The origins of the transnational terrorist network known as al Qaeda ("The Base") can be traced back to a multinational alliance of mujahidin fighting invading Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, joined this struggle as a young man from the very beginning, acquiring extensive skill in setting up guerilla training camps and planning military operations. He saw battle on several occasions and quickly acquired a stellar reputation for his martial valor. Left without much support after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989, these Islamist fighters found themselves stranded in a country devastated by decades of continual warfare.
Lacking a clear sense of purpose or mission, Osama bin Laden returned to Riyadh in 1990 as a popular hero, his close ties to the Saudi regime still intact. At the time, Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait was threatening the balance of power in the Middle East. To counter the threat, the House of Saud invited half a million "infidels"-American and other foreign troops-into their country, ostensibly for a short period of time and solely for protective purposes. To ensure religious legitimacy for its decision, the government then pressured the Saudi ulama' (interpreters of the sacred texts) to approve of the open-ended presence of foreign troops in the Land of the Holy Two Sanctuaries (Mecca and Medina). The scholars complied, ultimately even granting permission for Muslims to join the US-led "Operation Desert Storm" against Iraq.
Stung by the royal family's rejection of his proposal to organize thousands of Arab Afghan veterans and outraged by their enlistment of foreign infidels in defense of the kingdom against a possible Iraqi attack, Bin Laden severed all ties with the Saudi regime. Like tens of thousands of angry religious dissenters, Bin Laden, too, denounced these acts of "religious heresy" and "moral corruption" and openly accused the rulers of selling out to the West. The Saudi government immediately responded to these accusations with political repression, arresting several opposition leaders and shutting down their organizations. Bin Laden and his closest associates fled to Sudan where the sympathetic Islamist government of Hassan al Turabi offered them political exile and the opportunity to create dozens of new training camps for militants. Stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, Bin Laden forged a lasting alliance with Ayman al Zawahiri, the charismatic leader of the radical Egyptian group, Islamic Jihad. This partnership would eventually lead to the formation of the World Islamic Front with main branches in Pakistan and Bangladesh and an unknown number of affiliated cells around the world.
Forced to leave Sudan in 1996 as a result of mounting US pressure on the Turabi regime, Bin Laden and his entourage returned to Afghanistan where they entered into an uneasy relationship with the Taliban. In the same year, the Taliban forces of Mulla Omar managed to capture Kabul. Imposing a strict version of shari'a (God-given, Islamic law) on the Afghan population, the Taliban based its rule on the "true tenets of Islam"-alleged to have been realized in the world only once before, by the seventh-century salaf (pious predecessors) who led the Islamic community of believers for three generations following the death of the Prophet.
By the end of the 1990s, Bin Laden had openly pledged allegiance to the Taliban, most likely in exchange for the regime's willingness to shelter his organization from US retaliation following the devastating 1998 al Qaeda bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. To show his gratitude to his hosts, Bin Laden referred to the Taliban leader Mulla Omar as the "Commander of the Faithful"-one of the honorific titles of the caliph, the Islamic ruler of both the religious and civil spheres. Since this designation was deprived of its last bearer in 1924 when the modernist Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk replaced the Ottoman Caliphate with a secular nation-state Bin Laden's fondness for it signifies nothing less than his rejection of eight decades of Islamic modernism-both in its nationalist and socialist garbs-as well as his affirmation of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as the nucleus of a global Caliphate destined to halt the long decline of the Islamic world and the corresponding ascendancy of the West.
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