Small Wars Journal

Al-Qaeda – “The Forgotten”

Sun, 07/01/2018 - 12:39pm

Al-Qaeda – “The Forgotten”


Faith Stewart and Andrew Byers


In the age of ISIS and at a time when a new generation barely remembers the debilitating panic and fear caused by the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the organization behind that devastating incident and many others has slipped beneath the world’s radar. There have been moments when al-Qaeda has retaken the headlines, notably when Osama bin Laden was killed and in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, but the world has largely shifted its attention away from al-Qaeda since 2011. Wrongly believing that bin Laden’s demise marked the beginning of the end for al-Qaeda and distracted by the gruesome actions of the Islamic State, the United States and many of its Western allies have all but forgotten about the radical group that revolutionized modern terror.


The death of Osama bin Laden ended one of the longest manhunts in U.S. history and was a satisfying moment for all those who had participated in the decades-long endeavor, but it did not result in the dissolution of al-Qaeda. Unlike many terror groups, al-Qaeda is a many-headed organization, making it capable of surviving even the death of its founder. Further, the organization remains fixated on attacking the “far enemy” (the United States), rather than just targeting “near enemies” (local groups, usually other Muslims), meaning that the United States and its allies must remain actively engaged in preventing the group’s operations against Western targets, despite the successful elimination of bin Laden. Ultimately, al-Qaeda, like the Islamic State, is a product of a larger, global ideological movement—Salafi jihadism—that has been embraced by many Islamic groups around the world.[1] Failure to counter and present alternative and less harmful ideologies to Salafi jihadism will limit the United States’ ability to eradicate extremist organizations and will result in the continued existence and growth of similar groups. Only by considering the growth of al-Qaeda in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, including its current affiliates, can we highlight the enormous threats it continues to pose to global stability.


Al-Qaeda After bin Laden


The death of bin Laden, despite offering cause for celebration in the West, failed to significantly hinder the actions or goals of his terror organization. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second-in-command, took over as the public face of the organization, a leadership shift that left the group’s daily operations and direction mostly unchanged. While bin Laden remained actively involved in the planning and operations of al-Qaeda in the years leading up to his death,[2] it is also widely believed that Zawahiri wielded immense influence over bin Laden while he was alive. Further, Zawahiri had been involved with al-Qaeda since its inception and was in large part responsible for its transition towards the “far enemy,” an ideological transformation that would come to define al-Qaeda.[3] Consequently, Zawahiri’s post-bin Laden leadership did not appreciably alter the group’s larger goals and activities, even as the organization’s hierarchical structure shifted.


However, while Zawahiri’s new leadership role did not modify al-Qaeda’s larger ideologies and goals, the former Egyptian doctor lacked the charisma of the organization’s previous leader. Zawahiri, a jihadist whose involvement in the struggle evolved during his years as part of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and pre-dated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, had never managed to cultivate the same level of commitment, funding, and volunteer numbers as bin Laden. To counter Zawahiri’s lack of charisma, the group has begun to use Osama’s son, Hamza bin Laden, as a propaganda tool to regain some of the organization’s popularity. Al-Qaeda appears to be using Hamza as a familiar name and face to renew the group’s global influence and act as a unifying factor among the organization’s sometimes disparate affiliates. It is likely that Hamza will take on at least a public senior leadership role within al-Qaeda, if not a true leadership position, in order to foster additional popular support.


By the time of bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda had already divided into several subsets and offshoots, taking advantage of the decentralized structure often embraced by terrorist organizations. This decentralized model also mimicked the political structure of Sudan and Afghanistan, both of which contain highly autonomous regions and were at separate times home to al-Qaeda in its early years. These al-Qaeda branches have all pledged allegiance to the central organization, but operate almost entirely independently of the parent, carrying out attacks without the direct influence of al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Shabaab were already regionally active prior to the killing of bin Laden and remained so after his death.


