A commentary on the origins of al-Qa’eda, Bin Laden’s history and ideology, and the evolution of al-Qa’eda through the years.
Few people in the world have attracted as much simultaneous hatred and adoration as Osama Bin Laden. His death several months ago spurred tears of joy to some and tears of mourning to others. Regardless of the emotion he evokes, Bin Laden’s impact on the course of world events is irrefutable. What follows is an attempt to chart key events in Bin Laden’s ideological development and trace the establishment of al-Qa’eda to its current place in world affairs.
Born into a wealthy family with close ties to Saudi royalty, Bin Laden first immersed himself into Islamist thought when he attended King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. At Abdul Aziz, Bin Laden frequented lectures of Professor Muhammad Qutb, brother of Seyyed Qutb; a prominent figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s – who was later imprisoned and executed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser’s regime. Bin Laden embraced the anti-secular works of Seyyed Qutb and adopted the ideology of Salafism. This ideology emphasizes an orthodox interpretation of Shari’ah and Islamic tradition, and frowns upon speculative Islamic theology, western Capitalism, Socialism, Sufism or any other schools of thought alien to the “original Islam” of the ancestors. Salafim, or al-Salafiyyah, is often associated with the strict Hanballi School of Islamic jurisprudence and Wahhabism, the conservative state ideology of Saudi Arabia. What western media often labels “Islamic extremism” or “Islamic fundamentalism” can usually be more accurately associated with al-Salafiyyah.
Bin Laden’s personal ideology developed further under the works and teachings of Dr. Abdullah Yusef Azzam at Abdul Aziz University. Azzam was a Salafi theologian, preacher, and influential member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood who argued for a united front between Salafist and Islamist groups, focusing different national struggles into a united global jihad against enemies of Islam.
In the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Azzam issued a fatwa urging Muslims around the world to join in jihad against the Soviet Union to protect Muslim lands in Afghanistan. Soon after the Soviet invasion, Azzam left Abdul Aziz University for the Peshawar province of Pakistan (near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border) to develop an organizational framework for international recruits responding to calls for jihad against the Soviet Occupation. After graduating from Abdul Aziz in 1981, Bin Laden heeded the calls for jihad and joined Azzam in Pakistan.
Using the fortune he had inherited from his construction-mogul family, Bin Laden helped fund Azzam’s efforts to recruit Arab and Muslim volunteers for the Afghani Mujahedeen. He tapped his connections with Saudi elites to collect money for the cause and used the funds to establish training camps and barracks for volunteer fighters. In 1984 the pair had a wide-reaching network of donors from around the world to fund training camps for Arab and Muslim volunteers seeking to join the jihad against the Soviets. This network became known as Maktab al-Khidimat al-Mujahedeen al-Arab, or the Office of Services to the Arab Mujahedeen, and was al-Qa’eda’s organizational predecessor. They established Maktab al-Khidimat fundraising offices in the United States and the Arab World while continuing calls to Muslims to join the Mujahedeen. With the funds pouring in from around the world, Bin Laden organized and armed Arab recruits in Afghanistan, who became known as “Afghan Arabs,” to assist Afghani Mujahedeen. Bin Laden fought along-side volunteer and Mujahedeen forces in a few battles in 1986 and 1987.
The Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the midst of the Cold War, as the Kremlin sought to protect the Afghani Marxist-leaning government from an anti-Communist Islamist rebellion backed by the Mujahedeen. In Washington’s eyes, the Mujahedeen provided The United States an opportunity to combat Soviet expansion without direct military intervention. According to reports published by the Congressional Research Service, officials in the Carter administration orchestrated the covert financing of over $3 billion to aid the rebel forces fighting the Soviet occupation. This intelligence operation, codenamed Operation Cyclone by the CIA, funneled American funds and arms through its allies in the region to Mujahedeen andAfghan Arab fighters. Maktab al-Khidimat received most of its funds through the Saudi government, and some experts believe Bin Laden himself had security training from the CIA.
By the end of the Soviet Occupation, Bin Laden’s Islamist network contained 10,000 to 20,000 volunteers, according to US intelligence. He had met members of Egyptian Islamist Ayman Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad Organization who had joined the Mujahedeen. Zawahiri, keen to tap into the billionaire’s funds and network of devoted followers, coaxed Bin Laden away from Azzam’s Maktab al-Khidimat. Zawahiri, like Bin Laden, envisioned using his network to topple secular, pro-Western Arab governments such as Mubarak’s Egypt and Saddam’s Iraq. In 1988, Bin Laden, supported by his new Egyptian counterparts, created his own organization named Al Qa’eda, or “the base.” Soon after, he left Afghanistan.
When Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia, Saudi tensions with Iraq were mounting. Saddam Hussein—fresh out of a war with Iran, in debt, and hungry for geo-political dominance—invaded Kuwait. Bin Laden lobbied the Saudi government to allow him to employ his vast network of militants to intervene against Saddam. Prince Sultan, the Saudi minister of defense, refused to assign him this mission. Rather, Riyadh allowed a United States-led force of Western powers to come to Kuwait’s aid, using Saudi soil as a launch pad for invading Kuwait. This decision by the Saudi regime was a slap in the face to Bin Laden and like-minded Salafists. How could the rulers of the sacred Islamic cities Mecca and Medina extend a carte blanch for military intervention to a non-Muslim, non-Arab country (not to mention Israel’s greatest ally)? To Bin Laden, allowing the United States to station its soldiers on Saudi soil made Riyadh an enemy—it had succumbed to the influence of a non-Muslim power and was allowing itself to be occupied.
