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Prior to his death in May 2011, Osama bin Laden designed al-Qaeda to symbolize the globalization of terrorism in the twenty-first century. The network is perceived by many to represent a quintessential model for small groups of like-minded revolutionaries who wish to wage transnational insurgencies against strong adversaries. Although al-Qaeda certainly exists as a loose network of relatively independent cells, it has also evolved into an idea—an ideology and a fighting strategy—that has been embraced by sympathetic revolutionaries throughout the world.

Al-Qaeda leaders such as the late Osama bin Laden and his successor as leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, consistently released public pronouncements of their goals, often by delivering audio and video communiqués to international news agencies such as Al Jazeera in Qatar. Based on these communiqués, the following principles frame the ideology of al-Qaeda:a

  • The struggle is a clash of civilizations. Holy war is a religious duty and necessary for the salvation of one’s soul and the defense of the Muslim nation.
  • Only two sides exist, and there is no middle ground in this apocalyptic conflict between Islam and the forces of evil. Western and Muslim nations that do not share al-Qaeda’s vision of true Islam are enemies.
  • Violence in a defensive war on behalf of Islam is the only course of action. There cannot be peace with the West.
  • Because this is a just war, many of the theological and legal restrictions on the use of force by Muslims do not apply.
  • Because U.S. and Western power is based on their economies, large-scale mass-casualty attacks that focus on economic targets are a primary goal.
  • Muslim governments that cooperate with the West and do not adopt strict Islamic law are apostasies and must be violently overthrown.
  • Israel is an illegitimate nation and must be destroyed.

These principles have become a rallying ideology for Islamist extremists who have few, if any, ties to al-Qaeda. Thus, the war on terrorism is not solely a conflict against an organization but is also a conflict against a belief system.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the ideology of al-Qaeda?
  2. Why did a network of religious revolutionaries evolve into a potent symbol of global resistance against its enemies?
  3. Which underlying commonalities appeal to motivated Islamist activists?