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In 1989, while on his way with his two sons to Friday prayers in Peshawar, Azzam was killed by a massive explosion. His killers have never been identified; Azzam had many enemies. But by the time of his death, the group around al-Qaeda were debating what to do with the skills and resources that they had acquired. The decision was taken to keep the organization intact and use it to fight for a purer form of Islam. The initial target was not the U.S. but the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which al-Qaeda claimed were corrupt and too beholden to the U.S. It was only after the Gulf War, by which time bin Laden had moved his operations to Sudan (he would later be forced to shift back to Afghanistan), that he started to target Americans. To all but insiders, he first became notorious in 1998, when al-Qaeda operatives exploded truck bombs at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 12 Americans and hundreds of locals. Since then there has been a steady drumbeat of attacks linked to al-Qaeda--some successful, some not--on American targets and those of U.S. allies around the world.
Al-Qaeda has its headquarters in training camps in Afghanistan. In addition to directing its own attacks, it acts as an umbrella group, financing and subcontracting operations to local networks like Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a terrorist organization active throughout Europe. The camps in Afghanistan play a vital role. Whatever network they may originally have been aligned with, visitors to the camps meet men from other groups, forge relationships and acquire the stature of soldiers in a holy war. The high command of the group includes bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian who was identified in an American court case in July as the organizer of the camps and who investigators believe may be al-Qaeda's director of international operations.
Some of the best leads on al-Qaeda's directorate now seem to be coming from Djamel Beghal, a French-Algerian who is suspected of being an al-Qaeda ringleader and who was arrested in Dubai in July on his way from Pakistan to Europe. After being convinced by Islamic scholars in Dubai of the evils of terrorism, Beghal started talking. (He is now back in France and has attempted to retract his confession.) Beghal has said that while in Afghanistan in March, he received instructions from Abu Zubaydah on a bombing campaign against American interests in Europe, including the Paris embassy. "He's talking about very important figures in the al-Qaeda structure, right up to bin Laden's inner circle," a European official told TIME. "He's mentioned names, responsibilities and functions--people we weren't even aware of before. This is important stuff."