Al-Qaida always meant to have a long-armed reach. When Osama bin Laden founded the group in response to the Soviet-Afghan war, he wanted to create a terror network that didn't just fight or create a regional government.
Instead, the goals of al-Qaida were essentially to carry out terror attacks and destroy the Western influences (which included the United States and Europe, primarily) that he saw as a corrupting force to Islamic society and rule.
Despite its enormous global presence, the organization isn't exactly a monolith with a corporate office. Even with al-Qaida's widespread infamy, the distinction between groups like the Taliban, al-Shabab and even what is now known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) requires some subtlety.
Most of the nuances have developed post-bin Laden. Al-Qaida has gone through several distinct iterations, from anti-Soviet faction in the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s to the vast global terror network that attacked the United States on 9/11, to the spidery, connected cells that appeared during the unrest of the Arab spring.
In the next few pages, we'll delve into not only the birth and adolescence of al-Qaida, but how also bin Laden's death in 2011 pushed the terrorist organization into a kind of third act.
While we'll see how their goals have undergone a functional shift to include regional activity, it does remain: al-Qaida's organizational objective is to destroy the threat that the West presents to the Muslim world, at any cost. Killing and fighting enemies, then, becomes a necessary evil to achieve that goal. Al-Qaida has an extremely tight Sunni interpretation of Islam, and anyone who falls out of that definition -- Shiites, less strict Sunnis and, of course, non-Muslims -- are branded heretics and enemies, as well [source: MI5].
So how did one of the most feared terror networks in the world develop?
Al-Qaida's history isn't ancient; it was started in 1988, at the tail end of the Soviet-Afghan war. Native Saudi Osama bin Laden had been a strong supporter of the anti-Soviet Afghan fighters, and after the conflict he was eager to create an affiliated network of Islamic extremists that had come together during the war [source: MI5].
This international mission was unusual. In general, most Islamic extremists groups were tied to local causes. From 1990 to 1996, al-Qaida's influence wasn't terribly strong; Saudi Arabia had revoked bin Laden's citizenship, and al-Qaida's base shifted to Sudan. But bin Laden continued to see the West (more specifically, the United States) as the corrupting force in the Muslim world. After moving to Afghanistan, al-Qaida issued a "declaration of war" against the U.S. in 1996.
It was in Afghanistan where al-Qaida began to build a serious infrastructure, and terrorist attacks followed. Al-Qaida ambushes on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the USS Cole in Yemen, killed hundreds of people [source: MI5]. These bombings also established a modus operandi for al-Qaida operatives: mass casualty through suicide missions.
It's during the period from 1996 to 2001 that al-Qaida also formed a key relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Initially, the Saudi-based al-Qaida fighters (of which there were only about 30 who first came to Afghanistan) and the Afghani Taliban were leery of each other -- again, the Taliban were one of the organizations that had little interest in the "far enemy" of the West [source: Dreyfuss]. But as al-Qaida gained power and structure, the Taliban agreed to harbor bin Laden and the organization in Afghanistan [source: Dreyfuss].
While 9/11 was certainly the piece de resistance of al-Qaida, the events of September 2011 also threw the organization into a mad scramble. The U.S.-sponsored invasion of Afghanistan led to an overthrow of the Taliban, and the al-Qaida infrastructure was in shambles as its members were forced to flee into the Pakistani/Afghani border (and wilderness). Along with a breakdown of communication, money was suddenly very difficult to get a hold of as the international community cracked down on financing trails.
Which brings us to Osama bin Laden's death and al-Qaida 3.0.
Post-Bin Laden (3.0)
When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the structure of the organization had to go through a rapid transition. Formerly a hierarchy -- one where bin Laden had the final word on any operation -- there was now a void at the top. Combined with the loss of financing, the vision that once set apart al-Qaida from other Islamic extremist groups began to blur. Attacking foreign targets seemed a lot less practical than carrying out smaller terror operations on objectives in local networks.
As we said in the introduction, al-Qaida wants to replace secular states with extreme Islamic leadership and law. While before the means for doing this was to declare a holy war with the West and U.S., post-bin Laden has seen a marked shift in al-Qaida's spread (if not its message, which has remained steadily anti-Western). But that doesn't mean that the group is no longer a threat.
