How Strong Is al-Qaeda? A Debate
Sept. 11, 2001, was “The Day the World Changed.” The 2,977 deaths at the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists led to massive policy changes and dominated U.S. politics for years afterward. The United States went to war in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, and the attacks contributed to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003. America began an array of aggressive counterterrorism programs, including the use of armed drones to kill suspected terrorists, indefinite detention at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and even torture. At home, the U.S. government detained many American Muslims on flimsy pretexts and implemented controversial programs related to surveillance.
Over 20 years later, the effectiveness of these measures, and the threat al-Qaeda poses, remain hotly debated. Leading terrorism experts like Bruce Hoffman have warned that al-Qaeda remains strong, patiently waiting for opportunities to strike while strengthening its global reach. Other leading analysts are skeptical. Barak Mendelsohn and Colin Clarke contend that “al-Qaeda the organization has failed.” In her 2022 threat testimony, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines struck a middle ground, warning that al-Qaeda still aspires “to conduct attacks in the United States” while also noting that its external attack capabilities are “degraded.” With the al-Qaeda threat perhaps in the rearview mirror, President Biden withdrew troops from Afghanistan in 2021 to end the so-called “forever wars” that sprang up in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
This article presents a debate on the al-Qaeda threat today, drawing on a longer article we wrote for Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. However, rather than a typical debate where each author makes a case for one side of the argument in separate essays, this article offers a back-and-forth on key arguments in the same essay in order to better engage the arguments. Asfandyar Mir argues that al-Qaeda remains a significant threat, while Daniel Byman is more skeptical. We each present our arguments and then highlight where we agree and disagree. We conclude by detailing the policy implications of our arguments.
Why Al-Qaeda Is a Significant and Enduring Problem: Asfandyar Mir
Al-Qaeda today is led by long-time jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took the helm after U.S. special operations forces killed Usama bin Laden in 2011. The core itself, mostly based in remote parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions and Iran, probably has several hundred core members. Far more reside in its affiliate organizations, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, among others. The group also has ties to a range of other jihadist organizations and has sought to inspire unaffiliated Muslims around the world to strike the United States and otherwise carry out the group’s objectives.
Despite being the most hunted organization in the world, al-Qaeda is able to threaten the U.S. homeland, its broader security interests, and regional stability in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. To understand this threat requires careful attention to the group’s political trajectory in light of the constraints facing it.
Al-Qaeda remains committed in its political ambition of fighting the United States while simultaneously embedding itself in key regional contexts. The enduring focus on America, in particular of the core group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a vital indicator of the threat, as al-Qaeda has faced intense pressure to change direction. Dropping the focus against the United States and rebranding to focus squarely on state-building in select regions or against new geopolitical powers, like China, could have blunted the wide-ranging international consensus against al-Qaeda and eased U.S. counterterrorism pressures. Yet al-Qaeda stuck with the costly choice of maintaining an anti-American platform while calibrating the local, regional, and transnational focus of different parts of the overall network. With such adjustments, the group minimized targeting pressures while retaining its historic anti-American raison d’etre.
Al-Qaeda has also managed to stay remarkably cohesive despite poaching pressure from the rival Islamic State group, the absence of regular direction from core leaders, competing regional realities of affiliates, and multinational efforts to divide the group. With the rise of ISIL and the defection of Jabhat al Nusra in Syria in 2016, it was widely assumed that Zawahiri and his top lieutenants had lost control of the global network due to slow communications, and that the al-Qaeda brand was unattractive for some, and even radioactive for other jihadi constituencies. Yet Zawahiri, despite his sclerotic style, managed to retain the loyalty of key top elites based in Iran and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He also succeeded in preventing affiliates from breaking away from al-Qaeda’s orbit — even after numerous attempts by the Islamic State to woo some of them. Significantly, over the last five years, several affiliates consolidated politically while also growing funds, recruiting more fighters, and developing permissive safe havens.
One such major affiliate is al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in South Asia. This affiliate has kept Zawahiri — who reportedly remains in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and has a $25 million bounty on his head — alive. Critically, it helped the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency against the U.S. military and the deposed Afghan government. Now, AQIS is supporting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s expanding campaign of violence in Pakistan while developing its own campaign against India — actively supported by Zawahiri’s provocations.
In Somalia, al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab is more politically cohesive and focused on striking U.S. interests in the region and beyond than it was a decade ago. It controls substantial territory and is al-Qaeda’s richest and most lethal affiliate. In a sign of al-Shabaab’s growing danger, the Biden administration is redeploying troops to fight it. In the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin has embedded itself in local communities through coalition-building and popular support — threatening the stability of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and littoral West Africa. Despite the civil war and loss of territory in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a consistent threat as it continues to prepare operations targeting the West. In Syria, after a series of setbacks, al-Qaeda retains an important (even if constrained) presence in the form of Hurras-ud-Din. Other affiliates, like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Nigeria-based Jamaat Ansar al Muslimeen fi Bilad al Sudan, also reaffirm their allegiance to al-Qaeda.
