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Qaeda, al-

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Qaeda, al-

    The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, turned the spotlight on an extremist organization called al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the base”) and its leader, Osama bin Laden. This group of well-trained, mostly Arab Muslims perpetrates acts of violence against the West, particularly the United States, in an attempt to rid the Middle East and other Muslim lands of Western influence. The ultimate goal of al-Qaeda is to create a central Islamic government that represents Muslims worldwide.

    Volunteer Warriors.

    The founding of al-Qaeda has its roots in the late 1970s, a time when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian activist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood (a popular Islamic reformist organization), mobilized Muslim men to engage in jihad and resist their communist invaders. He toured Arab and Muslim countries, raising funds and gathering volunteers—one of whom was Osama bin Laden, a recent college graduate from Saudi Arabia. Azzam recognized bin Laden's ability to organize and inspire young people and soon became the young man's mentor. Throughout the ten-year struggle in Afghanistan, bin Laden helped recruit soldiers and financed their training. Supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, the volunteer army finally forced the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops in 1989 .

    Azzam referred to the fighters as al-Qaeda as-Sulbah (the solid or firm base) because they could lead the ummah (Muslim community) and were too strong-willed to be defeated by their enemies. Over time, the ideology and organization of al-Qaeda evolved. Unlike a political party or militia, al-Qaeda members pledged their allegiance to an ongoing jihad, which was generally understood by the group to mean military combat.

    After Azzam's mysterious assassination in 1989 , bin Laden emerged as the undisputed leader of al-Qaeda. He regarded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan as evidence of God's support for the Muslim struggle against their adversaries.

    Anti-American Rhetoric and Activity.

    Bin Laden's theology draws heavily on the ultra-conservative beliefs of the Wahhabi, the ruling sect in Saudi Arabia. He preaches a blatant anti-Christian and anti-Jewish message. Bin Laden refers to Christians as “crusaders” because he believes that modern Christians are continuing the efforts of medieval crusaders to destroy Islam. He splits the world into two spheres: his world, which includes only his Muslim supporters, and the world of his enemies, which includes anyone—Muslim and non-Muslim—who disagrees with his philosophy. During the last ten years, bin Laden focused his energies on fighting the United States and destroying its influence. Bin Laden believes that Americans understand only the language of force.

    After the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, bin Laden returned to his home in Saudi Arabia. In August 1990 , neighboring Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, and Bin Laden offered to organize his followers to fight Saddam Hussein's army. The Saudi royal family rejected his offer and invited U.S. forces to the region instead. After bin Laden denounced the Saudi government's action, he was stripped of his citizenship. Bin Laden later sought to punish the United States for what he saw as sponsorship of corrupt Muslim regimes and for the desecration of what he often describes as the “Land of Muhammad,” a reference to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet.

    From his new location in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, bin Laden used his considerable inheritance (estimated to be in the millions of dollars) to finance al-Qaeda activities and to win favor with the Sudanese government. His network of followers expanded in 1996 when he moved back to Afghanistan, then under the rule of the militant extremist Taliban. Al-Qaeda established terrorist training camps for volunteers. In 1998 bin Laden and Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the founding of the Islamic International Front for the Combat Against the Crusaders and Jews. They endorsed the use of violence and rationalized the killing of innocent people—even if they happen to be Muslims—as an unfortunate side effect of their struggle.

    The organization represented a merger between bin Laden's al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant Islamic organization that was responsible for acts of violence in Egypt during the 1990s. The Islamic International Front dedicated itself to “the restoration of the caliphate,” a reference to the central Islamic government that existed until 1924 , when the Turkish government abolished it.

    Throughout the 1990s, al-Qaeda allegedly participated in a series of terrorist attacks. The network was suspected of involvement in two incidents in 1993 —the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and a battle against U.S. troops serving in Mogadishu, Somalia. Al-Qaeda is also believed to be responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 .

    On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed two of them into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and one into a field in western Pennsylvania. The United States promptly declared a “war on terrorism,” with bin Laden and al-Qaeda as its primary targets. When the Taliban refused to cooperate in efforts to bring bin Laden to justice, the United States launched a military campaign against Afghanistan. In late 2001 , U.S. and allied forces succeeded in removing the Taliban from power, but bin Laden escaped.

    Although the war in Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime weakened the network, al-Qaeda remained active in its struggle against Western interests. In 2002 al-Qaeda was linked to the bombing of a French oil tanker off Yemen, firearms attacks against U.S. Marines in Kuwait, and other international incidents. In 2003 the United Nations Security Council reported that al-Qaeda was creating new training camps in Afghanistan, and the number of new recruits was increasing. As the American-led war on terrorism continued, bin Laden released audiotapes threatening more attacks on the United States. Despite his apparent but horrendous successes, bin Laden failed to inspire a mass movement among Muslims, the majority of whom condemn terrorism. See also Afghanistan; Bin Laden, Osama; Fundamentalism; Jihad; September 11, 2001; Taliban; Terrorism; United States; Wahhabi.

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