The immediate context for the rise of al Qaeda was the war in Afghanistan that began in the late 1970s. To understand the motivation of those involved we need to understand something about the geography of politics. The closest any power has come (at least since the Mongol Empire around the year 1200 AD) to dominating the entire Eurasian landmass is the Soviet Union. So a primary focus of American policy in the 1970s was containing Soviet power by encircling it with a system of alliances from the northern shore of Norway, across the continent of Europe, through the Middle East, along the southern coast of Asia all the way north to the Bering Strait. The Soviets sought ways to break through this encirclement and the Americans did all they could to keep them boxed in.
But two events threatened this encirclement, both in 1979. The first was the fall of the Shah of Iran, a key American ally in the encirclement project. The second was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the Soviets could defeat Afghanistan and invade Iran, they could break the encirclement and threaten the Middle Eastern oil fields. This would tip the balance of world power decisively in their favor. Thus the invasion of Afghanistan less than a year after the fall of the Shah seemed like America’s greatest nightmare.
As the leaders of the American military game-planned for a possible Soviet invasion of Iran, they concluded that their best option was to bog down the Soviets in Afghanistan, turning it into another Vietnam, but this time with the shoe on the other foot. So President Carter authorized the CIA to engage in covert operations in Afghanistan. But where would the money for this come from? Congress was in no mood to appropriate extra funding for the CIA in the wake of previous scandals. So Carter turned to the newly rich Saudis, who had as much to lose in this fight as America did. If the Saudis would fund this guerilla war and recruit Islamic fighters to resist Soviet power in Afghanistan, the CIA would provide training, coordination and intelligence.
But the Saudis were not comfortable funding this war from government coffers either. Instead they turned to wealthy, private families, asking them to contribute to the cause of islamic restoration. Here was an opportunity to reverse centuries of islamic decline. Many Saudi families contributed vast sums to the project, and the largest and wealthiest of these families is known in the West as the “bin Laden” family. So President Carter presided over the creation of an international army of Islamic fundamentalists. It was a low-cost, low-sacrifice (for Americans) way to keep the Russians bottled up in the vast interior of the Eurasian landmass. And they succeeded in that mission, but with unforeseen consequences.
A major element of the war was the willingness of the American intelligence and military apparatus to pass on their skills to these islamic fighters. The mujahedin learned about covert and special operations. They learned the skills of stealth and hand to hand combat. They learned what American intelligence knew and how they got such information. They learned both the advantages and limitations of military technology. No doubt the Americans thought their islamic allies ignorant and incapable of using such information against them. But many of Osama bin Laden’s fighters were relatively wealthy and highly educated. They listened and learned, and they learned well, as the West has come to discover, much to its regret.
The Afghan war was long and brutal. It drained the Soviet Army of strength and credibility and was a decisive factor in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. But it also create thousands of battle-hardened and experienced Islamist soldiers, many of them trained by the CIA and American special forces. And the fall of the Soviet Union had a powerful impact on those Islamic soldiers. It was the first time in centuries that an Islamic force had defeated non-islamic forces. And this defeated army belonged to a major world superpower. In the minds of islamic fundamentalists, it was an islamic army that gave America its greatest victory over the Soviet menace.
And was the United States suitably grateful for this islamic sacrifice? To the contrary, America believed that Afghanistan was only a minor factor in the fall of the Soviet Union (no doubt both viewpoints were at least partly right). From the American point of view the islamic world owed America a debt of gratitude. So as America pulled out of Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, the stage was set for a confrontation between a resurgent Islam and the world’s only remaining super power.
You see, America never entered the Afghan war out of some altruistic motive of defending Islam against atheistic powers. It used the islamic fervor of Osama bin Laden and others as a tool to keep the Russians encircled in the northern part of the Eurasian landmass. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the United States completely lost interest in the country and pulled out, leaving a devastated and impoverished landscape filled with warring tribes and a highly trained, international islamic army recruited from the entire islamic world.
What was this army to do now? Just go home? That was not an option. These skilled fighters were as much of a threat to their governments back home as they had been to the Soviets. So no country in the islamic world wanted them back. They were essentially stranded in Afghanistan, without external support and without purpose. What America and its allies had done in Afghanistan was to train an army of highly diverse people bound together by the common experience of the war against the Soviets, a sense of betrayal by their own governments as well as the Americans, and the awareness that they had the power to change the world. Al Qaeda was the unintended consequence of short-term American political objectives.