Al-Qaeda is a broad-based militant Islamist organization founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s.
The organization began as a logistical network to support Muslims fighting against the Soviet Union during the Afghan War; members were recruited throughout the Islamic world. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the organization dispersed but continued to oppose what its leaders considered corrupt Islamic regimes and foreign (i.e., U.S.) presence in Islamic lands. Based in Sudan for a period in the early 1990s, the group eventually reestablished its headquarters in Afghanistan (c. 1996) under the patronage of the Taliban militia.
Al-Qaeda merged with a number of other militant Islamist organizations, including Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group, and on several occasions its leaders declared holy war against the United States. The organization established camps for Muslim militants from throughout the world, training tens of thousands in paramilitary skills, and its agents engaged in numerous terrorist attacks, including the destruction of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1998), and a suicide bomb attack against the U.S. warship Cole in Aden, Yemen . In 2001, 19 militants associated with al-Qaeda staged the September 11 attacks against the United States. Within weeks the U.S. government responded by attacking Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Thousands of militants were killed or captured, among them several key members (including the militant who allegedly planned and organized the September 11 attacks), and the remainder and their leaders were driven into hiding.
The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 challenged that country’s viability as an al-Qaeda sanctuary and training ground and compromised communication, operational, and financial linkages between al-Qaeda leadership and its militants. Rather than significantly weakening al-Qaeda, however, these realities prompted a structural evolution and the growth of “franchising.” Increasingly, attacks were orchestrated not only from above by the centralized leadership (after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, based in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions) but also by the localized, relatively autonomous cells it encouraged. Such grassroots independent groups—coalesced locally around a common agenda but subscribing to the al-Qaeda name and its broader ideology—thus meant a diffuse form of militancy, and one far more difficult to confront.
With this organizational shift, al-Qaeda was linked—whether directly or indirectly—to more attacks in the six years following September 11 than it had been in the six years prior, including attacks in Jordan, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Israel, Algeria, and elsewhere. At the same time, al-Qaeda increasingly utilized the Internet as an expansive venue for communication and recruitment and as a mouthpiece for video messages, broadcasts, and propaganda. Meanwhile, some observers expressed concern that U.S. strategy—centred primarily on attempts to overwhelm al-Qaeda militarily—was ineffectual, and at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, al-Qaeda was thought to have reached its greatest strength since the attacks of September 2001.
Al-Qaeda has carried out a total of six major terrorist attacks, four of them in its jihad against America. In each case the leadership planned the attack years in advance, arranging for the shipment of weapons and explosives and using its privatized businesses to provide operatives with safehouses and false identities.
Al-Qaeda usually does not disburse funds for attacks, and very rarely makes wire transfers.
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Some financing for al-Qaeda in the 1990s came from the personal wealth of Osama bin Laden. Other sources of income in 2001 included the heroin trade and donations from supporters in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic Gulf states. A WikiLeaks released memo from the United States Secretary of State sent in 2009 asserted that the primary source of funding of Sunni terrorist groups worldwide was Saudi Arabia.
Among the first pieces of evidence of Saudi Arabia’s conspicuous support for al-Qaeda was the so-called "Golden Chain", a list of early al-Qaeda funders seized during a 2002 raid at the premises of the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF) in Sarajevo by Bosnian police. The hand-written list, validated by al-Qaeda defector Jamal al-Fadl, included the names of both donors and beneficiaries. Osama bin-Laden’s name appeared seven times among the beneficiaries, while 20 Saudi and Gulf-based businessmen and politicians were listed among the donors. Besides Osama bin Laden, among the most notable Saudi recipients were Adel Batterjee (founder of BIF and designated as a terror financier by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2004) and Wael Hamza Julaidan (U.S.-terrorist designated in 2002 as one of al-Qaeda’s founder).
The most prominent Saudi figures among the donors included Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel (CEO of Dallah Al-Baraka, accused of funding and supporting al-Qaeda operations), Sulaiman Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi (funder of SAAR Foundation, shut down within the framework of Operation Green Quest, and CEO of al-Rajhi Bank, investigated several times by U.S. authorities for its role in financing terrorism and al-Qaeda especially), and Ahmad Turki Yamani (son of former Saudi chief of Justice and former Saudi Minister of Petroleum).
