The Once and Future Threat: Al-Qaeda Is Hardly Dead

Is al-Qaeda really on the run? Since the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Obama administration has actively promoted the narrative that it has gained the upper hand in its struggle with the world’s most dangerous terrorist group. The president himself, as well as a variety of other US officials, has insisted time and again that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on a “path to defeat.” But reports of the terror group’s death, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. Although it suffered considerable operational setbacks over the past decade, al-Qaeda has proven both adaptive and resilient. Today, its two principal offshoots pose growing challenges to stability in North Africa and the southern Persian Gulf. The changing organization now sees growth opportunities in the deepening civil war in Syria, growing disorder in post–Saddam Hussein Iraq, lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula, and the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In all of these hot spots it is looking to expand its franchises and threaten US interests. Moreover, as a result of America’s progressive disengagement from the Middle East and North Africa, al-Qaeda is poised to discover still greater room for maneuver in the years ahead.


The most important fact about al-Qaeda is that it is an evolving organization, far different from the one that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. The years since then have seen its forces significantly eroded in Afghanistan, where coalition operations succeeded in whittling away at the core group of militants that made up what can be called al-Qaeda “central.” In the summer of 2010, then CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated there were just fifty to one hundred al-Qaeda fighters in the group’s country of origin. A similar number was reported to be operating in Afghanistan by a coalition general last year.

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But al-Qaeda’s decline there has been accompanied by the rise of its various affiliates and franchises elsewhere, and by an expansion of its ideological reach. As Robert Godec, the State Department’s principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, put it in 2010, “while [core] al-Qaeda is now struggling in some areas, the threat it poses is becoming more widely distributed, more geographically diverse.” This shift, say terrorism experts Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman, “is enhanced by jihadis’ inability to coordinate closely, which likely limits their ability to achieve ultimate policy goals, but also complicates the processes to combat the movement writ large.”

Al-Qaeda, in short, has metamorphosed, developing from a single hierarchical terrorist organization into a network of affiliated but largely autonomous groups, operating from North Africa to Southeast Asia. In this new incarnation, “al-Qaeda” has shown itself capable of striking throughout their respective communities, into Europe, and even inside the United States.

Currently, the organizational affiliate with greatest capacity for engaging in concerted terror actions is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group is the result of a merger of al-Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni franchises that took place in January 2009. Like the larger bin Laden network, AQAP is committed to the elimination of “apostate” governments and their replacement with righteous fundamentalist Islamic regimes. In practice, however, AQAP has exhibited a persistent local focus, and has emerged as a major threat to the stability of the Yemeni government.

Yemen’s government put the group’s strength at some two hundred to three hundred members in 2010, but AQAP has grown in both size and scope since then. According to the US State Department, the group now “is estimated to have close to one thousand members.” The organization, which boasts a rather loose structure and informal chain of command, is funded primarily “from robberies and kidnap for ransom operations, and to a lesser degree donations from like-minded supporters.”

Aside from several strikes on Western diplomats at its inception, AQAP has mostly devoted its efforts to local objectives. It has become a major threat to the Yemeni government, waging a persistent struggle against authorities in Sanaa, the capital, with considerable success. For example, an AQAP suicide attack aimed at the Yemeni military in May 2012 killed more than ninety soldiers during a parade there. In 2011–12, AQAP succeeded in gaining control of large swaths of territory in southern Yemen. This prompted a major response from the Yemeni government, forcing the organization to beat a strategic retreat from Abyan Province. Nevertheless, the group remains resilient and entrenched in various parts of the Yemeni state. More significantly, say Andrew Michaels and Sakhr Ayyash, it appears to have “reverted to its pre-2011 strategy, which privileged operations space over any aspiration of governance.”

Likewise prominent among al-Qaeda’s regional franchises is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This branch formed in September 2006, when Algeria’s radical Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) formally joined forces with the bin Laden network. With the merger, the organization’s focus—which, as the GSPC, had been dedicated to the overthrow of the Bouteflika regime in Algeria—became broader and regional in scope. The organization now “has aspirations of overthrowing ‘apostate’ African regimes and creating an Islamic Caliphate,” according to the State Department. The organization is currently headed by Abdelmalek Droukdel, its founder and a veteran of the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

While accurate troop strength is difficult to ascertain, as of 2010 it was estimated that the group possessed roughly three hundred to four hundred members. Currently, AQIM operates in Niger and Mauritania, and is strongly suspected of having influence in Libya. In Mali, it has assumed a significant role in the bolstering of aligned Islamist groups, such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujwa, in their efforts to establish a new, Islamist-leaning government in Bamako. It likewise maintains activities, albeit of a more limited scope than its predecessor, the GSPC, in Algeria. But AQIM’s focus has shifted southward, toward the continent’s largely lawless Sahel region.

