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The Making of Al-Qaeda

Sunday, August 11, 2019

/ by Satyagrahi

On this day, 31 years ago, terror group Al-Qaeda was founded by Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and "Dr. Fadl in Peshawar, Pakistan. It grew out of the US-aided Arab volunteers who had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against Soviet Communism. The US launched a war on terror to eliminate Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. Today, Al Qaeda stands transformed into a multinational movement with franchises in at least 16 countries.

What brought Al-Qaeda into existence?

On August 11, 1988, Al-Qaeda was formed at a meeting attended by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Dr. Fadl in Peshawar, Pakistan. The creation of the group brought together extraordinary Saudi wealth, the expertise of a lifetime Egyptian militant, and a philosophical foundation for jihad from a Cairo intellectual.
On this day, Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif aka "Dr. Fadl" attended a meeting in Peshawar with several senior leaders of Egyptian Islamist terrorist group al-Jihad, along with Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who oversaw the recruitment of Arabs to the cause. A protégé of Azzam, a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, joined them.

The Soviets had already announced their intention to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the prospect of victory awakened many old dreams among these men. They were not the same dreams, however. The leaders of al-Jihad, especially Zawahiri, wanted to use their well-trained warriors to overthrow the Egyptian government. Azzam longed to turn the attention of the Arab mujahideen to Palestine. Neither had the money or the resources to pursue such goals.

Bin Laden, on the other hand, was rich, and he had his own vision: to create an all-Arab foreign legion that would pursue the retreating Soviets into Central Asia and also fight against the Marxist government that was then in control of South Yemen.
According to Montasser al-Zayyat, an Islamist lawyer in Cairo who is Zawahiri's biographer, Dr. Fadl proposed supporting bin Laden with members of al-Jihad. Combining Saudi money with Egyptian militant expertise, the men who met that day formed a new group, called al-Qaeda. "We used to call the training camp al Qaeda," bin Laden would later recall.
"And the name stayed."

Why was the Afghan war critical to its formation?

Al Qaeda, which means ‘the base’, originated in the decade long Islamic resistance to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. Starting as a civil war between Afghanistan’s communist government and anti-communist guerrillas in 1978, the Afghan War escalated when the Soviet Union sent its troops into Afghanistan in an attempt to shore up the beleaguered Communist government.

The jihad declared against the Soviet Union became an international rallying call, resulting in thousands of young Muslims from around the world flocking to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda originated as a kind of logistical network tasked with supporting, organising and funding the resistance against the USSR’s troops.

Osama Bin Laden was one of the young Muslims who headed to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and he played an important organisational role in the fight against the USSR. The son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian construction magnate, Bin Laden had been heavily influenced in his youth by the sermons of Abdullah Azzam and Sayyid Qutb.

Generously funding the fight against the Soviet Union with his personal wealth, Bin Laden slowly developed plans for a more international organisation. The “Gold Chain” support network allowed wealthy financiers from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf States to channel money to a “Bureau of Services” which was internationally used to recruit and train new fighters. Clandestine support for the rebels from the Saudi Arabian and United States’ government, which saw them both secretly channel billions of dollars to the cause in an attempt to undermine the Soviet Union, allowed the network overseen by Bin Laden to become an increasingly powerful entity.

Al Qaeda was born from the decision to create a “global jihad”, an organisation which could build on the success of the Afghan campaign and became a nexus for jihad campaigns around the world.

Over the next few years the organisation strengthened through alliances with Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, and the Islamic Group. Training camps were created at different locations around the world to teach agents paramilitary skills in preparation for attacks on targets across the globe.

The conflict against the USA started in 1990, when the US army began stationing troops in Afghanistan ahead of the first Gulf War. Bin Laden had offered his troops to protect Afghanistan against Iraq, and was angered by the US’ decision to ignore this offer.

