Al-Qaeda: A Defeated Threat? Think Again.


U.S. President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the closure of America’s longest war against the very adversary that started it. “Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaeda would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there,” declared Biden, resonating with a nation eager to turn a new page. However, reality clashed with this confidence on Aug. 15 when a 17-year-old tied to al-Qaeda was arrested in Philadelphia on charges related to weapons of mass destruction. Americans must now confront a question many thought the nation had left behind: Is al-Qaeda really defeated or has the threat merely evolved? 

President Biden may have announced the end of the Afghan war, but al-Qaeda has not. As of June 2023, U.N. reports indicate that the group’s activities are intensifying not just in Afghanistan, but globally as well. The group’s sustained ties with the Taliban and their leaders’ strategic return to Afghanistan are an advancement — not a decline. While top al-Qaeda figures are also calling for renewed jihad in Sudan, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is simultaneously targeting nations like Morocco with new propaganda campaigns. Additionally, al-Qaeda’s threats against Sweden and Denmark aren’t mere talk. In the wake of Quran burnings, the group has declared, “[w]e’re still here and open for business.” The escalating Israel-Hamas conflict further fuels al-Qaeda’s resurgence, leveraging the Palestinian cause to rally support, reinvigorating its base, and staging a comeback. These developments not only reaffirm al-Qaeda’s adaptability and determination but clearly underscore that any claims of al-Qaeda’s defeat are, at this point, premature.



The Contagion

Contradicting Biden’s assessment, the Taliban’s 2021 ascension reinvigorated al-Qaeda’s Afghan operations. Al-Qaeda commanders are back in Afghanistan, swiftly reactivating the group’s presence. Training camps are now operational in five provinces, including Zabul and Nuristan, areas that Osama bin Laden once earmarked as crucial for al-Qaeda. In Nuristan, these camps are actively training suicide bombers, signaling a revival of al-Qaeda’s past strategies, evocative of their roles in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, the 2000 USS Cole bombing, and the 9/11 attacks — all executed under the Taliban’s shield.

However, al-Qaeda’s resurgence is no longer confined to Afghanistan. In 2023 alone, al-Qaeda’s affiliates orchestrated 1,305 attacks globally. Al-Shabaab, leading with 1,057 attacks in Somalia and Kenya, continues to be a major threat with its developing transnational capabilities. Concurrently, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in the Sahel and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen conducted 184 and 64 attacks, respectively. In West Africa, frequent coups and military withdrawals have emboldened al-Qaeda affiliates to proliferate in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. The global scope of these attacks highlights al-Qaeda’s penchant for capitalizing on regional instabilities. This pattern becomes clearer when we observe the unfolding situation in Sudan.

Al-Qaeda is exploiting Sudan’s civil strife to establish a new stronghold. Abu Hudhaifa al Sudani, a prominent figure within the organization and a former bin Laden associate, intends to “sow the seeds of jihad” amidst the chaos. Al Sudani’s militant rhetoric, backed by his history in Afghanistan and Iraq, adds weight to his call to arms and lends credence to this threat. His al-Qaeda-aligned Rapid Support Forces have weakened Sudan’s armed forces, creating openings for extremist activities. Sudan, with its strategic location, resource wealth, and Islamic heritage, has been a prime target for al-Qaeda since the 1990s. Under Omar al Bashir, Sudan harbored bin Laden and formed the notorious Janjaweed militia (now the Rapid Support Forces). Al Sudani’s 2022 manifesto, “Now the fighting has come: War messages to the Mujahideen in Sudan,” and recent strategies by Ibrahim al Qussi, outline ambitions to turn Sudan into an “Afghanistan 2.0” — a central hub to orchestrate attacks exceeding the scale of 9/11.

Misguided Optimism

Despite Biden’s reassurances, al-Qaeda’s domestic threat looms large. In May 2022, former al-Qaeda fighter Shihab Ahmed Shihab plotted to assassinate President George W. Bush in Ohio and smuggled four Iraqi operatives into the United States through the southern border. Remarkably, Shihab had entered the United States undetected by intelligence agencies despite his history of killing U.S. soldiers in the Iraq War. These incidents display al-Qaeda’s ability to exploit national security gaps. The FBI thwarted this plot, yet it, along with the 2019 Naval Air Station Pensacola attack, reminds observers that al-Qaeda is neither distant nor defeated. FBI Director Christopher Wray’s warning of an anticipated rise in terrorist activities, including increased risk of al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil, further corroborates this unsettling trend.

Between 2021 and 2023, al-Qaeda ramped up its publications, reiterating its longstanding strategy of targeting the far enemy – the United States. On the eve of the 9/11 attacks’ 22nd anniversary, al-Sahab, their media wing, divulged plans for new attacks involving skilled militants, some being 9/11 veterans. The burgeoning reach of their media outlets, primarily through the magazine “Mujahideen in the West,” heralds a transition toward a more ideologically driven warfare. This platform not only incites lone-wolf attacks but also pioneers innovative methods. In “Road to Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam,” al-Qaeda explicitly labeled attacks on American economic assets and citizens as “simple and easy,” recommending low-effort tactics like arson. Al-Qaeda’s communiqués forewarn of an imminent “Islamic strike,” limited in resources yet potentially devastating in impact. 

Contrary to Christy Abizaid’s assertion of a minimal al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, the group’s operational success does not solely depend on numbers. Al-Qaeda is renowned for favoring strategic ingenuity over sheer numbers. The 9/11 attacks, executed by just 50 members, are a testament to their efficiency. Despite a modest Afghan footprint, by 2020, al-Qaeda boasted 20,000 fighters in Syria, at least 2,000 in the Sahel, 6,000 in Yemen, and 7,000 in Somalia. Their modus operandi, adhering to a low-tech, high-impact ethos, enables them to transcend geographical and numerical constraints. 

