Leadership with Al Qaeda is highly selective. Only about 200 individuals have sworn loyalty (bayat) to bin Laden and provide the leadership cadre. Empty leadership positions caused by deaths and captures are filled by highly motivated subordinates. These leaders have extensive contacts in the Islamist world and communicate via the Internet.
Bin Laden recruited a large number of Afghan fighters into Al Qaeda at the end of the Afghan-Soviet War. Many of these recruits headed back to their native countries, where they formed indigenous terrorist groups. Among the more prominent groups affiliated with Al Qaeda are Abu Sayyaf (the Sword of God, Philippines), the Armed Islamic Group (the GIA, Algeria), Hezbollah (the Party of God, Lebanon), the Islamic Group (Egypt), Hamas (Palestine), the Islamic Jihad (Egypt), Jemaah Islamiyah (Indonesia), and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF, Philippines), along with at least 22 additional groups.
Al Qaeda believes in training its operatives in basic combat skills. As many as 110,000 trainees have trained in Al Qaeda camps from 1989 to 2001. Probably about 30,000 have graduated during that period. About 3,000 trainees were assessed as capable of advanced training for terrorist operations. Graduates of these camps retain their affiliation with Al Qaeda when they go elsewhere.
Al Qaeda established various training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s. Most of the instructors were Egyptians and had previous experience in the military or in security forces. After the U.S.-led Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and the loss of Afghanistan as a base, several of these camps were transferred to remote areas in Pakistan to join the Pakistani camps already there.
Instructors at the camps issue a training manual to the trainees that emphasizes teamwork, willing submission to leaders, and, above all, secrecy. Among its recommendations are that apartment living arrangements during a mission should be in groups of three. The manual also recommends that martyrdom missions have at least four targets for greatest effect.
Only a select few of the trainees were deemed worthy of a martyrdom mission. Psychological profiling was conducted by the instructors to select those most worthy. The best candidates were those who were highly religious and well educated. A graduate of the al-Masada Training Camp, Hasan Abd-Rabbuh al-Suraghi, put it another way, stating that instructors looked for candidates who were "young, zealous, obedient, and [who had] a weak character that obeys instructions without question." The instructors had no difficulty finding volunteers.
Western terrorist analysts have been confused over the extent of Al Qaeda's control over these groups. The only consensus is that Al Qaeda has been able to establish a degree of coordination among its member groups. Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan and a former research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has described Al Qaeda as "a secret, almost virtual organization, one that denies its own existence in order to remain in the shadows."
Al Qaeda is a selective organization that rigidly oversees the selection of its members to carry out operations. It recruits only the most talented and motivated candidates, who then earn a modest salary of about $200 a month; those with great responsibilities may receive up to $300. Before the loss of Afghanistan in late 2001, Al Qaeda had trained more than 5,000 operatives in a dozen training camps to carry out terrorist operations. Recruits were processed through main training camps before being sent to various locations for specialized training. About 55 possible training locations existed.
Besides specialized training, political and religious instruction also took place. Bin Laden made regular visits to the camps, where he gave lectures and pep talks. He also held personal talks with those selected for special operations. Bin Laden met with Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah when they arrived for training in Afghanistan. Because of Al Qaeda's high prestige in the Muslim world, there are many Arabs—probably as many as 100,000—who are willing to join Al Qaeda if invited. This highly selective system is used to make operations resistant to foreign intelligence services penetration. Those agents who have attempted to penetrate Al Qaeda are killed when discovered or even suspected. In 2002 Al Qaeda had operatives active in 55 countries.
Financial support for Al Qaeda comes from a variety of sources. In the early years bin Laden used his personal fortune of $30 million–$35 million to support many of Al Qaeda's operations, but, after leaving Sudan, his personal fortune diminished, and other sources of income had to be developed. Other significant sources of funding have come from Islamic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Islamic charities and foundations. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, Western authorities attacked these NGOs, and a considerable amount of funding for Al Qaeda suddenly dried up. For a time financial support came from state sponsors—Afghanistan, Iran, and Sudan—but these sources of funding have also mostly ceased.
Al Qaeda has conducted operations in a systematic way. It developed operations by using three types of operatives. Local militants were recruited for groundwork but had no knowledge of the details of a plan. Sleepers were sent to live and work in the area long before the operation. Finally, Al Qaeda specialists and martyrs were brought in at the final stages of the mission. Once the mission was accomplished, the survivors were to go underground again. This was the type of operation that Al Qaeda carried out in the African embassy bombings. Al Qaeda planners, however, are flexible and willing to improvise in case conditions change.
