The Obama administration's efforts to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement have been a contentious topic in the U.S. presidential race. Political rhetoric abounds on both sides; administration officials claim that al Qaeda has been seriously crippled, while some critics of the administration allege that the group is stronger than ever. As with most political rhetoric, both claims bear elements of truth, but the truth depends largely on how al Qaeda and jihadism are defined. Unfortunately, politicians and the media tend to define al Qaeda loosely and incorrectly.
The jihadist threat will persist regardless of who is elected president, so understanding the actors involved is critical. But a true understanding of those actors requires taxonomical acuity. It seems worthwhile, then, to revisit Stratfor's definitions of al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement.
Al Qaeda, the group established by Osama bin Laden and his colleagues, was never very large -- there were never more than a few hundred actual members. We often refer to this group, now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, as the al Qaeda core or al Qaeda prime. While the group's founders trained tens of thousands of men at their camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, they initially viewed themselves as a vanguard organization working with kindred groups to facilitate the jihad they believed was necessary to establish a global Islamic caliphate. Most of the men trained at al Qaeda camps were members of other organizations or were grassroots jihadists. The majority of them received basic paramilitary training, and only a select few were invited to receive additional training in terrorist tradecraft skills such as surveillance, document forgery and bombmaking. Of this select group, only a few men were invited to join the al Qaeda core organization.
Bin Laden envisioned another purpose for al Qaeda: leading the charge against corrupt rulers in the Muslim world and against the United States, which he believed supported corrupt Muslim rulers. Al Qaeda sought to excise the United States from the Muslim world in much the same way that Hezbollah drove U.S. forces out of Lebanon and Somalia forced the U.S. withdrawal from Mogadishu.
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