Bin Laden then moved his base of operations to Sudan, where he forged links with militants across the Middle East and North Africa who played a role in numerous terrorist attacks, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center when a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The plan was to kill “tens of thousands of people” but it failed and only six died. Eight years after this, Laden would try again – this time with planes, not trucks.

In February 1998, after being expelled from Sudan and returning to Afghanistan, he issued a fatwa against the United States. Later that year, he ordered the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which kill 224 people.

When did Al-Qaeda unleash its lethal power?

Al Qaeda’s rise came in four waves. In 1988, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other leaders established al Qaeda to combat Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Ten years later, on August 7, 1998, al Qaeda perpetrated simultaneous attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Al Qaeda operatives then bombed the USS Cole on October 12, 2000, while it was refueling in Yemen. The attack killed 17 U.S. soldiers and injured 39 others.

This first wave of attacks peaked in 2001 with September 11.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes, deliberately crashing two of the planes into the upper floors of the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex and a third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington.

The Twin Towers ultimately collapsed because of the damage sustained from the impacts and the resulting fires. After learning about the other attacks, passengers on the fourth hijacked plane, Flight 93, fought back, and the plane was crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania about 20 minutes by air from Washington, D.C.

The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people from 93 nations. 2,753 people were killed in New York, 184 people were killed at the Pentagon and 40 people were killed on Flight 93.
Over the next two years, al Qaeda faced a reversal as the United States launched a global War on Terror, and captured or killed its leaders and operatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and across the globe.

A second wave began to build in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, began an aggressive insurgency campaign against the United States and its allies. Zarqawi then joined al Qaeda in 2004. Outside of Iraq, the group conducted attacks in such countries as Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. In March 2004, North African terrorists inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology conducted coordinated bombings against the commuter train system in Madrid, Spain, killing nearly 200 people and injuring approximately 200 others. In July 2005, al Qaeda pulled off one of its most audacious attacks in Europe as suicide bombers targeted three trains in the London Underground and a double-decker bus. The attack killed over 50 people and wounded another 700. But by 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq had been severely weakened, British and American intelligence agencies had foiled several plots, and U.S. drone strikes had killed senior al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda surged for a third time between 2007 and 2009 following the rise of Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic Yemeni-American who had served as an imam in mosques in California and Virginia, and the emergence in Yemen of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. On November 5, 2009, Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major who was in contact with Awlaki, gunned down 13 people and wounded 43 others at Fort Hood, Texas. The next month, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. The bomb ignited, but the main charge failed to go off. That same year, Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. citizen from New York, was arrested for plotting to bomb the New York City subway after meeting with senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.

The reversal of this wave began with the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden and the deaths of other senior al Qaeda leaders following an aggressive U.S. drone campaign.

The Arab Spring and the downsizing or withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan created the conditions for a fourth wave, as al Qaeda affiliates expanded their presence in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Most of the al Qaeda attacks in the fourth wave occurred in “near enemy” countries, not in the West. But the group weakened in 2014 after the rise of ISIS, which was formerly al Qaeda in Iraq.

Where do we see the evidence of the decline?

Al-Qaida maintains a low operational pace; it has thin resources, and limited popular support, and indeed, it is regressing on many of its goals. Rivals like the Islamic State (ISIS) have capitalized on some of its successes, and advancing a movement that other groups have exploited may constitute its greatest achievement.
Although terrorism occurs in fits and starts, the numbers and trends regarding attacks in the West are suggestive of al-Qaida’s decline.  

The al-Qaida core has failed to conduct a successful, spectacular attack in more than 10 years, when its operatives bombed London transportation targets in 2005.
Since the death of Osama Bin Laden, the core has had little or no involvement in international terrorist attacks. The War on Terror has severely diminished its capabilities and structure.
Successful al-Qaida affiliates rarely attack outside of their theaters of operations, although the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris — linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — offers an important counterexample as does that organization’s disrupted attacks on civil aviation in the first years of the Obama administration. Most affiliate organizations focus on their local and regional concerns rather than attacking the West.
The idea of networks and radicalising online is also gathering steam. The structure of the organization can be characterised as a network.