Currently, AQAP, AQIM, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM), al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent, and al-Shabaab are the most active and deadliest of al-Qaeda Central’s branches. These organizations are located primarily in Afghanistan, Northern Africa, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Mali, and Algeria. Further, al-Qaeda Central, led by Zawahiri, has continued to run the larger al-Qaeda organization using a decentralized model, allowing groups that have pledged allegiance to act autonomously, and rarely engaging directly with their day to day activities. Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, recently noted the importance of these affiliates saying, “al-Qa‘ida almost certainly will remain a major actor in global terrorism because of the combined staying power of its five affiliates. The primary threat to U.S. and Western interests from al-Qa‘ida’s global network through 2018 will be in or near affiliates’ operating areas…. Al-Qa‘ida’s affiliates probably will continue to dedicate most of their resources to local activity, including participating in ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, as well as attacking regional actors and populations in other parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.”[4]


Despite considerable recent attention and emphasis on ISIS, thousands of al-Qaeda militants currently reside in the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Central Asia.


Estimates of AQ and Affiliated Groups’ Personnel[5]


Syria                                                                10,000-20,000

Somalia                                                           7,000-9,000

Libya                                                               5,000

Yemen                                                             4,000

Other countries in the Maghreb and Sahel     4,000

Egypt                                                              1,000

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India                    800

Bangladesh and Myanmar                              300

Russia                                                              100


Several elements of note emerge from these statistics. First, the widespread dispersal of al-Qaeda-affiliated personnel is immediately evident; rather than the pre-9/11 force concentrations in Sudan or Afghanistan, al-Qaeda clearly has major interests throughout the greater Middle East, and in areas as far reaching as South Asia and Russia. Second, the principle organizational focus—in terms of numbers of personnel and active operations—is in Syria, Yemen, and Africa (especially Libya and Somalia). These geographic concentrations are not accidental, but rather both products and causes of the violent political conflicts currently ongoing in each of those locales. Al-Qaeda is drawn to areas disrupted by war and seeks to widen and exacerbate the local and regional conflicts as it expands. In this sense, al-Qaeda can be likened to a kind of opportunistic infection, seeking out pre-existing wounds and causing further harm to the health of the patient. Lastly, al-Qaeda’s decentralized organizational structure, relying on regional affiliates for most of its current operations and effectiveness, creates fissures that, at least theoretically, could be exploited. By focusing greater resources against a given affiliate, local governments and counterterror forces, with the aid of the United States and other allies, could achieve major effects; this would be significantly easier than defeating a truly global or transnational organization. The downside of this, however, is that destroying or crippling one of al-Qaeda’s arms would not appreciably affect the rest. Cut off one of al-Qaeda’s heads and, like the mythical Hydra, the rest of the entity will survive, with a new head growing in place of the old.


The decentralized model embraced by al-Qaeda Central also demonstrates that the group remains committed to the idea that the timing is currently wrong for the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate. According to the Quran, while true Muslims must pursue the creation and expansion of an Islamic caliphate, if defeat is certain, the true Muslim is allowed to act within the current system until the situation allows for victory over the infidels. This distinction actually served as the breaking point between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in 2014, with ISIS believing that the Islamic umma (an Arabic word colloquially used to describe the larger community of Muslim peoples) should be formed immediately, and al-Qaeda remaining dedicated to a longer timeline. It is important that the United States and its Western allies understand that the break between al-Qaeda and ISIS did not occur because al-Qaeda did not believe in the creation of the Islamic caliphate and its eventual expansion over the globe. Rather, al-Qaeda’s leadership believed and continues to believe in a longer timeline with the eventual successful creation of a new caliphate. In order to better understand the fundamental aims of al-Qaeda and its network of affiliates, it is necessary to consider their origins.


