top of page

Al Qaeda – An Assessment

Written by Roy Stranden
Published 9 February 2012 


The Origin of al Qaeda

Al Qaeda, which means «the base», was established by Osama bin Laden and Dr. Abdullah al-Azzam in 1988 (Haynes, 2005; Katzman, 2005; National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004; START, 2011). Osama bin Laden had participated in the fighting to remove Soviet Union from Afghanistan by supporting the mujahidin with finances, transportation and training. After the conflict he wanted to recruit these fighters to fight a new jihad against ´backsliding´, ´non-Islamic´ rulers in the Arab world. Later the focus expanded to include allies of such rulers and especially the United States (US) (Haynes, 2005).


During the 1990s al Qaeda expanded its capacity and network by building links with different Islamic groups in countries like Egypt, Eritrea, Pakistan, Somalia and Uzbekistan (Haynes, 2005). Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda´s chief ideologue, is regarded as the one most responsible for turning al Qaeda into a international network when he merged his organisation (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) with al Qaeda in 1998 (Haynes, 2005; National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004).


Al Qaeda´s Aims and Objectives

There are several interpretations of al Qaeda´s aims and objectives (Abrahms, 2006). Different groups of politicians and terrorism specialist have questioned the credibility of al Qaeda´s stated objectives and its policy demands together with their consistency. Others argue that al Qaeda have accurately represented its intentions (Abrahms, 2006). Nevertheless, empirical studies of al Qaeda´s objective strongly suggest that it attacked US to change its foreign policies (Abrahms, 2006). This is supported by an analysis of several different sources such as communiqués form al Qaeda, confessions from al Qaeda captives, polling data of al Qaeda potential supporters in the Muslim World and al Qaeda´s target selection (Abrahms, 2006).


Al Qaeda has, after first threaten to do so, steadily increased the lethality of their attacks and has expressed their intention to continue until US complies with its demands. Osama bin Laden further threaten to attack the continental US if it refused to change its foreign policy (Abrahms, 2006). In a 1998 statement, Osama bin Laden called on Muslims to kill not only Americans, but also US allies (Haynes, 2005).


Four objectives are mentioned more frequent. The first objective is to expel Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries, and especially the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia. Secondly, al Qaeda aims to dissuade US from supporting military interventions that kill Muslims around the world. The third objective is to reduce or remove US support to pro-Western Muslim rulers that suppress the will of their people so that al Qaeda can overthrow Arabic regimes al Qaeda deemed to be ´non-Islamic´. The last objective is to destroy Israel´s ability to occupy Jerusalem and murder Muslims by ending US support to Israel (Abrahms, 2006).


Ideology and Motivations

Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have certain ideas of what they believes to be the best form of government and religion, which can be described as their ideology. It can be argued that a political ideology has two dimensions: its final goal or aim, and the methods to achieve that objective. The goal describes how the society should work and the method describe the most appropriate way to get from where we are today and the desired end state.


Al Qaeda´s political goal is the return to a ´pure and authentic’ Islam in order to bring back glory and prominence to Muslims, and to establish a pan-Islamic Caliphate (Haynes, 2005; McPhillips, 2010; Sageman, 2003). Al Qaeda´s ideology draws upon two key sources. The first is Wahhabism which is a form of the official version of Islam found in Saudi Arabia, and second the ideas of Sayyid Qutb (Haynes, 2005; McPhillips, 2010).


Wahhabism has two central tenets. The first is that it preaches against worship of what it calls ´false idols´ such as local saints, and secondly that it regards Shia Muslims as apostates (Haynes, 2005). Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian key religious and ideological thinker. He was arrested and imprisoned from 1954 to 1964 for anti-government agitation and later executed in 1966 for plotting to overthrow Gamal Abdel-Nasser (McPhillips, 2010). Qutb declared the Western civilization «the enemy of Islam; denounced leaders of Muslim nations for not following Islam closely enough; and sought to spread the belief among Sunni Muslims that it was their duty to undertake jihad to defend and purify Islam» (Haynes, 2005, p. 183). Many have called Sayyid Qutb «the godfather ideolog of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al Qaeda» (McPhillips, 2010, p. 27).


Followers of al Qaeda are urged to return to traditional patterns of behaviour rooted in their Islamic heritage as a mean to deal with the influence and effect of ´Western style´ modernisation (Haynes, 2005). Some argue that it is useful to view the development of al Qaeda ideology in relation to the theory of the ´clash of civilisations´ and the concept of Orientalism (Haynes, 2005).


