Foreign Terrorist Organization: Case Study of Al-Qaeda

Foreign Terrorist Organization: Case Study of Al-Qaeda

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Foreign Terrorist Organization: Case Study of Al-Qaeda


            Al-Qaeda, which is literally translated as “The Base”, is a militant Sunni terror organization of multinational scale that consists of Islamist extremists and jihadists. The United Nations Security Council, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), and the U.S. Department of State among other entities have categorized Al-Qaeda as a terrorist group. The organization was created by Osama Bin Laden in 1988 and has been operational to the present day. It was originally founded in Afghanistan, later moved to Sudan, and finally spread to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has taken responsibility for some of the worst terrorist attacks of the recent decades, in particular the 9/11 attack. This very terrorist act led to the USA launching the War on Terror, a global military campaign aimed at eliminating the terrorist threat. The existence and operations of Al-Qaeda are mainly driven by the cultural and religious principles of radical Islam. The major objective of the organization is to eradicated the Western influence on the Islamic states. The organization was also formed as a way of declaring war on certain the Western states, which were effectively considered enemies of Islam. All in all, as a terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda has been immensely successful due to its extensive network of hidden cells that allowed them to perform numerous terrorist acts. However, the creation of a number of anti-terrorist organizations that cooperate with the most influential intelligence agencies has severely undermined their power and efficiency, leading to their gradual demise.

History of Al-Qaeda

            Al-Qaeda was formed in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden following the end of the fight against the Soviets and the communism by Arab extremists. During its formation, Al-Qaeda received funding from various groups, including the ones based Saudi Arabia and even the United States. In its earlier stages, it was built as a network of Islamist groups whose purpose was to fight against the Soviet Union and its invasion in Afghanistan. As a result, the organization was able to establish networks all over the Islamic world. Nevertheless, when the war was ‘won’ and, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda did not cease its existence (Bajoria & Bruno, 2012).

After the end of the war with Soviets, Al-Qaeda simply shifted their goals to the cause of restoring the Islamic Sharia Law to Islamic territories while also fighting against the United States occupation of these regions. In 1990s, the base of operations for the organization was moved to Sudan. Allegedly, the first reported attack of Al-Qaeda operatives was a series of bombings in Aden, Yemen in 1992. In the following years, Al-Qaeda significantly expanded the scale of their operations. Moreover, Osama Bin Laden also moved his base from Sudan to Afghanistan. There, he established close links with the Taliban (Reuters Staff, 2011). Following the 9/11 attack on the USA, the organization went underground for a while in order to avoid being exposed and eliminated.

Although the current base is believed to be in Pakistan, there exist dozens of terrorist cells placed in the Middle East and even Western Europe. The cells are believed to be highly independent, even though they share the same beliefs as the entire network. Field operatives are trained in camps that are supposedly located in Afghanistan, Somalia, and other lawless or loosely governed states of the Persian Gulf.

            Since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, Ayman Al-Zawahiri took over as the leader of the organization. Al-Zawahiri had long been an operative, deputy, and advisor of Bin Laden before his death. Other known leaders of the group include Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al-Adel, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who formed a separate branch of the terrorist group and named it Al-Qaeda in Iraq. While the death of Bin Laden was a significant setback for the terrorist group, it is believed to still be operational and capable of carrying out attacks in any corner of the world (Byman, 2011).

Preferred Attack Methods

            Al-Qaeda operatives recruit, train, and instill Islamic extremist views in its members. Training camps located in the loosely governed states mentioned above provide opportunities for the operatives to receive military training, in particular martial arts and the use of weapons and bombs (Bajoria & Bruno, 2012). Al-Qaeda controls two fronts that are located in Iraq and Pakistan respectively. In these fronts, members are organized into smaller cells where they receive training. They are also provided with necessary equipment to carry out attacks. Thus, the major strategy of Al-Qaeda is to provoke the United States and its Western allies by conducting terrorist acts with massive casualties, predominantly among the civilian population.

