War and Conflict

The War on Terror

What is al Qaeda?

Al Qaeda (Arabic, meaning “the base”) is a global network of terrorists who banded together during the 1990s and proclaimed to be carrying out a holy war on non-Islamic nations. The group knows no national boundaries, though certain nations, including Afghanistan, were known to be al Qaeda strongholds. Led by the elusive Osama bin Laden (1957-), a wealthy exiled Saudi, the group conducted terrorist training programs in several Muslim (mostly Middle Eastern) countries and was funded by loyalists around the world. One of the United States’ first actions following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (which were later confirmed to have been carried out by al Qaeda operatives) was to freeze bank accounts of persons and organizations with suspected ties to the terrorist group.

The roots of al Qaeda can be traced to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when thousands of Muslims, including bin Laden, joined the Afghan resistance. The 10-year conflict was a rallying point for Islamic extremists. Bin Laden returned home to Saudi Arabia in 1989, determined to perpetuate a holy war (jihad) by maintaining the funding, organization, and training that had made the Afghan resistance victorious against the Soviets. By the early 1990s he emerged as a leader in the Muslim world, proclaiming his goal to reinstate the Caliphate, a unified Muslim state. He also proclaimed the United States to be an enemy to Islam; he considered the nation responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims. The Saudi government rescinded his passport in 1994, and bin Laden fled his homeland. He eventually found safe harbor in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. According to the report issued by the 9/11 Commission, bin Laden’s declaration of war came in February 1998, when he and fugitive Egyptian physician Ayman al Zawahiri “arranged from their Afghanistan headquarters for an Arabic newspaper in London to publish what they termed a fatwa issued in the name of a ‘World Islamic Front.’” The statement claimed that America had declared war against God and his messenger, and they called for retaliation.

Under bin Laden’s direction, al Qaeda carried out several attacks on American targets, including the August 7, 1998, bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 258 and injured 5,000, and the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which killed nearly 3,000 people. After the Global Coalition Against Terrorism, led by U.S. forces, launched its attack on Afghanistan in October 2001, bin Laden was believed to have fled for Pakistan. Capturing him and other al Qaeda leaders and operatives was the key objective of the United States in its efforts to dismantle the terrorist network.

During a 1999 anti-American rally in Pakistan, a protester holds a poster of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

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