Often, the number of plots rather than the attacks themselves more aptly describes the danger a group poses, yet plots are also an imperfect and potentially misleading indicator. Disrupted plots may indicate a high operational pace, decline in-group capabilities, or improved countermeasures.

Al-Qaida still plots to attack the West, but most such efforts depend on amateurs who lack the training of the generation who trained in al-Qaida camps in the 1990s. In addition, as the skills and efforts of security services increase, disrupted plots become more likely, suggesting that the danger posed by the has decreased. In the United States, for example, aggressive law enforcement services now disrupt plots that might never have succeeded in the first place and would certainly have been ignored in the pre-9/11 era.
Evaluating a group’s resources, particularly recruits and money, offers another indicator to determine success. In the 1990s, al-Qaida grew in influence because it doled out cash and training opportunities to an array of groups and operatives. By 2011, volunteers traveling to Pakistan often received little training and paid for their own equipment, leading to considerable resentment. In the post-9/11 era, affiliates in Iraq, the Mahgreb, and elsewhere often send money to the core organization, not the reverse, inverting the core’s power relative to the affiliates. Al-Qaida still draws some recruits, but the Islamic State has long since been the magnet for foreign fighters.

Today, al-Qaida’s successes are based on mindsets, not operations. Al-Qaida’s message on the necessity of jihad as a pillar of faith seems a spectacular success; this must be counted as a victory for the group. A range of jihadist groups around the Muslim world as well as the Islamic State have embraced attacks on Western targets, demonstrating this success. Similarly, the idea of a global jihad, as opposed to a local focus, is now more mainstream.
The successes against al-Qaida are quite real. However, even as al-Qaida declines, the broader movement it fostered remains robust, with other causes and organizations capitalizing on the ideology and networks that the group promulgated.

Note: The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East in early 2011. But their purpose, relative success, and outcome remain hotly disputed in Arab countries, among foreign observers, and between world powers looking to cash in on the changing map of the Middle East. The term “Arab Spring” was popularized by the Western media in early 2011 when the successful uprising in Tunisia against former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali emboldened similar anti-government protests in most Arab countries.

Who could bring about a fifth wave?

It is unclear whether al Qaeda will be able to establish a fifth wave as the group’s leaders still seek to establish a caliphate that extends from Africa through the Middle East to Asia. Several factors may impact the rise — or decline — of al Qaeda over the next several years. Most of these factors are outside of al Qaeda’s control, although much will depend on how it or other Salafi-jihadist groups respond to them.

First, the withdrawal of U.S. or other Western military forces — particularly special operations forces and air power — from jihadist battlefields could contribute to resurgence. Examples include the withdrawal of U.S. or other Western forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. In at least two of these countries — Syria and Afghanistan — some Trump administration officials have questioned the wisdom of a long-term U.S. commitment. U.S. actions in these countries, however limited, have served as a check against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The U.S. and Soviet exit from Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s contributed to the country’s further deterioration and the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 contributed to a resurgence of al Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, and the spread of extremist ideology across the region.

Second, another Arab Spring or the collapse of one or more governments in the Arab world might allow al Qaeda to strengthen. Instability in some countries (such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia) or continuing war in others (such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, or Syria) could provide al Qaeda or other jihadist groups with key sanctuaries. Among the most significant reasons for al Qaeda’s fourth wave was a weakening of governance during the Arab Spring.

Third, events that highlight the oppression of Muslims by Western governments could give potential propaganda opportunities to al Qaeda. In 2004, the story broke of abuse and humiliation of Iraqi inmates by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. The uncensored photographs appeared on jihadist websites and were used for recruitment purposes. A similar atrocity could be used by the jihadist groups for propaganda. In addition, the United States or other Western countries could overreact to a terrorist attack on their soil and implement domestic policies that broadly target Muslims and create a perception of a so-called war against Islam. Such a development could increase radicalization and recruitment for al Qaeda and other groups.