            Since Al-Qaeda aims to expand its territories as a means of establishing a global caliphate, leaders of the group form loose systems of governance that can be adopted in other parts of the Muslim world. In this way, they are able to create a large and coordinated network of people who hold the same objectives and ideologies.

            Al-Qaeda conducts its attacks in a wide range of ways. One of the most popular methods is carrying out bombings via truck bombs. For instance, in 1993, Al-Qaeda performed an attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. A truck loaded with explosives was blown near the North Tower with the aim of destroying the entire structure and inflicting severe casualties. Nevertheless, the attack turned to be unsuccessful: the building did not collapse, yet 6 people were killed and more than 1000 received injuries. In 1998, similar truck bombs were detonated near the United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands more (Reuters Staff, 2011).

            Suicide bombings are another type of terrorists acts characteristic of Al-Qaeda. In 2001, Al-Qaeda assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud with the help of a suicide bomber. In 2003, Al-Qaeda suicide bombers conducted a series of attacks in Casablanca, Morocco (Reuters Staff, 2011). The bombings claimed the lives of 45 people, including 12 suicide bombers. In 2011, a series of three suicide attacks were carried out in Iraq, leading to 133 casualties.

            Al-Qaeda is also known for attacking using firearms. For instance, during the 2004 Khobar massacre four armed men shot and killed 22 and wounded 25 people in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. In 2015, two Al-Qaeda operatives stormed into the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and shot 12 people while wounding 11 more. In May 2010, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists shot more than 100 and injured more than 300 people. It was the worst terrorist attack in the history of Iraq (Reuters Staff, 2011).

Finally, the most notorious modus operandi of Al-Qaeda involves hijacking of planes. The most famous attack in the history of Al-Qaeda took place on September 11, 2001. 19 terrorists managed to hijack four commercial planes. The hijackings were highly coordinated, occurring almost simultaneously. Two of the airliners were crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center. Another plane was crashed into the Pentagon, the Headquarters of the United States Department of Defense. The fourth plane did not reach its destination in Washington, D. C., since the passengers attempted to fight the terrorists and take control of the plane. Eventually, the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. This was the worst terrorist attack in American history, claiming the lives of 2996 people and wounding over 6000. Moreover, more the attack inflicted more than $10 billion in property damages.

Goals and Objectives

The original goal of Al-Qaeda was to fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980s. Over the years, though, the aims of this terrorist organization had seen dramatic modifications. Currently, the main objective of Al-Qaeda is to protect the Muslim territories and states from the Western influence. In fact, the Al-Qaeda ideologies are based on the belief that the Western influence, including education, science, and media, corrupt the fundamental Islamic beliefs. Consequently, removing Western influence will restore the Muslim world to their intended ideals. Due to the above-mentioned worldview differences with the Western world, the USA was seen by Al-Qaeda as a major infidel state. The American involvement in the Gulf War of 1991 and the invasion of Iraq only reinforces this belief (Larson, 2011).

Another fundamental goal of Al-Qaeda is to establish a united Muslim caliphate that rules over the entire Muslim world. According to the jihadists, in order to achieve this goal, it is crucial to destroy all the enemies of Islam. Since this terrorist organization views the United States and other Western states as the enemies of Islam, the fight against them is considered to be a Sacred War.

Lastly, Al-Qaeda also intends to herald an internal revolution. The current leaders of the Islamic states are believed to be violating the Sharia Law. In particular, leaders who have failed to enforce Sharia Law within their states are regarded as apostates due to abandoning their religious traditions in a bid to form alliances with the Western world. Consequently, Al-Qaeda sees it as its rightful obligation to liberate the Islamic world of such leaders by killing them. Moreover, they also aim to topple the entire governments that fail to adhere to their own interpretation of the Sharia Law (Larson, 2011). Finally, according to Al-Qaeda, there is a hidden alliance between Christians and Jews that is aimed at eradicating Islam. For this reason, one of their objectives is to fight against this movement. The wrongdoings committed by the Christians and the Jews over the ages is something that this terrorist organization aims to address by imposing their own justice.

