by Artemis Karabassi, researcher of the unit «Defense & Security»


Al Qaeda still remains the most notorious terrorist organization with the most haziness surrounding its existence. Questions which are closely related to the development and the origins of al Qaeda as well as to its key actors have given rise to the construction of several contradictory theories and assumptions, and until today the question of what is al Qaeda still remains blurred. As Hellmich underlines, there is insufficient research on al-Qaeda’s origins, aims and structure due to the fact that al-Qaeda was barely known and totally ignored by the world before the 9/11 attacks.[i] One possible explanation could be that following the 9/11 events, everyone started talking as an expert and researching  about the group’s nature, origins and aims by offering their very own version of the story, which arguably in the most cases the quality of their research lacked reliability.

Therefore, the present article will attempt to analyze and evaluate the origins, the structure and the aims of al-Qaeda by mentioning the most important conflicting assumptions that exist in the literature.

The origins of Al Qaeda

Most allusions of the birth and the development of al Qaeda begin with the invasion of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan soils in order to support the communist government in late 1979. Due to the Soviet’s invasion in Afghanistan, al Qaeda was formed in 1988 by anti-Soviet veterans of Afghanistan having as core aim to export the victory that Islam had won over the communists elsewhere. The guerilla war against the Soviet occupation soon arose the attention of many young Muslims from all over the world but especially from the region of the Middle East who offered to join what was perceived as a holy war or jihad.[ii]

Between these volunteers who are also known as mujahedeen was Abdullah Azzam, his deputy Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. These three men cooperated tightly, with Zawahiri and Azzam contributing more as ideologists and with bin Laden offering his organizational charisma and financial resources. These three men are considered to be the key actors and the founders of the group that will eventually become al Qaeda. They did not came up with a political ideology but instead they were inspired by multiple different sources and in multiple different ways.[iii] At the leadership of this new organization was Abdullah Azzam and Osama Bin Laden who took the entire control of this new movement after the death of Azzam.

However, this is just one version of the theories that surrounds the birth and the development of al Qaeda.Talking about the birth of al-Qaeda,several scholars go far beyond from Soviet’s invasion in Afghanistan by highlighting the group’s intellectual origins. Among them Sayyid Qutb is the most notorious one as he contributed fundamentally on the make-up of al Qaeda due to the massive influence that he had on the key actors of al Qaeda.

More particularly, the name of Sayyid Qutb came to light mainly after the 9/11 attacks when the western analysts discovered his important and influential role that he had to the concept of al Qaeda. Qutb is frequently characterized from analysts as “the philosopher of terror, the spiritual and operational godfather to bin Laden and Zawahiri; they have drawn a direct, unbroken line between Qutb and al-Qaeda”.[iv] Qutb was the main thinker of the idea of “the enemy within” as he never called for a conflict against the West but instead he called his followers to combat against the Muslim tyrants who did not apply the sharia law and thus were not good Muslims.

Additionally, Qutb’s raison d’ être was the replacement of jahiliya with hakimiyaand for this reason he called his followers to overthrow the secular or non-Islamic leaders who had collaborated with the rivals of Islam by permitting them to enter in the region. Although Sayyid Qutb was never involved into al Qaeda, as he was executed at least two decades before its construction, his ideas and more importantly the two aforementioned points influenced significantly the founders of al Qaeda and more particularly Zawahiri as according to claims of some of his close associates “Qutb has shaped Zawahiri’s worldview”. [v]Nonetheless their deep association with Qutb, both of them twisted Qutb’s concepts in order to suit with their purposes.[vi]

Moreover, another version of al Qaeda’s development is presented by Rohan Gunaratna. In his book, “Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror”Gunaratnapoints out that the construction of al Qaeda was primarily embodied in 1984 with the establishment of the ‘Afghan Service Bureau’ which is also  known as the Bureau Services or MAK. That period jointly Azzam and bin Laden formed MAK which contributed fundamentally to the funding and to the global recruitment for the conflict in Afghanistan.[vii] In particular, after the victory and withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan the leaders started planning their future moves. Both Bin Laden and Azzam agreed that “the organization successfully created for Afghanistan should not be allowed to dissolve and they decided to establish what they called a base or foundation (al Qaeda)as a potential general headquarters for future jihad”.[viii]

