Al-Qaeda: Past, Present, and Future
Table of Contents
Not many people knew about Al-Qaeda and its terroristic activities in the 1990s; however, the entire world learnt the name of this organization after the events of September 11, 2001. Everyone was shocked by a masterfully conducted and bold attack against the dominant superpower in the international geopolitical arena as well as by destruction and deaths it caused. Moreover, the whole world either participated directly and indirectly in the fight with the terrorist organization or observed the US response to the attack and its decade-long hunt for the Al-Qaeda’s notorious leader, whose assassination in 2011 resulted in more questions than answers. Thus, Al-Qaeda has been evidently among the most famous and widespread terrorist organizations that positioned itself as a fighter for freedom and supremacy of the Islamic world. Osama bin Laden was the most notorious, elusive, hunted-for, and charismatic terrorist in the modern history. This man managed to create an organization that exists far longer than any other contemporary terroristic organization or freedom fighting movement, depending on how it might be determined by its supporters and opponents alike, and that outlived its leader. However, nowadays Al-Qaeda has obviously lost its position in the world, having turned into a legendary ideology and a sort of a mythical eternal basis for its numerous affiliates and Islamists who decide to take arms and join the global jihad. At the same time, sporadically issued statements of Al-Qaeda’s leader, a covertly published magazine and various leaflets as well as some planned operations prove that the organization attempts to revive itself after three decades of existence and more than a decade of active combat with the Western forces keen on bringing the war on terror to an end. Moreover, Al-Qaeda faces a serious threat from recently formed organizations, especially the ISIS that has been competing with the former for supremacy and the status of the prevailing jihad organization aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate and restoring the former glory of the Muslim world. Thus, it is essential to review and analyze the history of Al-Qaeda and its present in order to discover how the organization has evolved in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and make justified forecasts about its future.
Definitions of Terrorism and Al-Qaeda
Prior to focusing on the past, present, and future of Al-Qaeda, it seems reasonable to provide definitions of terrorism and a terrorist organization. The use of peculiar notions, concepts and definitions will allow making clear conclusions and predictions about the course of events and their likely development. It could also facilitate the fight against terrorism, determine the course of the fight with it and its priorities. On the contrary, ambiguity in defining terrorism can breed chaos and incompetence.
Terrorism is not a contemporary phenomenon as many people may think. On the contrary, it has existed since the beginning of humanity, yet the term itself is quite modern and has been coined relatively recently, which explains why there is no single definition that would satisfy all stakeholders. Moreover, there exists no unanimously agreed definition either of terrorism or of Al-Qaeda. However, a satisfactory working definition is necessary to properly understand and effectively deal with the phenomenon.
Basically, terrorism has always been associated with violence used to incite fear (Mannik, 2009). Nonetheless, definitions of the notion vary depending on the perspective, the party attempting to accomplish this task and its interests. Thus, nowadays there exist more than 100 definitions of terrorism, each of which emphasizes some aspect of the phenomenon. The most prevalent understanding of the notion is associated with the use of violence against a great number of people with the aim of evoking fear and making or preventing some parties from acting in some way (Mannik, 2009). The term originated from Latin terrere, which corresponds to the verb ‘to frighten.’ It emerged at the end of the 18th century in the period of the French Reign of Terror (Mannik, 2009). However, at that time, according to Robespierre, it meant “nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs” (Mannik, 2009). Thus, it is obvious that at the time of its emergence the notion lacked its current negative connotation. During the history of humanity, terrorism has been widely used by both state and non-state actors as well as by religious international organizations acting for the sake of defending their faith against some assumed threats.
Another hindrance in defining terrorism within the domain of international law concerns difficulty in differentiating between terrorism and freedom fighting. One of the most frequently mentioned academic definitions of the notion is as follows: “Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets” (Mannik, 2009). In turn, the US Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological” (Mannik, 2009).
None of the suggested definitions is perfect and encompasses all aspects of terrorism, but they suffice to analyze Al-Qaeda. It should also be emphasized that the existing definitions of terrorism do not underline any clear difference between terrorism and freedom fighting. As a result, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between the two phenomena as it depends on the perspective and supported viewpoint (Mannik, 2009). Hence, almost the entire world considers Al-Qaeda to be a terroristic organization. However, the members of Al-Qaeda and its numerous sympathizers, including primarily Muslims, tend to believe that the organization fights for the freedom of the Islamic world from the Western oppression, in particular the USA and its allies that attempt to instill their democratic and secular values and undermine values and principles of the Muslim faith.