Connections with other Terrorist Organizations

            Due to the intricate network of cells located in all corners of the world, Al-Qaeda managed to establish links with other Islamic extremist groups that are situated in North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The radical groups that Al-Qaeda has connections with are believed to hold similar beliefs about upholding of the Sharia Law and waging the Holy War. All in all, all of these links allow Al-Qaeda to form coordinated networks using terrorist cells located in dozens of places across the globe.

            One of the biggest allies of Al-Qaeda is the Taliban, a terrorist organization that has worked with Bin Laden since 1996 when he moved his base of operations to Afghanistan. The two groups have worked together in conducting numerous attacks on their enemies (Bajoria & Bruno, 2012). For instance, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by Al-Qaeda operatives in 2001. He was considered to be a vital enemy of the Taliban. Throughout the recent years, Al-Qaeda has developed alliances with other groups of the Kashmir region while others have pledged allegiance to them. The bayat is an Islamic oath that other groups make when they decide to show their loyalty to Al-Qaeda. Despite pledging allegiance, these groups predominantly operate independently.

            Some of the groups that are aligned with Al-Qaeda include the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, al-Nusrah Front, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Abu Sayyaf Group, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sharia, and Ummah Tammer E-Nau, among many others (Bajoria & Bruno, 2012). In total, Al-Qaeda is thought to operate in more than 50 countries worldwide.

Membership and Sources of Funding

            Members are recruited into the group depending on whether they share the same fundamentalist ideals of Sharia Law and jihad. Members can be recruited in the local communities or via online communication platforms, in particular those existing in the dark web. One of the functions of the members is to provide combat trainings. Members are shown how to use weapons and explosives, and will soon become field operatives who carry out terrorist attacks. During the trainings, Al-Qaeda members also learn how to utilize various communication systems to share intelligence, which allows them to protect themselves and become more coordinated in their activities. Finally, members are also taught about the extremist beliefs of Al-Qaeda that serve as a motivation for performing their tasks, including suicide bombings.

            Al-Qaeda is believed to receive funding from various charities and donations. These donations are provided anonymously from the people and groups who share their views and would like to help their cause. In the early years of its establishment, the organization received funding from Bin Laden, who allegedly possessed a vast fortune. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf States are believed to contribute to the activities of the group. Another source of funding for Al-Qaeda is smuggling drugs to Europe and other parts of the world. Once delivered, heroin and opium are sold within the existing drug networks. On a smaller scale, Al-Qaeda members tend to raise funds through criminal activities, such as extortions and robberies. The members of Al-Qaeda also engage in selling illegal goods on the black market. Recently, Qatar was accused of allowing Al-Qaeda financiers to operate within the borders of the country, a situation that led to the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis. All in all, the major sources of funding of Al-Qaeda are illegal activities that are extremely hard to track or eradicate.

Success and Failure of the Organization

            An extensive international network of cells and numerous alliances with other terrorist organizations are the major factors that led to the success of Al-Qaeda. Another advantage of the networks of cells and alliances with a variety of terrorist groups is their loose and highly decentralized management system, which allows them to efficiently commit terrorist acts in any region of the world, but at the same time evade capture. Extremely high levels of motivation and proper incentives (predominantly based on extremist beliefs and values) are another key factor that has an immensely positive impact on the efficiency of the operations of Al-Qaeda (Gray, 2015). According to the twisted version of the Sharia Law promoted by Al-Qaeda, violence, murder, and terrorism are not considered to be a sin since they are devoted to a sacred cause. All in all, using the above-mentioned motivational techniques, this terrorist organization maintains a stable inflow of recruits that are easy to manipulate and control.

            The diversified sources funding of the organization that have been discussed before also contribute to the success of the organization. Financial support from the myriad of different groups and individuals allows Al-Qaeda to purchase weapons, explosives, communicative devices, recruit and train operatives, and establish other infrastructure necessary to carry out terrorist acts.  