Samuel Huntington’s theory of ´clash of civilisations´ argue that a new fight between the Christian West and the Muslim and Arab East was under way, replacing the cold war conflict between liberal democracy’s and communism (Haynes, 2005). A key element of Huntington’s argument was that while Christianity spread liberal democracy in the world, radical Islam was a key threat to international stability (Haynes, 2005). There are many critics of Huntington’s theory, however, Osama bin Laden used Huntington’s theory to emphasise his own belief of an emerging conflict between Islam and the West, and that it would be fought between the US and it allies and the united Islamic world, the umma, which he meant was obligated to unite and defend themselves (Blanchard, 2007).


The concept of Orientalism is concerned with the belief that Islam as a body of religious and social thought is inherently and deeply rooted at odds with Western thought and culture (Haynes, 2005). Both Said’s (1978) and Huntington’s arguments underline the notion that the traditional West sees the ´Orient’ and the Muslim world as something different compared to the ´Christian’ west (Haynes, 2005).


Al Qaeda promote an ideology that unite several grievances and which motivates their followers and supporters around the idea that violence is the proper response (The Security Service (MI5), 2011b). Haynes (2005, p. 187) argue that they «may well literally believe that they have no other rational choice – if they are going to defend their religion and culture against Western onslaught». In this fight for survival it is rational for them to justify their methods of indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians as acceptable (Haynes, 2005). The use of terrorism is seen as a way to restore Muslim pride, weaken the power of the US and its allies, and facilitate the return of the golden age when the Arab lands of Islam were the world´s leading power (Haynes, 2005).



Appropriately describing the properties and defining the boundaries of al Qaeda is challenging (Jackson, 2006). However, in addition to inspired individuals it can be argued that al Qaeda today exists in three distinct, but not mutually exclusive, dimensions (Jones, 2011; Nelson, Sanderson, Bagia, Bodurian, & Gordon, 2011; The Security Service (MI5), 2011c). The three groups are al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda Affiliates and Associates, al Qaeda Locals, in addition to the al Qaeda Network (Hoffman, 2006; Jones, 2011).


Al Qaeda Central comprises of what remains of al Qaeda´s leadership and hierarchal organisation before 9/11. Many of them are now killed or captured although several still remain (Hoffman, 2006).


Al Qaeda Affiliates and Associates are established terrorists groups who have received training, arms, money, general assistance and spiritual guidance from al Qaeda (Hoffman, 2006).


Al Qaeda locals on the other hand are described as an amorphous group of people who have some prior terrorism experience and a looser connection to al Qaeda. The connection, however, is weak and may only last for a short time (Hoffman, 2006).


The final group is the al Qaeda Network, which are home-grown Islamic radicals and local converts to Islam. The relationship with al Qaeda is more inspirational than actual, even though some of them may receive training and support from al Qaeda (Hoffman, 2006).



Increased global counterterrorism operations after 9/11 has limited al Qaeda´s ability to provide command and control over operatives and affiliated groups (Blanchard, 2007; Cruickshank & Ali, 2007).


Nevertheless, key leaders in the central leadership of al Qaeda today are believed to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Yahya al-Libi, Atiyah abd al-Rahman al-Libi, Saif al-Adel, Abu Miqad al-Masri (Jones, 2011; Miller, 2011).


In the affiliated groups we find leaders such as Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi (al Qa’ida in Iraq), Nasir al-Wahishi (al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula), Abdelmalek Droukdal (al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb), and Harun Fazul (al Qa’ida East Africa) (Jones, 2011).


In the local allied groups we find leaders such as Hakimullah Mehsud (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan), Hafiz Saeed (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba), and Ahmed Abd aw-Mohamed (al Shabaab) (Jones, 2011).



There is an evolution to al Qaeda´s main strategies which can be described through the fatwa, dawa, Salafi Jihad and the Global Salafi Jihad (Sageman, 2003).


The fatwa is a juristic ruling normally issued by an Islamic scholar. An example of this is Osama bin laden who in 1996 issued a fatwa arguing that it is the obligation of all Muslims to fight the West and particular the US and Israel (Sageman, 2003).


Dawa is a call to Islam and consist of peaceful preaching of the strict and literal imitation of the Prophet and his companions as the model of Islamic society (Sageman, 2003).

Salafi Jihad is a strategy to violently overthrow modern leaders of Muslim countries, who refuses to impose Sharia law (Sageman, 2003).


