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Bringing the holy warinto the twenty-first century is the responsibility of the most notorious terrorist organization in the world today – Al-Qaeda. A militant Islamist network founded by Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda (‘The Base’ in Arabic) is global in outlook, and has branches and cells around the world. Al-Qaeda calls for a global jihad (Islamic religious war) to achieve its primary objective - the spread of its radical interpretation of Sunni Islam around the world. Al-Qaeda believes that it is justified in using force and violence to achieve this goal, even though the majority of Muslims and Islamic scholars condemn Al-Qaeda for it. Its acts of violence, especially against Western countries, have made both the organization’s name and that of its founder well-known globally, and synonymous with terrorism. The attacks have also led to a new type of war as counterterrorism, the ‘War on Terror’, a phrase coined by George W. Bush shortly after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
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The true origins of Al-Qaeda lay in the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in December 1979. Bin Laden, born in July 1957, had previously studied at King Abdul Aziz University, and it seems that there he began to adopt militant Islamist views. While in the university, he studied from Abdullah al Azzam, a man who appears to have been influential in shaping Bin Laden’s beliefs. He was also the central figure in shaping the jihad against the Soviets, and in doing so, shaped Al-Qaeda itself – “he cast the Soviet invasion as an attempted conquest by a non-Muslim power of sacred Muslim territory and people.”
Shortly after the Soviet invasion, Bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan to meet Azzam, and used his own personal funds to recruit foreign Islamic volunteers to fight in the jihad against the Soviets. During this time he received funding from the US, who viewed Bin Laden and his volunteers as a positive force against the Soviets. It must be remembered that this was also the period of the Cold War, and the fact that the US supplied the volunteers with funds seems less unbelievable when this is taken into account. There is ittle evidence at this stage that Bin Laden and the volunteers had any other objective but the removal of the Soviets from Afghanistan, a goal that was achieved in 1988. However, Bin Laden and Azzam were reluctant to disband their network of volunteers.
It is at this time that the key ideology of Al-Qaeda began to emerge from Bin Laden. While Azzam desired to use the network as an army to help Muslims threaten the external forces, Bin Laden’s views were more militant. He wanted to send the volunteers back to their home countries, where they would become an ‘Al-Qaeda’ – a base – to work at trying to overthrow pro-Western Arab leaders, such as the Saudi royal family.
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This was the first instance of Bin Laden demonstrating a dislike of Western influence; whether he had held anti-Western views before is not known. It can be inferred, though, that it was not only his experiences in Afghanistan and his extremist views that gave rise to this objective. Bin Laden had grown close to several Egyptians in his inner circle, who pressed for the founding of an Islamic state in Egypt. Chief among them was Ayman al Zawahiri, who later became Bin Laden’s second-in-command. By 1988, Bin Laden had become the leader of the group of volunteers, and his authority was consolidated in November 1989 when Azzam was killed in a car bomb.
The opposition to pro-Western Islamic governments remains a cornerstone of Al-Qaeda ideology. Its members believe that the current state of impoverished Muslim countries is the fault of the West and corrupt governments that support Western ideals. They call for the eradication of Western influence in the Muslim world, the overthrow of such corrupt governments, and the establishment of strict governments based on their militant form of Sunni Islam. They object to democracy, calling it a rival religion, and denounce freedom of speech as well. Al-Qaeda believes that the only acceptable form of government is one adhering to the Sharia Law. This is a strict code of conduct for every aspect of a Muslim’s life, from hygiene to financial affairs. To Muslims, the Sharia Law is given by Allah as a perfect way to live by, and Al-Qaeda believes that democracy is evil, as only God can rule. To achieve this objective, Al-Qaeda have demonstrated that they are willing to take violent action against the citizens of such countries, even though they share the same faith.
The first opportunity for the new Al-Qaeda began in August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Rollins describes the events that followed as a turning point for Bin Laden, and turned him from “a de-facto U.S. ally against the Soviet Union into one of its most active adversaries.” He petitioned the Saudi officials not to allow the U.S. troops to defend the country, instead declaring his intention to use his volunteers, as he had done in Afghanistan. His idea was rejected by the Saudis. The U.S. troops were not only deployed to Saudi Arabia, but remained there until 2003 to contain Iraq. Harking back to Azzam’s ideology when Afghanistan was invaded, Bin Laden saw these U.S. troops as “occupiers of sacred Islamic ground” and opposed the Saudi royal family for their facilitation of the occupation. Along with some Islamic clerics, he began to denounce the royal family for their actions, causing a fallout between him and them, and was forced to leave the country, moving to Sudan in 1991.
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In Sudan in the early 1990s, Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda began to undertake a number of tasks. The first was to create a global network of businesses to finance Al-Qaeda operations, act as a cover for acquiring weapons and equipment, and connect operatives around the world. Secondly, Al-Qaeda began to provide support and funding for other terrorist organizations that shared its ideology. Bin Laden created alliances with these groups, and worked to unite them in an “international jihad confederation”, with himself as the leader. This meant that most militant Islamic groups were in some way affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and that Al-Qaeda was often responsible in some way for attacks by other groups. Thirdly, Bin Laden had bought property in Sudan, which Al-Qaeda used for training militants, not only for the employment in jihad to fight against corrupt Muslim governments, but also against the United States, which now began to emerge as one of Al-Qaeda’s biggest targets.
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