Al-Qaeda’s Core, Branches, and Affiliates Today


Al-Qaeda Central


Al-Qaeda was originally founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden in the late stages of the Soviet-Afghan War. After gathering Arab volunteers, bin Laden drew attention to the Afghan jihad’s greater potential, and the group discussed the possibility of transforming the Afghan jihad into an Arab jihad. The 1988 meeting concluded with the official formation of the al-Qaeda organization. The small group grew during the several years that bin Laden was in Sudan and had become a fully-fledged organization by the time bin Laden received sanctuary in Afghanistan after being expelled from Sudan. The group quickly allied with the Taliban, allowing al-Qaeda to thrive in Afghanistan’s chaotic political environment. In 1996, bin Laden released a fatwa declaring jihad against the United States and the West and calling for the unification of the Muslim world.[6]


Over the next two decades, al-Qaeda would be responsible for some of the world’s greatest terror attacks including the bombing of the USS Cole, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 9/11 attacks, and the attacks on the Iraqi towns of al-Qataniyah and al-Adaniyah. As a result of the United States’ concerted counterterror operations following the 9/11 attacks, many of al-Qaeda Central’s activities were disrupted and most al-Qaeda-related attacks were carried out by its branches and affiliates. Further, U.S. and allied actions appear to have contributed to the group’s increasing decentralization, a necessary survival response in the face of global efforts to disrupt their activities.


Despite being momentarily hindered by U.S. counterterror efforts in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda Central has survived and remained relevant within the region. The central organization continues to reinforce the group and its affiliates’ dedication to its early goals, including the eventual overthrow of established states throughout the Muslim world and the creation of a new caliphate. In a recent message, Ayman al-Zawahiri returned to these familiar themes, echoing al-Qaeda’s early focus on the “far enemy” (the United States), rather than local conflicts, in which many jihadists are currently engaged. Zawahiri reminded his supporters that Osama bin Laden had identified the United States as the leader of a corrupt international system in direct opposition to Islam, and the “first enemy of the Muslims.” Bin Laden declared that Americans “would not dream of security until [Muslims] actually live in Palestine, and until all the disbelieving armies depart from the land of Muhammad.” The goal, Zawahiri reiterated, is to establish the caliphate.[7]


Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)


AQAP was formed in 2009, the result of a merger between the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of al-Qaeda.[8] This branch, like its parent, is dedicated to the overthrow of the current Yemeni and Saudi governments and hopes to replace them with an Islamic caliphate. The group has taken advantage of the unrest in Yemen, from 2011 to the present, to establish strongholds and allow growth and territorial expansion throughout the region.[9] AQAP has used suicide bombings and airline attacks to carry out its actions against both the Yemen and Saudi Arabian states.


In January 2015, four years after the death of bin Laden, AQAP organized a deadly attack in France against the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people and injuring another eleven. Although the incident at Charlie Hebdo was one of the group’s most widely publicized international attacks, AQAP has conducted regular attacks in the Arabian Peninsula, killing hundreds in the past several years.[10] Although its activity has centered in Yemen, where civil war has created chaos and a difficult counterterror environment, the group has carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia as well.


Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)


AQIM has been active since 2007, primarily in Algeria and surrounding areas, with the goal of overthrowing the Algerian government and installing an Islamic caliphate. In the past several years, AQIM has conducted regular attacks in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia, and Niger, as well as several deadly attacks in Ivory Coast. AQIM has demonstrated a tendency to attack military targets in the region, harming government counterterror efforts, and weakening public support for current political structures. The group has also repeatedly emphasized its focus on European and American targets, stating that such attacks are retaliation for Western intervention in the region. These attacks have focused primarily on French military personnel and civilians. AQIM has also conducted attacks against United Nations peacekeepers in the region, refusing to recognize a distinction between the peacekeepers and other foreign personnel. In the past several years, AQIM has been responsible for hundreds of deaths in North Africa. AQIM has also developed a practice of kidnapping and taking ransom as its primary source of income. AQIM has splintered several times, but each of its factions have remained loyal to al-Qaeda central and Zawahiri.


Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM)


JNIM was formed in 2017 as a merger between the terror groups Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun, and AQIM’s Saharan branch. The group quickly swore allegiance to al-Qaeda Central and Zawahiri, becoming al-Qaeda’s official branch in Mali in March 2017. The Malian group has taken advantage of the state’s instability in order to establish a stronghold and strengthen its position in the region. JNIM has focused its attacks on Malian military personnel, as well as U.N. peacekeepers, demonstrating that it remains committed to al-Qaeda Central’s goal of dislodging current governments in order to install an Islamic regime. In addition to the general disorder associated with a weak central government, Mali has also suffered from ethnic divisions, specifically between the Tuaregs and the Fulani in the Menaka region, which have further hindered counterterror operations against JNIM in the area.[11]