The Global Salafi Jihad on the other hand is a strategy that shifts the focus of the Salafi Jihad, which were primarily concerned with fighting the «near enemy», or the leaders of modern Muslim states, to the «far enemy» which is defined as Israel, US and its allies (Sageman, 2003).


In addition it can be argued that two of al Qaeda´s key strategies has been the use of modern communication and its reorganisation from a hierarchical structure to a decentralised movement.


McAuley (2005, p. 269) argue that Osama Bin Laden´s ideology was «a malleable and contingent construct designed to appeal to different constituencies». Public statements addressed to different audiences has played an important role in al Qaeda´s effort to achieve its goals (Blanchard, 2007).


Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have conducted sophisticated public relations and media campaigns since the mid-1990, and have stated that harnessing the power of local and international media is important (Blanchard, 2007). Methods of delivering the message has been through audio and video recordings, internet, and a series of faxed statements (Blanchard, 2007). It can also be argued that Muslims living in the West have become part of the global «umma» thanks to the strategy of using internet and new communication technologies (Etiz, 2011).


Another central strategy has been it´s reorganization. Before 9/11 al Qaeda was an organisation based in Afghanistan with its own bureaucracy, hierarchies and modus operandi. However, this structure was increasingly difficult to upheld due to worldwide counterterrorism operations which reduced al Qaeda´s training camps, and killed or captured most of its senior leadership (Cruickshank & Ali, 2007).


Based on the vision of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, al Qaeda transformed itself into a decentralised movement (Cruickshank & Ali, 2007). Al Qaeda switched from a more traditional terrorist group conducting operations, toward inspiring and steering jihadist groups loosely affiliated with Osama bin Laden´s organisation (Cruickshank & Ali, 2007).


Setmariam´s strategic concept of «individual terrorism» as opposed to the hierarchically al Qaeda was explained as necessary due to the youths fear and risk of being caught by authorities if a mistake was made in the organisation. In addition Setmariam believed that it was important to let the youth get a chance to participate without being part of an organisation (Cruickshank & Ali, 2007).



Assessment of how al Qaeda´s ideology impact its structure, strategy, targets and tactics

Al Qaeda sees itself as a global force both fighting to protect the Muslims from the “infidels”, and inspiring others to follow the path of Global Salafi Jihad. This is reflected in it´s structure, strategy, targets and tactics.


Attacks during the 1990s and 9/11 was centrally organized by al Qaeda both in planning and selection of targets (Cruickshank & Ali, 2007). Examples of this is the attack on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and the USS Cole (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004). After 9/11 al Qaeda has evolved in similar lines as envisioned by Setmariam and morphed into a broader-based and looser movement inspiring local Islamic radicals to act (Cruickshank & Ali, 2007; Hoffman, 2006). Examples of this are the attacks in Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid and London which were perpetrated by small local cells (Cruickshank & Ali, 2007).


Targets often has symbolic value and one of al Qaeda´s signature method is coordinated attacks with large bombs detonated by suicide bombers, causing indiscriminate killing and destruction all around the world (The Security Service (MI5), 2011a). The tactic of killing and maiming large number of people, in addition to cause maximum economic damage, is done to create a climate of fear and a pressure on the West to act as Al Qaeda wants.


These atrocious acts of violence is justified by the belief that they act on behalf of God and that any means justifies the end; including using weapons of mass destruction if possible. In addition, it is also argued that their acts does not come close to those sufferings the West has inflicted on the Muslims over the years.


Al Qaeda´s now decentralised and horizontal structure makes it possible to present a global threat and maintain a presence in many countries. In addition, hierarchical groups are predictable and vulnerable and therefore a disadvantage for al Qaeda. In addition, because al Qaeda does not answer to a narrow domestic constituency, it can therefore be argued that it´s structure, selection of targets, and tactics, fits the purpose.


The Future of al Qaeda

Interestingly, «there is remarkably little consensus among analysts about the threat now posed by al Qaeda» (Jenkins, 2011, p. 1). There are those who believe that al Qaeda will become increasingly irrelevant, while others believe that such assessments may be to optimistic (Jones, 2011).


It can, nonetheless, be argued that there are several factors that can play an important role in the future of al Qaeda. Two of them are the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring. There is no connection between Osama bin Laden´s death and the Arab Spring, however, they are both likely to have an impact on al Qaeda affiliated terrorism (Etiz, 2011). The death of Osama bin Laden will affect the internal dynamics of al Qaeda, and the Arab Spring will change the socio-political context where al Qaeda and its ideology thrives (Etiz, 2011).


