August 17, 2008

Name: Al-Qaida, Al-Qa’idah, al Qaeda, or “the Base”

Type: religious (fundamentalist)

Ideology: Militant Islamist. The group seeks to overthrow Western-influenced governments and to replace them with Islamic regimes under the rule of Shariah, or Islamic law.

Al-Qaida, under the leadership of Usama bin Laden, has declared holy war on the United States for its “occupation of holy lands” and has issued a total of three fatwas (religiously sanctioned opinions on civil or religious matters), in which it declared the duty of every Muslim to kill Americans, civilian or military, wherever possible.[1]

Description: The name al-Qaida, or “the Base,” dates back to 1988 and reportedly originated from the term used to refer to one of bin Laden’s guesthouses, where the Mujahideen that came to fight in Afghanistan were required to register. These registration records later provided bin Laden with extensive contacts to Islamist fighters around the world.[2] Al-Qaida includes, in addition to the warriors present at bin Laden’s camps, a loose network of terrorist cells throughout the world. The most outstanding features of al-Qaida are its international outreach and vast financial resources, derived mainly from bin Laden’s personal wealth and financial dealings.

Group Leader and Background: Usama bin Laden was raised in Saudi Arabia in a wealthy, high profile, family of Yemeni origins. The beginning of his radicalization dates back to his university studies in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was linked to members of the Muslim Brotherhood.[3] Later, his involvement in the Afghan struggle against the Soviet occupation played a major role in shaping his ideology. During this experience, he found a sense of purpose and became deeply religious. Bin Laden also made contacts with Islamic fighters from around the world and participated in a victorious struggle against a secular superpower. The combination of bin Laden’s wealth, connection to, and command over, experienced, motivated, and radical Islamic militants, and his fervent anti-US orientation make him a serious threat to US national security.

Total Members: According to an Arab security service, al-Qaida consists of 2,830 members, including 594 Egyptians, 410 Jordanians, 291 Yemenis, 255 Iraqis, 162 Syrians, 177, Algerians, 111 Sudanese, 63 Tunisians, 53 Moroccans, and 32 Palestinians.[1] These numbers may accurately reflect the proportion of nationalities in the organization, but it is doubtful that anyone (including bin Laden) has such exact counts. There are estimates that the number of members may be much higher. Many al-Qaida members are Mujahideen veterans of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation. These militants fight not only for their cause, but also because it is the only life they know. Most cannot return to their native countries because of their militancy.

Resources: The primary source of funding is believed to be bin Laden’s fortune. Besides the money he inherited, bin Laden and al-Qaida are believed to receive continuous funding from supporters around the world. Bin Laden is also the owner of many international businesses. His wealth is estimated to be around $300 million.[2,3] A substantial portion of this money is reportedly deposited in accounts under false names in Western Europe, and is hidden among the funds of several charitable organizations, such as the Muslim World League (MWL), the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and Islamic cultural centers in Europe, including one in Milan, Italy.[5] Bin Laden is also believed to benefit from the drug trade in Afghanistan, the world’s leading exporter of heroin. In addition, bin Laden may have assisted the Taliban in arranging money-laundering facilities with the help of international criminal organizations.[3]

Training: Al-Qaida operates approximately 12 training camps in Afghanistan, in which it has reportedly trained as many as 5,000 militants. These militants have allegedly created cells in 50 countries. Some of these trainees may be “sleeper” agents, who live undetected among local populations.[6]

Special Military Equipment: As a result of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union, al-Qaida possesses significant military equipment, including SCUD-B missiles, which fleeing Soviet troops left behind, and Stingers (heat-seeking ground-to-air anti-aircraft missiles) that the Mujahideen received from the US Central Intelligence Agency during their struggle with the Soviets.[8]

Alleged WMD Capability: Many reports have claimed that bin Laden has attempted to acquire nuclear material and ready-made warheads from entities in Russia, unspecified chemical weapons from entities in Iraq and Sudan, and biological agents such as botulinum toxin, plague, and anthrax from entities in the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia.[3,7] There is no evidence to support these claims, particularly those reports regarding possession of nuclear weapons.

Technical Sophistication: Al-Qaida members are familiar with modern communications and have been reported to use encrypted e-mail, cellular phones, satellite communications, and training manuals on CD-ROMs.[6]

Tactics: The group emphasizes the symbolic value of targets when making its selection (i.e., US embassies, World Trade Center, military barracks, USS Cole). Also, the group is one of the few terrorist organizations that employ suicide bombers in delivering its strikes (i.e., USS Cole attack). Al-Qaida and its close allies, Gama’a al-Islamyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, have used this tactic in the past (although their combined total is only five attacks). Only six other organizations have ever used suicide attacks.[10]

Group Ties: The closest allies of al-Qaida are the Egyptian groups Gama’a al-Islamyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad[9]. Both organizations were the co-founders of the Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders, the international alliance of terrorist organizations announced by bin Laden on May 28, 1998.

US prosecutors have also stated that al-Qaida members received training in bomb-making from Hizballah (Hezbollah), an Iranian-backed Shi’i Islamic group, although such cooperation is very unlikely, due to the extreme anti-Shi’i ideology propagated by Osama bin Laden and his supporters.[6]

Designated Successors: One possible successor is Ayman Al Zawahiri, a physician and leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was an important early influence on bin Laden in Afghanistan and is believed to be bin Laden’s adviser and doctor. He is the member of the majlis al shura (consultation council) of al-Qaida and is the co-founder of the Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders.[3,11] Another possible successor is Muhammad Atef (Abu Haffs al Masri), also a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who was “lent” to bin Laden by Al Zawahiri. Allegedly second in command behind bin Laden, Atef is a member of al-Qaida’s majlis al shura and is the group’s chief of military operations. Atef has the principal responsibility of training al-Qaida members.[3,11]

Incidents: The US State Department currently links al-Qaida to many recent terrorist attacks, among them the World Trade Center bombing (February 1993); the attacks in Riyadh (November 1995) and Dhahran (June 1996), Saudi Arabia; the assassination attempt on Egyptian President Mubarak in Ethiopia (June 1995); the near-simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (August 1998), and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen (November 2000).[12]

[1] International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism, “Al Qa’ida — The Base,”, accessed September 17, 2001.
[2] Frontline, “A Biography of Osama bin Laden,”, accessed March 14, 2001.
[3] Simon Reeve,” The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden” (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999).
[4] Yoram Schweitzer, “Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Terrorist Groups,”, accessed September 13, 2001.
[5] Shaul Shay and Yoram Schweitzer, “The ‘Afghan Alumni’ Terrorism,”, accessed September 17, 2001.
[6] Stephen Engelberg, “One Man and a Global Web of Violence,” New York Times, January 14, 2001.
[7] Kimberly McCloud & Matthew Osborne, “WMD Terrorism and Usama bin Laden,”, accessed September 17, 2001.
[8] Ali A. Jalali, “Afghanistan: The Anatomy of an Ongoing Conflict,”, September 17, 2001.
[9] Yoram Schweitzer, “Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Terrorist Groups,”, accessed on 13 September 2001.
[10] Yoram Schweitzer, “Suicide Terrorism: Development & Characteristics,”, September 17, 2001.
[11] United States District Court Southern District of New York, “United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., defendants. -Text of Indictment,”, accessed September 17, 2001.

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