Explainer: What is Al-Qaeda? How it is formed?

Al-Qaeda, an Arabic word for “the base” was a terrorist group started in 1988 by a wealthy Saudi named Osama Bin Laden.


Soviet Union had a long history of supporting and providing aid to Afghanistan. On April 27, 1978 a Soviet supported communist government took over the country.
Many of the Afghanistan people did not like the new communist government, because many of the laws went against their Muslim religion.
Anti-government armed groups were formed, and by April 1979 large parts of the country revolted. The rebels called themselves the Mujahideen.

The government itself was highly unstable with in-party rivalry, and the president was assassinated by followers of Hafizullah Amin, who then became president. Deteriorating relations and raising of rebellions led the Soviet government, under leader Leonid Brezhnev, to deploy the 40th Army on December 24, 1979. Arriving in the capital Kabul, they seized the power, killing president Hafizullah Amin and installing Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal.
The U.S, due to rivalry with Soviet Union(on going cold war between this two nations), started the “Islam-is-in-danger” story to islamic world, especially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. To pull out the Communists from Afghanistan, the U.S. engaged the Saudi royal house and the Pakistani political and military establishment to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Red Army.

The U.S directed funds, weapons through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence(Pakistan’s Intelligence service) to the Afghan Mujahideen who were fighting with the Soviet troops.

Young men from middle east came to join with the Mujahideen.Many see it as a religious struggle . Among them is a well-educated young Saudi named Osama bin Laden(who formed al-Qaeda).Also a semi-literate from Jordan named Abu Musab Zarqawi(who is responsible for formation of ISIS).

Foreign mujahideen volunteers(who came from different countries) did not play a major role in the war. While over 250,000 Afghan mujahideen fought the Soviets and the communist Afghan government, it is estimated that there were never more than 2,000 foreign mujahideen in the field at any one time. Nonetheless, foreign mujahideen volunteers came from 43 countries. Bin Laden played a central role in organizing training camps for the foreign Muslim volunteers.

Over the next several years the Soviet Army fought with the Mujahideen. It was a very difficult battle. Many of the Soviet soldiers were untested for the harsh environment of Afghanistan. Also, the Mujahideen soldiers were fighting for their homeland and their religion. They were fierce fighters and had many good places to hide in the mountains. As the war continued with little success, it became a source of embarrassment for the Soviet Union. Their army no longer seemed undefetable to the rest of the world. The Soviets also came under increasing international pressure. The war was condemned by the United Nations, the US pulled out of the SALT treaty talks, and the US boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and he wanted the war to end. He first tried to increase Soviet troops to end the war quickly. However, this didn’t work. By 1988 Gorbachev realized the war was costing Soviet troops and hurting their economy. He signed a peace treaty to end the war. The last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan on February 15, 1989.

Around 13,000 Soviet troops were killed in the war. It’s estimated that over 1 million Afghanis died from the war. Most of these were civilians, not soldiers. Around 5 million people fled the country of Afghanistan during the war. Most went to Pakistan or Iraq. The war destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. It became one of the poorest nations in the world after the war was over.

Formation of al-Qaeda:

As the war ended, the U.S left Pakistan and Afganistan without taking back the thousands of weapons in the hands of Mujahidden.
Having achieved victory,some foreign mujahideen(Rebels who came from different countries to fight against Soviet) wanted to expand their operations to include Islamist struggles in other parts of the world, such as Palestine and Kashmir. These Mujahidden moved back to different parts of the world and set up local militant groups in The Philippines(Abu Sayyaf),Indonesia(Jemmah Islamiya), Egypt(Islamic brotherhood), Kashmir(Hizbul Mujahidden, Laskar-e-Taiba), China(East Turkistan Islamic Movement in XinJiang province), and in almost all central Asian Islamic republics.

Al-Qaeda is one of the many militant groups formed. It was formed at an August 11, 1988, meeting between “several senior leaders” of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Abdullah Azzam, and bin Laden. Its goal is to lift the word of God, to make His religion victorious.
Following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. The Iraq invaded Kuwait(We will have a seperate explainer why Iraq invaded ) on August 1990 and this put the ruling House of Saudi Arabia at risk.

Saudi Arabia’s own forces were well armed but far outnumbered. Bin Laden offered the services of his mujahideen to King Fahd to protect Saudi Arabia from the Iraqi army. The Saudi monarch refused bin Laden’s offer, but took the help of US and allied forces, and allowed troops of U.S into Saudi territory.

