The Perils of Forgetting About Al Qaeda
Sir Michael Fallon’s remarks last month on terrorism were both highly predictable and highly unusual. Predictable, because the U.K. secretary of state for defence was talking about the terror threat facing Europe, something which Europeans are by now used to. Unusual, however, because he was not talking about the group that dominates such conversations: the Islamic State. Instead, Fallon was focused on al-Qaeda, noting that it still posed a “very direct threat” to Europe. “Al-Qaeda is still alive and kicking…,” he said. “It has not been finally defeated and we are very conscious of that.”
Europeans have every reason to remain wary of the terrorist group. Al-Qaeda has attempted to kill hundreds of Europeans in the last 15 years. Terror attacks connected — to varying degrees — to al-Qaeda led to the murder of almost 250 people in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005. Twelve more died during the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine’s offices in Paris in January 2015. Al-Qaeda also had a string of near misses: fertilizer bombs in London (2004), liquid bombs on transatlantic flights (2006), car bombs in London and Glasgow (2007), suicide attacks in Manchester (2009), and a car bomb and suicide attack in Stockholm (2010).
Yet this year, as Europe suffered through a record number of Islamist terror attacks, al-Qaeda has been conspicuously absent. Instead, it is ISIL that has directed, encouraged, or inspired the plots. So where is al-Qaeda?
This answer lies in the events outside of Europe.
During the Arab Spring, some viewed the pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa as the group’s death knell. “As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al Qaeda Sees History Fly By” was a February 2011 headline from The New York Times. The basic argument was that the uprisings had made al-Qaeda’s ideology irrelevant. It was peaceful protest, not violence, which overthrew authoritarian rulers.
Yet, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has argued, rather than accept that the game was up, al-Qaeda sensed an opportunity. All of a sudden, al-Qaeda had the prospect of exerting hitherto unimaginable influence in chaotic, ungoverned locations. Ali Abdullah Saleh struggled to retain power in Yemen, so al-Qaeda pounced to acquire land that was suddenly up for grabs there. Bashar al-Assad began to kill protesters, so al-Qaeda formed a new group to take advantage of the rage felt in Syria. With NATO assistance, Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, so al-Qaeda stepped up its activities in the Sahel.
Yet al-Qaeda is a far more clandestine outfit than ISIL and has been careful not to draw overt attention to its activities. So it operated under the “Ansar al-Sharia” (Partisans of Islamic Law) banner in Yemen. The Yemeni embassy’s then spokesman in Washington, D.C. described this to me as a move to “rebrand the movement under a global positive banner. After all, who would dare say no to Islamic law?” Similarly, in Syria, the newly formed “Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant” did not declare itself as an al-Qaeda affiliate but as a very Syrian part of the rebellion against Assad. It was not until April 2013 that there was an open pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and beforehand, al-Nusra Front officials were keen to downplay connections to al-Qaeda.
As a result, al-Qaeda formed alliances with locals across areas of strategic importance in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. This, too, was a deliberate ploy. As was argued in a December 2015 New America paper, “Popular support has become essential to al-Qaeda’s organizational survival and growth.” It had some success. Jennifer Cafarella from the Institute for the Study of War argues that in Syria, for example, al-Qaeda is “using its involvement…to unite Syria’s rebelling Sunni population under its leadership.” The group remains focused on such conflicts, as opposed to strikes in Europe. A spokesman for the al-Nusra Front (before rebranding) stated this summer that as the group’s current priority is strengthening its hand there, “all other desired interests to target the U.S. and the West will be marginalized and absent.”
While al-Qaeda has realized tremendous gains because of this, it also faces a conundrum. Overtly globalizing their activities risks undermining its attempts to work with other Sunnis on the ground — in Yemen and Syria, for example — who have local wars to fight but no strong desire to kill Europeans or Americans. Yet the group is ideologically hardwired and, it believes, theologically obliged to fight the West. Its current local focus is just a tactical, not a strategic, shift. As Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has said, “that calculation could change at any time”.
Therefore, European governments must dedicate sufficient resources to dealing with the Islamist threat as a whole not just that posed by ISIL. Otherwise, vulnerable countries end up prioritizing which terrorist suspects to target so ruthlessly that dangerous individuals slip through the net.
This is no idle concern. Following their training by al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2011, Cherif and Said Kouachi were on the French intelligence radar. However, with finite intelligence resources and with concern growing over returnees from Syria, surveillance on the Kouachis stopped in the spring of 2014. Freed from the attention of the authorities, they subsequently carried out their raid on Charlie Hebdo.
There were hints of what is to come when reports began to circulate last week of a planned al-Qaeda attack on the United States before the election. New York, Texas, and Virginia had all been mooted as possible targets and a flurry of U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, whose remit included external operations, suggests the threat may have been credible.
Thankfully, Monday came and went without an attack taking place. Yet, it must be hoped that another al-Qaeda atrocity is not what it takes to refocus minds on the danger that the group continues to pose.
Specializing in terrorism and national security analysis, Robin Simcox is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.