Al-Qaeda Is Being Hollowed to Its Core
Last year was a bad year for the world. Not even al-Qaeda was spared. To start, in January al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qassim al-Rimi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, inflicting a serious blow to the group’s most operationally capable branch. Other al-Qaeda branches were attenuated over the course of 2020. Abdelmalek Droukdel, who led al-Qaeda’s branch in North Africa, was killed by French forces in Mali in June. In Syria, al-Qaeda’s unofficial branch, Hurras al-Din, continued to suffer leadership losses, further winnowing al-Qaeda’s cadre of veteran leaders. Al-Qaeda branches also suffered defeats on the battlefield. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was routed in Bayda governorate in Yemen, while Hurras al-Din’s ability to operate in Syria’s Idlib region was crippled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on the ground and by American drones from above.
Al-Qaeda’s central leadership was forced to grapple with the loss of the group’s number two, Abu Muhammed al-Masri, who was assassinated in Iran in August, and of Hossam Abdul Raouf, a senior media official and a member of al-Qaeda’s Shura Council who was killed in October in Afghanistan. Unconfirmed reports that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri died magnify the sense of the group’s misfortunes. Al-Zawahiri could still be alive, but the lack of compelling evidence to prove that — a new video message from him that refers to events that happened after he supposedly died — exposes al-Qaeda’s problems.
Two things drove the setbacks suffered by al-Qaeda over the course of 2020. First, continuous counter-terrorism pressure by the United States and its allies has paid off. While the United States likely provided valuable intelligence, the operations against al-Masri in Iran and Droukdel on the Malian-Algerian border, were executed by Israel and France, respectively. Second, the further erosion of the organization’s cohesion means that al-Qaeda is no longer greater than the sum of its parts, as it was in the past. The shift to a more decentralized model (which we discuss more below) has exposed the varying objectives between core al-Qaeda and its branches. Core al-Qaeda has always sought to attack the West, even when it lacked such capabilities. Most of al-Qaeda’s regional branches, on the contrary, have prioritized local issues and conflicts with other non-state armed groups and regimes in the region. Some, especially al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have plotted high-level external operations.
Understanding the present and future of al-Qaeda is more complicated than just assessing its potential decline or resurgence. Despite suffering myriad setbacks, the group still maintains several branches, some of them highly active, in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia; cooperates with other jihadi groups; fields thousands of committed fighters; and retains meaningful financial resources, partly through creative means (such as bitcoin and gemstones).
Al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch, al-Shabaab, continues to raise its profile through spectacular attacks, including well-coordinated operations beyond Somalia’s borders, and regularly targets neighboring countries (particularly Kenya). In the Sahel, al-Qaeda’s subbranch Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Muslimeen has expanded its presence and operational tempo and does not appear to be deterred by a continuing French military campaign in the region.
What is beyond doubt is that al-Qaeda has transformed itself over the years. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, it was a small and hierarchical organization of no more than several hundred fighters. A few years later, group membership increased exponentially, and its operational gravity shifted from targeting the West to growing its strength in the Middle East and North Africa. But as the group became increasingly decentralized, its command and control weakened. Al-Qaeda’s weakness is not due to the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s success. The Islamic State group has suffered similar difficulties in bridging central leadership with its periphery over the past year, and the conflict between the two jihadist heavyweights is mostly localized. Reinforcing the trend toward decentralization, parochial dynamics appear to be more relevant in the dynamics of this competition than any instructions dictated by the organizations’ central leadership.
Al-Qaeda’s misfortunes in 2020 have accelerated this process of transformation: With its core leadership in tatters, there is little tying the group’s branches together other than a shared name and occasional inter-branch coordination. The impact of eliminating al-Qaeda affiliate leaders has been to remove the connective sinew between the core and its legions of foot soldiers, further isolating senior leaders hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Charles Lister succinctly described al-Qaeda recently, it has turned into “a loosely networked movement, comprising likeminded but regionally distinct groups, each pursuing increasingly local agendas.” Last year witnessed the exacerbation of this trend, making the role that al-Qaeda core plays more symbolic than meaningful in any operational sense.
The deck is heavily stacked against transnational jihadi groups. They seek to revolutionize world order but face insurmountable obstacles: Operationally, they rarely succeed in gaining territorial control, let alone expand such control across borders. The Islamic State’s attempt to erase the border between Iraq and Syria only increased the international community’s sense of urgency to defeat the group. Transnational jihadists may occasionally catch states and the international community by surprise, but they are simply too weak to use local success as a springboard to a comprehensive and sustained drive beyond the attack itself.
Their ideas are also facing impossible headwinds: Their vision of an Islamic political identity, superior to Muslims’ other forms of identity, such as nationality or tribe, does not appeal to the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide who prefer to keep religion largely apart from politics, let alone adopt jihadists’ radical interpretation of Islam. Infighting and bickering between and within jihadi groups further undermine transnational jihadists’ agendas.