Bin Laden issued manifestos to his followers denouncing the Saudi regime, criticizing its allegiance to the West. Wary of his pronounced criticisms of the Saudi Government, the regime froze his financial assets. After he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 for continuing to undermine the regime, Bin Laden went into exile in Sudan where he set up a few camps for veterans of the Afghan war. In Sudan, Bin Laden worked with Zawahiri in Khartoum, who planned to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak while he was visiting Addis Ababa, although Zawahiri spearheaded and masterminded the operation. When the assassination attempt failed in 1996, the Sudanese government forced Bin Laden and his affiliates out after facing pressure from the United States and Egypt. Without many other options, and the promise of a safe-haven for his organization from the Salafi Taliban government, Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, Bin Laden joined leaders of Islamist jihad groups in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Egypt—including Zawahiri—in a joint declaration of jihad entitled “Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders”. In the declaration, the leaders provided justification for jihad, contending that the Arabian Peninsula’s holiest places have been desecrated by the United States, and that the United States uses its bases in the region as a “spearhead through which to fight the […] Muslim peoples.” They accuse the “crusader-Zionist alliance” of striking the strongest Arab countries in order to fragment Arab/Muslim unity against said alliance, referencing the 1998 United States bombing of alleged WMD sites in Iraq. This fatwa was particularly dangerous because it made—according to them—the killing of Americans and their allies, civilian and military, an “individual duty for every Muslim […] in any country which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca]. Most importantly, the fatwa gave a religious justification for the September 11th, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C.
The declaration of jihad attracted the attention of the CIA and prompted a series of arrests of known associates of its issuing members. The crackdown prompted retaliatory attacks on the United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. After a bombing raid of training camps in Afghanistan linked to al-Qa’eda, Bin Laden and Zawahiri masterminded the autumn 2000 attacks of the USS Cole off the port of Aden in Yemen. Al-Qa’eda’s most infamous operation took place on September 11th, 2001 when hijackers took hold of four planes, crashing them into the World Trade Center’s twin towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. This prompted the United States invasion of Afghanistan, where al-Qa’eda was operating. The ensuing war against pro-Taliban forces still continues to this day.
The United States’ invasion of Afghanistan overwhelmed Taliban fighters, and its government was soon replaced with a pro-American regime. Al-Qae’da was weakened as American military and intelligence specifically targeted al-Qae’da strongholds and known al-Qa’eda associates in Afghanistan. Much of its leadership, including Bin Laden and Zawahiri, fled into hiding in neighboring Pakistan.
While hiding from American forces, Bin Laden released a series of videotapes to the media, some with messages to the American people, others to the Muslim world. He served the primary role as a charismatic leader and figurehead for al-Qaeda, using his videos to inspire Islamists angry at Western intervention in the region to join the fight against the United States and their allies. On the other hand, Zawahiri was al-Qa’eda’s principal ideologue and unofficial spokesman. As the decade wore on, Bin Laden’s video appearances grew sparse while Zawahiri’s presence in the media increased. He continuously denounced Western imperialism, the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, while urging Muslims around the world to attack American targets.
Some analysts argue that the United States’ invasion of Iraq had detracted away from the focus on the fight against al-Qa’eda in Afghanistan. This argument suggests that the invasion gives fuel to al-Qa’eda’s recruitment efforts by validating its accusation of the United States as a “crusader power,” bent on plundering Muslim resources and lands and spreading its Western ideology. Since the invasion, the al-Qa’eda franchise in Iraq has successfully launched numerous attacks on United States forces and the post-Saddam American-allied Iraqi government. Experts assert that although al-Qa’eda in Afghanistan has been weakened since the invasion, top members in the organization have been able to command, inspire, and fund al-Qa’eda franchises in Yemen and Somalia while operating from the tribal regions in western Pakistan.
Despite this argument, members of the Obama administration have reported making good progress in their fight against al-Qa’eda. In 2010, then-director of the CIA Leon Panetta suggested that only fifty to one hundred al-Qa’eda members remained in Afghanistan. America’s greatest claim to success against al-Qa’eda came on May 2nd of this year, when President Obama announced the successful killing of Bin Laden by American Special Forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan. CIA agents had been camped in a house next to Bin Laden’s hideout for five months before the operation, monitoring his daily routine and feeding Langley intelligence in preparation for the strike. The news of Bin Laden’s death triggered spontaneous celebrations in front of the White House in Washington, Ground Zero in New York, and college campuses around America. This same news prompted mourning amongst Salafists in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Soon after reports of his killing, al-Qa’eda confirmed it with a public statement, yet assured its supporters that despite their leaders death, America “will not enjoy security until [their] people in Palestine do.”
With Bin Laden now dead, al-Qa’eda is without its founder and iconic leader, as a chapter of modern history comes to an end. It’s ironic that a man once funded has met his end at the same hands. While Bin Laden is gone, his legacy to Salafists and Islamists will endure for years to come. Ayman Zawahiri heads al-Qa’eda today, although specific details about the organization’s current backbone are well hidden for security purposes. Experts still disagree about the extent of al-Qa’eda’s role in Middle Eastern politics in the upcoming years. Al-Qa’eda affiliated groups in Somalia and Yemen remain intact, but the recent “Arab Spring” uprisings have provided Arab youth—al-Qa’eda’s usual recruitment base—an ability to voice discontent in the form of protest and revolution, rather than jihad. Only time will tell how the next chapter of Middle East history will read.