The installation of US forces in Saudi Arabia angered bin Laden, as he believed the presence of foreign troops in the “land of the two mosques” (Mecca and Medina) is a sign of disrespectful to sacred soil. After speaking publicly against the Saudi government for allowing American troops, he was banished from Saudi Arabia and he moved to Sudan.During this time, bin Laden assisted the Sudanese government, bought or set up various business enterprises, and established camps where rebels were trained.

Due to bin Laden’s continuous criticism on King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, on March 5, 1994 Fahd sent an ambassador to Sudan demanding bin Laden’s passport; bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship was also revoked. Under intense American pressure, Sudan government asked him to leave the country in 1998.

Back in Afghanistan:

Soviet troops left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989 but to the surprise of many, Communist Afghan government still hung on for three more years, before being overrun by elements of the mujahideen.
After the fall of the Afghan communist regime in 1992, Afghanistan was ungoverned for four years and troubled by constant infighting between various mujahideen groups.
After the war in Afghan, powerful warlords fought for control of capital, the countryside was mostly controlled by hundreds of corrupt warlords, who imposed severe measures on the Afghans. The warlords collected taxes from road users passing through their area. The tax collection became a big danger, which led to hatred in the population against the warlords.In 1994, these warlords stopped and captured a group of vehicles, just north of kandhar. The convoy belonged to a wealthy and influential Pakistani who demanded the Pakistani government intervene and secure the release of captured convoy.The Pakistani government , which did not want to intervene directly, instead directed the ISI(Inter-service Intelligence which is Pakistan’s Intelligence service) to ask the help of the radical Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam(JUI). The JUI ran several madrassas(Madrasa is a specific type of religious school or college for the study of the Islamic religion, though this may not be the only subject studied) where large number of Afghan students were enrolled .Many students in this Madrassas were orphaned by the war. The JUI used these students to organise a revolt against the warlords, who had captured the vehicles of Pakistani . About 2000 volunteers of the JUI, who called themselves ‘Taliban’ meaning ‘students’, freed the convoy after destroying the forces of the warlords. With this success, they pressed on and successfully captured Kandhar. The Taliban were given a rousing reception by the locals, who hated the local warlords .The Taliban’s behaviour helped them gain a reputation for being honest and religious.

By the end of 1996, the Taliban had captured nearly 90 percent of the country’s territory including Kabul. From Kabul, the Taliban declared the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

The ousted warlords, joined hands to take on the Taliban. However, as they were left with control of only 10 percent of the country’s territory, they set up base in country’s north and hence this group is known as Northern Alliance.

After the Sudanese made it clear, in May 1996, that bin Laden would never be welcome to return, Osama bin Laden was welcomed by the Taliban. In a matter of few months, Al-Qaeda indirectly became the ruler of Afghanistan.

The Taliban government tasked al-Qaeda to train Taliban’s army. The army was made up of mostly foreign fighters, many veterans from the Soviet war.

Attack On America:

The main aim of al-Qaeda was to drive Americans and American influence out of all Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia; destroy Israel. Bin Laden also said that he wishes to unite all Muslims and establish, by force if necessary, an Islamic nation adhering to the rule of the first Caliphs(the chief Muslim civil and religious ruler, regarded as the successor of Muhammad).Bin Laden believed that America was responsible for killing of Muslims in “Palestine, Chechnya and Iraq”. Al-Qaeda has carried out several terrorist attacks.

In December 1998, the Director of the CIA(Central Intelligence Agency is America’s intelligence service) Counter terrorism 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. – and instead crashed into the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as passengers tried to retake the aircraft from terrorists. In total, the attackers killed 2,977 victims and injured more than 6,000 others. These attacks were the most devastating terrorist acts in American history by Al-qeada.

Evidence has since come to light that the original targets for the attack may have been nuclear power stations on the east coast of the U.S. The targets were later altered by al-Qaeda, as it was feared that such an attack “might get out of hand”.

The US government responded militarily, and began to prepare its armed forces to overthrow the Taliban regime it believed was sheltering al-Qaeda. Before the US attacked, it offered Taliban leader Mullah Omar a chance to surrender bin Laden and his top associates.The Taliban refused the U.S demand to hand over Osama bin Laden.

The United States, together with its allies including the United Kingdom, went to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. launched Operation Enduring Freedom, to fight terrorist groups in Afghanistan and throughout the world. Soon, military bases were established near most of the major cities in Afghan. However, few of the Taliban or al-Qaeda were killed or captured. Most of them fled into the mountains and rural areas of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance who were against the Taliban allied with U.S. forces to help defeat the Taliban. A Continuing War for the next several years, the U.S and its allies worked on defeating the Taliban and rebuilding the country. Taliban was defeated and dethroned from power.However, U.S could not capture OBL.

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 an operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan,about 50 km north of Islamabad. Bin Laden and those with him were killed .

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