The process of change in the Arab world is still in the early stages, and there will be groups and individuals that are dissatisfied by the redistribution of power and wealth. Al Qaeda strategists and members will watch and try to influence, sabotage and take advantage of the Arab Spring (Etiz, 2011). However, there are those who argue that the non-violent and secular revolution which is focused on local grievances and individual rights may fatally undermine Al Qaeda’s ideology and thereby bring about its collapse (Zarate & Gordon, 2011).


The events in May 2011 killing Osama Bin Laden are a major setback to al Qaeda. Even though a new leader of al Qaeda probably has been selected, Osama bin Laden was important both as a leader and a founding father of al Qaeda, but also as a symbol of al Qaeda´s ideology (Etiz, 2011). Nonetheless, the death of Osama bin Laden will not bring about the end of the al Qaeda terrorist threat (Etiz, 2011).


International efforts to combat al Qaeda has made much progress in the last ten years, reducing al Qaeda´s capacity to launch attacks against the West. Nevertheless, it can be argued that there has not been any progress on reducing al Qaeda and its followers intention or determination to continue its campaign (Jenkins, 2011). It can therefore be argued that the death of Osama bin Laden will make al Qaeda more decentralized and the threat more diffuse but still lethal (Jenkins, 2011; Jones, 2011; Miller, 2011).


It may therefore be to early to judge what impact Osama bin Laden´s death will have on al Qaeda and the threat it poses over time and in the near future. Nevertheless, according to MI5 (2011c) al Qaeda continue to present a serious and on-going threat, even though the threat has become more diverse.



  • Abrahms, M. (2006). Al Qaeda´s Scorecard: A Progress Report on Al Qaeda´s Objectives. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29, 509-529.

  • Blanchard, C. M. (2007). Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology. CRS Report for Congress.

  • Cruickshank, P., & Ali, M. H. (2007). Abu Musab Al Suri: Architect of the New Al Qaeda. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30, 1-14.

  • Etiz, F. C. Y. (2011). Managing the change of context in countering terrorism: Death of Bin Laden and the “Arab Spring”. Journal of Terrorism Research, 2(2).

  • Haynes, J. (2005). Al Qaeda: Ideology and Action. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 8(2), 177-191.

  • Hoffman, B. (2006). Combating Al Qaeda and the Militant Islamic Threat. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

  • Jackson, B. A. (2006). Groups, Networks, or Movements: A Command-and-Control-Driven Approach to Classifying Terrorist Organizations and Its Application to Al Qaeda. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29, 241-262.

  • Jenkins, B. M. (2011). Al Qaeda After Bin Laden: Implications for American Strategy. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

  • Jones, S. G. (2011). The Future of Al Qa’ida. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

  • Katzman, K. (2005). Al Qaeda: Profile and Threat Assessment CRS Report for Congress. Washington, DC: Federation of American Scientists.

  • McAuley, D. (2005). The ideology of Osama Bin Laden: Nation, tribe and world economy. Journal of Political Ideologies, 10(3), 269-287.

  • McPhillips, P. E. (2010). Toward Greater Understanding: The Jihadist Ideology of Al Qaeda. Fort Leavenworth: School of Advanced Military Studies.

  • Miller, G. (2011). Al-Qaeda targets dwindle as group shrinks, The Washington Post. Retrieved from

  • National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. (2004). The 9/11 Commission Report.

  • Nelson, R., Sanderson, T. M., Bagia, A., Bodurian, B., & Gordon, D. A. (2011). A Threat Transformed: al qaeda and associated movements in 2011. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • Sageman, M. (2003). The Global Salafi Jihad. Third public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States Retrieved January 21, 2012, from

  • Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Penguin.

  • START. (2011). al-Qaeda. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Terrorist Organization Profile Retrieved November 20, 2011, from

  • The Security Service (MI5). (2011a). Al Qaida’s history Retrieved November 20, 2011, from https://

  • The Security Service (MI5). (2011b). Al Qaida’s ideology Retrieved November 20, 2011, from https://

  • The Security Service (MI5). (2011c). Al Qaida’s structure Retrieved November 20, 2011, from https://

  • Zarate, J. C., & Gordon, D. A. (2011). The Battle for Reform with Al-Qaeda. The Washington Quarterly, 34(3), 103-122.

bottom of page