By Thomas Joscelyn
September 11, 2018
And Widely Misunderstood
On September 11, 2001, 19 of Osama bin
Laden’s operatives changed the course of world history. We are fortunate that
al Qaeda hasn’t carried out another 9/11-style attack inside the U.S. in the 17
years since. But that fact shouldn’t obscure the reality about al Qaeda and its
global jihad. Al Qaeda remains a threat. Its operatives are fighting in more
countries around the world today than was the case on 9/11. And its leaders
still want to target the United States and its interest and allies. The war
they started is far from over.
There are many reasons for al Qaeda’s
failure to successfully execute a mass-casualty attack in the United States:
America’s defences hardened, as its tactical offensive capabilities improved;
U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials, sometimes aided by allies,
hunted down numerous al Qaeda planners overseas; al Qaeda’s men have also
bungled undetected opportunities, proving that even when they get a clear shot,
it is difficult to execute mass terror operations on the scale we witnessed in
2001. This is one reason that al Qaeda’s men began calling for small-scale
attacks carried out by individuals.
Al Qaeda has faced other obstacles as well.
In its war with the U.S., the group has lost key management personnel. Most
important, of course, was the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Scores of
other senior figures have been killed or captured. This has raised logistical
hurdles, disrupting communications and al Qaeda’s chain of command. In
addition, the rise of the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014 created the biggest
challenge to al Qaeda’s authority within the global jihadist movement since its
inception in 1988.
Despite all of this, however, al Qaeda is
very much alive—albeit widely misunderstood. Consider this shocking fact: The
counterterrorism community still has not formulated a common definition or
understanding of the organization. Basic facts remain in dispute or are
With that in mind, let us briefly review
the state of al Qaeda. When we look at the organization as a whole, it quickly
becomes apparent that al Qaeda has many thousands of men around the globe.
Indeed, al Qaeda is waging jihad in far more countries today than it was on
9/11, with loyalists fighting everywhere from West Africa, through North and
East Africa, into the heart of the Middle East and into South Asia. Some labor
to disconnect the dots on al Qaeda’s global network, so let us reconnect them.
Al Qaeda honors Osama bin Laden as the
“reviving imam”— an honorific that is intended to emphasize his revolutionary
role in spreading the jihadist ideology. Look around the world today, and you
see they unfortunately have a point.
Al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership
In 2011, Ayman al Zawahiri succeeded Osama
bin Laden as al Qaeda’s global leader. It was a natural move, as Zawahiri had
worked closely with bin Laden since the 1980s. And Zawahiri’s own original
organization, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), provided bin Laden’s nascent
endeavour with key personnel and logistical assistance in the early 1990s. EIJ
operatives played crucial roles in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, al Qaeda’s
most devastating attack before 9/11.
EIJ veterans continue to hold some of the
most important roles inside al Qaeda to this day. For example, the U.N.
recently reported that Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, both of whom
are still wanted for their roles in the embassy bombings, are assisting
Zawahiri from inside Iran. The two were held by the Iranians for years after
the 9/11 attacks, but they resumed their activities in 2015, after al Qaeda and
Iran reportedly agreed to a hostage swap. These “[a]l Qaeda leaders in the
Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent, working with” Zawahiri and
“projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously,” according
to the U.N.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The Obama
administration’s Treasury and State Departments revealed in 2011 that al
Qaeda’s Iran-based network serves as the organization’s “core pipeline through
which” it “moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East
to South Asia.” This pipeline operates under an “agreement” between al Qaeda
and the Iranian government. In the years since the Obama administration first
exposed this “secret deal,” the U.S. government has revealed additional details
about other al Qaeda leaders operating inside Iran, including “new generation”
figures who were groomed to replace their fallen comrades.
Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s ideological and
biological heir, has become a prominent voice for al Qaeda globally. The group
undoubtedly likes to market the bin Laden name, but this isn’t a mere branding
exercise. There is evidence that the junior bin Laden plays a leadership role
within the organization. He, too, has operated out of Iran.
Al Qaeda continues to have a significant
presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some senior managers are operating in
those two countries.
One of the principal reasons the group has
been able to weather the America-led counterterrorism storm in South Asia is
its relationship with the Taliban. This is perhaps the most underestimated
aspect of al Qaeda’s operations. Following in bin Laden’s footsteps, Zawahiri has
sworn his allegiance to the Taliban’s overall leader, an ideologue known as
Hibatullah Akhundzada. And al Qaeda’s chief goal in South Asia is to resurrect
the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which Zawahiri argues is the “
nucleus” of a new jihadist caliphate.