            However, the extensive network of cells and a wide variety of alliances also serves as a major vulnerability of Al-Qaeda (Belasco, 2009). First of all, it is difficult to monitor and control such a large network scattered all over the world, which negatively affects the ability of the organization to effectively perform their operations and expand their influence. Moreover, such an extensive network of operatives and contacts allows counter-terrorist organizations and law enforcement agencies to track and eliminate the members of Al-Qaeda. For instance, the above-mentioned weakness led to the biggest setback that the organization has ever experienced: the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, who was not only the spiritual leader of the group, but also its major financier. Another significant weakness of Al-Qaeda is related to its rivalry with a number of other terrorist and extremist groups, including ISIL and the Northern Alliance. These rivalries further weaken the organization and prevent its expansion in certain territories.

Counter-Terrorism Measures

            Since the day of foundation Al-Qaeda, the United States and other allies have been working towards establishing initiatives designed to weaken and disrupt the activity of Al-Qaeda. In the very beginning, the United States attempted to use diplomatic efforts in order to mitigate the threat in a peaceful way. Following this strategy, the members of the United Nations placed sanctions on the states in which Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were operating. As a result, in 1996 the international pressure forced Bin Laden to move his base of operations from Sudan to Afghanistan. Moreover, the Western countries also resorted to covert intelligence gathering missions in order to monitor the activity of Al-Qaeda. However, these efforts were crushed to pieces on September 11, 2001, when the largest terrorist act in American history shook the world.

The 9/11 terrorist act resulted in the commencement of the War on Terror, one of the largest counter-terrorist campaigns in history that united the entire world against the terrorist threat. At first, the USA and its allies established a coordinated system of intelligence sharing. The main objectives were to increase global surveillance and disrupt the activity of Al-Qaeda by capturing the suspected Al-Qaeda members, destroying their chains of communications, and cutting off their sources of funding (Belasco, 2009). As a consequence, Al-Qaeda was no longer able to operate openly, being forced to move underground. All in all, within the first few years since the War on Terror was officially announced, the USA and its allies were able to severely undermine the influence of Al-Qaeda and mitigate its activity, with the pivotal point of the campaign being the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, the founder and spiritual leader of the organization.


            Al-Qaeda is one of the greatest terrorist threats that the United States of America and the world have ever faced. It was originally founded in 1988 in Afghanistan by Osama Bin Laden, and has been committing acts of terror ever since. The major contributors of the success of Al-Qaeda include an intricate network of cells and an extensive list of allied terrorist organizations, diversified sources of funding, and the ability to maintain a stable inflow of recruits. All of these benefits allowed this terrorist group to constantly expand their operations and carry out attacks in any corner of the world.

The organization was almost unstoppable up until September 11, 2001, when they committed one of the most notorious terrorist acts in the history of the world. The 9/11 attack changed it all. As a result of this tragedy, the USA and its allies started the War on Terror, a global military campaign aimed at neutralizing the ever-growing terrorist threat, in particular Al-Qaeda. Since the very first day of the campaign, the joint efforts of the international community reaped immense benefits: thousands of operatives of Al-Qaeda were captured or killed, the sources of funding were cut off, the overall activity of the organization was disrupted. The elimination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 served as the culmination of the Global War on Terrorism. It was a breaking point in the entire campaign since Bin Laden was not only the founder and the spiritual leader of the organization, but also their major financier. His death marked the gradual demise of Al-Qaeda as a global terrorist threat.


Bajoria, J., & Bruno, G. (2012, June 6). Al-Qaeda (a.k.a. al-Qaida, al-Qa’ida): A profile of the international terrorist network that the United States has singled out as the most serious threat to U.S. security. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from

Belasco, A. (2009). Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global War on Terror operations since 9/11. Collindade, PA: Diane Publishing.

Byman, D. L. (2011, September 1). The history of Al-Qaeda. Brookings. Retrieved from

Gray, J. (2015). Al Qaeda and what it means to be modern. London, UK: Faber & Faber.

Larson, E. V. (2011). Al Qaeda’s propaganda: A shifting battlefield. In B. M. Jenkins & J. P. Godges (Eds.), The shadow of 9/11: America’s response to terrorism (pp. 71-86). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Reuters Staff. (2011, May 2). Timeline: Major attacks by Al-Qaeda. Reuters. Retrieved from

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