Known worldwide after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the international terrorist network created by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s has as one of its main missions to stop Western influence in Muslim countries and replace their governments with fundamentalist regimes.
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The name “al-Qaeda” is controversial, according to Jason Burke, author of the book “al-Qaeda – The True Story of Islamic Radicalism” (Ed. Zahar). The word, which in Arabic can define anything from a base or a home to a foundation or pedestal, was already used in the mid-1980s by Islamic radicals from all corners of the world to defend Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion, which began in 1979.
Bin Laden’s spiritual mentor, Abdallah Azzam used the word to refer to the role played by non-Afghan volunteers drawn from other countries to fight even after the war against the Soviets ended, according to the author.
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“Bin Laden and a group of comrades accepted the suggestion and, probably in August 1988, created a militant group in the city of Peshawar in western Pakistan,” he writes.
Bin Laden left Pakistan in 1989 and returned to his native Saudi Arabia, where in 1990 he offered an army of Islamic militants to protect the country from Saddam Hussein, who had invaded neighboring Kuwait. Aid was refused and he left the country in 1991 for Sudan, where he stayed until 1996, when he settled in Afghanistan.
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It is in this period, according to Burton, until 2001, that something similar to al-Qaida, as it is conceived today, began to function.
“However, even in its most organized phase, in late 2001, we cannot see al-Qaida as a cohesive and structured terrorist organization, with cells everywhere, or imagine that it had absorbed all the other groups into its networks.” , warns the author.
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Living with the Taliban
Back in the country he had helped defend against the Soviet invasion, bin Laden was not long in approaching another militant group that involved apprentices of Sunni Islam who took up arms: the Taliban. With Pakistani funding, the group had taken the capital, Kabul, in 1996 and established a radical Islamic government in the country.
Initially an opponent of the Taliban, bin Laden switched sides after meeting one of their leaders, Mullah Mohammed Omar. With Omar’s support, his al-Qaeda was safe to act in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban had unparalleled success, as they implemented an austere and puritanical theocracy that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups wanted. Despite being recognized by only three countries (Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia), the mini-caliphate under Mullah Omar reigned freely to carry out its experiments between 1996 and 2001”, wrote Abdel Bari Atwan in the book “Secret History of al-Qaeda” (Ed. Larousse).
From the morning of September 11, 2001, when 19 members of the group took four airliners in the United States and threw them into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in the biggest attack of its kind in the country’s history, it was impossible not to identify more al-Qaeda.
Twin Towers in September 11, 2001 attack — Photo: (Photo: AP)
The United States invaded Afghanistan to try to destroy the organization’s foundations and depose the Taliban, whose Islamic fundamentalist regime had sheltered bin Laden and his followers. The main al-Qaeda leaders then fled to Pakistan, settling in tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan that the government had little control over.
Some analysts believe that bin Laden’s group continues to train terrorist militants in Pakistani tribal areas and that it is responsible for introducing the practice of suicide bombings among Taliban members in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Among the various attacks attributed to the group are the one that killed 191 people on the Madrid subway in March 2004, the one that hit London’s public transport system (buses and subways) in July 2005 and the suicide bombing that killed the Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Buttho.
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Because of its decentralized organization, it is impossible to say exactly how many members make up al-Qaeda. The United States estimates hundreds or even thousands of militants spread across several countries, with a concentration of leaders in Pakistan.
A 2008 US State Department report stated that the terrorist network incorporated members of other groups in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, Europe and Central Asia “who continue to plan attacks against the United States and other Western nations.”
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