However, analysts such as Sageman and Wright reject the above mentioned viewpoint. More particularly, Sageman supports that bin Laden’s and Azzam’s aim was to establish a base or a social movement rather than to set up general headquarters and to conduct a global jihad.[ix] On the other hand, Wright claims that MAK “was essentially a repository for the money” and its sole objective was to finance and to train anti-Soviets fighters against the Soviet invasion.[x]

Despite the contradictory views among scholars, MAK is commonly accepted as the forerunner of the concept of al Qaeda. However, the US documents seem to be precise that the construction of al Qaeda took place in 1989. For example, according to the US District Court of New York “from in or about 1989 until the present, the group called itself al Qaeda”. Also, observing US government’s definition of what is al Qaeda it is obvious that according to it the founder of the organization is Osama bin Laden, an opinion that many analysts have expressed their opposition.[xi]

The Structure of Al Qaeda

Apart from the haziness that the origins of al Qaeda surrounds, there is also much controversy around the structure of the group and the entity to which has transformed today. Observing and analyzing the true structure of al Qaeda, is undeniably fundamental in order to analyze the group’s actual aims and in order to understand if al Qaeda can be still called relevant today.

On the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda was frequently refed as a terrorist group with very tightly organizational structure. Still the very day this matter remains unclear.

Two schools of thought have emerged about the original structure of al-Qaeda and how it evolved over time. The proponents of the first one support that “al Qaeda was planned from its inception to be tightly knit organization, with distinct divisions of labor assigned to different branches and with recognized forms of entry such as the by now infamous oath of allegiance to bin Laden, the existence of which continues disputed”[xii].

On the other hand, the second school of thought underlines that al Qaeda as an entity is something much more unclear; More particularly, the advocates of this school argues that al-Qaeda is a loose network of individual associated to different Islamist groups who choose to affiliate with al Qaeda due to its global prestige, a fact which offer them further legitimacy, recruitment and finance. Hence, although many western analysts depict al Qaeda as a terrorism group with a concrete and well organized structure, this fact might not represent the reality. By contrast, such representation favors al Qaeda as it creates a misleading image of what is al-Qaeda and how well organized and structured it is, in order to create more fear and uncertainty inside the national governments and to their citizens.

According to Burke, to understand al Qaeda as a concrete and tight-knit group, with tentacles everywhere as well as a defined ideology and personnel that had emerged as the late 1980s, is to misunderstand not only its true nature but also the nature of

Islamic radicalism then and now”[xiii].

So far, Burke’s theory is one of the most sufficient and concrete illustrations of al Qaeda’s structure. More particularly, in his book, Burge mentions three discrete features. First, a “hardcore” which is consisted by bin Laden and his loyalists who provide the overall direction and influence tremendously the allied groups, known as franchises, construct the second layer of al Qaeda’s structure.  The third element, which arguably is the most perilous an unpredictable layer of its structure is consisted by the jihadism movement, the idea of the global jihad that efficiently connects dissimilar and unrelated supporters and became more fundamental in the post 9/11 period.[xiv]

In addition, according to Sageman viewpoint “Al-Qaeda is a social movement, not a hierarchical organization”. [xv]Taking as example the social movement concept,several scholars have argued that after the Soviet invasion, the structure of al Qaeda has been developed into a social network trying to spread jihad globally and to achieve its objectives worldwide. Hence, it seems fair to argue that both the social movement concept and Burge’s assessment about al Qaeda’s organizational structure contribute fundamentally in order to understand in depth how al Qaeda still poses a significant threat even when its core has sustained severe and irreparable damage.

As Hellmich refers to her article, “after the occurrence of 9/11 attacks and the destruction of al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda started to fracture into a global cadre of more-or less independent groups which enabled it to continue to both elude and fight its enemies”[xvi]. This unintentional globalization of al-Qaeda caused also the disintegration and indeed the localization of bin Laden’s mission.

