Background: Who is al-Qaida?

By Sarah Wolfe, Staff Writer
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Al-Qaida (also known as al-Qaeda) is an international terrorist network formerly led by Osama bin Laden that is considered the top terrorist threat to the United States. The group is wanted for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as a myriad of lesser attacks around the world. The group's current goal is to establish a pan-Islamic Caliphate throughout the world by working with allied Islamic extremist groups to overthrow regimes it deems "non-Islamic" and expelling Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries.

Al-Qaida, Arabic for "the base," grew out of the Services Office, a clearinghouse for the international Muslim brigade opposed to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Services Office -- run by bin Laden and the Palestinian religious scholar Abdullah Azzam -- recruited, trained and financed thousands of foreign fighters to battle the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Bin Laden wanted these fighters to continue the "holy war" beyond that country, and formed al-Qaida around 1988.

Location/Area of operation
There is no single headquarters. Al-Qaida has cells worldwide and is reinforced by its ties to Sunni extremist networks. From 1991-96, al-Qaida worked out of Pakistan along the Afghan border, or inside Pakistani cities. During the Taliban's reign, al-Qaida shifted its base of operations into Afghanistan. To escape the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, al-Qaida's leadership once again sought refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas after Sept. 11, 2001.

Law enforcement has broken up al-Qaida cells in the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Albania, Uganda and elsewhere.

How big?
It's impossible to estimate al-Qaida's size, because the organization is decentralized, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Estimates range from several hundred to several thousand members. The international crackdown that followed the 9/11 attacks greatly cut into al-Qaida's resources and many of al-Qaida's former leaders were captured or killed, leading experts to question the relevance of al-Qaida's central leadership, according to the CFR.

According to a 1998 U.S. federal indictment, al-Qaida is administered by a council that "discussed and approved major undertakings, including terrorist operations." At the top was bin Laden, until his death by U.S. forces May 1, 2011. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, is thought to be bin Laden's top lieutenant and al-Qaida's ideological adviser. Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan who was captured by Pakistani authorities in 2002 but managed to escape from a U.S. prison in Afghanistan in 2005, has emerged as the public face of al-Qaida and another top-level leader.

U.S. officials say several top al-Qaida leaders are in their custody. These include a senior lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002, and Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a senior commander in Afghanistan. In March 2003, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and al-Qaida's treasurer, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, were also captured in Pakistan. They, along with four others detained at Guantanamo Bay, were charged with murder, terrorism and violating rules of war in February 2008.

Several senior leaders in the network have died or been killed in the U.S.-led war against terrorists.

Major Attacks

The group has targeted American and other Western interests as well as Jewish targets and Muslim governments it sees as corrupt or impious -- above all, the Saudi monarchy. Al-Qaida-linked attacks include:

-- December 2009 - attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
-- October 2007 - suicide bombing that narrowly missed killing former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
-- July 2005 - bombings of the London public transportation system.
-- March 2004 - bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains, which killed nearly 200 people and left more than 1,800 injured.
-- May 2003 - car bomb attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
-- November 2002 - car bomb attack and failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli jetliner with shoulder-fired missiles in Mombasa, Kenya.
-- October 2002 - attack on a French tanker off the coast of Yemen.
-- April 2002 - explosion of a fuel tanker outside a synagogue in Tunisia.
-- Sept. 11, 2001 - hijackings of four U.S. airplanes. Two crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the fourth into a Pennsylvania field. More than 3,000 people were killed.
-- October 2000 - USS Cole bombing in Yemen, killing 17 crew members and wounding 39.
-- August 1998 - bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Plots linked to al-Qaida that were disrupted or prevented include a 2001 attempt by Richard Reid to explode a shoe bomb on a transatlantic flight; a 1999 plot to set off a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport; a 1995 plan to blow up 12 transpacific flights of U.S. commercial airliners; a 1995 plan to kill former President Bill Clinton on a visit to the Philippines; and a 1994 plot to kill the late Pope John Paul II during a visit to Manila.

Sources:, Council on Foreign Relations

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