It is decentralized and dangerous
The recent crisis in Syria has driven the growth of al-Qaeda groups in that country; in Iraq, al-Qaeda has killed dozens at a time in coordinated car bombings. The broad network of al-Qaeda affiliates now threatens the United States from safe havens across the Middle East and North Africa. But it is far from the same beast that attacked the U.S. in 2001: It has evolved and adapted, and is much more resilient than before.
Twelve years ago, al-Qaeda was on the run. When the U.S. overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda lost its safe haven. Its operatives there fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, and its operatives worldwide had a target on their backs as countries responded to President George W. Bush’s ultimatum that “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” That fight relied heavily on authoritarian regimes to crack down on al-Qaeda-linked cells from Algeria to Egypt to Yemen.
In 2001, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership guided operatives worldwide in their support for local militant Islamist factions. Like-minded groups received support from Osama bin Laden but were not fully integrated into his al-Qaeda network. In the following years, al-Qaeda adapted to increased pressure, especially from the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by further decentralizing its decision-making and operational planning. Bin Laden recognized regional groups that became their own centers of operation but still received overall direction from al-Qaeda’s leadership.
As al-Qaeda was adapting, U.S. counterterrorism strategy was stagnant. The majority of America’s military and intelligence assets focused on degrading the senior al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States’ local partners in the Middle East and North Africa served as the front line against al-Qaeda’s expansion.
American dependence on regional governments was a strategy that worked, until it didn’t. There was little tolerance for al-Qaeda sympathizers under Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. By the mid 2000s, even Moammar Qaddafi had backed away from supporting terrorists. The commitment of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to the fight against al-Qaeda was inconsistent but responsive to international pressure. Bashar Assad cracked down on Islamists in Syria, though al-Qaeda was able to run foreign fighter networks through Syria into Iraq. And the Iraqi government partnered with American military forces to combat al-Qaeda. The successive fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Saleh regimes and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war pulled the rug out from under the U.S. in 2011.
Quick to seize the opportunity but wary of provoking an international response, al-Qaeda renewed its efforts in the region. It benefited from the breakdown within government security forces in these countries and from the slow and confused response of the West. The release or escape of Islamist militants, including former leaders of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, has also been a key factor in al-Qaeda’s expansion. These once-incarcerated terrorists are among the founders of new al-Qaeda-linked groups in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Al-Qaeda no longer relies on its senior leadership in Pakistan for survival. Affiliates — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — established relations among themselves. AQI’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, facilitated the full incorporation of AQIM into the al-Qaeda network. Other relationships were kept covert, including the one between AQAP in Yemen and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab in Somalia. This set of groups is now a robust network extending from the Sahel eastward to South Asia.
At the start of 2011, when the “Arab Spring” took hold, AQAP was already strong: Its core leadership included members of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, former Guantanamo detainees, Afghanistan-training-camp veterans, and tested al-Qaeda operatives. Between 2009, when al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches merged to form AQAP, and 2012, the group attempted three attacks in the U.S. By mid 2011, AQAP fielded an insurgent force that nearly controlled two Yemeni provinces and threatened Yemen’s second-largest city, Aden. It continued to expand northward from there, toward the capital, before local security forces partnering with tribal militias pushed AQAP back into the Yemeni hinterlands.
AQAP threatened American diplomatic posts abroad in August 2013, prompting the unprecedented closure of over 20 embassies and consulates. Nothing happened, but AQAP still maintains the operational capabilities that originally elicited the U.S. response. AQAP’s threat to the U.S. and its interests endures, even as the “Yemen model” — U.S. reliance on local security forces — is held up as an example.
But Yemeni security forces have not eradicated AQAP’s extensive networks within the country. Unresolved political issues in Yemen leave open the possibility of a renewed crisis, which would play into AQAP’s hands. In the meantime, the group has sustained an assassination campaign targeting military and intelligence officials, especially those in Yemen’s already restive south. Though not all of the assassinations can be traced to AQAP (there are other militant groups that could be carrying out attacks), the campaign has killed scores of individuals this year.
AQAP has also played a role in establishing the al-Qaeda-linked Jamal network in Egypt. The former operational head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Mohamed Jamal Abu Ahmed, was released from an Egyptian prison in 2011 and became the key node between the new network and AQAP. Mohamed Jamal knew a handful of AQAP’s Yemeni leaders from his time in Sudan in the 1990s and reached out to them, securing an initial source of funding and the deployment of AQAP militants from Yemen to form the core of his group. Though Mohamed Jamal is again in an Egyptian prison cell, al-Qaeda’s presence has not been erased from Egypt, and there is growing concern about militancy in the Sinai.
In the Sahel, AQIM has recently mounted a terrorist threat. An AQIM-linked attack on a gas facility in southern Algeria killed three Americans in January 2013 and, five months later, a coordinated double bombing targeted a French-run uranium mine in Niger and a Nigerien military barracks.
AQIM has also secured a presence inside Libya. It runs training camps in the southwest of the country and is alleged to have connections to Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi. Ansar al-Sharia, led by a former Guantanamo detainee, operates freely in the Benghazi area. Its training camps are reportedly funneling fighters into Syria.
During and after the 2012 Tuareg uprising, AQIM expanded its network in Mali. The AQIM leaders planned an Islamic emirate: One of its groups, Ansar al-Din, held Gao to the southeast of Timbuktu, and another, MUJWA, held Kidal to the northeast. Ansar al-Din overplayed its hand by marching on the capital, and French troops launched an offensive against the groups in January 2013. A handful of key AQIM leaders were killed, but much of the core group remains dispersed in the Sahel. The French remain embroiled in Mali today, since there is still no Malian, United Nations, or African Union force capable of preventing AQIM’s return in the north.
AQIM’s connections extend beyond the Sahel to Yemen’s AQAP and Egypt’s Jamal network. Correspondence recovered in Timbuktu reveals the exchange of advice between AQAP’s and AQIM’s leaders in the summer of 2012. It was not the first time the two had worked together: In 2010, bin Laden had instructed leaders of both groups to support a centrally directed al-Qaeda plot to attack European targets; AQIM was to fund the operation while AQAP was to conduct it.
Al-Qaeda’s expansion is made much more dangerous by the existence of such relationships. The effect of the Arab Spring, and of bin Laden’s death, has been the strengthening of local al-Qaeda-linked groups and of their relations to one another. Today, each of the affiliates presents a unique threat to American interests.
The addition of the Syrian group Jabhat al-Nusra to the al-Qaeda network is an alarming development, especially given the renewal of AQI’s operational capabilities: AQI (now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is operating at levels similar to those seen in 2007. The Iraqi security forces do not have the necessary intelligence capabilities to conduct operations against AQI as they did when partnered with the U.S. military. AQI has also secured territory in eastern Syria that can serve and has served as a staging ground for attacks. These al-Qaeda groups are the dominant opposition forces in Syria today.
America’s strategy to counter al-Qaeda has failed to prevent its expansion in the region. It is now sharing finances, fighters, and tactics across large geographic areas. Not all members of the al-Qaeda network have announced an intention to attack the United States. Not all will. But the entire network is stronger, including groups with both the intent and the capabilities to kill Americans. The fight against terror, by whatever name, is not over, and we must develop a new strategy to counter the new al-Qaeda.
– Katherine Zimmerman is a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project and the author of the report “The al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy.”