Al Qaeda or Al Qaida (äl kĪˈĕdə, käˈĭdä) [key] [Arab., = the base], Sunni Islamic terrorist organization with the stated goals of uniting all Muslims and establishing a transnational, strict-fundamentalist Islamic state. Founded by Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in the late 1980s, its membership originally consisted of Sunni Muslim Arabs who had come to Afghanistan to fight a holy war against occupying Soviet forces. Much of Al Qaeda's ideology was influenced by militant Egyptian Islamist Sayyd Qutb.
After Soviet troops withdrew (1989) from Afghanistan, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. He opposed the presence of U.S. forces there during the First Persian Gulf War, and after he was caught smuggling arms (1991) he was expelled and went to Sudan. Al Qaeda subsequently began supporting attacks on U.S.-related targets, including two attacks (1995, 1996) in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was forced to leave Sudan in 1996. He relocated to Afghanistan, where much of the country was controlled by the Taliban, who allowed him to establish a headquarters and training camps. Al Qaeda had by then been enlarged by the influx of members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad; other militants came to the camps to be trained in terrorist warfare and fundamentalist Muslim ideology.
In 1998 terrorists trained by Al Qaeda were linked to the bombings of the U.S.'s Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies; subsequent significant attacks directed by Al Qaeda included that on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in Aden, Yemen (2000), and those on New York City's World Trade Center, in which some 3,000 died, and the Pentagon (2001; see also 9/11). The events of 9/11 led to U.S. intervention in the Afghan civil war, and attacks against the Taliban and Al Qaeda installations in Afghanistan.
Although Al Qaeda's camps were destroyed, bin Laden and many fighters escaped; bin Laden established a new base in the mountains bordering Pakistan for a time as the U.S. conducted missions against Al Qaeda. Eventually based in parts of W Pakistan, Al Qaeda continued to function and launch terror attacks on a more limited scale; it also provided support to and inspiration for other groups committed to a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency, becoming identified with a decentralized international network of terrorists. Many Al Qaeda recruits returned to their homelands, and they and others formed similar, more or less autonomous groups, mainly in the Middle East and Africa, and aligned themselves with Al Qaeda and sometimes adopted its name. In most cases, however, these groups were focused on local issues and battles, and often fighting against other Muslims, especially Shiites, rather than attacking Western nations.
Deadly terrorist attacks supported or inspired by Al Qaeda continued, the most serious of which were the anti-Western bombings on Bali in 2002, the commuter rail bombings in Madrid, Spain, in 2004, and the public transit bombings in London, England, in 2005. Al Qaeda–associated fighters also have been involved in attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against Muslims they regard as apostate, such as Shiites in Iraq. In 2011 U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in a helicopter raid on his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded him as the group's leader.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.