Noting JNIM’s strong position as well as its regional location, Zawahiri has specifically called on the group to shield the Muslim umma from its aggressors. Noting Mali’s historical significance as the “door” to the Arabian Peninsula and the heart of the Muslim community, Zawahiri has described JNIM as a first line of defense against those seeking to harm fledgling caliphates.[12] It is notable that Zawahiri openly referenced the group and its role in protecting al-Qaeda Central and the larger Muslim community, revealing that AQ leadership feels confident in its ability to operate through JNIM in Mali and surrounding states without interference.


In the past two and a half years, JNIM has carried out hundreds of attacks in Mali and bordering regions, killing hundreds and injuring many others. These attacks have been focused in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger and have specifically targeted Malian and French military personnel with IEDs, rockets, mortars, and suicide bombings. Further, the October 4, 2017 attack on U.S. soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger reveals that Americans are also being explicitly targeted in the region.[13] JNIM also actively targets U.N. peacekeepers, resulting in the deaths of more than one hundred peacekeepers during the United Nations’ operations in region and making it the deadliest U.N. mission in the world. Importantly, the October 4 attack, although not the deadliest carried out by the group in the region, raised global awareness about the continued presence of extremists in Africa, countering the common belief that extremism is predominately located in the Middle East. It also heighted U.S. awareness concerning the ongoing fight against terrorism, as last year’s fall attack was the first that many Americans knew of U.S. counterterror operations in West Africa.


Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)


Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was founded in September 2014 after a two-year effort by al-Qaeda Central to consolidate the region’s various Salafi jihadist groups. The group is active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, India, and Kashmir and adheres to al-Qaeda’s doctrine of jihad against the “infidels” in order to oust current governments and form a new caliphate. Although some analysts have argued that AQIS was founded to counter ISIS and keep al-Qaeda relevant to new recruits, AQIS is better understood as part of al-Qaeda Central’s larger strategic plan. As previously indicated, al-Qaeda and Zawahiri have shown themselves to be dedicated to a long-term regional and ultimately global vision, making it likely that Zawahiri created its newest branch with long-range gains in mind.


AQIS was founded to serve two purposes. Its near-term purpose is to maintain al-Qaeda’s influence in Pakistan, allowing al-Qaeda Central to protect its safe havens in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. By establishing a branch with influence in Pakistan, India, and Kashmir, al-Qaeda is indicating that it could be a potential asset to Pakistan’s ISI as the intelligence agency looks to pursue its regional goals.[14] AQIS’ long-term goal is to develop roots in the region where the Ghazwa-e-Hind is believed to be destined to take place. The Ghazwa-e-Hind is predicted in the Hadith (the sayings of Mohammed that have been passed down through oral tradition) and is believed to be an apocalyptic battle that will take place on the Indian subcontinent between Muslims and Hindus. Radical Salafists believe that the battle will result in the final defeat of the Hindus and the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate.[15] Given these two goals, it is likely that Zawahiri did not deviate from his tendencies to be cautious and future-thinking when forming the new group in the subcontinent.


Although AQIS has not yet carried out large-scale attacks, it has claimed responsibility for the murders of several secular activists in the region.[16] Further, within just three days of its founding, the group attempted to overtake a Pakistani frigate, intending to use the frigate to launch missiles at local Pakistani and American targets.[17] It seems evident that AQIS’ smaller scale attacks are the result of its current limited capabilities in India, rather than a lack of large scale goals. The threat of overwhelming retaliation against India’s small Muslim population could also be contributing to the group’s lower profile as it works to develop roots and popular support in the region. It is imperative that the group be analyzed with regard to its strategic importance as an extension of al-Qaeda’s regional and global reach, rather than as a lesser threat based on an apparent lack of major activities.




