Ever since launching the war on terror in 2001, the United States has struggled to define — let alone defeat — what has proved to be a maddeningly amorphous enemy. Al Qaeda, once a relatively defined and hierarchical group, has metastasized into a multinational movement with franchise operations in at least 16 countries, from Mali to Syria, Yemen to Nigeria. These so-called affiliates have largely replaced the Pakistan-based mothership — now known as "al Qaeda core" or "al Qaeda central" — as the driving force of global jihad. That distinction, between the original terrorist group and its offshoots, has recently grown in political significance as U.S. President Barack Obama touts his decimation of al Qaeda’s "core leadership" — even if each new start-up renders that victory less and less reassuring.
After years of supporting the Afghan mujahideen, Osama bin Laden and some of his top associates meet in a suburb of Peshawar, Pakistan. With Soviet forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, the idea of a global jihad suddenly seems possible, and al Qaeda, literally "the Base," is born. "We used to call the training camp al Qaeda," bin Laden would later recall. "And the name stayed."
Bin Laden moves his base of operations to Sudan, where he forges links with militants across the Middle East and North Africa who play a role in numerous terrorist attacks, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In February 1998, after being expelled
from Sudan and returning to Afghanistan, he issues a fatwa against the United States. Later that year, he orders
the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which kill 224 people.
October 7, 2001
U.S. and British forces attack
Afghanistan after the Taliban regime fails to produce bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks. Within months, the bulk of al Qaeda has been driven
into Pakistan, where the organization reconstitutes itself and proceeds to play a role in bombings from Bali in 2002 to Madrid in 2004 to London in 2005.
May 12, 2003
Al Qaeda launches
a sustained insurgency against Saudi Arabia, carrying out a series of bombings in Riyadh. In November, the indigenous wing of bin Laden’s organization becomes the first to take on the "al Qaeda in" formulation, dubbing itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Over the next three years, AQAP kills hundreds before Saudi security forces are able to stomp it out.
October 17, 2004
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose terrorist group has perpetrated some of the most dramatic attacks of the Iraq war, pledges allegiance
to bin Laden and founds al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Around this time, the CIA begins using the term "AQCore," for al Qaeda core, to distinguish bin Laden’s Pakistan-based group from such offshoots.
Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, chastises
Zarqawi for his extreme tactics, warning that AQI’s brutal beheading videos could alienate potential supporters. Terrorism analysts see this as evidence that al Qaeda core is not in control of its affiliates.
February 3, 2006
Twenty-three al Qaeda suspects escape from a Yemeni prison. Widely considered the moment of conception
for a "new" AQAP — one of the inmates, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, would go on to lead
the organization after its official founding in 2009 — the jailbreak breathes new life into al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen.
September 11, 2006
the union of al Qaeda and the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)*, a militant Salafi organization with roots in the Algerian civil war. Four months later, GSPC rebrands itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and carries out a series of deadly attacks in Algeria. By 2012, AQIM has established footholds in Niger and Mauritania and has briefly joined forces with Tuareg rebels to seize control of northern Mali.
December 25, 2009
As Northwest Airlines Flight 253 descends toward Detroit, passenger Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempts to detonate
plastic explosives sewn into his underwear. The attack, which would have been the first on American soil by an al Qaeda affiliate, fails. He tells
the FBI that he received training and the explosive device from AQAP. But there is no evidence that the group coordinated the plot with al Qaeda core.
Bin Laden asks a senior al Qaeda associate in Pakistan to draft a memorandum requiring regional al Qaeda affiliates ("brothers") to consult with "al Qaeda central" before carrying out operations — another apparent sign that the core is losing control of the periphery.
May 2, 2011
U.S. Navy SEALs storm a nondescript compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and kill bin Laden. Zawahiri is tapped to succeed him, but the death of its longtime leader is seen as a near-knockout blow for al Qaeda core.
January 31, 2012
"As long as we sustain the pressure on it, we judge that core al Qaeda will be of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement," National Director of Intelligence James Clapper tells the U.S. Senate. "But regional affiliates … and, to a lesser extent, small cells and individuals will drive the global jihad agenda."
Al Qaeda merges with Somali insurgent group al-Shabab, with which it had long maintained close ties. The following year, al-Shabab kills 61 civilians in Nairobi’s Westgate mall.
on his followers to exploit the violence in Syria, where rebels are battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Seven months later, al Qaeda in Iraq changes its name
to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to emphasize its growing involvement in the Syrian conflict. But ISIS soon begins to feud with another al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.
June 15, 2013
ISIS becomes the first al Qaeda affiliate to go rogue
, defying an order
from Zawahiri to quit fighting in Syria and return to Iraq. "I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of al-Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God," ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declares. In February 2014, al Qaeda’s central command washes its hands of ISIS, saying it "is not a branch of the al Qaeda group."
Zawahiri promotes AQAP chief Wuhayshi to the No. 2 position in al Qaeda’s core and orders
him to carry out an attack, triggering the closure of 22 U.S. embassies across the Muslim world. The promotion "discredits the widespread claim that al Qaeda’s ‘core’ is based solely in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area," notes
the Long War Journal
January 3, 2014
As Iraq slides toward civil war, ISIS captures the city of Fallujah. "The police and the Army have abandoned the city," a local journalist tells
the Washington Post
. "Al Qaeda has taken down all the Iraqi flags and burned them, and it has raised its own flag on all the buildings."
Terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland report
that, with recent gains in Syria and Iraq, al Qaeda and its affiliates "control more territory in the Arab world than … at any time in its history." Obama later argues
, "There is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian." His analogy: "If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant."
*Correction, March 17, 2014: This article originally misstated that Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the union of al Qaeda and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The union was between al Qaeda and the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which had previously broken away from GIA.
Special thanks to Peter Bergen, Thomas Hegghammer, and Bruce Riedel.
Illustration by Sarah King