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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Explained: What was, and is, al-Qaida?

The terror group al-Qaida under Osama bin Laden grew into a generational threat to America that culminated in its September 11, 2001, attack that brought down the World Trade Center in New York.

By: AP | Dubai |
Updated: September 11, 2021 10:56:26 am
In this 1998 file photo, Ayman al-Zawahri, center left, and Osama bin Laden, center, hold a news conference in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/File)

Born out of the 1980s war against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, the terror group al-Qaida under Osama bin Laden grew into a generational threat to America that culminated in its September 11, 2001, attack that brought down the World Trade Center in New York.

The 9/11 attacks, which also saw the Pentagon struck by the commercial airliners hijacked by the group’s militants, led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the start of America’s longest war that just ended with the military’s frantic airlift from Kabul.

It also represented a new kind of danger, a war not against a nation per se but a shadowy network of financiers, acolytes and suicide bombers that continues even after bin Laden’s killing at the hands of US Navy SEALs in 2011 in Pakistan. Others have followed their model to even-more horrific results.


Al-Qaida, or “the Base” in Arabic, organized as the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. Hoping to capitalize on the support the mujahedeen, or the “holy warriors,” received during their war against Moscow, bin Laden formed al-Qaida and became its leader. The son of a construction magnate in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden also enjoyed familial wealth as well.

He demanded US forces withdraw from Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam. America deployed troops there in the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War over Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

In this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo, the south tower of the World Trade Center, left, begins to collapse after a terrorist attack on the landmark buildings in New York. (AP Photo: Gulnara Samoilova, File)

The peak

In 1996, bin Laden issued a formal declaration of war. But it wasn’t until trucks loaded with explosives detonated outside of US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people on August 7, 1998, that the threat became real.

The al-Qaida suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Aden, Yemen, followed in 2000. Seventeen people died. Then came the September 11 attacks. Bin Laden fled the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, only to be hunted down in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a decade later.

In this April 22, 2014 file photo, a group of suspected al-Qaida militants accused in the killing of an army general in a suicide bombing, stand trial at a state security court in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo: Hani Mohammed, File)


Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who became leader after bin Laden’s death, has faded in prominence in recent years and is believed to be in poor health. Bin Laden’s son, Hamza, who became a leading figure inside al-Qaida, was later killed.

But al-Qaida’s prominence following September 11 saw it gain affiliates across the Mideast. One became the Islamic State group, whose filmed beheadings and takeover of large parts of Iraq and Syria shocked the world.

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