In the spring of 2004, as investigators scoured mobile phone records for evidence in the Madrid train bombings, a disturbing truth about the killers began to emerge. Far from bloody-minded professionals carrying out Osama bin Laden’s orders, these suicide bombers appeared to be novices—self-radicalized warriors who believed themselves to be carrying out the al-Qaeda leader’s wishes. The closest many of them ever had come to the man was reading his polemics on a jihadist website.
This phenomenon wasn’t new. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, cells of wannabes had popped up around the world; most showed all the acumen of Wile E. Coyote hunting the Road Runner. But the coordinated assault on Madrid’s commuter rail network marked a frightening new turn for the world’s first truly global terrorist organization. With its leaders in hiding or on the run, it had managed to outsource its work to self-styled “affiliates”—from the absurdist amateurs of the so-called “Toronto 18” to the homegrown jihadis who killed 52 people by bombing the London Underground. Just when Western intelligence agencies thought they had a handle on the threat, the threat had morphed into something almost as dangerous.
This quicksilver quality had long been al-Qaeda’s key to survival. Bin Laden had assembled his following in the late 1980s from remnants of Arab volunteer brigades who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and who shared his outrage at the Saudi royal family’s decision to allow U.S. troops on their soil during the 1990 Gulf War. Though the scion of a construction dynasty in Saudi Arabia, he was expelled from the country the next year, and quickly shifted operations to Sudan, where his organization began to live up to its name (in Arabic, al-Qaeda means “the base”).
There, bin Laden and his lieutenants set up training camps for jihadis from around the world, along with a business structure through which to fund operations outside Sudan’s borders. At the same time, bin Laden began preaching his toxic blend of hatred and religious manifest destiny—a unifying ideology that “tapped into all the misapprehensions and bitterness toward the United States that many Muslims around the world were feeling,” in the words of national security expert Michael O’Hanlon. “You see a greater degree of competence on al-Qaeda’s part during this period, a willingness to use suicide missions and to upend assumptions about how terrorists operate,” says O’Hanlon, a foreign policy fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There’d been an adage that terrorists don’t want a lot of people dead—that they want a lot of people watching. Well, al-Qaeda changed that. It turned out they really did want a lot of people dead.”
This desire to shock became clear in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, a bombing in the underground parkade plotted by Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of bin Laden’s close associate Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured, but it had the potential to be much worse. Sudan faced growing international pressure to expel bin Laden, so he solved Khartoum’s problem in 1996 by decamping for Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban would provide al-Qaeda with a safe haven for the next five years, and where it would plan its defining attacks.
“What ultimately emerged was something unique and never seen before in the world,” says Wesley Wark, a security expert at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. “A truly transnational entity, engaged in a terror campaign that had a global political agenda. It was a centralized, command-and-control sort of organization.” The training camps expanded, notes Wark, while money flowed in from wealthy donors across the Middle East. The executive structure of the group solidified with bin Laden at the top, his long-time lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri in charge of strategy, and Mohammed handling operations.
The sheer bloodiness of its attacks reflected al-Qaeda’s growing strength. More than 220 people were killed in the August 1998 truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, prompting the Clinton administration to respond with a barrage of missiles aimed at al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan. Two years later, 17 American sailors were killed after a boat piloted by a pair of suicide bombers rammed the USS Cole near the Yemeni port of Aden.
The organization reached its awful zenith, of course, with the Sept. 11 plot, in which 19 suspected members hijacked four planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing 2,975. It was the worst ever attack on U.S. soil, and a watershed moment for al-Qaeda. The response, a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, overthrew the Taliban and set in motion events that would see al-Qaeda reduced to a nucleus of leaders in permanent hiding. From their caves in the Khyber mountains, or the hinterlands of northern Pakistan, bin Laden and his inner circle could provide little more than advice and inspiration to their operatives. Al-Qaeda lived on, though, thanks partly to succour extended by Pakistani sympathizers, and partly to bin Laden’s success in spreading Islamist fervour.
Suddenly, would-be jihadists around the world were taking up his stated goal of creating a caliphate, or political union of Muslims under a single leadership. Self-styled conspirators began hatching plans against Western targets for which al-Qaeda would later take credit, such as the Madrid and London bombings (two of the London bombers had travelled in 2004 to Pakistan, and were thought to have made contact with al-Qaeda leaders). At the same time, groups that had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda rallied around the cause of attacking Washington’s perceived stooges. In Iraq, the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fused disgruntled Sunnis and foreign militants into what he would call al-Qaeda in Iraq, launching a series of suicide bombings on Shiite mosques and the country’s newly formed national police force.
Zarqawi, in turn, kept in close contact with Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of an Algerian front called the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, which had been linked to a string of attacks, including the murder of 13 civilians at a fake roadblock in the town of Tablat. In Morocco, members of the so-called Islamic Combatant Group were charged with planning the Madrid train bombing, along with a coordinated suicide bombing in May 2003 in Casablanca that killed 33. A month later, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Army of Aden was implicated in an attack on a medical assistance convoy belonging to the Yemeni military. Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Asbat al-Ansar in Lebanon, Jamiat ul-Ansar in Pakistan—all were revealed to be doing al-Qaeda’s bidding.
That’s not to say the executive group went dormant. O’Hanlon points to a failed plan in 2006 to hijack as many as 10 airliners over the Atlantic as an example of a grand-scale plot likely contrived by bin Laden and his cadre. “If that one attack had succeeded—even it it had brought down only half the planes they were after—we would have been talking about how this organization continued to thrive even while on the run.” Another such attempt remains a nagging threat even after bin Laden’s death, O’Hanlon adds, with the capacity to cripple the airline industry and, potentially, the global economy.
Wark is more optimistic. “I think al-Qaeda is more or less finished,” he says. “Bin Laden defined the group and I don’t see anyone within the leadership who could do what he did.” In its place, Wark expects a resurgence of localized Islamic terrorist groups, while the homegrown amateurs seek to avenge bin Laden’s death. But for al-Qaeda, the writing was arguably on the wall before U.S. commandos assaulted that compound in northern Pakistan. Poll results released four months ago by the Pew Research Center suggested Muslims worldwide had overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the group and its leader. Bin Laden might still have stood at the front of a global Islamist movement. But if he’d cared to look over his shoulder, he’d have seen precious few followers.