The group has also demonstrated both the ability and the willingness to collaborate with other regional radical forces, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, and assorted Malian Islamists. In recent years, AQIM has grown to global notoriety for its high-profile kidnappings of European hostages. While AQIM is not currently thought to pose a major threat to the US homeland, it is a real danger to Europe, and suspected AQIM activists have been arrested in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Britain. Droukdel has declared France to be the organization’s main target in this regard.

Ideologically, meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s organizational transformation has reflected a shift in strategic thinking. Setbacks for the organization over the past decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted the emergence of a new generation of jihadist thinkers. The most prominent among these has been Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian-born Islamist whose manifesto, Call to Global Islamic Jihad, published online in 2005, entailed the first significant reconception of al-Qaeda strategy following the attacks of September 11th. In it, Suri counseled, inter alia, the abandonment of large-scale strategic attacks in favor of “individual jihad” by lone-wolf terrorists and small, atomized cells whose thinking and operations are in line with al-Qaeda’s vision.

To a large extent, Suri’s ideas have helped animate the strategy of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in recent years. So have changes to the operational environment in the network’s core regions of activity: the Middle East and North Africa.


The greater Middle East has experienced major, sustained systemic change over the past several years—change that has been largely driven by three interrelated events. The first was the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011, which led to significant political upheaval and the rise of Islamist political parties across broad swaths of the Middle East and North Africa. The second was the 2013 US withdrawal from Iraq, the result of years of gradual disengagement in Washington. This withdrawal removed the stabilizing political and strategic presence of the US-led coalition from the territory of the former Baathist state, thereby facilitating the resurgence of sectarian forces. The third was the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011—a conflict that, more than three years later, has transformed the country into a cockpit of international jihad in the absence of any other guiding force. Each of these dynamics has afforded new strategic opportunities for the bin Laden network.

The start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in December 2010 began a chain reaction that opened the door to the political ascendance of Islamist forces throughout the Middle East and North Africa when mass street protests threatened to unseat several entrenched dictatorships. Ironically, it was often secular youth movements—not Islamists—that were at the forefront of the Arab Spring protest movements. However, thanks to decades of severe political repression, Islamist movements in most cases proved the only sociopolitical force with the organization, mass appeal, and entrenched patronage networks to capitalize during hasty transitions to democracy.

In some of these countries, most prominently Egypt, these movements succeeded in overthrowing or transforming the nature of government and assuming leadership roles in governing structures. In others, including Jordan and Morocco, Islamist forces gained in both prominence and political power, but continued to work within the parameters of the existing political system. Common to all of these shifts, however, has been the creation of a more hospitable regional ecosystem for Islamic radicalism—one that the bin Laden network has been quick to exploit.

In Iraq, meanwhile, al-Qaeda has staged a notable comeback. After suffering significant setbacks during the course of the Iraq War, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq) is now experiencing a resurgence of both activity and influence, especially in the wake of the US departure. The group had suffered a catastrophic collapse in popular support as a result of the brutal policies of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Against al-Qaeda’s instructions, Zarqawi made a policy of targeting local Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq deemed to be at variance with his exclusionary interpretation of Islam. The backlash helped to form and sustain the so-called “Sunni Awakening” that served as a critical complement to the Bush administration’s successful “surge” of forces into Iraq in 2007.

Today, however, AQI enjoys renewed relevance. With between one thousand and two thousand members, it is now “the largest Sunni extremist group in Iraq,” according to US government assessments. It also has found new roles on two fronts. At home, the organization carried out a coordinated series of bombings, attacks, and jailbreaks beginning in mid-2012, spearheading an uptick in violence and instability in post-coalition Iraq. Meanwhile, next door in Syria, AQI has assumed a significant role as part of the constellation of opposition forces arrayed against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

This brings us to Syria. Now more than three years old, the civil war there shows no signs of abating. Since March 2011, Assad has waged a violent, bloody war of attrition against his own people. The human toll has been horrific; as of this writing, some one hundred and forty thousand Syrian civilians are estimated to have been killed in the fighting, and nine million others—more than a third of the country’s total population of twenty-three million—have been displaced either internally or abroad.

Equally profound, however, has been the evolution of the conflict itself. Syria’s opposition remains fragmented and incredibly diverse, but has steadily assumed an increasingly Islamist character with the intrusion of al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadists onto the Syrian battlefield. Significantly, the Syrian “front” appears to have become a focal point for global jihad, drawing militants from North Africa, Europe, and elsewhere into the fighting.

Al-Qaeda has played an important role in the conflict, working through both the Nusra Front, an indigenous Syrian Islamist group, and through its long-standing affiliate in neighboring Iraq. This has not been without its complications; as of April 2013, the two organizations were rumored to have merged into one unitary entity, but infighting over leadership prompted al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri to demand a tactical divorce between the two organizations shortly thereafter. Since then, factional infighting has dominated Syria’s jihadist camp, as various groups jockey for relevance and position. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda is believed by US intelligence officials to retain a significant political and operational presence on the Syrian front.


Despite all of this, al-Qaeda’s strategic horizons are poised to expand further still. In the rapidly changing political environment of the Middle East and North Africa, a number of emerging theaters now afford the organization new opportunities to expand its strategic reach and disseminate its ideological message.

