This paper will provide an in-depth organizational profile of the international terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda, Arabic for “the base”, as well as a look at the leadership, funding, support locations, personnel strength, ideology, targeting, tactics, capability, communications, and overall goals of the group. Al-Qaeda was responsible for the worst attack on United States soil on September 11, 2001, as they planned and executed the hijacking of four commercial airliners and crashed two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the fourth was disrupted and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Al Qaeda was founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden to consolidate the international network he established during the Afghan war. The United States Department of State official designated al-Qaeda as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on 8 October 1999.
According to a 1998 U.S. federal indictment, al-Qaeda is governed by a shura council that ranked under Osama bin Laden (U.S. vs. bin Laden, 1998). Since 2001, it is hard to determine if the shura council still exists. Many of the council members have been detained or killed due to the counter-terrorism pressure applied on the organization. A 2007 U.S. military press release confirmed the council was defunct (U.S. DoD Press Release, 2007). Until May, 2011, bin Laden was the leader of al-Qaeda however, the raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by elite U.S. forces resulted in the death of bin Laden (Brown, 2012). The following month, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had served as bin Laden’s deputy and al-Qaeda’s ideological adviser assumed the role as leader of the organization (Sheridan, 2011). The Rewards for Justice Program, United States Department of State, is offering a reward of up to $25 million for information leading directly to the apprehension or conviction of Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Al Qaeda ideology is based on Salafi thoughts, radicalism, fighting Shiites, and fighting the West, it can be defined as a radical Salafi ideology (Gunaratna, 2005). Al-Qaeda’s viewpoint is that Muslims are under attack, only al-Qaeda and its followers are fighting for Islam, and if you’re not supporting us then you are supporting the enemy (Quiggan, 2009). Today, the terrorist threat has moved beyond the individual and the group to an ideology. As we can see the death of bin Laden has had no effect on the group’s operations. Even if Ayman Al-Zawahiri is killed or captured, the terrorist threat will not diminish. If al-Qaeda is destroyed, the terrorist threat will continue. In many ways, al-Qaeda has completed its mission of being the driving force of Islamic movements. Before it dies, it will have inspired a generation of existing groups and shown the way for a new generation of radical jihadists (Jones, 2014).
“We have declared jihad against the US, because in our religion it is our
duty to make jihad so that God’s word is the one exalted to the heights and
so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries.”
–Statement by Osama bin Laden, 1997
Al-Qaeda does not have one single headquarters. They are dispersed throughout the region and mostly undercover. In the late 1990s al-Qaeda was in Pakistan along the Afghan border in the tribal region. The group has had operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and North Africa. The consensus among analysts is that al-Qaeda has trained numerous terrorists groups in Pakistan’s tribal area.
AQ was based in Afghanistan until Coalition Forces removed the Afghan Taliban from power in late 2001. Since then, the group’s core leadership is believed to reside largely in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. AQ affiliates – AQI, AQAP, AQIM, and al-Shabaab – operate in Iraq and Syria, Yemen, the Trans-Sahara, and Somalia, respectively (Country Reports on Terrorism, 2013).
Al Qaeda’s methods of raising and moving money have concerned the intelligence community for years. Al Qaeda has a well-developed network of financial resources to support its daily operations, its members and its operations. Al Qaeda raises money from many different sources and use couriers, financial institutions and hawala (an informal transfer system based on the performance and honor of a huge network of money brokers, primarily located in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, operating outside of, or parallel to, traditional banking, financial channels, and remittance systems) to move money for its organization. These sources and conduits are resilient, redundant, and difficult to detect (Roth, Greenburg, Wille, 2004). AQ primarily depends on donations from like-minded supporters, as well as from individuals who believe that their money is supporting a humanitarian cause. Some funds are diverted from Islamic charitable organizations (Country Reports on Terrorism, 2013).
