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?