Al-Qaeda: Threat or Anachronism?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the latest American government official to declare victory over the country’s oldest terrorist enemy. “Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self,” the secretary said, justifying the imminent pullback of American troops from Afghanistan, the group’s former safe haven. Pompeo’s confidence raises important questions: Is al-Qaeda really defeated, and can the United States really expect a future in which the group no longer poses a threat to Americans?
Despite Pompeo’s proclamation, it is hard to deny that, if Osama bin Laden were alive today, he’d likely be a happy man. The enterprise he begat over three decades ago has survived the sustained onslaught of the most technologically advanced military in the history of mankind. Despite serial setbacks — including the killing of its founder and leader — the narrative that bin Laden crafted continues to resonate and inspire a new generation to take up arms in a war that he first proclaimed 24 years ago — before many of these latest recruits were even born. In an interview with a Pakistani journalist shortly after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden predicted that his martyrdom “will create more Osama bin Ladens.” The fact that today’s al-Qaeda is present in more countries than it was on 9/11 and can muster some 30,000 to 40,000 fighters has arguably proven bin Laden correct.
While the self-proclaimed Islamic State dominated the Salafi-Jihadi scene and counter-terrorism attention over the past six years, al-Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding. From northwest Africa to southeast Asia, it maintains a global movement of some two dozen local networks. As a recent United Nations report by its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team states, “Al-Qaida remains resilient and increasingly threatening … [Its] affiliates are stronger than ISIL in many conflict zones, especially the Sahel, Somalia, Yemen and the north-west of the Syrian Arab Republic.” In all, al-Qaeda commands tens of thousands of fighters — potentially including as many as 20,000 men-at-arms in Syria, at least 2,000 in the Sahel, another 6,000 in Yemen, 7,000 in Somalia, and some 600 in Afghanistan.
What, then, accounts for the movement’s survival and remarkable resiliency?
Al-Qaeda’s Upward Trajectory
Although al-Qaeda’s rebuilding and reorganization predate the Arab Spring, it is undeniable that the subsequent upheaval and instability both hastened and abetted the movement’s resurgence. At the time, an unbridled optimism held that the transformative social, political, and economic developments that swept across North Africa and the Middle East had achieved what decades of counter-terrorism had manifestly failed to deliver, supposedly marginalizing violent extremists like al-Qaeda forever. Social media and civil protest seemed to have made terrorism anachronistic in a region where it was believed that long-awaited democratic and economic reform was set to defeat political repression and violence once and for all.
In the March 2011 issue of Inspire magazine, al-Qaeda’s titular propagandist-in-chief, Anwar al-Awlaki, cogently demolished those arguments: “The mujahidin around the world are going through a moment of elation and I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahidin activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco?” Al-Qaeda ideologues would henceforth be able to propagandize with impunity, he predicted, and the unrest would produce new openings and opportunities for the jihadis. “Is the West aware of what is happening,” he opined in the same issue of Inspire, “or are they asleep with drapes covering their eyes?”
The 2011 and 2012 killings of bin Laden, al-Awlaki, and the trusted al-Qaeda deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, sparked further predictions of the group’s imminent, permanent defeat. However, the fallout from the Arab Spring — notably unrest in Egypt and civil war in Syria — would breathe new life into the movement’s efforts to appear relevant. Indeed, with its resilient senior command structure and global, networked movement in place, al-Qaeda has sought to ideally position itself to exploit the Islamic State’s weakened military position and territorial losses. With al-Baghdadi’s killing, al-Qaeda is likely poised to re-claim its preeminent position as the vanguard of the violent Salafi-Jihadi struggle.
Al-Qaeda’s Global Domain
Among the multitude of Salafi-Jihadi factions present in Syria’s Idlib province, al-Qaeda has emerged as the most influential. The province, whose population has swelled to more than three million persons as a result of the ongoing fighting, also provides the biggest single safe haven for the largest number of al-Qaeda-affiliated or associated groups since pre-9/11 Afghanistan.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is the strongest of such groups with between 12,000 and 15,000 fighters. Although its relations with al-Qaeda in recent years have been fraught, a reasonably stable modus vivendi appears to be holding. More closely aligned with al-Qaeda, however, is the smaller Hurras al-Din group with some 3,500 to 5,000 fighters. Whereas Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has a local orientation and is, therefore, more focused on the Syrian civil war, battling government forces, and combating their Iranian and Russian patrons, Hurras al-Din more closely adheres to al-Qaeda’s vision of a global jihad with its leader, Abd al-Karim al-Masri, even publicly calling for international terrorist attacks against the West. In sum, al-Qaeda’s entrenched network in Idlib affords it the potential to fill the vacuum created by both the collapse of the Islamic State and the departure of U.S. military forces.
Elsewhere, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains perhaps al-Qaeda’s most dangerous transnational affiliate. In 2019 alone — in addition to being consumed by ongoing fighting against the Houthis for control of Yemen — the group struck twice in Saudi Arabia and once in the United States. In September, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed credit for the assassination of the commander of the Saudi royal guard in Jeddah. Then, in December, an assailant from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula stabbed three performers at a Riyadh concert while, in that same month, a Royal Saudi Air Force pilot trainee shot to death three persons at a U.S. naval base in Pensacola, Florida.
