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What are the conceptual, socio-political, and strategic roots of al-Qaeda?

Essay 2018 8 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: Naher Osten, Vorderer Orient



1. Introduction

2. Socio-political roots: the impact of resentment

3. Conceptual roots: returning to the “true Islam”

4. Strategic roots: reviving the past

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Until today, scholars worldwide aim to reveal the “real” nature of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda.[1] However, only in the rarest case an integrated approach is applied to analyze the root causes of its emergence, conceptual and strategic ideas.[2] This essay argues that these considerations are essential to acquire a broader understanding. Therefore, I aim to contextualize al-Qaeda’s emergence within the Middle Eastern socio-political landscape and explore the genesis of its conception and strategy applied today. In doing so, I furthermore illustrate the foundation of its call for the establishment of a new caliphate inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula within the tradition of fundamentalist Sunni Islam.

2. Socio-political roots: the impact of resentment

Since the twentieth century the majority of Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Egypt have experienced high population growth[3] due to exploding birth rates and declining rates of infant mortality.[4] Simultaneously, waves of urban migration and refuge post-Cold War intensified,[5] which increased the urban population of the MENA region four times from 1970 to 2010.[6]

Both urbanization and the youth bulges[7] aggravated the socio-economic and political instability in the Middle East.[8] Oil producing countries were partially paralyzed by price fluctuations while others were undergoing longstanding economic stagnation.[9] Their consequent inability to develop competitive industries[10] and thus new jobs,[11] ultimately generated unemployment issues.[12] These issues translated into increasing poverty and social tension between those on both ends of the prosperity gap.[13] Given the context of ongoing migration along ethnic and religious lines, social and cultural clashes accumulated.[14]

The resulting grievances were addressed initially against the impotence of structurally weak states to manage such conditions[15] and the assumed interest of repressive authoritarian states to exclusively serve its clientele.[16] They were furthermore compounded within a context of perceived hegemony of Western culture and ideas.[17] Thus, parts of the growing opposition exposed themselves successively towards radicalization.[18] By offering political alternatives within a “purely Islamic” framework[19], groups such as al-Qaeda rose in their aspiration to fill the political vacuum created and exploit general resentments for its purposes.[20]

3. Conceptual roots: returning to the “true Islam”

Al-Qaeda’s conception is rooted in the Wahhabi observation of perceived moral decline of the Muslim society post the Islamic Golden Age.[21] Accordingly, the ummah has since then deviated from the beliefs and practices thought by the Prophet[22], which necessitates reform to its original state based on the unity of God and adherence to the Quran and shariah only.[23] All religious practices indifferent to that, such as Shia and Sufism, thus must be opposed.[24]

Al-Qaeda further evolves this rationale in the context of revolutionary Salafism and its intersection with jihad[25]. It assumes that only through Western imperialism all ills in the Middle Eastern region have been produced.[26] Once Muslim governments had internalized its values and secular ideas, they diverged from their commitment to Islam as an all-encompassing religious, political, juridical and social system and thus corrupted.[27] Their failures examined above are hence caused by theological laxity.[28] Therefore, the restoration of the Islamic ummah would require liberation from both apostate Muslim governments and Western influences.[29]

This liberation attempt is defined as legitimate, defensive struggle against the threatening spread of Western values through the near enemy within Muslim societies and the far enemy in the West.[30] Thus, the Salafi concept of local jihad is extended to the global level.[31] The rationale underlying argues an initial priority of fighting the latter first, because the apostate Muslim regimes would fall only if the West backing them had been defeated.[32] This reasoning represents the centerpiece of al-Qaeda’s strategic considerations to be examined as follows.

4. Strategic roots: reviving the past

Inspired by the Grand Mosque Seizure in 1979, al-Qaeda applies the strategy the insurgence pursued to legitimize overthrowing the Saudi monarchy for its “betrayal” of Islamic principles to target the near enemies.[33] Its approach towards the kingdom is particularly coined by geostrategic considerations.[34] Al-Qaeda seeks its overthrow due to its religious meaning as birthplace of Islamic faith[35] and associated Wahhabism for its purposes.[36] It furthermore believes to thereby exploit its influence on the region’s politics it had gained by having risen to a global power to generate a domino-effect.[37]

Therefore, al-Qaeda seeks to generate opposition by defining Saudi Arabia’s economic and military cooperation with the US as complicity in shattering the Islam identity.[38] Especially its permission given to the US to station its troops in the Holy Lands during the First Gulf War served al-Qaeda to declare local and global jihad[39] against the perceived invasion.[40] In doing so, it tries to revive the Muslim mujahedeen for continuation of the “glorious” Holy War fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan.[41]


[1] Burke, Jason. 2006.

[2] Newman, Edward. 2006.

[3] Ehrlich, Paul R., and Liu, Jianguo. 2002. p.187.

[4] Lesser, Ian O., Bruce R. Nardulli, and Lory A. Arghavan. 1998. p.177.

[5] Ibid. p.179.

[6] Metcalfe, Victoria, Simone Haysom, and Ellen Martin. 2012. p.5.

[7] Thayer, Bradley A. 2009. p.3082.

[8] Freeman, Michael. 2008.

[9] Bertelsmann Stiftung. 2003. p.2.

[10] Fandl, Kevin J., (2003), 592.

[11] Lesser, Ian O., Bruce R. Nardulli, and Lory A. Arghavan. 1998. p.181.

[12] Fandl, Kevin J. 2003. p.592.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Lesser, Ian O., Bruce R. Nardulli, and Lory A. Arghavan. 1998. p.178.

[15] Bertelsmann Stiftung. 2003. p.2.

[16] Grozdanova, Mariya. 2016.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bertelsmann Stiftung. 2003. p.2.

[19] Newman, Edward. 2006. p.766.

[20] Freeman, Michael. 2008. p.42.

[21] DeLong-Bas, Natana J. 2009. p.40.

[22] Henzel, Christopher. 2005. p.73.

[23] Ryan, Michael W. S. 2013. p.45.

[24] Bar, Shmuel, and Minzili, Yair. 2006. p.40.

[25] Ibrahimi, S. Yaqub. 2018. p.143.

[26] Freeman, Michael. 2008. p.48.

[27] Blanchard, Christopher M. 2007. p.15.

[28] Ashraf, M. A. 2012. p.2.

[29] Ryan, Michael W. S. 2013. p.33.

[30] Bar, Shmuel, and Minzili, Yair. 2006. p.39-40.

[31] Freeman, Michael. 2008. p.42.

[32] Ryan, Michael W. S. 2013. p.42.

[33] Tristam, Pierre. 2018.

[34] Ryan, Michael W. S. 2013. p.71.

[35] Ochsenwald, William. 1981. p. 271.

[36] Haynes, Jeffrey. 2005. p.182. (Haynes 2005, 182)

[37] Congressional Digest. 2016. p.2.

[38] Ibid., p.272.

[39] CRS Report for Congress. 2007. p.3.

[40] Barry, Rubin. 2002. p.79.

[41] Haynes, Jeffrey. 2005. p.183.


ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
École des hautes études commerciales de Paris
Terrorism Al-Qaeda Roots Concept Strategy Socio-politics Middle East Sunni Islam Fundamentalism




Titel: What are the conceptual, socio-political, and strategic roots of al-Qaeda?