Consider that bin Laden's death wasn't the only momentous event in the Muslim world in 2011; the Arab spring also threw Islamic nations into upheaval. That upheaval could be quite fortunate for al-Qaida, as it provided an unstable, leaderless environment for loose terror networks to spread. While the decentralization of the organization doesn't lend itself to the bigger, bolder planned international attacks of the past, it does provide fertile ground for smaller cells to take hold and grow in unstable areas.
For example, al-Qaida has a fixed stand in Somalia, where it has partnered with al-Shabab (a strict Islamic extremist group that wrested some control of Somalia in 2009 during the Somali civil war). This also holds true for Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) flourished when al-Qaida members in Saudi Arabia escaped across the Yemeni border and stayed for the instability of the Arab spring. Countries like Mali, Nigeria and Algeria are all vulnerable to the group's influence, because of the weak leadership that's endemic to African nations that face extreme poverty and volatility.
Al-Qaida's structure seems to have undergone quite the transformation after bin Laden's death. The inflexibility of the hierarchy might even have been seen in the succession process; Ayman al-Zawahri was dubbed bin Laden's successor, which wasn't a surprise. But it took almost six weeks for al-Qaida to declare him the new leader. This could be because there was a very strict policy about getting all al-Qaida leadership to declare him emir. In fact, al-Qaida's 20-30 person leadership is so scattered that even a shoo-in like al-Zawahri may have had to wait awhile for the nod because communication is so difficult between the cells [source: Crilly].
Whereas before his death bin Laden seemed to be where the buck stopped in al-Qaida, there is now a "dune organization." That means a roaming group of networks that -- while still dedicated to installing Sharia law in Muslim countries -- have disparate, local, short-term goals [source: Wiseman].
But what does al-Qaida structure actually look like? Pretty insular, actually. According to a June 2012 story in the Toronto Standard by counterterrorism analyst Jason Wiseman, it follows this pattern:
So while the organization has changed, it's still a functioning entity that can create -- or support existing -- local networks.
Al-Qaida As It Stands
Now that we've discussed the origins of al-Qaida, along with the current structure and leadership, what is the present threat like?
There's good news and bad news. The good news is that because of the upheaval in hierarchy and organizational style, al-Qaida isn't as much of a threat to plan, create and pull off a 9/11-type attack. The leadership just isn't there, nor is the country that can provide a safe base of operation.
But that doesn't mean that al-Qaida is no longer a global menace. The organization is operational in some 60 countries, each of which could have the potential to create a haven for a larger movement [source: Wiseman]. And it's not like al-Qaida is just setting off sparklers in local areas. The group is bent on attacks that are designed to kill a lot of people and create enormous fear in the general public.
It also doesn't mean that the U.S. or the West is safe. Al-Qaida is still extremely dedicated to its larger, international mission to destroy Western influence. Their targets, while not in the U.S. or Europe, might be allied with them -- consulates or embassies, say. Keep in mind, too, that it's extremely difficult to thwart a small, insular operation conducted by a limited cell.
And it's not just terror operations that make al-Qaida a menace. Its financing is largely derived from illegal activities, and -- like its networks -- it seems to be a self-sustaining model for each cell. That means that local activities appear to fuel each network, like the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan and kidnapping ransoms in North Africa. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency even found that al-Qaida was working with drug trafficking groups in South America [source: Ehrenfeld]. Donors in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's home turf, also provide an enormous amount of funding to al-Qaida and affiliates.
Want to know more about al-Qaida and its most recent iteration? Read on for lots more information.
Author's Note: How Al-Qaida 3.0 Works
It's rare that I fear the government knocking on my door when I write a HowStuffWorks article (although who doesn't want to know how to install a window in their home?), but this one had me pretty convinced I would have to cough up a search history for some G-men. It didn't happen (yet), but not because al-Qaida 3.0 is no longer a threat. If anything, I found from my research that ignoring the smaller cells could do the rest of the world a grave harm in the long run.
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