Previous targeted assassinations of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s founder and leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi; the group’s chief propagandist, Anwar al-Awlaki; and, its master bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Assiri, have not decisively undermined the group. Indeed, there is alarming evidence that al-Assiri’s ordnance craftsmanship has already migrated to other al-Qaeda partners — including groups that have never hitherto targeted commercial aviation. In this respect, the comparatively technologically unsophisticated al-Shabaab nearly succeeded in downing a Daallo Air passenger jet departing Mogadishu in February 2016 with an improvised explosive device concealed in a laptop computer. Accordingly, the recent killing of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s commander, Qasim al-Rimi, is similarly unlikely to prove a crushing blow. Instead, the group’s preoccupation with the ongoing civil war in Yemen is arguably what restrains its undiminished international terrorism aspirations.
Meanwhile, the continuing threat posed by al-Shabaab both in Somalia and in Kenya was evidenced early this year when an attack on Camp Simba, a U.S. military base near the border, killed three Americans. In the coming year, al-Shabaab — along with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin — will likely benefit from the announced drawdown of U.S. military forces in Africa.
Finally, al-Qaeda is likely gleeful over the recent peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States in addition to the eventual withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan. The failure to secure the Taliban’s repudiation or denouncement of al-Qaeda means that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the al-Qaeda affiliate in Kashmir, Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind, two of the newer franchises to have emerged in the past few years, can operate with impunity. The only stipulation imposed on the Taliban is that it must forbid al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks against the United States and the West. Compelling the Taliban to disavow its relationship with al-Qaeda should have been an essential good faith or confidence-building measure. It would have demonstrated that the movement had moved beyond its support of foreign terrorist forces in Afghanistan and could therefore be trusted to moderate its previous hardline views on female emancipation and education, the rigid institution of shari’a law, and that it was genuinely prepared to work with the elected Afghan government—something al-Qaeda has always been against. The Taliban, it is also worth noting, gave similarly disingenuous pledges to the United States when it was last in power, as documented in the 9/11 Commission’s report. In fact, reports suggest U.S. officials have collected intelligence that the Taliban has no intention of abiding by this latest deal.
Accordingly, given that al-Qaeda has always regarded itself as both the Taliban’s preeminent partner and an invaluable force multiplier — thus critically enhancing Taliban attack capabilities — the agreement in no way curtails al-Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan that do not directly or specifically target the United States. Furthermore, al-Qaeda’s narrative will now herald the defeat of the armies of both the world’s two former superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Al-Qaeda will seize upon this claim and exploit the peace agreement’s vague provisions to attract additional recruits and more funding.
An Al-Qaeda-Islamic State Axis?
Five months after the killing of al-Baghdadi, it is still unclear how the Islamic State leader’s death might affect the group’s relations with al-Qaeda. Both groups trace their ideological lineage to Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam’s principles from the 1980s that all Muslims face an obligation to come to each other’s defense whenever and wherever threatened. Azzam and his ideological descendants — including Osama bin Laden; current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and al-Baghdadi — share the views that Islam is currently under attack by the United States and its global and regional allies, and that global jihad is needed to fight back. Furthermore, reconciliation was only previously held back by ego and personal rivalries between the group’s leaders — an obstacle removed by America’s killing of the former Islamic State leader.
Al-Qaeda, over the past several years, painted itself as “a more strategic and mature alternative to ISIS’s blitzkrieg caliphate.” Should the Islamic State’s ground defeat in Syria and Iraq convince its new leadership that its strategy was fundamentally flawed, and that al-Qaeda’s longer-term vision might promise greater rewards, a reunification of forces is not impossible. Recent reports of increased cooperation between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda forces in the Sahel, for instance, lend new weight to this fear. “What we’ve seen is not just random acts of violence under a terrorist banner but a deliberate campaign that is trying to bring these various groups under a common cause,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, the commander of U.S. special operations forces in Africa, warned last week. “That larger effort then poses a threat to the United States.” He additionally described al-Qaeda’s “quiet expansion” in the region as the “longer strategic concern.” The African theater warrants attentive observation while closer cooperation between the two Salafi-Jihadi great powers should cause serious concern for counter-terrorism practitioners and scholars.
Sixteen years ago, Osama bin Laden explained in his last publicly released videotaped statement that al-Qaeda was waging a “war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers.” He boasted that the group and its Afghan mujahedeen partners had “bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat” from Afghanistan in 1989, and predicted that al-Qaeda would do the same to the United States. With the signing of the landmark U.S.-Taliban peace agreement and drawdowns from both the Syrian and African theaters, bin Laden’s prediction is becoming prophecy.
To be sure, the defeat of the Islamic State and the dismantling of its caliphate — coupled with al-Qaeda’s prolonged quiescence — have created the impression that the fight against Salafi-Jihadi terrorism is over. However, the then-commander of the U.S. Central Command presciently reminded us of the opposite back in 2013: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over,” General James N. Mattis warned, “but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” And, while we may triumphantly herald and fervently embrace an end to the war on terrorism, our enemies — whether in the Islamic State or even more so al-Qaeda — have incontrovertibly voted to continue the struggle first proclaimed by bin Laden nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Bruce Hoffman is the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Jacob Ware is a research associate.