AL-QAEDA (THE BASE) (Religious Movement)

Founder: Osama bin Laden (b. 1957)

Al-Qaeda is one of many of the so-called Islamist (see Islamism) groups—movements that are politically active in the cause of establishing an Islamic state—to have emerged in modern times. Others include the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin).

Not all Islamist groups have recourse to violent means to achieve their goal. In a departure from classical Islamic thought as expressed in the four Sunni schools of law (madhhabs) and a number of authentic traditions that convey the mind of the Prophet Muhammad on this subject, Al-Qaeda has legitimated the use of violence even against civilians as the suicide attacks on the twin towers in New York on 11 September 2001 so graphically illustrated.

Al-Qaeda originated in Afghanistan during the campaign to rid the country of the Russian army, which had invaded the territory in 1979. Freedom fighters composed of Afghani Muslims and Muslims from Arab countries and the rest of the world, collectively known as the mujahideen (those fighting jihad or holy war), backed with military hardware, logistical support and cash by the United States through the CIA, eventually forced the Russians to withdraw in 1989.

During the campaign against the ‘secular’ Soviets Osama bin Laden forged close links with a number of other jihadi groups including that led by the Egyptian medical doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri (b. 1951) founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and imprisoned in Egypt on suspicion of being involved in the assassination (1981) of President Anwar Sadat. Sayyid Qutb’s writings (see Qutb, Sayyid) exercised a very strong influence on alZawahiri’s thinking and in particular his observations on Islam and monotheism or belief in one God which he described as the core issue that separates Muslims from their enemies. Following Sayyid Qutb, al-Zawahiri insists that the true Muslim acknowledges that all power belongs to God and hence accepts the necessity of applying his law or shari’a while others follow human, materialistic laws.

The relationship between bin Laden and al-Zawahiri matured in Afghanistan where they met in 1986 while the latter, a militant prior to his arrival, was rebuilding his Islamic Jihad movement which had been outlawed in Egypt. Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri adopts a militant approach to the transformation of society along Islamic lines in that he is committed to the use of force against governments and political leaders, and even civilians.

Both men were greatly impressed by the philosophy and tactics of the conservative Taliban whose rise to power in Afghanistan had begun in the early 1990s and was completed by 1996. AlZawahiri’s Islamic Jihad supported this new government’s ban on women working and attending school or university and its laws enforcing their wearing of the veil. For its part the Taliban government facilitated the strengthening and training of his movement’s members. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden reached an agreement with Mullah Omar head of the Taliban which recognized him as the leader and protector of the Arab Afghans in the country. With its privileged position bin Laden’s organization began to act as a state within a state.

The relationship between the two jihadi leaders, bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, was formalized in 1998 with the signing of an agreement that united their movements which now formed the International Islamic Front for Jihad on Jews and Crusaders. The new movement issued a fatwa (a legal opinion on a point of law) that ordered Muslims to kill Americans whether soldiers or civilians and confiscate their wealth. America in the post-Cold War era is perceived as the leader of the West, of Christendom, of the Land of Unbelievers, the land of war (dar al harb). Innocent civilians are regarded as legitimate targets for attack for the reason that since they freely choose their rulers they must be held responsible for the deeds of the latter, a line of argument rejected by most Muslims including even many of those who would like to see the creation of an Islamic state in countries where the majority of the population is Muslim. Al-Qaeda remains the name by which most observers refer to the movement started by bin Laden and he is seen as its all powerful and undisputed leader. This name has come to be used as an umbrella term for a vast array of radical Muslim groups worldwide, including the militant group led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq which in 2004 assumed the name ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’ and its leader that of Emir or prince of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. This notwithstanding, it is not known how much control the Al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan has over the many activists who claim to carry out activities in its name. What is clear is that Osama bin Laden has become the most important and inspiring symbol for all those Muslims who espouse the use of warfare in pursuit of their goals.

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