. The extent of cooperation between these groups remains unclear. Although they appear to have agreed on issues and tactics, they did not necessarily pledge obedience or loyalty to Osama bin Laden or join the official al-Qaʿida network. These issues are apparent in the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in which the shift of the objective to targeting the “far” enemy (the United States and the West) was clear, but the level of involvement of al-Qaʿida has remained a matter of contentious debate. The purported mastermind of 9/11, Khālid Shaykh Muḥammad, has claimed full responsibility for conceiving and planning the 9/11 attacks under the auspices of his own jihadist organization, the Pakistani-based Jaysh-i Muhammad. Although he admits to having both requested and received the approval and financial and logistical support of al-Qaʿida, he has consistently denied having pledged loyalty or obedience to Osama bin Laden, asserting his independence of action.

The fourth transformation of al-Qaʿida took place in October 2001 as the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan scattered and killed some of the original central group and resulted in a change of geography and tactics for al-Qaʿida. No longer openly based in Afghanistan, the surviving central leadership went into hiding, probably in the borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan, shifting responsibility for action to affiliated activists in other locations. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 provided a new training ground for jihadists, as well as changes in tactics—such as the taking of Western hostages and their graphic execution—which were adopted in other locations, particularly in Saudi Arabia (by al-Qaʿida of the Arabian Peninsula). Jordanian-born Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī quickly emerged as a jihādī leader but waited until the end of 2004 to pledge his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and formally declare himself head of al-Qaʿida in Iraq. Even with this affiliation, al-Zarqāwī apparently continued to act relatively independently, earning public criticism from al-Ẓawāhirī in October 2005 for his tactics and objectives. Al-Zarqāwī's death in June 2006 resulted in lesser-known leaders coming to power and a rise in sectarian violence in Iraq.

The dispersal of al-Qaʿida's remaining leadership from Afghanistan in 2001 is believed to have resulted in the decentralization of funding and less logistical support for proposed attacks. Consequently, there appears to have been a shift from seeking prior approval of attacks to demonstrating the ability to carry out attacks and seeking al-Qaʿida's seal of approval afterward, a method that al-Zarqāwī apparently used successfully. The 2003 nightclub attack in Bali, the 2004 attack on the train in Madrid, and the 2005 attack on the London public transit system appear to illustrate this trend, and a significant increase in the number of al-Qaʿida operatives and sympathizers in Europe. Al-Qaʿida's leaders, particularly al-Ẓawāhirī, had called for attacks on European cities and cities frequented by Western tourists, but the perpetrators appear to have planned and conducted the attacks without approval or support from the previously centralized leadership. Many analysts believe that Europe will remain a major sphere of al-Qaʿida activity in the future because of the ease of travel between European countries and the demographic explosion of Muslims in Europe at a time of rising resentment of immigrant communities, unemployment and underemployment, and racism and exclusion, all of which create fertile ground for recruitment.

The fifth transformation of al-Qaʿida is marked by the shift of the sphere of activity, particularly training, information-sharing, planning, and publicity, to cyberspace, rendering affiliation with al-Qaʿida today a matter of membership in an Internet-based community, rather than necessarily being part of a physical group that may have trained together in one geographic location. The loss of the physical base in Afghanistan combined with rising security concerns about the potential for confiscation of planning materials and identity exposure during travel resulted in the shift to cyberspace in order to take tactical advantage of the relative anonymity of Internet use, protection of identity and materials, and the ability to share knowledge and publicize jihādī activities without the censorship or reliance on outsiders that the use of standard media, such as Al-Jazeera, would involve. Because media attention, particularly the ability to shape one's own image and representation, is critical to success, jihadists have developed their own news broadcasts on the web (Voice of the Caliphate), as well as recruiting sites, using videos to show the jihād in progress and the execution of enemies, both to inspire followers and to frighten the enemy. Al-Ẓawāhirī has repeatedly commented on the necessity of winning the affection, confidence, and respect of Muslims globally by proving al-Qaʿida's love, care, and readiness to defend them. The media have been harnessed to assure that al-Qaʿida is able to portray itself in this manner. Jihādī virtual reality also includes the declaration of a jihadist-led parallel government in Iraq, complete with a Council of Ministers. It is difficult to assess the impact or effectiveness of these tactics beyond the fact that use of the Internet gives al-Qaʿida an immediate global audience for its message.

With the advent of “cyberjihad,” personal interaction with the original al-Qaʿida leadership has become less important, rendering leaders like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri inspirational figureheads rather than financial or logistical supporters, and suggesting that their iconic status is assured, whether they are alive or dead. Since 2003, jihādī websites and the availability of training manuals on the Internet have proliferated, as have jihādī communications via chat rooms, discussion groups, and secure websites. The result has been an increase in “self-recruiting” relative to the earlier system of identifying and indoctrinating potential sympathizers.

Military Strategy.

Al-Qaʿida has outlined a six-step military strategy toward global domination and the defeat of the United States. Based on its own description, it appears that al-Qaʿida has achieved significant progress toward its goal.

The first step was to provoke the United States into invading Muslim lands. This milestone was reached in the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The second step was to reawaken the Muslim community (ummah) and stoke its anger and resentment at the ongoing American military presence on Muslim soil to the point of confrontation. This has been achieved in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where the domestic situation continues to deteriorate and U.S. forces are under attack daily. The third step was to expand the conflict throughout the region to engage the United States in a war of attrition. This also appears to have been achieved as the governments that were put in place with American assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq remain weak and unstable; sectarian violence and civil war have broken out in Iraq and the Taliban appears to be resurgent in Afghanistan.

The fourth step was to transform al-Qaʿida into a global network through changes rendering it unconventional in its structure, location, and tactics and making it invisible to international security forces. This milestone was marked by the shift to cyberspace. The fifth step was to stretch the United States beyond its capacity to fulfill its various military commitments, bankrupting the U.S. economy in the process. Al-Qaʿida is certain that the spread of regional conflict will lead the U.S. to try to secure the oilfields in the Gulf and to protect Israel. It is anticipated that the U.S. will lack the required manpower and/or financial resources and will eventually implode as the economy collapses and the cost in U.S. military personnel becomes catastrophic. Progress toward this end appears to be well under way in Iraq, but the milestone has not yet been fully achieved. The sixth and final step will be to overthrow hated domestic authoritarian regimes and the reestablishment of the Caliphate. The jihādīs anticipate that they will emerge victorious from major military engagement and that the Caliphate will achieve global domination. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are expected to be the first governments to be overthrown, with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sudan to follow.

Al-Qaʿida Today.

In the early twenty-first century, al-Qaʿida appeared to serve as a global umbrella for organizations, movements, and individuals who share a common agenda—opposition to the West (imperialism, occupation, economic power, amoral lifestyles, and culture) and opposition to domestic authoritarian regimes—rather than being a unified organization. In business terms, it is more a brand-name or trademark than a specific product or franchise. Diversification of activities and locations has resulted in the ability to engage both the “near” and “far” enemies simultaneously using different tactics. While its specialty remains the ability to plan occasional, large-scale, spectacular attacks that are the product of lengthy planning, surveillance, precision, and coordination and tend to be carried out by educated middle-class operatives, al-Qaʿida has also adopted the use of frequent, small-scale, suicide attacks requiring less planning and coordination and carried out by less educated operatives. Such attacks continue daily in Iraq and have spread into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

See also BIN LADEN, OSAMA and ZARQAWI, ABū MUSʿAB AL-.

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