One such theater can be found in the Sinai, the swath of desert separating Egypt from Israel. For more than three decades, the area—demilitarized as part of the “cold peace” concluded between Cairo and Jerusalem at Camp David in 1978—served as a critical strategic buffer for both countries. But the ouster of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 loosened Cairo’s control on the region, leaving it increasingly lawless and ungoverned and transforming it into a haven for criminals. Islamic radicals gravitated there as well; as early as May 2011, Egyptian military officials were warning that hundreds of al-Qaeda members had made their way to the peninsula, creating a real threat to both Egyptian and Israeli security. Shortly thereafter, a group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula carried out a series of bombings against the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline and participated in the bloody August ambush of a tourist bus outside the southern Israeli city of Eilat. This was followed by the emergence of a second jihadist outfit—this one dubbed Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula—pledging allegiance to the al-Qaeda creed.

Since the summer of 2013, the situation has deteriorated still further. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood–dominated government of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, and its replacement with a military junta, has intensified Islamist activity in the Sinai, and led to the growth of a new jihadist grouping affiliated with the bin Laden network. This organization, dubbed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (or Ansar Jerusalem), appears to be an umbrella group unifying the peninsula’s disparate Islamist factions under a common banner. In recent months, it has carried out a number of notable attacks, including the attempted assassination of Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in September 2013 and the successful January 2014 bombing of the central police station in Cairo. And while the Egyptian military has intensified its counterterrorism operations in the Sinai in recent months, informed observers say the efficacy of this hard-power campaign is uncertain—and that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis remains an operational threat to both Israel and Egypt.

Another emerging front for al-Qaeda is Afghanistan. The country that served as the War on Terror’s first battleground was once viewed by President Obama as the “good war,” a view manifested in his administration’s 2009 announcement of a surge of US forces to help stabilize Afghanistan. But difficulties in securing the peace thereafter progressively soured the Obama White House on the prospects of victory, culminating in a June 2011 decision to begin withdrawal—with late 2014 set as the final departure date for US forces. The American decision has become a coalition-wide one, with NATO members similarly planning a removal of their respective contingents from the country on or before the end of America’s presence there.

The impending departure of the US-led coalition has substantially reconfigured Afghan security, and given rise to both local and international worries of a Taliban resurgence. The Obama administration has attempted to mitigate these concerns through the conclusion of a status of forces agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul that would permit at least a minimal sustained US military presence. But intransigence on the part of the Afghan government has complicated these negotiations, and given rise to a number of alternative basing scenarios—including a sustained flirtation with a “zero option” that would effectively leave no US combat troops in the Afghan theater.

In large part as a result of this uncertainty, the dominant consensus in the region—as articulated by both US experts and Central Asian observers—is that the end of coalition operations will be followed by the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a rising tide of Islamist activity in the surrounding “post-Soviet space” writ large. By virtue of its long-standing ties to the Taliban, as well as its contacts with regional Islamist factions such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda can be expected to benefit from this change, and exhibit a growing presence in Afghanistan and its immediate periphery following the coalition’s departure.


Belatedly, US policymakers have begun to acknowledge that the struggle against al-Qaeda is still far from over. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama took a more nuanced stance than he had previously, saying the danger from al-Qaeda remains and noting that “the threat has evolved as al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world.”

Others, including the Obama administration’s own top intelligence officials, have put the situation in considerably starker terms. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee this February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper responded in the negative when asked by lawmakers if he thought al-Qaeda was “on the run.” “No,” Clapper said. “It is morphing . . . and franchising itself, and not only here but in other parts of the world.”

Al-Qaeda, in other words, is still very much alive and kicking. Worse still, its scope and salience are being expanded by the foreign policy choices of the Obama administration.

Those choices were laid out by National Security Adviser Susan Rice in an October 2013 interview with the New York Times. In it, Rice outlined a “more modest” policy toward the Middle East, encapsulating what are essentially three priorities. The first of these is the brokerage of an elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a project that has consumed the attention of Secretary of State John Kerry for more than half a year. The second is the dismantlement of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, pursuant to a Fall 2013 deal brokered by the Russian government. The third and final priority is to attain a diplomatic solution to the long-standing crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions—a priority that sparked a protracted negotiating track between Iran and the P5+1 powers (the US, Great Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany), an effort that, as of this writing, has proven a considerable boon to the Islamic Republic’s faltering economy.

Guided by these limited policy priorities, the Obama administration has progressively disengaged from playing an active role in the regional security of the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, it has failed to devise a strategy to help stabilize the emerging strategic theaters now being explored by the bin Laden network and its affiliates. And because it has not, the same administration that not long ago proclaimed victory in the War on Terror now risks empowering a global comeback for one of America’s key adversaries in it.

Ilan Berman is the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, in Washington, and co-editor of the council’s ongoing World Almanac of Islamism project, from which come many of the findings in this article.

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