There is much confusion in the country about who we are fighting and who we’ve fought in the Middle East. Why did the United States invade Iraq and Afghanistan? Where did ISIS originate? It is easy to become lost in the shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics. These events have their origins in what was once a little-known terrorist outfit. Its leaders came to call it “the base,” “the foundation,” or al Qaeda - the center of a growing global jihadi movement that would eventually drag the United States into the defining war of the early twenty-first century, and set the stage for the bloody conflict in the Levant being waged today.
The story begins in the throes of the Cold War. In April 1978, the backwater of Afghanistan - a heretofore stable landlocked central Asian state - experienced a coup d'état by militant communist forces. These communists set up a new government in Kabul and were warmly received by the Soviet Union; at home, however, they were vastly unpopular. Almost immediately, Islamic fundamentalists rose up in open rebellion against the communist government, which asked for Soviet aid in ending the insurrection.
The Soviet Union was apparently uninterested in securing Afghanistan, at least initially. Fearing its image as the great communist power would be tarnished if it failed to uphold the Kabul government, however, the Soviets reluctantly agreed to send forces to the country. Very quickly the Red Army became embroiled in a brutal war with the guerilla forces known as the mujahideen, or “those who perform jihad.” The Soviet-Afghan War would rage for ten years (1979-1989) and claim the lives of somewhere between 500,000 and two million lives.
In 1979, a young Saudi, Osama bin Laden, travelled to Afghanistan to join the holy war against the USSR. The seveneth son of wealthy construction guru Awad bin Laden (and his 17th child), bin Laden would spend a decade aiding the mujahideen with funds and shelters built with his family’s construction equipment. Bin Laden also drew support from the thousands of fellow Arabs fighting for the mujahideen; it was from their ranks that he initially established what would become al Qaeda.
It was in the 1980s that the United States - specifically the Central Intelligence Agency - first took a serious interest in Afghanistan. A Soviet failure there was (correctly) believed to be an enormous blow to its military forces, economy, and domestic morale; thus America began quietly supplying the mujahideen with modern arms capable of countering Russian attack helicopters and tanks. It is unclear what personal involvement bin Laden may have had with the CIA. Regardless, he would eventually draw upon the jihadis honed by war with the Russians and aided by American equipment.
It is thought that bin Laden founded his Sunni organization in August of 1988. Initially, al Qaeda was set up to be a network (as opposed to the military structure of the modern Islamic State), with cells in numerous countries. Its goal was broad: a complete break with Western and foreign involvement in Muslim countries. Decisions were to be centralized, but missions were to be devolved to local cells. The extent of this centralization is still unclear - it is possible that bin Laden played a less substantial role in the organization’s terrorist attacks in the 1990s and later than is generally believed. Regardless, by 1990 the Soviet-Afghan War was over, the Soviet Union was soon to be dissolved, and a myriad of new conflicts involving Muslim countries were to erupt.
Al Qaeda needed conflict with the West if its goal of Western destruction was to be fulfilled. In 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. When the United States sent troops to fight the Iraqis back, it seemed bin Laden’s opportunity had appeared. He offered aid to the Saudi government in case Saddam turned south and attacked Saudi Arabia. The offer was refused, and to bin Laden’s chagrin, U.S. troops were admitted to the country instead. Bin Laden furiously denounced the Saudis as Western collaborators, and was forced to seek exile in Sudan, where he plotted new terror campaigns from 1992-1996. During this time, bin Laden established ties with fellow radicals across North Africa and the Middle East, and played a minor role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He went on to organize and execute embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed over 200 people. (It is also likely that during this period bin Laden first laid the plans that culminated in the September 11th, 2001 attack on America.)
Pressured by the outside world, Sudan eventually forced him out, and he returned to Afghanistan, where a terrorist faction-turned-government calling itself the Taliban had recently won power.
Afghanistan proved a fertile base of operations. Far from Western reach, the Taliban - unrecognized by virtually every other country - sheltered al Qaeda, and even recruited its services for training elements of the Afghan military. It was here that Osama bin Laden initially declared a fatwa (Islamic religious declaration) against the United States.
Al Qaeda’s seeming triumph would soon follow in the deadliest attack on American soil since the Pearl Harbor raid in 1941, but its real legacy - and continued relevance today - would lay in a burgeoning outfit styling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS. Part Two will continue al Qaeda’s story through the September 11, 2001 attacks and beyond.
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