It’s Not About Al-Qaeda Anymore


Al-Qaeda is no longer the organization it was on September 11, 2001.  It is not even the organization in was in 2006.  Much of that leadership is dead.  Other key elements of it have limited mobility.  Yet, the pursuit of violent jihad in the name of Sunni Islam persists.  In the last several years, most of this has been in the form of local and regional Salafi-jihadist insurgencies in the Muslim world and “lone wolf” attacks against perceived enemies of Islam in the non-Muslim world.  The relevant question, then, is to what degree the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri as conceived and fully empowered in 1994 through 1996 remains relevant to the persistence of violent jihad?  What percentage of Salafi-jihadist violence is controlled by al-Qaeda or even inspired by the group?

As I have contended in monographs written about Salafi jihadist terrorism for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) and for the New America Foundation, the construct of jihad in the name of minority extremist Sunni Muslim ideology existed before al-Qaeda and is likely to remain relevant long after al-Qaeda ceases to be a name of resonance.   In modern times, Salafi-jihadism takes its absolutist aims, its violent objectives and its intolerant frame of reference from the writings of Egyptian Sayyed Qutb, who in turn claimed inspiration from Indian cum-Pakistani radical Sunni Muslim and founder of Jamaat-i-Islami, Mawlana Mawdudi.

From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Salafi jihadist groups focused on the violent overthrow of what they saw as corrupt, apostate nation-state autocracies across the Arab and Muslim world.  The assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 by jihadists within the Egyptian army was one of few successes for these loosely affiliated, but ideologically aligned movements.  For Sadat’s assassins and thousands of other jihadi extremists, success was fleeting.  Imprisoned, often tortured and their survivors exported, many Salafi-jihadists from across the Arab world joined the mujahideen fighting the infidel forces of the Soviet Army then occupying Afghanistan.  Arab leaders hoped that they would never come back, but this pressure release was short-lived.

Service with the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan proved an incubator for and an inspiration to Salafi-jihadists.  When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, thousands of Sunni radicals foresaw a new beginning for their struggles back home. From Algeria to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and later Uzbekistan, Sunni radicals spent the first half of the 1990s focused on toppling their home state regimes via terrorism and targeted violence.  While the mujahideen dispersion into local and national insurgencies was most pronounced from North Africa to Uzbekistan, Sunni extremist veterans of the Afghanistan war and their recruits played very important roles in local wars and local insurgencies fought throughout the 1990s in Bosnia, Chechnya, the Southern Philippines and Nagorno-Kharabakh (Armenia-Azerbaijan). Across the board, their insurgency efforts and terrorist tactics failed.  Corrupt though they were, Arab and Muslim regimes proved capable of weathering the early-1990s spike in Salafi-jihadist violence.

Spurred by conspicuous failures from 1990 to 1995 in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and a half-dozen other Islamic nations, the leadership of several decentralized and diffuse national Salafi-jihadist movements who had known each other during their Afghanistan days gravitated back together.  Initially huddled in Khartoum, Sudan, they licked their wounds and reassessed strategy, organization and methods.  Led by bin Ladin and Zawahiri, this rogue gallery slowly and even reluctantly recast itself between 1994 and 1996 from one with loose affiliation and local focus in single countries, to one led by a self-anointed vanguard: al-Qaeda.  This group collectively committed itself to a new mission focusing on directly attacking corrupt, non-believing, western countries that propped-up the local corrupt Muslim regimes.  After abandoning Khartoum in 1996, the leadership of al-Qaeda migrated back to Afghanistan and the protective comfort of the newly established Sunni extremist government in Kabul, the Taliban.  The metamorphosis of the Salafi-jihadist movement from loose affiliation and local action to one with an overarching vanguard and international terror objectives was a seminal change.

Properly informed by this history, al-Qaeda is best understood as the most serious historic contender to try and consolidate the Salafi-jihadist ideology as a coherent movement.  Its aims converged around undeniable leadership of this ideology along five critical dimensions:

  • A core organization dedicated to planning, recruiting, training and organizing catastrophic global terror events against American, western and Zionist crusaders, especially in their homelands;
  • A vanguard for organizing and coordinating regionally focused jihadist groups toward acts of violence against American and Zionist crusaders in the Muslim lands where their presence defiles Islam and in their homelands;
  • An inspiration to disaffected individual Muslims worldwide to act out on their frustrations with violence against the symbols of American and Zionist oppression of Islam;
  • A brand name representing the ideology of successful violence against crusader governments and officials where the most senior leaders of the jihad enjoy impunity; and,
  • The base for conquest of Afghanistan (and western Pakistan) in the name of global jihad.

Taken together, the “core,” “vanguard” and “brand name” elements of al-Qaeda made it unique and exceptional within the Salafi-jihadist movement.  Between 1994 and 1998, bin Laden and Zawahiri consciously empowered al-Qaeda as an anchor point for this radical and loosely choreographed ideology, channeling a minority, reactionary viewpoint within a wider acrimonious debate among Muslims about how to reconcile the progress and frustration unleashed across the Islamic world by modernization and globalization into a global crusade to violently remake the world order.  Men of vision, organization and action, their relevance became to Salafi-jihadism’s world what Lenin and Trotsky became to what was a diffuse and faltering communist cause in the early 1900s.  A proper account of the lethality and trajectory of al-Qaeda must acknowledge the historically rare and exceedingly important role that bin Laden and Zawahiri played within a movement that came to view itself as “the base” of a global revolution and the organizational cadre for that violent revolt.