Al-Shabaab is al-Qaeda’s formal branch in East Africa. The group has been active in Somalia since the 1990s and did not swear allegiance to al-Qaeda and Zawahiri until 2012. Al-Shabaab describes itself as waging wars against the “enemies of Islam” and seeks to overthrow the Somalian government and install an Islamic regime. The group also has roots in Wahabbism and has required strict adherence to sharia in the areas it controls. Though the group has seen factional disputes between nationalist members seeking an Islamic government in Somalia and those who seek a transnational Islamic umma, the current ideology of the group is transnational in nature.[18] The group as a whole intends to establish an Islamic state encompassing Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Further, despite periodic internal fractures, al-Shabaab has remained loyal to the central al-Qaeda organization. In addition, the group’s dedication to the formation of an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa complements the goals of al-Qaeda Central; the formation of such a state would create a friendly environment from which the central organization could begin its efforts to build a global Islamic community.


Since its formal affiliation with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab has conducted some of the deadliest terror attacks in recent history, progressively increasing in violence since its affiliation six years ago. In 2013, al-Shabaab was responsible for the Westgate Mall attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 68 and wounding almost 200 others. This attack served as a startling reminder that al-Qaeda remained operational in the post-bin Laden era and offered a direct look at the growth of the organization since the attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi almost two decades earlier. Two years later, in an attack carried out by just five terrorists, the group killed almost 150 in an assault on Garissa University in Kenya. In 2017, the group killed 300 in Mogadishu in Somalia’s deadliest terror attack. Over the last several decades, the group has killed thousands in the region and demonstrates that al-Qaeda Central and its affiliates remain focused on spreading violence and terror in East Africa.


The Taliban


Although the Taliban is not a formal al-Qaeda affiliate, it would be remiss to examine the activities and impact of al-Qaeda without discussing the Afghanistan-based group. Originally created by Pakistan, the Taliban quickly grew out of its limited role as a Pakistani proxy, and although it remains in contact with the ISI and retains roots in Pakistani madrassas, the Taliban has also developed Islamist partners of its own. The group has a long-standing relationship with al-Qaeda that goes as far back as the Taliban’s initial conquest of Afghanistan and bin Laden’s 1996 arrival in Jalalabad. Although bin Laden did not immediately affiliate himself directly with the Taliban, he quickly recognized the benefit of associating with the group.


The Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recently provided district-level information that details the Taliban presence in Afghanistan. According to this new information, the government of Afghanistan controls only 154 of 398 districts (37% of the country), with control of another 200 districts contested by the Taliban. Further, independent assessment indicates that the Taliban may control another 40 districts.[19] These numbers indicate that the Taliban currently controls or contests at least sixty percent of Afghanistan, providing a safe haven for members of al-Qaeda. Just as official al-Qaeda affiliates seek to destroy existing governments and install Islamic caliphates, the Taliban also looks to overthrow the current Afghan government in order to create a base from which to create a global umma.


The Taliban also conducts terrorist attacks against the Afghan government, targeting its military bases and rejecting foreign intervention. It carries out attacks against Afghan civilian targets in order to undermine the current political system and establish territorial strongholds from which to continue its efforts. Consequently, although the group is not a formal affiliate, its relationship with al-Qaeda and its almost identical goals allow for an association between Taliban activity and al-Qaeda.


Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State


Since its formation in 2014, the world has been preoccupied with ISIS, and al-Qaeda is no exception.[20] It should be noted that an Islamic State/al-Qaeda merger is very unlikely because of a myriad of doctrinal differences, a history of bad blood between the groups, and the current fighting between them in regions like Yemen.[21] Despite the differences between the two groups, al-Qaeda has studied ISIS, learning from its mistakes, implementing its successful strategies, and avoiding those that ultimately led to its downfall. This active study has served to make al-Qaeda all the more dangerous.