Although it is a somewhat awkward
arrangement, al Qaeda’s regional branches ultimately owe their loyalty to
Akhundzada as well. Each regional arm is led by an emir who has sworn his
allegiance to Zawahiri. Their fealty technically passes through Zawahiri to
Akhundzada himself. Although there is little evidence that the Taliban’s
hierarchy plays any role in managing al Qaeda’s presence outside of South Asia,
al Qaeda’s scheme connects Afghanistan to various conflicts around the globe,
as Zawahiri’s men are attempting to build Islamic emirates in several
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent
In September 2014, Zawahiri announced the
formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which brought together
parts of several pre-existing al Qaeda-linked groups. AQIS is led by Asim Umar,
who is openly loyal to Zawahiri. One of AQIS’s first plots was an audacious
attempt to hijack Pakistani frigates and fire their weapons into American and
AQIS’s chief goal is to help the Taliban
re-conquer Afghanistan. Its men are deeply embedded in the Taliban-led
insurgency and its role in the Afghan War has been underestimated. For example,
in October 2015, the U.S. and its Afghan allies raided two training camps in
the southern Shorabak district. According to the U.S. military, one of the two
was approximately 30 square-miles in size – making it one of the largest al
Qaeda training camps in post-2001 Afghanistan, if not the largest.
AQIS is attempting to strengthen al Qaeda’s
organization throughout South Asia, working with groups from Bangladesh, India,
Kashmir, Pakistan and likely other countries, too. The Pakistani Taliban is
closely allied with al Qaeda as well.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
Outside of South Asia, al Qaeda’s strongest
branch is AQAP. Bin Laden’s former aide-de-camp established the current
iteration of AQAP in 2009. Today it is led by Qasim al-Raymi, an al Qaeda
veteran who has sworn his fealty to Zawahiri. Raymi is surrounded by other al
AQAP gained global attention in 2009 and
2010 with its failed attempts to strike inside the U.S. AQAP simultaneously
began promoting the idea of “lone jihad,” an effort that has had some limited
success. Several attacks in the U.S. can be traced to this campaign. The
January 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris was AQAP’s doing as
AQAP is not just a regional branch of al
Qaeda’s organization, it has also housed senior management figures responsible
for making decisions that affect the jihadists’ global efforts. Its propaganda
organs, which have been disrupted, also serve al Qaeda’s global operations.
AQAP has taken over much of Yemen twice, as
it is attempting to build an Islamic state in the country. However, Raymi and
his men are currently embroiled in Yemen’s multi-sided war, which pits an
Arab-led coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis. While AQAP has clashed
at times with the Arab coalition, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not taken the
fight directly to the group on the ground. Instead, AQAP has cut deals to allow
its men to live and fight another day. While AQAP has often been on the same
side as the Arab coalition, it has also accused the Saudis of assisting the
Americans in a targeted air campaign against its leadership.
According to a recent U.N. report, AQAP may
have as many as 6,000 to 7,000 fighters, though it is difficult to estimate the
group’s strength for a variety of reasons.
Shabaab in Somalia
Based in Somalia, Shabaab is al Qaeda’s
branch in East Africa. It is not only responsible for waging a prolific
insurgency inside Somalia, but has also launched operations throughout the
region. The U.S. is supporting the Somali government in its attempt to stymie
the Jihadi insurgents.
Files recovered in Abbottabad, Pakistan show
that Osama bin Laden considered Shabaab to be a part of his organization by
2010, at the latest. The reality is that Shabaab was already strongly tied to
the al Qaeda network before then. In mid-2010, Bin Laden ordered Shabaab’s
leader at the time to keep his allegiance private, as the al Qaeda founder
thought a public announcement would further complicate Shabaab’s mission in
various ways. Some still have not recognized this point, wrongly arguing that
bin Laden did not admit Shabaab into al Qaeda’s fold. But this isn’t what the
al Qaeda founder said. Bin Laden simply didn’t want to announce their formal
merger to the public.
In early 2012, months after bin Laden’s
death, Shabaab and al Qaeda’s leadership did announce their union. Today the
group is led by Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar – a man who doesn’t hide his loyalty to
Zawahiri and al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
AQIM publicly announced its union with al
Qaeda in 2006. And files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that AQIM
regularly communicated with al Qaeda’s senior leadership in South Asia in the
years thereafter. AQIM grew out of an existing jihadist group that was opposed
to the Algerian government. It is led by Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud (a.k.a.
Abdelmalek Droukdel), who has sworn his own blood oath to Zawahiri.