These franchise groups are fully committed AQC and they need to share the same ideology in order to become part of al Qaeda. However, most of the segroups operate mainly in a local level. For instance, such a group is al Qaeda’s franchise in Maghreb known also as GSPC. Although, it has declared that it supports and shares the same global aims with al Qaeda core, its actions are perceived more localized as it is more focus on overturning the Algerian government rather than fighting for the main aim of al Qaeda; “the establishment of the Caliphate and the unity of the global umma”[xvii]. This fact contributes on supporting the argument that there is a return to the “near enemy”, something that started to be more apparent mainly after the death of bin Laden.

The core aims of al-Qaeda

Although al-Qaeda’s objectives is the most explored and published aspect, arguably is the least defined and known feature of the group. In addition, it is alleged to be the most debated and misinterpreted aspect of al-Qaeda.

According to Hellmich on the aftermath after of the 9/11 attacks several experts started to talk about “al Qaeda’s vision fantasy world, propounded by religious fanatics, hypocrites and madmen which were totally driven by religious aims”.[xviii] In fact,things differ fundamentally from this assumption.

According to Sageman “Al Qaeda is vanguard of the movement of the Global Salafi jihad which determines its mission, sets its goals and guidesits tactics.[xix]The founders of al Qaeda were mainly influenced by Qutb’s Salafi Jihad, as he was using it to invent radical Islam. However, Azzam and mostly bin Laden achieved to spread out the concept of “Political Islam” through Salafism by transporting a simple message to their people that they have to sacrifice and to fight for the name of Islam in order the Islamic State to be emerged.[xx]

More particularly, after the end of Soviet’s occupation in Afghanistan the core aim of al Qaeda was to reestablish the Caliphate and to return into the glory times of Islam. Bin Laden makes explicit reference to parts of the ‘ummah’ (Islamic community) that are either suffering directly at the hands of the US – for example, the drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan often result in civilian causalities or indirectly from pro-American governments in the region – as in the case Palestinians. This idea in combination with the fact that Umma need to be reclaimed by all means continues to encourage young Muslims to join al Qaeda and to fight those who alleged to be the enemies of Islam.

Through his Fatwa in 1998, bin Laden called every Muslim to fight Americans civilians and militants elsewhere so as to liberate al-Mosque and Holy Mosque.Hence, according to this statement bin Laden was aiming not only to fight against. Muslim apostates but also against the U.S and Israel also known as ‘the Zionist–Crusader alliance” and to expel them from the holy places of Saudi Arabia.

Alongside al-Qaeda’s idealist Pan-Islamist goals such as reinstating the Islamic State (Caliphate) in the Muslin world, the group also has some, arguably, achievable aims like ending the rule of al-Saud family over the holy places. Saudi Arabia’s close relations with the arch enemy of al-Qaeda (the US), has made it a target of the terror group, which argues that while, especially after 9/11, attacks on US mainland is difficult to conduct, the US ‘puppet regimes’ in the Middle East.[xxi]

Observing the above mentioned objectives, itis obvious that al Qaeda’s aims and concerns are inherently political and are motivated by the policy that West follows. The group’s objectives are not motivated by any kind of religion as many scholars have supported in the past and as al Qaeda wants to show to his people and to the rest of the world in order to justify its violent actions as well as to attract more young Muslims.

Today, if we observe closely al Qaeda’s current strategy it seems that al Qaeda is now targeting and focusing to the Near emery rather than to the Far enemy. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden, al Qaeda altered dramatically its strategy, as since then al Qaeda has turned its focus and its aims to the enemies in the Arab countries.

Through his statements, it is clear that although al Qaeda’s ultimate goal is the Farenemy, al Zawahiri has renew the group’s attention to the near enemy, aiming to create safe bases elsewhere in the region.[xxii]

This strategy is also followed by al Qaeda’s franchises, as their operations are characterized by local objectives and grievances. However, there are still some ‘glocal’ groups which are fighting the Far enemy.Taking as example al Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP), which arguably poses the most considerable threat to Western Security, it has carried out several terror attacks against the West such as the Christmas Day Bomber in 2009 and the Times Square Bomber in 2010 as well as its involvement in Charlie Hebdo fatal shooting in 2014.[xxiii] Despite this attacks, AQAP has fundamentally involved in the political affairs of Yemen as it tries to satisfy its local goals and thus the most of its terrorist attacks have conducted inside Yemen’s territory[xxiv].