It is vital that al-Qaeda’s goals be understood. In 2005, journalist Fouad Hussein provided in-depth information about the future plans of the organization. In his book on the subject, Hussein reveals al-Qaeda’s seven-phase plan, discovered through interviews with a variety of al-Qaeda militants. Each phase is a step in the progression to achieve the ultimate goal: an Islamic caliphate that has won “definitive victory” over the nonbelievers.[22] In a recent message published via social media, Zawahiri can be heard reiterating the same objective, indicating that more than a decade later, the group remains focused on its original goal. This message also sheds light on the early break between ISIS and al-Qaeda, as Zawahiri indirectly mentions ISIS, referring to the group as Kharijites (a reference to an early faction of Islam deemed ideologically deviant).[23]


Despite the ideological rift between ISIS and al-Qaeda, the cause of the rift did not stem from al-Qaeda’s lack of desire to establish a caliphate, but rather from a disagreement over the timing of the founding of the caliphate and who would lead that effort. While Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader and self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, was intent on the immediate formation of an Islamic community, Zawahiri remained focused on a longer-term vision. Al-Qaeda does seek to establish an Islamic caliphate, governed according to sharia, and mirroring the time of Mohammed, but it has also embraced the section of the Quran that creates a provision for true Muslims whose direct engagement with the enemies of the caliphate would result in certain defeat.


This provision in the Quran offers two options if defeat is certain. The first allows Muslims to engage in treaties with the enemy, if doing so protects the Muslim community while it strengthens until it is ready for direct engagement. The second is unconventional war tactics against the enemy, if such tactics protect the Muslim community while it develops into a community strong enough to defeat the enemy. Al-Qaeda and its members have utilized this second option to justify its terror activity against “infidels.” Watching ISIS has merely allowed the group to further justify postponing the establishment of the caliphate, using ISIS’ defeat as an indication that the Muslim community was not yet ready for direct engagement with the enemy. Al-Qaeda hopes that these tactics will eventually allow it to defeat its enemy entirely in order to create the Islamic caliphate. This direct conflict is a matter of “when,” rather than “if,” and failure to understand this has been and will continue to be devastating to the world’s efforts to counter the group’s activity.


The divide between al-Qaeda and ISIS also stems from their divergent applications of takfir, the process by which a Muslim deems another Muslim kafir, or an apostate. Although al-Qaeda has traditionally embraced a strict and extreme definition of takfir, Zawahiri has openly criticized ISIS and its leaders for “exceeding the limits of extremism,” with regard to their application of the process. Significantly, al-Qaeda has its roots at least partially in the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamic theorist. Qutbism emphasizes an extremist interpretation of Islam that adheres to a strict and wide-reaching definition of takfir. The proclamation by Zawahiri reveals an additional meaningful divide between the groups’ ideologies. Zawahiri has also condemned the group for its indiscriminate use of takfir for political and popular gain rather than religious purposes.[24] In contrast, Zawahiri and al-Qaeda hold a more moderate position, relatively speaking, reserving takfir for selected individuals, the governments of Muslim lands and those with whom they collaborate, and adherents of Shi’ism.[25]


In addition to using the ISIS movement and its ultimate failure to reinforce the validity of its long-term global strategy, al-Qaeda has also evaluated ISIS’ actions in order to establish the threshold at which the United States and other Western powers intervene in regional affairs. By establishing the point of American intervention, al-Qaeda has been able to operate just below that level. This has allowed al-Qaeda to conduct smaller, more localized attacks and operations without sparking the United States into counter-action. In examining ISIS’ actions and the ensuing repercussions, al-Qaeda has seemingly understood that the organization can more easily grow and develop without being in the direct sightline of U.S. drone strikes and military interventions.


Al-Qaeda has also used its study of ISIS to focus on better methods of long-range organizational development without being hampered by constant U.S. retaliation. It has been able to capitalize on the world’s preoccupation with ISIS in order to create and strengthen strongholds within the region. Further, it has learned from ISIS’ mistakes and has developed a strategy of gaining the loyalty of local populations rather than killing or subjugating them. This has allowed al-Qaeda to conduct attacks against local government and military personnel with popular support. Additionally, limiting the mass murders committed by al-Qaeda or its affiliates has significantly reduced global focus on the group. Finally, in a nod to the early successes of the Taliban, al-Qaeda has also begun to provide basic necessities to towns and villages that have been devastated by war in order to win civilian favor and support. Consequently, al-Qaeda has developed locally supported strongholds throughout the Middle East and North Africa, largely without alerting the world to its steady resurgence.