AQIM operates in North and West Africa. It
is often difficult to measure the scope of its operations, as AQIM’s leaders
have decided to hide their roles in various front groups. This has caused
confusion in the West. For instance, AQIM clearly backed Ansar al Sharia, one
of several al Qaeda or al Qaeda-linked groups responsible for the September 11,
2012 attack in Benghazi. But the U.S. government was initially reluctant to
recognize Ansar al Sharia’s ties to AQIM. Other organizations in Benghazi,
Derna and elsewhere in Libya have been tied to AQIM. And AQIM has a small arm
in Tunisia that is responsible for carrying out attacks.
In 2012, AQIM and its local jihadist allies
took over much of Mali. Their intent was to build an Islamic emirate, or state,
which could one day be part of al Qaeda’s imagined caliphate. They lost their
grip on the country after the French invaded in early 2013. But AQIM has
continued to operate in North and West Africa since then.
The “Group for the Support of Islam and
Muslims” (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM)
JNIM was established in March 2017,
bringing together several al Qaeda groups that were already waging jihad in
Mali and West Africa. JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Tuareg jihadist who has
sworn his fealty to Wadoud and Zawahiri, as well as Taliban emir Akhundzada.
Ghaly formerly led an organization known as
Ansar Dine, which was a crucial part of AQIM’s plan for building an Islamic
state in Mali. Ansar Dine was folded into JNIM upon its founding.
Today, Ghaly’s men are prolific, targeting
local security forces and the French in Mali. JNIM has also built a regional
network stretching into the surrounding countries.
Al Qaeda in Syria
Until 2016, a group known as Jabhat
al-Nusrah was al Qaeda’s official branch in the Levant. Its leader, Abu
Muhammad al-Julani, was publicly loyal to Zawahiri from 2013 to 2016. U.S.
officials referred to it as al Qaeda’s largest arm, with approximately 10,000
fighters, perhaps more.
But in July 2016, Julani announced that his
group was rebranding. In January 2017, Julani’s men merged with several other
groups to form Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an ostensibly independent
organization. In the months that followed, a controversy over the formation of
HTS and Julani’s leadership became heated, leading to fierce infighting. Some
al Qaeda veterans objected to Julani’s moves, claiming that he had broken his
oath of fealty to Zawahiri.
Some factions broke off from HTS. A new
suspected al Qaeda group known as the “Guardians of Religion” was established
earlier this year. According to a recent UN report, al Qaeda’s Iran-based
leaders were responsible for its founding, as they “influenced events in the
Syrian Arab Republic, countering the authority of [HTS’s Julani]…and causing
formations, breakaways and mergers of various Al Qaeda-aligned groups in
Yet, the UN (citing information from its
“Member States”) reported that “HTS and its components still maintain contact
with Al Qaeda leadership.” The UN added that HTS was recently “reinforced by
the arrival of military and explosives experts from al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
The U.N. and the U.S. government still
consider HTS an “affiliate” of al Qaeda. And Turkey, which has offered
protection for HTS in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib, has
designated HTS as a terrorist organization as well, amending its previous
designation of Nusrah to include HTS as an alias for the al Qaeda group.
While there has been a disruption in al
Qaeda’s chain of command in Syria, it is likely that al Qaeda still maintains a
strong cadre of loyalists in the Levant. Even though the situation with HTS is
somewhat murky (HTS claims it is no longer part of al Qaeda), there are
multiple actors inside Syria who are part of al Qaeda’s network and loyal to
Zawahiri. Another prominent jihadist organization in Syria, the Turkistan
Islamic Party, is also part of al Qaeda’s web.
The future of al Qaeda’s presence in Syria
will be determined in the weeks and months to come. The Assad regime, Iran and
Russia are eyeing Idlib province for a possible large-scale invasion. HTS is
the strongest actor in Idlib, and should the jihadists lose their safe haven,
or struggle to defend it, Julani’s authority could be further undermined. In
any event, al Qaeda isn’t dead in Syria – whatever the exact truth regarding
HTS really is.
Al Qaeda Lives
The U.S. and its allies have failed to
defeat al Qaeda. The organization has survived multiple challenges. Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State is not the only Sunni jihadist organization that
has fought for territory. From Afghanistan to West Africa, al Qaeda loyalists
are attempting to build their own caliphate. They consider it long-term
project, with multiple obstacles ahead of them.
As al Qaeda has expanded its geographic
footprint, it has placed most of its resources in various insurgencies and
wars. Al Qaeda’s leadership has also deprioritised professional attacks on the
West. The group hasn’t attempted to carry out a mass casualty attack in the
U.S. or Europe in years.
But that could change at any time. It would
then be up to America’s and Europe’s formidable defenses to stop them.