Some analysts and policymakers, including my co-author, recognize the dangerous trajectory of al-Qaeda’s affiliates but assume that their growing capabilities are a local problem where the affiliates are based — and therefore the U.S. government can remain indifferent to them. In the past, however, the local capabilities of al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen have expanded into regional and transnational threats: When al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was formed in January 2009, it was considered a local threat. But it plotted attacks against the United States in late 2009 and 2010. The distinction between which capabilities threaten U.S. interests and which ones don’t is not always clear or, equally important, predictable.
In addition to affiliates, al-Qaeda’s core has key relationships with Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which position it to evade international counterterrorism efforts and generate capability. For example, al-Qaeda is able to leverage Iranian territory to protect its central leadership, who manage the affiliate network while funneling resources to different nodes of the group. Despite immense pressure to do so, the Taliban haven’t broken from al-Qaeda. Instead, members of al-Qaeda’s core and al-Qaeda’s Indian subcontinent affiliate remain in Afghanistan, well positioned to pursue a steady buildup for deniable operations. Additionally, Iranian support can synergize al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan presence and boost its overall capability, despite the limits placed on the group by both the Taliban and Tehran.
Al-Qaeda has major opportunities in the years ahead. It is able to boast a “win” from the removal of a U.S.-allied regime and the U.S. military’s defeat in Afghanistan as well as growing influence in East and West Africa, all of which position it to build local and transnational operations capabilities in multiple theaters. American counterterrorism — the factor that has most constrained al-Qaeda — is weakening in the regions where both the core and affiliates are present due to diminishing resources, which are being redirected to respond to intensifying strategic competition with China and Russia. Al-Qaeda is also attentive to America’s domestic political polarization — and can mount attacks to exploit divisions.
Al-Qaeda Is Less Dangerous Than in the Past: Daniel Byman
The low number of attacks on the United States and its key allies is one reason to be skeptical of the al-Qaeda threat. The core did not carry out a single successful attack on the United States or Europe in the 2010s — and the last major plot in the United States by the core was Najibullah Zazi’s disrupted plan to bomb the New York subway. Although al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula conducted the 2019 shooting attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola, the majority of al-Qaeda affiliates have not attacked the U.S. homeland or Europe. Indeed, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula itself has been weakened in the last five years through drone strikes, U.A.E. military intervention, and the growing civil war in Yemen.
Another is that al-Qaeda has not succeeded by some of its own metrics. Al-Qaeda has failed to change the regimes of Muslim-majority countries closely allied with the United States. One of al-Qaeda’s ambitions — and one that Zawahiri himself long pursued with single-minded devotion before taking the helm of al-Qaeda — is to overthrow supposedly apostate regimes in Muslim-majority countries and establish Islamic governments in their places. The group sees itself as a vanguard supporting Muslim insurgencies through training, funding, and inspiring other groups. Yet in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s home, the al-Saud dynasty remains entrenched, and the regime led by Mohammad bin Salman is implementing reforms to make the country more secular. In Egypt, where Zawahiri formed his first jihadist cell as a teenager, the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship was replaced by the dictatorship of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an even more secular dictator. Indeed, in 2011, when the Arab world exploded with democratic energy, al-Qaeda affiliates were notably absent as major players initially.
My co-author is correct that al-Qaeda’s allies have grown stronger in Yemen, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and other areas. Historically, however, these are areas of limited interest to the United States. Counterterrorism assistance and military training are still appropriate, but these do not need to be policy priorities.
Another al-Qaeda goal is the removal of the United States and other so-called infidel military forces from Muslim-majority countries. In recent years, the United States has deployed roughly 40,000-60,000 troops to the greater Middle East, with a presence not only in pre-9/11 allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia but also in additional countries like Iraq and Syria. This number is up from just under 30,000 before the 9/11 attacks.
Part of the reason for al-Qaeda’s problems are its many organizational weaknesses, including financial problems, leadership disruptions, limited command and control, infighting, and the lack of a geographical haven. Effective counterterrorism exacerbates these weaknesses. Key instruments include drone strikes; military operations; training of allied military forces; extensive intelligence collection and sharing; cooperation with allied security services to disrupt cells globally; better border security; and disrupting terrorist financing. Al-Qaeda has lost leader after leader since 9/11 — “severe losses,” according to the U.S. intelligence community — and U.S. counterterrorism strikes have sowed confusion and exacerbated rivalries. And to avoid drone strikes and other attacks, the organization’s leaders have limited their communications with the rest of the movement, while fearing spies in their midst.
Without direction from the top, affiliates have increasingly focused on local and regional concerns, changing the nature of the threat they pose to U.S. interests. Al-Qaeda is not prioritizing the United States in practice, despite the rhetoric of figures like Zawahiri. For affiliates and allies, the day-to-day vicissitudes of living and fighting in civil war zones, and the constant pressure from rival groups and the government, lead to choices in favor of the local battlefield over the needs of external operations, about which few local audiences care.