Fourth, the rise of a charismatic al Qaeda leader might help revitalize the movement. Osama bin Laden was an inspirational leader, as was Anwar al-Awlaki. But the current leader al-Zawahiri has been far less charismatic. This, however, could have changed. In 2016, al Qaeda leaders began to promote one of bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, in their propaganda. In May 2017, the group labeled Hamza bin Laden a “shaykh,” suggesting that it might be considering him for leadership. Although it was unclear whether he will be charismatic enough, his leadership could potentially have helped increase global support for the movement. On Aug. 1, 2019, news emerged that Hamza bin Laden is believed dead and that the United States had a role in his death.

Fifth, a large-scale deployment of U.S. or other Western military conventional forces to Islamic battlefields, however unlikely, could increase the possibility of resurgence by al Qaeda or other groups. The U.S. deployment of conventional forces to fight terrorists overseas has generally failed to stabilize countries and has often been counterproductive. In Iraq, for instance, the U.S. conventional presence contributed to radicalization. Large numbers of U.S. forces in Muslim countries can facilitate terrorist recruitment by increasing local fears of foreign occupation, enabling terrorist recruiters to attract foot soldiers in order to defend Islam.

Sixth, the collapse of ISIS — particularly the core of its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria — might allow al Qaeda or other groups to rejuvenate. The further weakening or collapse of ISIS could also increase the possibility of a merger between fighters loyal to both al Qaeda and the Islamic State under one umbrella — or even to the emergence of a new Salafi-jihadist group.

How likely is an Al-Qaeda comeback?

Although the United States has focused its efforts on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), al Qaeda has quietly lingered on and is attempting to make a comeback. But whether it will succeed is up for debate. Assessments about its future vary between two broad camps.
Some, such as Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman, maintain that the group has been in decline because of limited popular support, effective counterterrorism efforts by the United States and other countries, and al Qaeda’s killing of Muslim civilians. He concludes that there is “good reason to be optimistic that al Qaeda’s decline is for real and might even be permanent.”

Others, such as former FBI agent Ali Soufan, disagree. Soufan contends that al Qaeda is transitioning from a small terrorist outfit with struggling affiliates to a potent transnational network of branches that has gained in numbers and fighting strength and now spans the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argues that the group has “emerged stronger by pursuing a strategy of deliberate yet low-key growth.”

Al Qaeda’s past strength has never been linear, but has waxed and waned based on such factors as the collapse of governments in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Survival is the primary goal of any organization pursuing a long war strategy, and al Qaeda has achieved this goal against heavy odds.

Under the leadership of Ayman al Zawahiri the organization has shown itself to be crafty, resilient and opportunistic. In September 2001 it took advantage of gaps in air transportation security to pull off the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Today it is taking advantage of gaps in U.S. foreign and national security policy — and battlefield ambiguity in places such as Syria, Yemen and Libya — to embed itself in those regions and create bases that it can use to conduct future attacks against the West and eventually attempt to create a caliphate.

Al Qaeda today is a different organization from what it was a decade ago. The movement is less centralized, less focused on terrorist operations in the West for the moment, and less popular. Based on these challenges, it is unclear whether al Qaeda or other jihadists will be able to rebound. Even if there is resurgence, it could be led by al Qaeda, ISIS, a new organization, or a mix of Salafi jihadist groups.

Such a revival will likely hinge on the ability to take advantage of opportunities that emerges, such as the collapse of one or more Arab governments. But the Islamist extremism that al Qaeda represents will not go away soon. The ideology will survive in some form as wars in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continue to rage.
Note: Salafi jihadism is a transnational religious-political ideology based on a belief in "physical" jihadism and the Salafi movement of returning to what adherents believe to be true Sunni Islam

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