Al-Qaeda’s strategic flexibility is also evidenced in its response to regional tensions, such as the Israel-Hamas conflict. The group’s leadership celebrated Hamas’s Oct. 7 strike as a historic triumph for global jihad, exposing Western and Israeli vulnerabilities. This stance is reinforced by endorsements from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, and al-Shabaab, who not only elevate the conflict’s international profile but also weave local issues into their broader jihadist agenda. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s calls for attacks on Western targets and al-Shabaab’s potential “solidarity” attacks exemplify this expansive approach. The narrative culminates with al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, Hurras al-Din, urging Muslims to join jihad, a move that exacerbates old animosities and galvanizes a new generation of militants. This concerted effort positions al-Qaeda to reclaim its role as the vanguard of the global jihad. 

The group’s capacity to leverage geopolitical upheavals is a recurrent theme. A prime example was during the Arab Spring of 2011. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, seizing the moment, integrated seamlessly into Yemen’s local power structures, simultaneously pursuing their global jihad agenda. This dual strategy was apparent in their 2012 attempt to down a U.S. airliner. The group’s ability to turn regional conflicts into opportunities for broader aggression poses a significant threat to international security. This pattern, reflected in the spate of attacks across the United States and Europe, particularly between 2004 and 2006 and again from 2015 to 2018, persists in today’s Middle Eastern conflicts.

A New Rallying Point

Al-Qaeda’s adaptive strategy amid the Israel-Hamas conflict marks a new phase in its operations. The group is now actively seeking an alliance with the Islamic State, aiming to create a unified jihadist front against shared adversaries. This shift, highlighted in the 4th issue of “Mujahideen in the West,” signifies a blend of operational dexterity and ideological fervor, challenging perceptions of its waning influence. This evolution is not new: In West Africa, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have previously collaborated, coordinating attacks and establishing joint influence zones to subvert both Western and local authorities. Such adaptability continuously positions al-Qaeda as a formidable threat.

Following the death of former leader Ayman al Zawahiri, al-Qaeda demonstrated its resilience by strategically concealing its leadership transition. This tactical opacity, designed to protect its key figures, is evident in revelations from al-Qaeda’s publication “The Road to Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam” and the bin Laden documents. These insights reveal a pragmatic leadership approach fixated on enduring and evading targeted strikes, validating the effectiveness of their post-9/11 decentralized model. Similarly, al-Qaeda has honed its operational process, providing overarching attack plans and granting ground operatives full autonomy for execution. This improves their agility as an organization. In another striking disclosure, al-Qaeda’s publications also show how counterterrorism actions have unexpectedly eased their financial logistics. Together, these factors depict an entity that, despite setbacks, remains undeterred.

Saif al Adl, al-Qaeda’s presumed de facto leader, is crucial in this transformation. In his groundbreaking book, “Free Reading in the Book 33 Strategies,” inspired by Robert Green’s “33 Strategies for War,” al Adl advocates for a departure from conventional methods, emphasizing creativity and agility. He promotes unpredictability and advises “striking where the enemy least expects,” incorporating urban guerrilla warfare and potent propaganda to instill fear. Focused on the psychological ramifications, he suggests a series of consecutive strikes to amplify their effect. Interestingly, while endorsing “soft targets,” al Adl diverges from targeting civilians, “whether on our lands or enemy lands,” indicating a strategic recalibration in al-Qaeda that melds militancy with a form of outreach. This evolution within al-Qaeda’s ranks is a microcosm of the group’s upward trajectory as al Adl reshapes its approach.


Dispelling myths of decline, al-Qaeda remains a resilient and evolving force, continually refining its methods. Cunning and resourceful, this group stands as a sophisticated global menace, deftly navigating geopolitical dynamics and circumventing counterterrorism measures. Despite these realities, some argue that al-Qaeda is yesterday’s news. Experts like Daniel Byman paint al-Qaeda as an afterthought — overshadowed by today’s latest flavor of emerging terror factions. Byman’s assessment side-steps bin Laden’s time-tested, strategic direction for the group: A “war of attrition against tyrannical superpowers.” The Mujahideen won against the Soviets, and the rise to power of an al-Qaeda friendly Taliban regime following the U.S. withdrawal only affirms bin Laden’s situational understanding. For al-Qaeda: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Decades of conflict have left the West weary and dismissive, but underestimating al-Qaeda’s resolve is a critical error. Wishful thinking won’t eradicate terrorism, and complacency invites it home. History’s lessons are clear: the Taliban’s rise foretold 9/11, the Islamic State’s growth unleashed international terror, and vacuums in Iraq and Afghanistan nurtured extremism. The resurgence of Hamas is a reminder that terrorism’s embers still burn, unseen but ever-present. In our battle against terror, miscalculating al-Qaeda’s threat could be our gravest oversight — for what is unseen often poses the greatest danger.



Sara Harmouch, a Lebanese national and doctoral candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs, specializes in counterterrorism. She has firsthand experience with the impacts of terrorism through her upbringing and extensive fieldwork conducted across the Middle East and North Africa region. Harmouch consults for the U.S. government and the private sector, and has recently briefed NATO on religious terrorist groups. Her research focuses on asymmetric warfare, political violence, and threats to democracies. Follow her on Twitter: @sara_harmouch

Image: U.S. Air Force photo courtesy of Lt. Col. Scott Hardman