In addition, they are less able to plot elaborate high-casualty attacks on the West. An operation like 9/11, which involved years of planning, operatives working in multiple countries, a haven in Afghanistan in which to plan, train, and recruit, and other advantages — and depended upon the attackers receiving little scrutiny when they arrived in the United States — is much harder to execute today.
Indeed, al-Qaeda’s ability to stop infighting in Iraq and Syria and control the jihadist movement there proved the biggest public blow to al-Qaeda and almost led to the core group’s undoing by creating its biggest rival: ISIL. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters from at least 110 countries flocked to join ISIL, not al-Qaeda, in Iraq and Syria. And in the United States and Europe, it was usually ISIL that exerted a pull on potential foreign fighters and inspired attackers. ISIL also produced rival affiliates and rejected important parts of al-Qaeda’s ideology. The propaganda war between the two is bitter and diminishes them both. Both compete for recruits and fundraising, and they and their affiliates often fight.
Al-Qaeda today lacks a haven comparable to what it enjoyed in the Taliban’s Afghanistan before 9/11. In the 1990s, al-Qaeda was able to train thousands of fighters in Afghanistan, elevating their skill levels, giving them a common cause, and directing them when they returned to their home countries. Although al-Qaeda has a presence in many countries, it cannot run the industrial-scale training camps it ran in the past.
As my co-author points out, there are two possible exceptions to this: Afghanistan and Iran. In Afghanistan, the Taliban — and its on-and-off Pakistani ally — have incentives to prevent the group from launching major international terrorist attacks against the United States, Europe, and many key allies, although further limited attacks in South Asia are more likely. In addition, the United States has some remaining (even if reduced) counterterrorism capacity in the region that will still hinder al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda is troubled. There is considerable distrust, and al-Qaeda members have complained they are “captive … in the enemy state of Iran.” Counterterrorism operations are still carried out in Iran, such as the 2020 killing of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a top al-Qaeda official living in Iran, reportedly by Israeli assets operating at the behest of the United States. Furthermore, ties to Iran — a Shiite power loathed by many religious Sunnis — are unpopular and taint al-Qaeda by association.
In addition to having been diminished by effective counterterrorism, jihadists have also struggled to establish a foothold in Muslim communities. Risa Brooks has found that the American Muslim community self-polices, rooting out radicals in its midst, and cooperates regularly with the FBI. Compounding this problem, many of the would-be terrorists in the Western world are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. The list of their mistakes is long and at times comical.
How Policy Should Reflect the Threat
Counterterrorism and the struggle against al-Qaeda is no longer the number one policy priority it was in the years after 9/11. Nevertheless, a succession of presidents have maintained high levels of spending and continued many of the homeland security, intelligence, and military programs that sprang up in the wake of the attacks.
Although we end up with different threat assessments, we agree on many aspects of the danger. We share the view that American counterterrorism is a leading constraint on al-Qaeda’s ability to attack the United States. We also believe that al-Qaeda does not have to be a strong organization to undertake or promote lethal attacks. Capable groups can often behave strategically and conduct careful, limited attacks, while weak groups can carry out bloody ones, especially in the United States, where there is easy access to assault weapons. Although we disagree on the degree of operational freedom the group enjoys in its Iranian haven and on the risk of terrorism emanating from the Taliban’s Afghanistan, we concur that these are important sanctuaries for al-Qaeda and a significant challenge for U.S. counterterrorism.
Yet our disagreements have significant policy implications. Byman’s assessment suggests that the tempo and scope of counterterrorism pressure can be reduced, though much of the low-cost, day-to-day efforts like intelligence cooperation and military training should continue. Forever wars can end or, at least, be diminished. More broadly, even though other Salafi-jihadi threats like ISIL endure, a more limited threat by al-Qaeda implies the importance of counterterrorism in the hierarchy of U.S. foreign policy priorities can fall. Any death of an innocent is too many, but if the group is less able to launch major international terrorist attacks on the United States and its key allies, then other policy concerns should come to the fore.
Mir’s reading suggests that counterterrorism needs to remain among America’s major-national security priorities to manage al-Qaeda and similar threats. America is vulnerable to the second-order effects of al-Qaeda’s terrorist activity, such as heightened polarization, divisiveness, and anti-immigrant sentiment. The U.S. government, by itself as well as in conjunction with regional allies, should also maintain strong monitoring and targeting capabilities across Afghanistan, Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia, and Syria. Finally, dramatically scaling back the U.S. government’s own counterterrorism resources, as implied by the Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy, and reducing investments in bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism efforts due to strategic competition with China and Russia would be a mistake: They are essential to preventing terrorist provocations and remaining focused on strategic competition in the long-run.
Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Asfandyar Mir is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Image: Al Kataib via the Belfer Center