Sunni Islamist extremist international terrorist organization. Following the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 it came under the control of Ayman al-Zawahiri. It was responsible on 11 September 2001 for the world's single worst terrorist atrocity, with the suicide hijackings of airliners that crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and other targets, including the Pentagon, at the cost of around 3,000 lives. Al-Qaeda is not a unified organization with an identifiable structure, but has links with Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups in over 40 countries who share its ideology of global jihad (holy war). The organization's complex structure, based on autonomous cells, and its use of suicide martyrs, has made it difficult for Western intelligence agencies to counteract effectively.
Al-Qaeda (‘the Base’ in Arabic) was formed in 1988 by bin Laden, a Saudi-born multimillionaire, with the goals to ‘unite all Muslims and establish a government which follows the rule of the Caliphs’, to ‘liberate’ Islam's three holiest places – Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem – and to remove US troops from Saudi Arabia. It considers most of the Muslim governments in the Middle East to be corrupt and Western-dominated and has supported Islamic fundamentalist fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Kosovo.
Al-Qaeda and allied groups are believed to have been responsible for a succession of bombings (often suicide bombings), including of the World Trade Center in February 1993, the US military complex in Saudi Arabia in June 1996, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000, a seaside resort in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002, Western compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2003, a luxury hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August 2003, the UN headquarters and Red Cross building in Baghdad, Iraq, in August and October 2003, two Jewish synagogues in Istanbul in November 2003, and four trains in Madrid in March 2004.
Bin Laden based himself in Sudan 1991–96 and Afghanistan 1996–2001, with ‘cells’ of supporters also in Yemen and Somalia, as well as support from militant Islamic terrorist groups in Egypt and Lebanon. After 11 September 2003, US president George W Bush designated al-Qaeda the chief target of the war on terror. US troops invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime that had protected bin Laden. A number of al-Qaeda leaders were killed in combat or captured and taken to the Guantánamo Bay detention centre. Bin Laden remained at large, continuing to issue video messages inciting attacks on the USA, until being tracked down and assassinated in Pakistan by US special forces in May 2011. He was replaced as al-Qaeda leader by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The 2003 US-led war against Iraq was prompted in part by US concerns of possible links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda terrorists, although such links were doubtful to many observers. However, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda emerged as more influential in Iraq, and was believed to be behind a succession of suicide bombings in an effort to destabilize the US-controlled interim regime and to foment civil war.
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