Following the Sept. 11 terrorist acts, worldwide speculation has focused on Osama bin Laden as the mastermind behind the attacks.
However, most believe bin Laden is not solely responsible, but that his terrorist network, al Qaeda, is also involved.
“We are at war with the al Qaeda network,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week. “It’s not one individual; it’s lots of individuals.”
Al Qaeda, which means “the base” in Arabic, is an organizational base for an informal network of Islamic extremist terrorist groups throughout the world. Its goal is to link various groups in opposition to U.S. and other non-Islamic or pro-Western governments through the use of force and violence.
The network has declared a jihad, or holy war, as a religious duty to Islam on the countries it opposes.
Although bin Laden believes Muslim countries must be ruled by Islamic law, most Quraan interpretation rejects his religious rationalizations for violence and terrorism.
UW-Madison political science professor Jon Pevehouse said the discrepancy of views within Islam is similar to that found in other global religions.
“[There are] various people that try to interpret the religion,” he said. “[People have] very different views on how to interpret and on what makes good policy.”
The various groups that comprise al Qaeda, some of which are former rivals, formed their connection during the Afghan war in the 1980s, battling Soviet invasion with the support of the American, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies.
During the war, bin Laden was the top recruiter and organizer of the resistance fighter volunteers, the Arab-Afghans, as they came to be known. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 left bin Laden with a network of thousands of equipped, trained fighters, which respresented the beginning of al Qaeda.
Many of the Arab-Afghans were radical Islamic dissidents in their home countries and were unwilling or unable to return home after the war. They, like bin Laden, left the war determined to rid the Middle and Near East of Western influence.
To this day, al Qaeda has been able to recruit members due to growing anti-American sentiment in many Arab countries.
Pevehouse said the resentment is targeted specifically at the United States, rather than Western nations in general.
Bin Laden, the son of a Saudi construction mogul, is estimated to be worth $300 million. Bin Laden keeps al Qaeda functioning through private funds as well as solicited donations. Al Qaeda does not rely on government support, as most previous terrorist groups have.
“He is independently wealthy and privately funded by Saudi Arabian citizens,” Pevehouse said.
Many experts believe bin Laden finances and inspires the members of al Qaeda more than he actually commands them. He has trained between 5,000 and 12,000 people in camps in Afghanistan and has established small cells, isolated groups of trained terrorists, in almost 50 countries. Al Qaeda’s use of cells helps ensure the secrecy of their operations.
“It’s easier to cover up their trail,” Pevehouse said, “[There are] not a lot of mechanisms linking them.”
Bin Laden supplies al Qaeda with weapons, and the organization attempted to buy components of chemical and nuclear weapons in the mid-1990s.
Government officials who monitor the group’s activities are concerned that future attacks could involve such weapons.
Although the network possesses weapons, al Qaeda is hardly a conventional terrorist group. The organization has few visible military assets or civilian infrastructure and is not dependent on a territorial home base.
Because of the network’s unique global presence, American officials believes intelligence, as opposed to weapons and attacks, is the key to combating al Qaeda.
President Bush called on Afghanistan and the ruling Taliban faction, believed to be protecting bin Laden, to hand him over to the U.S.
Bin Laden is also wanted for his involvement in previous terrorist attacks, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa and last year’s attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
While Bush has been careful not to point the direct finger of blame up to this point, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said the FBI is on bin Laden’s trail.
“If they found his exact location, am I saying there would be bullets in his head?” she said. “Yes, definitely.”
However, Bush said bin Laden’s arrest or death would merely signify the beginning of the war against al Qaeda.
Pevehouse agreed that the loss of its leader would be unlikely to stop al Qaeda in its mission.
“Getting bin Laden is a first good step,” he said. “But we need to get into the organization somehow.”