Qatar has provided significant financial support to al-Qaeda as well. Today, Qatar’s enduring financing of al-Qaeda’s enterprises mostly benefits al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra and is channeled primarily through kidnapping for ransom. The Consortium Against Terrorist Finance (CATF) reported that the Gulf country has thus funded al-Nusra since 2013. Al-Awsat estimated that Qatar disbursed $25 million in support of al-Nusra through kidnapping for ransom. In addition to this strategy, Qatar has also launched fundraising campaigns on behalf of al-Nusra.
In December 1998, the Director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center reported to the president that al-Qaeda was preparing for attacks in the USA, including the training of personnel to hijack aircraft. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacked the United States, hijacking four airliners within the country and deliberately crashing two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the third into the western side of the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. The fourth, however, failed to reach its intended target – either the United States Capitol or the White House, both located in Washington, D.C. – due to the rebellion by the passengers to retake the airliner, and instead crashed into the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In total, the attackers killed 2,977 victims and injured more than 6,000 others.
U.S. officials called Anwar al-Awlaki an "example of al-Qaeda reach into" the U.S. in 2008 after probes into his ties to the September 11 attacks hijackers. A former FBI agent identifies Awlaki as a known "senior recruiter for al-Qaeda", and a spiritual motivator. Awlaki's sermons in the U.S. were attended by three of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. U.S. intelligence intercepted emails from Hasan to Awlaki between December 2008 and early 2009. On his website, Awlaki has praised Hasan's actions in the Fort Hood shooting.
An unnamed official claimed there was good reason to believe Awlaki "has been involved in very serious terrorist activities since leaving the U.S. [in 2002], including plotting attacks against America and our allies."
U.S. President Barack Obama approved the targeted killing of al-Awlaki by April 2010, making al-Awlaki the first US citizen ever placed on the CIA target list. That required the consent of the U.S. National Security Council, and officials said it was appropriate for an individual who posed an imminent danger to national security. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty to the 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt, told interrogators he was "inspired by" al-Awlaki, and sources said Shahzad had made contact with al-Awlaki over the internet. Representative Jane Harman called him "terrorist number one", and Investor's Business Daily called him "the world's most dangerous man". In July 2010, the US Treasury Department added him to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, and the UN added him to its list of individuals associated with al-Qaeda. In August 2010, al-Awlaki's father initiated a lawsuit against the U.S. government with the American Civil Liberties Union, challenging its order to kill al-Awlaki. In October 2010, U.S. and U.K. officials linked al-Awlaki to the 2010 cargo plane bomb plot. In September 2011, he was killed in a targeted killing drone attack in Yemen. It was reported on March 16, 2012, that Osama bin Laden plotted to kill United States President Barack Obama.
On May 1, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (May 2, Pakistan Standard Time), U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed by "a small team of Americans" acting under Obama's direct orders, in a covert operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, about 50 km (31 mi) north of Islamabad. According to U.S. officials a team of 20–25 US Navy SEALs under the command of the Joint Special Operations Command and working with the CIA stormed bin Laden's compound in two helicopters. Bin Laden and those with him were killed during a firefight in which U.S. forces experienced no casualties. According to one US official the attack was carried out without the knowledge or consent of the Pakistani authorities. In Pakistan some people were reported to be shocked at the unauthorized incursion by US armed forces. The site is a few miles from the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. In his broadcast announcement President Obama said that U.S. forces "took care to avoid civilian casualties." Details soon emerged that three men and a woman were killed along with bin Laden, the woman being killed when she was "used as a shield by a male combatant". DNA from bin Laden's body, compared with DNA samples on record from his dead sister, confirmed bin Laden's identity. The body was recovered by the US military and was in its custody until, according to one US official, his body was buried at sea according to Islamic traditions. One U.S. official stated that "finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world's most wanted terrorist would have been difficult." U.S State Department issued a "Worldwide caution" for Americans following bin Laden's death and U.S Diplomatic facilities everywhere were placed on high alert, a senior U.S official said.