The group has targeted American and other Western interests as well as Jewish targets and Muslim governments. Al-Qaeda is suspected of carrying out or directing sympathetic groups to carry out the December 2007 bomb and suicide attacks in Algiers; May 2003 suicide attacks on Western interests in Casablanca, Morocco; the October 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia; and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blamed al-Qaeda for two attempts on his life in December 2003. In December 2009, al-Qaeda kidnapped two Italian citizens (al-Jazeera) in Mauritania, claiming the abductions were to avenge Italy’s involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Earlier that month, three Spanish aid workers were also captured in Mauritania (CNN) by AQIM operatives; the group said the attack was because of al-Qaeda opposition to the detention of fourteen Islamic militants in Spain, sentenced for involvement in the 2004 Madrid train bombing.
Al-Qaeda-linked attacks include:
• The attempted December 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
• An October 2007 suicide bombing that narrowly missed killing former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Two months later, another bomber succeeds in killing the former prime minister; Pakistani officials blame Baitullah Mahsud, a top Pakistani Taliban commander with close ties to al-Qaeda.
• The February 2006 attack on the Abqaiq petroleum processing facility, the largest such facility in the world, in Saudi Arabia.
• The July 2005 bombings of the London public transportation system.
• The March 2004 bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains, which killed nearly 200 people and left more than 1,800 injured.
• The May 2003 car bomb attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
• The November 2002 car bomb attack and a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli jetliner with shoulder-fired missiles, both in Mombasa, Kenya.
• The October 2002 attack on a French tanker off the coast of Yemen.
• Several spring 2002 bombings in Pakistan.
• The April 2002 explosion of a fuel tanker outside a synagogue in Tunisia.
• The September 11, 2001, hijacking attacks on four U.S. airplanes, two of which crashed into the World Trade Center, and a third of which crashed into the Pentagon.
• The October 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing.
• The August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Al Qaeda employs a number of different terrorist tactics, including suicide bombing, car bombing, roadside bombing, hijackings and paramilitary operations against civilian and military targets. Most of the organization’s attacks are well-planned and often evolve over a number of months, if not years. One of Al Qaeda’s most distinguishing tactics is the multiple suicide bombing; examples of this are the July 2005 bombings in London and the November 2005 bombings in Amman. In this type of attack, a number of suicide bombers, generally two to five, coordinate their attacks to strike a number of targets at roughly the same time. This tactic not only causes significantly more damage and casualties than a single bomb, it also creates a greater sense of panic among victims (Al-Qaeda).
Al Qaeda is also adept at using the media to further its goals. Its attacks are constantly shown on news channels around the world and its taped messages are broadcast to millions of listeners. Though most media outlets seek to delegitimize Al Qaeda, they unwittingly spread its message by heavily covering the group’s activities and proclamations (Al-Qaeda).
While AQ core leadership in Pakistan is much diminished, Ayman al-Zawahiri remains the recognized ideological leader of a jihadist movement that includes AQ-affiliated and allied groups worldwide. Along with AQ, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and other like-minded groups continue to conduct operations against U.S., Coalition, Afghan, and Pakistani interests from safe havens on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, and in Pakistan, terrorist groups and AQ allies have executed armed assaults on police stations, judicial centers, border posts, and military convoys.
Al-Qaeda’s main goal has been to oust Western influence in Muslim lands, especially Americans. Al-Qaeda leadership has always believed that American influence has been their largest roadblock to establishing an Islamic nation. Al-Qaeda believed the best way to drive the U.S. out of the region was to carry out a crusade of jihad to inflict economic, political, and physical damage to U.S. forces. Once successful, al-Qaeda would establish Islamic rule and expand their jihad around the region. Ultimately, they wish to join all of the Islamic states and establish a Caliphate in the Islamic empire.
Al-Qaeda operations included recruitment, logistical support, fund raising, propaganda, and training fighters in camps to conduct unconventional warfare. Al-Qaeda maintains extensive businesses and charities as front organizations, and traditional financial channels for flows of funds and communications needed to keep its network of allied groups functioning effectively. Some are entities created by al-Qaeda but in many cases, it has infiltrated and taken over existing charities, banks, and businesses. Finally, al-Qaeda has committed terrorist attacks which won it notoriety.