Al-Qaida Is Diminished, but Don’t Write Its Obituary Just Yet

World Politics Review, 19.03.2021
Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D. y director del Soufan Group (consultora de inteligencia y seguridad)

Somali women walk past a destroyed building after a suicide car bomb attack in Mogadishu, Somalia.
(AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

Rumors began swirling last fall that al-Qaida chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri had died of natural causes. With no confirmation, counterterrorism analysts and long-time al-Qaida watchers weighed in with various assessments of what it would mean for the terrorist organization if it had indeed lost its leader. Just last week, al-Qaida’s official media arm, al-Sahab, released a video perhaps intended to quell reports of Zawahiri’s demise, with audio clips of Zawahiri addressing the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. But because those messages failed to reference any specifically current events—his vague comments about Rohingya Muslims could apply to events in Myanmar over the past several years—it fueled further speculation that the septuagenarian terrorist leader was in fact dead.

If Zawahiri is dead, it would be yet another blow to al-Qaida’s dwindling senior leadership, which has steadily diminished over the course of the past several years. Zawahiri’s death would also likely elevate veteran jihadist Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian national who was indicted by the U.S. for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya, to the role of al-Qaida’s emir. But Adel’s continued presence in Iran, where he has been based since roughly 2002 or 2003, poses obvious limitations, since al-Qaida and the Islamic Republic have a relationship that can most accurately be described as antagonistic, even as there have been clear instances of cooperation. Moreover, after it was revealed that al-Qaida’s former presumed leader in waiting, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was assassinated in Tehran by Israeli operatives in August 2019, it does not exactly reinforce confidence that should Adel take the helm, he would be able to maintain proper operational security while living in Iran.

In 2020 alone, several high-profile al-Qaida leaders were killed. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s Qassem al-Rimi, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Abdelmalek Droukdel, Abu Muhsin al-Masri in Afghanistan, and several high-ranking members of al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, Hurras al-Din, were all killed by U.S. drone strikes. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in particular has been hobbled by a successive string of targeted assassinations against its top leadership. Once the most operationally capable of al-Qaida’s franchise groups, AQAP has suffered from “dissensions and desertions” in Yemen, according to a recent report by the United Nations. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate AQAP, as evidenced by the group’s role in facilitating the December 2019 terrorist attack on a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, where a Saudi airman stationed for military training shot and killed three U.S. sailors and wounded eight other Americans.

In stark juxtaposition to years past, al-Qaida only garnered a brief mention in FBI Director Christopher Wray’s recent testimony to Congress on threats facing the U.S. homeland. In his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in early March, Wray concluded that while al-Qaida “maintains its desire for large-scale, spectacular attacks,” due to continued counterterrorism pressure and recent leadership losses, the group is more likely to focus on parochial issues in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, while also “supporting small-scale, readily achievable attacks” in those regions.

Al-Qaida affiliates including Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, or JNIM, in the Maghreb and al-Shabab in Somalia and East Africa have proven stubbornly resilient, maintaining their organizational and operational capabilities, including their ability to recruit and launch sophisticated attacks. If U.S. and other Western militaries continue to draw down forces in sub-Saharan Africa, it could lead to security vacuums that jihadist groups will undoubtedly fill. A terrorist plot foiled in the summer of 2019 led to the arrest of a Kenyan al-Shabab operative, who was planning to hijack an airplane in the United States and crash it into a building, modeled after the 9/11 attacks.

There is somewhat of a divergence within the broader counterterrorism community over how significant of a threat al-Qaida still poses. One of the reasons is that, throughout the Trump administration, it was common for intelligence assessments to be politicized. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was often guilty of this, amplifying al-Qaida’s capabilities when discussing its relationship with Iran, while suggesting that the group was “a shadow of its former self” to justify the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as part of a peace deal with the Taliban. Indeed, the inverse of Pompeo’s framing is probably more accurate. Al-Qaida is in some ways constrained by its continued presence in Iran, while its leadership could be staking the organization’s future on what happens as a result of ongoing negotiations in Afghanistan involving the Afghan government and al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 partner, the Taliban. The Biden administration has acknowledged that the Taliban has not broken with al-Qaida, and a Taliban-led government in Kabul would almost certainly be hospitable for the jihadists as they seek to regroup and rebuild their network throughout South Asia.

The ability of jihadist ideology to inspire homegrown violent extremists in the U.S. has also been diminished in recent years, although propaganda promoted by the Islamic State continues to resonate with European jihadists, as evidenced by a flurry of attacks toward the end of last year. But even these attacks were mostly committed by individuals with no tangible links to established jihadist groups or organizations, including al-Qaida.

In addition to what happens next in Afghanistan, there are a number of other factors that could impact the trajectory of transnational terrorism, including how the relationship between al-Qaida and the Islamic State—and their respective affiliates—develops over the next year. The conflict between these groups is primarily localized, which could affect the dynamics regionally, but are unlikely to spur major developments in the global jihadist milieu writ large.

It is important to differentiate between al-Qaida the organization and the movement it helped spur. Indeed, when referencing the latter—the global jihadist movement—it remains alive and well, driven by many of the same grievances that fueled its rise nearly three decades ago. To some, the al-Qaida core that was led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, is a relic of a bygone time. But it has proven remarkably resilient in the past. Even with al-Qaida suffering and its leadership decimated, it’s too early to write the group’s obituary just yet.

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