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A failure to clearly define Al-Qaeda poses a serious obstacle to a successful fight against it. It has been established that this failure “has confused American policy and strategy” as the enemy was neither Osama bin Laden killed in 2011 nor almost 2 million Muslims whom the organization has claimed to represent (Zimmerman, 2013). On the one hand, it seems obvious that Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization that has managed to grow into an international network consisting of the core organization governed by the central leadership and numerous local affiliates which have sworn allegiance to the core, but maintain some extent of independence in their actions. On the other hand, when analyzing typical characteristics of traditional terrorist organizations, it becomes clear that Al-Qaeda deviates from the established norm. The major distinct feature is that it has managed to exist far longer than the majority of terrorist organizations. Thus, 90 percent of them function on average for one or two years and the rest manage to surpass the two-year threshold but cease to exist in a decade (Mannik, 2009). Furthermore, most terrorist organizations disappear if their leader is killed or detained, if they lose support, if they engage in activities besides terrorist acts, if they achieve some goals, or if they fail to transform along with the rapidly changing circumstances (Mannik, 2009). However, Al-Qaeda has managed to overcome and survive all these obstacles, and nowadays it is more than merely a terroristic organization (Venhaus, 2010). It turned into “an ideology and a popular global brand that spins a heroic narrative with an idealized version of Islamic jihad” (Venhaus, 2010). A brief overview of its history should be provided in order to discover how this transformation has become possible and whether it will be able to exist for long in such a format, especially if to take into consideration its fragmented nature, decentralized structure of governance and rising threats like those posed by the ISIS.
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History of Al-Qaeda up to September 11, 2001 and in the Aftermath of the Incident
Al-Qaeda is perhaps the only terrorist organization in the world that has not only acquired international reach within a short period of time and launched the most tragic and powerful attack against the USA, but also has managed to evolve significantly throughout the history of its existence. In fact, events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath have also contributed to the evolution of the organizations just like other milestones in its history. However, it remains unknown whether the organization will manage to tackle successfully the emerging threats and a gradual loss of supporters who are either discouraged by violence or strive for more extreme actions and flee to the ISIS and other emerging radicalized terrorist groups.
Al-Qaeda would not have existed without its founder and charismatic leader Osama bin Laden. He was born in 1957 in the family of a Saudi magnate (Rollins, 2011). His family belonged to the conservative direction of Muslim faith, in particular Sunni Muslims, which determined bin Laden’s upbringing and subsequent views as an adult. Hence, virtually since childhood, the future most notorious terrorist adopted radicalized and militaristic Islamists views, which were only reinforced during the period of his studying at the university in Jeddah (Rollins, 2011). At the university, young bin Laden also met Muhammad Qutb who was the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood and inspired the former to adopt jihad. Roughly at the same time, bin Laden met Abdullah al Azzam who became a source of inspiration for his future actions (Rollins, 2011). In 1979, Osama bin Laden visited Afghanistan for the first time and joined the Soviet-Afghan war. After that he moved to Pakistan in 1986 (Rollins, 2011). Osama bin Laden used his personal funds as well as generous donations of his rich Saudi acquaintances who were sympathetic to mujahedins fighting against the Soviet occupation (Rollins, 2011). Hence, personal funds of Osama became the underlying foundation of his activities in Afghanistan and later gave rise to Al-Qaeda.
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During the Soviet-Afghan war, bin Laden served as a recruiter for willing fighters among Arab and Islamic men and together with Azzam he managed to build a vast international network of connections, volunteers and donations across Europe, Arab countries and the USA within a few years (Rollins, 2011). The first name of the network was Maktab al Khidamat, or Al Khifah, which was the imminent predecessor of Al-Qaeda (Rollins, 2011). During 1986-1987, Osama bin Laden met many Egyptian Islamists who later significantly influenced his vision of the organization and functioning of the organization of jihadi fighters. It is also known that bin Laden’s activities aimed against the Soviets in Afghanistan were supported by the US government in the form of money and arms. Hence, the US directed about $3 billion to support Soviet opponents as well as transporting immense amounts of arms across the Pakistani border to Afghan mujahedins and non-Afghan fighters recruited by bin Laden from 1981 to 1991 (Rollins, 2011). Thus, it may be assumed that the US government initially founded Osama bin Laden’s activities and organization without even realizing what detrimental consequences this assistance would have in the nearest future.
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Although Osama bin Laden received and accepted US assistance, his radicalization and anti-Western moods only intensified until he declared the US the key enemy of the Muslim world because it interfered into the internal affairs of Muslim countries. This criticism of the US was only deepened because the latter supported Israel in its conflict with Palestine. In 1988, Osama bin Laden and his close associates started contemplating the future of their network, but their opinions drastically differed (Rollins, 2011). At the same time, the name Al-Qaeda, which in Arabic means ‘the base’, appeared. Azzam wanted it to be “an Islamic rapid reaction force” that would intervene into conflicts that would threaten Muslims (Rollins, 2011). In contrast, Osama bin Laden wanted Al-Qaeda to become an organization that would overthrow secular regimes of Arab countries orchestrated, supported, and manipulated by Western countries (Rollins, 2011). His primary targets included the royal family of Saudi Arabia and Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. The two leaders could not resolve their disagreement, and in 1989 Azzam was killed, supposedly upon the bin Laden’s order in an attempt to end the power struggle and start building Al-Qaeda (Rollins, 2011).
