Sarah Dickens

Degree Type

Honors Capstone Project

Date of Submission

Spring 5-1-2006

Capstone Advisor

Professor Michael Barkun

Honors Reader

Professor Guitty Khorsand-Tabatabai

Capstone Major

International Relations

Capstone College

Citizenship and Public Affairs

Audio/Visual Component


Capstone Prize Winner


Won Capstone Funding


Honors Categories

Social Sciences

Subject Categories

Eastern European Studies | International and Area Studies | Other International and Area Studies


Understanding al-Qaeda: History, Ideology, and Infrastructure is a critical analysis of the formation and evolution of the global terrorist organization commonly referred to as al-Qaeda. The work provides a foundation for understanding al-Qaeda’s operations and organizational strategies by detailing its historical origins, ideological framework, and infrastructural installations.

The thesis is divided into three segments, each containing two chapters. The first segment is devoted to a discussion of al-Qaeda’s historical formation. The initial chapter relies on the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the hunt for terrorist Ramzi Yousef as a point of departure in understanding al-Qaeda. This chapter sheds light on missed opportunities to weaken the terrorist network and reveals that the 1993 bombers were connected to one another through their embrace of radical Sunni Islam and violent political objectives. The next chapter traces the major events in the life of Osama bin Laden, explaining the connection between the Soviet-Afghan War and the rise of al-Qaeda, as well as illustrating how al-Qaeda has evolved since its beginnings as Maktab al-Khadimat, the “Services Office.”

The second segment represents an analytical reflection on al-Qaeda’s ideology. Its first chapter explains the discourses of al-Qaeda’s key ideologues, analyzes cornerstone al-Qaeda statements, and depicts how bin Laden’s ideology fits into the larger spectrum of Islamic radicalism. “Tracking the Appeal of Islamism” examines how al-Qaeda’s ideology has resonated in the Middle East, addressing such issues as political and economic instability in the Arab world, the popularity of bin Laden as a symbol of resistance, and al-Qaeda’s exploitation of media and Internet resources.

The final segment of the thesis discusses al-Qaeda’s infrastructure, thereby providing a glimpse of what goes on “inside al-Qaeda.” Its first chapter focuses on the recruitment and training of jihadists, answering the question, “Who joins the jihad and why?” The concluding chapter of the thesis tackles the debate on al-Qaeda’s structure, arguing that the terror group should be understood as a social network, rather than as an organization. This final chapter also provides commentary on counter-terrorism techniques, demonstrating the importance of cooperation within the international intelligence community and the need for policymakers to engage in a critical assessment of al-Qaeda’s history and US foreign policy.

The sources cited in the thesis are relevant to today’s discussion of al-Qaeda; most have been published or updated after September 11, 2001. Please note that Arabic names and terms have been transliterated in a manner that preserves accuracy as much as possible. A glossary is provided in the appendix to clarify the usage of these terms.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.



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