Al Qaeda


Key Lecture Points


  • Join Active Minds for an in-depth look at Al Qaeda. We will discuss the historical origins of the organization and how it has evolved and changed over time. The role of Osama Bin Ladin and other leaders will be explained. We will also discuss how Al Qaeda has been impacted by the US military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world.
  • On September 11, 2001 an organization previously unknown to the majority of the American public launched one of the most devastating attacks on American soil. From his base in Afghanistan where he was sheltered by the Taliban government, the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden planned and ordered the hijacking 4 airplanes, piloting two of them into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. Due to the heroism of a few doomed passengers, the fourth plane was flown into a field in rural Pennsylvania.
  • Responding to the 9/11 attacks, in late 2001 the United States spearheaded an attack (with support from NATO allies) upon bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban government that protected him. In Afghanistan, United States military personnel are engaged in an active counterinsurgency war, with president Obama increasing the US troop presence in Afghanistan from 32,000 to 68,000 in 2009 and announcing his intention to increase those levels to nearly 100,000 by mid 2010.
  • Additionally, the Obama administration has continued to fund the Pakistani government’s effort to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban within that country. Those efforts are supplemented (and also cjhallenged) by the Obama Administration’s use of drone aircraft strikes upon Pakistani soil, which targets al Qaeda and the Taliban, but also raises issues of US infringing upon Pakistani sovereignty.
  • After the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Al Qaeda built an insurgency infrastructure that engaged American and Iraqi forces, particularly in the Sunni strongholds of central Iraq. Since Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of these attacks, was killed by US forces in July of 2006, the US has embarked upon a strategy of counter-insurgency called the “Sunni Awakening” wherein tribal councils that had formerly fought the US presence, were enlisted to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq. While these efforts appear to have weakened al Qaeda, it still has the capacity to strike, as it did in December 2009 Baghdad suicide bombings which killed 112.
  • Most recently, US efforts to pressure Al Qaeda have shifted to Yemen. On Christmas Day 2009, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to ignite an bomb on a US-bound airliner . President Obama stated that the alleged bomber was acting under orders from the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, which "trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America." The US Embassy in Yemen was closed in early January 2010, but the US continues to funnel aid to the Yemeni government ($70 million this year) as a means of engaging al Qaeda directly.

Exploration Questions

  • Given Al Qaeda’s capacity to shift from one location to another, what should the US strategy be in trying to reduce Al Qaeda’s effectiveness?
  • If Osama bin Laden were captured or killed, what impact would that have upon Al Qaeda and the US effort against the organization?

Reflective Questions

  • How has American society been affected (for the better or the worse) by Al Qaeda?
  • If you had the chance to ask Osama bin Laden one question, what would it be?
  • If you had the chance to tell him one thing about America, what would it be?

More to Explore

  • Foreign Policy Association Essay on Al Qaeda Click here
  • Essay on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Click here
  • Council on Foreign Relations on Al Qaeda in Yemen Click here

For Further Reading

  • Burke, Jason. Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam I. B. Tauris & Company, 2004. Award-winning reporter Burke shows how the threat from Islamic terrorism comes from the roots of the Islamic world.
    Click here to order
  • Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. A sweeping narrative history of the events leading to 9/11, a groundbreaking look at the people and ideas, the terrorist plans and the Western intelligence failures that culminated in the assault on America. Lawrence Wright's remarkable book is based on five years of research and hundreds of interviews that he conducted in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, England, France, Germany, Spain, and the United States.
    Click here to order
  • Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 Penguin, 2004 reprint, 738 pages. To what extent did America's best intelligence analysts grasp the rising threat of Islamist radicalism? Who tried to stop bin Laden and why did they fail? Comprehensively and for the first time, Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Steve Coll recounts the history of the covert wars in Afghanistan that fueled Islamic militancy and sowed the seeds of the September 11 attacks. Based on scrupulous research and firsthand accounts by key government, intelligence, and military personnel both foreign and American, Coll details the secret history of the CIA's role in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban, the emergence of bin Laden, and the failed efforts by U.S. forces to find and assassinate bin Laden in Afghanistan.
    Click here to order
  • Gunaratna, Rohan. Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror Berkley Publishing Group, 416 pages. Based on over five years of research, "Inside Al Queda" provides the definitive story behind the rise of this small, mysterious group to the notorious organization making headlines today.
    Click here to order