As a brand name, al-Qaeda still resonates among jihadists and, as such, is unlikely to fade away anytime soon. But the al-Qaeda of 2021 is a fundamentally different organization than the one Osama bin Laden built and expanded more than 30 years ago. Yet, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that jihadists have achieved some of their objectives. After all, they goaded Western countries into costly wars abroad and societal changes at home, including compromising civil liberties. But where the global jihadist movement more broadly has succeeded, al-Qaeda the organization has failed.
First, al-Qaeda’s central command has reached a nadir. Only a handful of veterans from its founding generation remain. Even if al-Zawahiri is still alive, it is clear he is constrained, given that he has failed to release an audio or video tape since rumors of his death first swirled. When he has responded to similar rumors in the past or to major events, it has taken months in some cases, thus weakening his ability to direct the group and maintain al-Qaeda’s relevance in the media. His isolation also means there is little he could do if a branch acts in a way he disapproves of. The loss of numerous first generation lieutenants in recent years also leaves the group with a shallow bench of potential successors. Even the most prominent of these, Saif al-Adel, is likely to have difficulties connecting with al-Qaeda’s younger cadre, which emerged while he was living in Iran for most of the last 20 years. In fact, given the hostility to Iran and the Shia, al-Adel’s long presence in Iran might taint him in the eyes of group members.
Second, the decline of al-Qaeda’s central leadership has been accompanied by a decentralization of the group as practical authority shifted toward the group’s branches. The majority of al-Qaeda members have been recruited by its branches, not by the central leadership. The new generation is focused on parochial grievances and the promotion of their particular branch’s local interests and has had limited, and in many cases zero, interaction with members of other branches. This is evidenced by how little effort the branches have devoted to the core al-Qaeda desire to attack the West. The inability of al-Qaeda’s central leadership to assert itself and its transnational objectives helped branches gain substantial independence. The failure of al-Qaeda’s central leadership to communicate its objectives to subordinates in a timely fashion has magnified branches’ autonomy.
Third, al-Qaeda has lost its strategic direction. Formed as a promising new way to succeed where previous generations of jihadists had failed, al-Qaeda viewed fighting the United States — the “far enemy” — as the key to attaining its transnational agenda. But in reality, under al-Zawahiri, the group has largely abandoned its global agenda and increasingly permitted its branches to wage local struggles. But attacking the West, and the United States in particular, is essential to al-Qaeda’s identity. The 9/11 attacks offered something new, beyond al-Zawahiri’s “near enemy” and “far enemy” doctrine or Abdullah Azzam’s conception of defensive jihad. The shift to a more local focus was inevitable once the conditions that led bin Laden to focus on attacking the West — especially American hegemony in the Middle East and the entrenched Muslim regimes Washington supported — became less relevant, but al-Qaeda was never clear about its new plan. It did not propose a strategy for translating local success into far-reaching, cross-border effects, and while it effectively deemphasized attacking the United States in its planning, it failed to formulate and introduce a new strategic vision that would reflect the shift. In fact, while it is no longer clear al-Qaeda believes that attacking the United States fits with its strategic vision, the centrality of the United States to al-Qaeda’s identity is probably preventing the group from making necessary adjustments. As the value of attacking the United States declines, al-Qaeda is grappling with developing an alternative strategy to bring a unity of action and purpose to its branches. However, the group suffers from a dearth of strategic thinkers able to present a strategy befitting the new era. After the failure of its United States first focus and its rejection of the alternative path of an Islamic State- style caliphate, it remains unclear how al-Qaeda envisions success or even what it actually hopes to achieve.
Some developments could work in al-Qaeda’s favor, particularly if its Taliban allies can secure further influence in Afghanistan. But on the whole, geopolitical conditions are more conducive for localized jihadist efforts, largely at the expense of transnational movements. This could signal growth potential for certain branches, including al-Shabaab or Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Muslimeen. And while al-Qaeda leadership might be pleased with any expansion of its branches, it is not clear whether the core of al-Qaeda’s surviving veteran leadership will benefit. More likely, branches could be in a better position to break with this al-Qaeda core if they desired to do so.
Instead of focusing on external operations against the West, al-Qaeda will continue a trend that began following the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011 — embedding in local insurgencies and consolidating support among tribes and clans. The al-Qaeda brand may raise the group’s profile in certain regional contexts, particularly in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa, but it will be difficult for this al-Qaeda core to capitalize on these developments to promote a transnational agenda.
Al-Qaeda is here to stay, but it looks and acts differently than the organization it once was under Osama bin Laden. This means that Washington should begin to reassess how it treats the threat of al-Qaeda. As evidenced by the changing orientation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, dynamics can and do change. The threat posed by branches is anchored in local conditions, grievances, and particular ethnic compositions. U.S. policies should be fine-tuned and specifically tailored to reflect this reality. The United States should not see al-Qaeda as requiring a uniform approach, but instead assess the independent threats posed al-Qaeda’s branches.
Barak Mendelsohn is an associate professor at Haverford College and the author of Jihadism Constrained.
Colin P. Clarke is director of policy and research at The Soufan Group and the author of After the Caliphate.