To conclude, this article attempted to evaluate the most conflicting assumptions of al –Qaeda’s nature. It is obvious that almost eighteen years after the 9/11 attacks, there is still much ambiguity in every aspect of the most notorious and one of the most dangerous terrorist group that emerged as it carried out some of the most fatal attacks in the name of Islam.One possible explanation about the haziness that surround its existence  is that on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, everyone suddenly started to talk as an expert about al Qaeda nature and objectives by offering their very own version of the story. Yet, although al Qaeda maintains the top subject among the discussions for terrorism between scholars, it is now acknowledged that its true nature as well as other aspects of this group might never be known.

Among this haziness that surrounds the nature of al Qaeda, there is also uncertainty regarding whereas Al Qaeda’s strength has “weakened or re-emergent” or whether al Qaeda is still relevant today.  Although for several scholars al Qaeda has been somewhat “forgotten” as now there is a new player in town (ISIS) which represents the new face of (Islamist) terrorism and with their new unprecedented violence and arguably success, they have forced al-Qaeda into the shadows as its operational ability has fundamentally weakened and made them irrelevant. Conversely, there are still many analysts who believe that al Qaeda has only temporarily receded and its ideology is more relevant than ever and that still imposes a serious threat. Indeed, if we observe the current facts it seems fair to argue that al Qaeda has not only resurgent but its franchise in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is now arguably one of the most considerable current threats to Western Security As Hellmich rightly remarks “al Qaeda today is more dangerous than the original al Qaeda core and has possibly taken its place”.[xxv]


[[i]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books p. 3

[[ii]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books

[[iii]] Henzel, C. (2005). “The Origins of Al Qaeda’s Ideology: Implications for US Strategy”,Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly, Vol 35, No. 1. 14.[online] Available here.

[[iv]] Gerges, F., A. (2011). “The Rise and fall of Al-Qaeda”. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.p.31

[[v]] Gerges, F., A. (2011). “The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda”. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.p.33

[[vi]] Henzel, C. (2005). “The Origins of Al Qaeda’s Ideology: Implications for US Strategy”, Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly, Vol 35, No. 1. 14.[online] Available here.

[[vii]] Gunaratna, R. (2004). Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. New York: Columbia University Press

[[viii]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books

[[ix]] Sageman, M. (2008). “Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century”.Philadelphia: UPP

[[x]] Wright, L. (2007). The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11. London: Penguin Books.

[[xi]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books

[[xii]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books

[[xiii]] Burke, J. (2007). Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. 3. ed., fully updated with a new chapter. London: Penguin Books.

[[xiv]] Burke, J. (2007). Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. 3. ed., fully updated with a new chapter. London: Penguin Books.

[[xv]] Sageman, Marc. 2008. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p.24.

[[xvi]] Hellmich, Christina. (2014). ‘How Islamic Is Al-Qaeda? The Politics of Pan-Islam and the Challenge of Modernization’. Critical Studies on Terrorism 7 (2).

[[xvii]] Hellmich, Christina. (2014). ‘How Islamic Is Al-Qaeda? The Politics of Pan-Islam and the Challenge of Modernization’. Critical Studies on Terrorism 7 (2).

[[xviii]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books,p.4

[[xix]] Sageman, Marc. 2008. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p.1

[[xx]] Oliver, R. (1994). The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,p.130

[[xxi]] Peterson, J.E. (2002). Saudi Arabia and the Illusion of Security. London: OUP. p.38

[[xxii]] Quiggin, T. (2010). “Understanding Al-Qaeda’s Ideology for Counter-Narrative Work”. Perspectives on Terrorism 3 (2). [Online]. Available here.

[[xxiii]] Alistair, H. (2010). “Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.[online].Available here.

[[xxiv]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books,p.4

[[xxv]] Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise. London: Zed Books, p.150