Al Qaeda's first terrorist operation took place in 1992. This was the bombing of a hotel in Aden, Yemen, on December 29, 1992, that barely missed its targeted U.S. troops. On June 26, 1995, an Al Qaeda–led group attempted to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as he visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Al Qaeda cooperated with an Iranian group in a June 25, 1996, truck bombing outside the Khobar Towers in Dharhran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 U.S. servicemen and wounded 500 others. Its next operation was the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 7, 1998, killing 234 people. A suicide bombing of the American warship USS Cole on October 5, 2000, killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others. All of these attacks paled beside the havoc of the Al Qaeda–led suicide attacks on the World Trade Center's twin towers and on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Since September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda has taken direct credit for or indirectly inspired a number of terrorist attacks. These included attacks in Bali (October 2002); Casablanca, Morocco (May 2003); Madrid (March 2004); London (July 2005); Amman, Jordan (November 2005); and Algiers (December 2007). Would-be suicide bombers linked directly or indirectly to Al Qaeda included the 2001 shoe bomber Richard Reid and the 2009 underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. It can be difficult, however, to ascertain the level of Al Qaeda involvement in such attacks.
The collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 was a serious blow to Al Qaeda's future operations. It lost its main base for the training of its operatives, as well as a secure staging area. Another important loss was Al Qaeda's military operations chief, Mohammad Atef. He was the victim of a Predator strike in the early days of the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. The survival of bin Laden and his second-in-command, al-Zawahiri, has allowed Al Qaeda to reestablish operations outside of Afghanistan, although on a much more limited basis. Because of its decentralized command structure, Al Qaeda has been able to recover some of its strike capability by entrusting operations to subordinate groups. Despite this, Al Qaeda has been put on the defensive, forced to pursue operations prematurely or send operatives underground as sleepers for future operations.
Since 2003, Al Qaeda military forces have been fighting alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Because bin Laden was aware in advance of the September 11 attacks, he began distributing Al Qaeda's fighting assets throughout Afghanistan so that Al Qaeda forces could survive the onslaught of American retaliation. It took the American military the three weeks until October 7, 2001, to begin offensive operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. During this interval, Al Qaeda dismantled its forces in Afghanistan and sent most of them into Pakistan and other central Asian countries. Most of the battles during the initial phase of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM—such as those at Tora Bora and Shahi Kowt—were delaying actions designed to allow Al Qaeda forces time to escape into Pakistan.
Besides fighting and planning future operations, Al Qaeda has become increasingly active on the Internet, where it contacts its operatives and recruits sympathizers. Al-Neda and al-Ansar have been the two most prominent websites for Al Qaeda. Information provided on these websites by Al Qaeda members gives justification for Al Qaeda operations. Al Qaeda operatives also use the Internet to post audio and video messages. Western intelligence services have tried, with only limited success, to close down these websites.
Al Qaeda and Taliban forces have made a military comeback since 2003. From secure bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, military operations have been launched without fear of detection. The Afghan government has had to depend on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces for security, but parts of Afghanistan have fallen into the hands of the Al Qaeda–Taliban alliance. The continued presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, as well as ever-rising numbers of civilian casualties from NATO airstrikes, have increased popular support for Al Qaeda and the Taliban in recent years. But the continued instability in Afghanistan may prove to be the undoing of the Taliban–Al Qaeda alliance. In January 2010, Taliban leaders suggested that they were willing to break with Al Qaeda in order to bring about peace.
The loss of Afghanistan as a training and staging area has hindered Al Qaeda's terrorist operations. Immediately after the loss of its training camps, Al Qaeda's leadership began to look for alternate sites. An unlikely replacement has been Europe. An underground railroad of recruits for Al Qaeda has been set up from the Middle East to Germany and Great Britain. Both Germany and Great Britain have been more tolerant in their laws against suspected terrorists, although both have tightened their laws since September 11. After receiving training, many Al Qaeda recruits have returned to the Middle East and been smuggled into Iraq to join the Sunni resistance to the American occupation of Iraq, and to fight Iraq's Shiites.
The U.S. government estimates that it has captured or killed some two-thirds of Al Qaeda's top leadership. Suspected Al Qaeda members are kept at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp or at a network of secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation centers. Others have been put on trial in other countries, including Egypt and Syria, through the process of extraordinary rendition. The loose and secretive structure of Al Qaeda, combined with the revelation of certain operational errors within the U.S. military and CIA, has made it difficult to verify the two-thirds claim. For example, when Abu Zubaydah was captured in March 2002, he was believed to be third in Al Qaeda's hierarchy. After years of interrogation and torture, the U.S. government in September 2009 changed its position, asserting that it no longer believed Zubaydah had ever been a member of Al Qaeda.
On May 1, 2011 (May 2 Pakistani local time), U.S. Navy SEALs, acting on intelligence gathered over the course of several months, raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was believed to be hiding. In the ensuing firefight, bin Laden and four others were killed. Western intelligence and security forces, however, continue to consider Al Qaeda a major threat, poised to strike at any time and anywhere with any type of weapon, from biological to nuclear. This threat was underscored by the fact that shortly after the announcement of bin Laden's death, members of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups promised retribution for bin Laden's killing.
Stephen E. Atkins
Corbin, Jane. Al Qaeda: In Search of the Terror Network. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2002; Gunaratna, Rohan. Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002; Hassan, Hamdi A. Al Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 2004; Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Knopf, 2006.