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Afterwards, Osama bin Laden became the sole leader of the organization whose personality created a sort of a cult and inspired hundreds of jihadi fighters to join his anti-Western course. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait only strengthened anti-Western views and made him an adversary of the Saudi government. In 1991, Osama had to move to Sudan where he set up the base and training camps for his fighters as well as launching terrorist cells across Europe (Rollins, 2011). He stayed in the country until 1996, when he was expelled under the pressure of the Egyptian and the US governments. During the same year, he moved to Afghanistan and became a close ally of the Taliban movement. The early history of Al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and his top-rank officer Zawahiri was reigned by their sincere belief that the “only way to bring Islamic regimes to power was to oust from the region the perceived backer of secular regional regimes, the United States” (Rollins, 2011). Therefore, during the 1990s the organization accumulated powers and made strategic plans, arranged training camps for its fighters and propagated their causes to justify their terrorist acts. By the tragic events of 2001, Al-Qaeda grew into an international network with cells in more than 70 countries and thousands of supporters and sponsors that had carried out several notorious attacks. For instance, it took responsibility for Yemen bombings of 1992, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, Somali attacks on US soldiers in 1993, bombing of US military facility in Riyadh in 1995, bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996, bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and 2000 attack of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen (Rollins, 2011).
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Undoubtedly, Al-Qaeda has gained its international notoriety and status of the most effective and efficient terroristic organization thanks to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Prior to those events, the organization had already carried out some successful attacks but failed to strike the USA as its primary enemy in a painful and memorable way. Thus, it was regarded as one of potential threats to the US national security before 2001. On the other hand, after September 2001 Al-Qaeda became a threat number one that had to be eliminated by all means possible.
In September of 2001, 19 terrorists of Al-Qaeda managed to hijack four passenger planes and subsequently inflict the most devastating and costly terrorist attack in the modern history of the USA. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were successful, whereas an attempted attack of Washington failed due to the heroism of passengers who tried to overcome the terrorists and made the plane crash before it reached its destination. This event was a significant milestone in the history of the organization as it was the first successful terrorist attack against symbolic buildings of the USA of such scope. Besides, these events triggered a harsh response from the US government, which declared an international war on terrorism and started a large-scale hunt for Osama bin Laden in particular and Al-Qaeda in general. Therefore, the current paper reviews the history of the organization before September 11 and in its aftermath.
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At the time of September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda resembled a corporation in terms of its structure, with Osama bin Laden being its CEO who had support of the centralized leadership and smaller branches following closely regulations and orders of the center. Besides, its core leadership consisted mainly of fighters who had participated in the Afghan war and were ready to blindly and loyally follow their spiritual and ideological leader, i.e. bin Laden. However, the attacks resulted in profound changes within the organization, which had to transform and adapt to the new world that was waging a war on terror. It continued planning and implementing attacks across the world, for instance, train bombings in Madrid in 2004 or underground bombings in London in 2005 (Zimmerman, 2013). However, its operations had to become more covert, and no attack could surpass September 11, 2001 terrorist act in terms of its political, ideological, and financial impact. Al-Qaeda started relying on its franchise and affiliates springing up all over the world and attainting a considerable degree of independence. Over the years following the attack, the organization gradually turned into a “diffuse global network and philosophical movement” consisting of various cells spread globally and acting locally (Rollins, 2011). Osama bin Laden considered the war in Iraq to be a promising opportunity for defeating the US and its Western allies, but these aspirations failed and he had to run away.
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In the subsequent years, he became the most famous and coveted fugitive in the world who was reportedly hiding together with his closest officers in Pakistan. However, the organization managed to survive these hardships and became even more enduring and efficient. It lost its corporate-like structure and was subject to significant decentralization of operations, which though benefitted Al-Qaeda on the whole. Its affiliates gained independence in actions but had to comply with the overall ideology of the core organization, which permeated all cells and nodes of the jihadi movement. Hence, the organization became less dependent on Osama bin Laden, which allowed it to survive his assassination in 2011. For many years, the US government pictured Osama bin Laden as the epitome of evil and the root of all problems relating to terrorism (Krishnamurthy, 2014). Therefore, he was equated to Al-Qaeda and the two were deemed to be inseparable concepts (Simcox, 2013). Thus, Americans supposed that death of Osama bin Laden meant destruction of Al-Qaeda or at least signaled the beginning of its end.