A week ago, it was the nineteenth anniversary of 9/11, Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. This solemn time of year is a useful point at which to step back and examine the big picture of where we are with Al-Qaeda. A number of experts have weighed in over the past week or so on this matter.
A RESILIENT TREND
With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, after it split from Al-Qaeda and declared war on its parent organization, it had seemed to many that Al-Qaeda was being eclipsed. ISIS captured large parts of Iraq and Syria and declared a “caliphate”—the ostensible end-goal of Al-Qaeda, now realised by another group. With the end of the caliphate and the demise of the caliph, this narrative looks less certain.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, defending President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, declared in March, “Al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self”, a direct echo of remarks by President Barack Obama four years earlier. Pompeo also claimed: “We did what President Obama had tried to do, which was to get the Taliban to make a public break with Al-Qaeda”. In this, Pompeo is referring to the Agreement the U.S. struck with the Taliban at the end of February, which makes no mention of a Taliban break with Al-Qaeda nor a commitment to do so. The Taliban has, in fact, never even claimed to break with Al-Qaeda.
“Unfortunately, politically motivated threat assessments can be very dangerous, and Pompeo’s characterization of Al-Qaeda reflects wishful thinking at best and naiveté at worst”, as Asfandyar Mir and Colin Clarke wrote in Foreign Affairs. “The United States must trade its rose-tinted glasses for a sober assessment of al Qaeda’s trajectory—and of the organization’s enduring ties to the Taliban.”
Mir and Clarke note that at the present time, so far from the dark days of 2014-15 when Al-Qaeda affiliates were defecting left and right to ISIS, Al-Qaeda has recently undergone a “dramatic resurrection”. ISIS drew the world’s attention—and its action—and in the shadows Al-Qaeda rebuilt. Al-Qaeda “improved relationships with local power brokers from the Levant to the Indian subcontinent, fusing local and transnational aims in an effort to strengthen cohesiveness and broaden its support base”, the authors note.
Moreover, Al-Qaeda has perfected what some call its “glocalist” approach, becoming “more adept at balancing transnational aims and regional priorities, working at the local level in Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and the Sahel while preserving its focus of confronting the West”.
Mir and Clarke argue that “[i]t is true that Al-Qaeda no longer boasts the same ability to plot and execute the kinds of spectacular transnational terrorist attacks that it carried out in the years leading up to 9/11”, a point on which former FBI counter-terrorism specialist Ali Soufan agrees. Yet, Mir and Clarke conclude, “the Trump administration’s claim that Al-Qaeda is in terminal decline overlooks the group’s stubborn resilience and fails to account for its political resolve. According to the United Nations, Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Yemen remain focused on attacking the United States”, and, indeed, at the end of 2019 there was an Al-Qaeda attack on U.S. soil for the first time in many years.
SIGNS OF FRAGMENTATION
A contrasting view of Al-Qaeda was given by jihadi media specialist Mina al-Lami at the BBC. Al-Qaeda is in “a state of disarray”, says Al-Lami. In Syria, the former Al-Qaeda branch, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), “silenced” Al-Qaeda’s forces (labelled Hurras al-Din) in the country in June; in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has suffered a series of stunning military reverses, including the killing of its leader by a U.S. drone strike; and the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa was killed in June and no successor has yet been named. “Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been uncharacteristically absent for months, prompting speculation that he might be dead or incapacitated”, says Al-Lami.
Still, “Al-Qaeda’s Africa branches, in Somalia and Mali, remain a potent force”. These two groups, Al-Shabab and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), respectively, control significant territories. “Al-Shabab is undoubtedly Al-Qaeda’s strongest and largest threat at the moment”, Al-Lami explains. “The group holds territory and exercises a form of governance across most rural areas in central and southern Somalia. In addition, al-Shabab claims daily attacks and frequent high-profile operations inside Somalia and occasionally in neighbouring Kenya. Among its big operations this year is the January attack on the US Manda Bay military base in Kenya, which left three Americans dead and destroyed several planes.”
The issue for Al-Qaeda, Al-Lami concludes, is whether to lean into its localist agenda and risk sacrificing more of its jihadist credentials—or lean into the jihadism, and risk alienating more ordinary Muslims on whom Al-Qaeda relies for its long-term strategy.
AL-QAEDA IS NOT ALONE
Ilan Berman, the Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) in Washington, agreed with Mir and Clarke that Al-Qaeda remained a potent challenge, particularly because the international community’s “overwhelming focus on the Islamic State … has provided Al-Qaeda with the breathing room” to regroup. Berman noted, however, that at this “opportune moment to take stock” in the long struggle with Islamic extremism, the focus should not dwell solely on Al-Qaeda.
ISIS has lost its “physical caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, but the group “is showing alarming new signs of life”, with thousands of fighters across a dozen countries and access to “hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from various sources”. The ISIS challenge is not over yet.
Berman also draws attention to two further dynamics that are outside the brands, strictly speaking, of the two most infamous jihadist organisations.
The first is that particularly in North Africa there are dozens of semi-criminal jihadist groups that pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but whose interests are mostly local and loyalties fluid. These groups are in the wind to some degree as the jihadi universe is reshuffled and where they land could have lasting consequences.
The second is the changing nature of communications and propaganda. ISIS’ use of media and social media was notorious, and this has now waned with the collapse of the caliphate. The vision offered by ISIS has “persisted”, concludes Berman: “Conversations with regional officials throughout the Middle East and North Africa in recent months make clear that there has been no substantive change to patterns of recruitment, radicalization and mobilization in the broader Muslim world, despite ISIS’ decline.”
The long war in Afghanistan and the search for a way out incentivizes policy-makers to believe that the problem that drew the West in—Al-Qaeda—has gone. But it has not, and the growing challenge that led to 9/11 has continued to grow. Whatever troubles Al-Qaeda is having with its franchises, it is larger, more influential in the broader world of Islam, and more cohesive than it has ever been.