The systematic killing or capturing of a conservative estimate of more than 70% of al-Qaeda’s core leadership from 2001, including bin Laden’s May 2011 death, did not eliminate all of the features of al-Qaeda that make it dangerous as a factor in terrorism internationally.  Its role in assisting regional jihadi group terror strikes against local governments and inspiring lone wolf, would-be martyrs in tragic acts of violence around the world will remain with us for many years to come.  Yet, the manner in which U.S. intelligence and military operatives found and eliminated bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was devastating to three of the five most critical features of al-Qaeda properly understood:

  • Its legitimacy as a core group capable of choreographing truly catastrophic global terrorist events;
  • Its “branding rights” as the ultimate victor should any of its loosely affiliated Salafi-jihadi regional movements ever achieve success in a local insurgency; and,
  • Its ability to claim victory—much less re-establish a credible unfettered training area for global jihad—in the area most critical to its own mystical lore: Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

Bin Laden’s demise is the 80% solution to western challenges from catastrophic global terrorism and is the critical element in disentangling the al-Qaeda core’s catastrophic global terrorism aims from those of localized Salafi-jihadist insurgencies in the Muslim world and lone wolf actors worldwide.  Save for Zawahiri, the only remaining essential core al-Qaeda leader, none of its remaining handful central group key leaders—a few of whom remain in Pakistan, some of whom are in Yemen, some in North Africa, some in Iran, and most in Guantanamo Bay prison—pose a credible threat to re-organize the group’s core mission.  But, as then-CIA Director David Petraeus testified on September 13, 2011, even Zawahiri is no bin Laden:

Bin Ladin’s longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, succeeded him in June, but much of al-Qa‘ida’s support base finds Zawahiri less compelling as a leader.  We thus assess that he will have more difficulty than did Usama Bin Ladin in maintaining the group’s cohesion and its collective motivation in the face of continued pressure.

What’s left of the al-Qaeda core group simply does not have the operational capability in terms of international travel and the ability to transfer money that it had prior to 9/11.  Al-Qaeda has been doing its utmost to attack the United States and has not pulled any punches.  It failed repeatedly before bin Laden’s death and should be expected to continue to fail now that he is dead.

Although there is more to learn from the trove of material captured in the raid of bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound on the morning of May 2, 2011, the 17 documents released to the public to date reveal a bin Laden who wasn’t even much like bin Laden over his final years.  As written by journalist Peter Bergen in several accounts since the May 2012 release of some of the Abbottabad materials, Osama’s correspondences revealed a frustrated and largely out of touch would-be leader, appealing to—rather than directing—Salafi-jihadist local leaders to abide by his requests to help internationally-oriented terrorists, chastising subordinates for excessive violence against fellow Muslims (without much effect), toying with the need for a new name due to the tarnished al-Qaeda brand, and eschewing interface with Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia.  He seemed to feel incapable of an international contribution to al-Qaeda’s waning cause.

It strains credulity to believe that Zawahiri shall have any more luck in directing, much less controlling, the disparate enterprise of Salafi-jihadist groups now present in many countries of the Muslim world.   There is good evidence already that Zawahiri’s affiliation with an al-Shabaab shunned by bin Laden is more of an admission of al-Qaeda weakness—and a Zawahiri preference for localized initiatives no matter how ill coordinated at the center—than a move of strength.  Al-Shabaab’s internal distress gained public attention with an open letter from one of the few members of that group trained in al-Qaeda Afghan camps to Zawahiri bitterly complaining about al-Shabaab’s malaise and impending demise.   Zawahiri’s call for a resurgent Salafi-jihadist movement in Iraq to remain independent from the Al Nusra cadre fighting in Syria also was reportedly rudely rebuffed, demonstrating that even the strongest remaining “Alpha Dog” leader in the al-Qaeda stable cannot choreograph localized movements as one.  As heir to the al-Qaeda mantle, Zawahiri will remain relevant to the Salafi-jihadist milieu.  But, it is important for western analysts to understand and to properly convey that the al-Qaeda of Zawahiri demonstrates but a fraction of the influence it held a decade ago.

To that effect, most recent evidence aligns well with the history and context of al-Qaeda’s rise and decline.  The Salafi-jihadist movement is not synonymous with al-Qaeda.   The al-Qaeda of Zawahiri may aim—and even claim—to exert influence, but no present evidence demonstrates an ability to choreograph, much less control, local Salafi-jihadists or global lone wolves.  In its 2013 form, al-Qaeda can perhaps inspire self-radicalized individuals a bit and cling tenuously to the notion that it remains a vanguard for Salafi-jihadist movements.  Yet, this is a far cry from Adam Elkus’ conclusion in a recent article here at War on the Rocks that, “The al-Qaeda center can certainly exercise broad strategic direction and control over the system, but the interactions of the semi-independent subparts may produce novel overall strategic outcomes not strictly planned by the leadership.”

I must disagree.

Instead it is more logical to conclude that it is the loosely coupled affiliations of ideologically similar, but objectively dissimilar, Salafi-jihadist regional groups that project the hologram of systematic control, not the group known as al-Qaeda that was self-chartered to make the whole of that movement far greater than the sum of its parts.


Thomas F. Lynch III is a Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the Institute of National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The conclusions and opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.


Photo credit: Andres Pérez (modified by War on the Rocks)