While the world has been preoccupied with ISIS and civil wars in Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda has surged ahead, stronger, smarter, and more popularly supported than ever before. The terrorist organization has strongholds throughout the region, and new affiliates and branches are spreading as quickly as they are enumerated. Al-Qaeda’s network conducts near daily attacks in the Middle East and North Africa, with many focusing on areas of specific chaos, including Mali, Yemen, Algeria, and Somalia.


Importantly, al-Qaeda Central, and those who have pledged their allegiance to the parent organization, remain committed to the ultimate goal of using these regional strongholds to create an Islamic umma that imitates the community that existed during the time of the Prophet. Recent statements by Zawahiri, as well as published goals of different branch leaders, demonstrate their standing commitment to this larger goal. Any short term, regionally-based goals are merely stepping stones to the ultimate development of a new Islamic caliphate, and these smaller goals are pursued with the expectation that they will lead to the eventual formation of a new Muslim world order.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, al-Qaeda’s new strategies appear to have been successful. The United States and other Western states remain seemingly passive about the threat that the current organization poses. The United States has recently released a National Security assessment that places states like Russia and China above the threat of terrorist organizations, indicating a renewed focus on state-related threats, potentially to the detriment of efforts against non-state actors. But it is imperative that the U.S. and its allies understand that these affiliates, al-Qaeda Central, and the Taliban have no intention of establishing control over a single state or region or working in peaceful tandem with surrounding states or groups. American officials continue to press groups like the Taliban to negotiate peacefully with the governments of their home states, failing to recognize that the ultimate goal of these organizations is to overthrow the current political systems and install an Islamic regime operating under Islamic law.


Al-Qaeda and its affiliates seek to dissolve borders and modern states in order to establish a global Islamic caliphate, destroying or defeating any who stand in their way. If the United States continues to fail to understand al-Qaeda’s goals, it will be caught off guard when al-Qaeda and its global network of affiliates resume attacks against Western targets. Al-Qaeda represents a powerful brand and a resilient foe; it has not gone away, and will not, for the foreseeable future. It has metastasized and morphed as an organization since the death of Osama bin Laden, but the central group, its many affiliates, and the larger ideology of Salafi jihadism from which they spring, sadly, remain vital and enduring.


End Notes


[1] Katherine Zimmerman, “The Never-Ending War on Terror: Why the U.S. Keeps Fighting the Wrong Battle, “ Foreign Affairs, May 11, 2018,; Sajid Farid Shapoo, “Salafi Jihadism: An Ideological Misnomer,” Small Wars Journal, July 20, 2017,

[2] Charles Hoskinson, “U.S.: Bin Laden was still in charge,” Politico, May 7, 2011,

[3] Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror (New York: Random House, 2002), 104.

[4] Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, “Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” February 13, 2018,

[5] Bruce Hoffman, “Al-Qaeda’s Resurrection,” Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief, March 6, 2018,

[6] Osama bin Laden, “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” August 1996,

[7] Thomas Joscelyn, “As US relocates embassy to Jerusalem, al Qaeda leader condemns international system,” Long War Journal, May 14, 2018,

[8] “Profile: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” BBC News, June 16, 2015,

[9] Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat,” Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, September 2015 (Vol. 8, Issue 9),

[10] “2018 Terrorist Attacks,” “2017 Terrorist Attacks,” and “2016 Terrorist Attacks,” Esri Story Maps,

[11] Caleb Weiss, “Analysis: Conflict within a conflict in Mali’s northern Menaka region,” FDD’S Long War Journal, May 4, 2018,

[12] Thomas Jocelyn, “Zawahiri incites followers in the Maghreb,” FDD’s Long War Journal, March 6, 2018,

[13] Baba Ahmed and Krista Larson, “Jihadist ambush on US forces shows new danger in Sahel region,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2017,

[14] Jordan Olmstead, “The Real Reason al-Qaeda is Establishing an India Branch,” The Diplomat, September 23, 2014,

[15] Husain Haqqani, “Prophecy & Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent,” Hudson Institute, March 27, 2015,

[16] Thomas Jocelyn, “Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent leader says ‘attacks on blasphemers’ ordered by Zawahiri,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 3, 2015,

[17] Syed Shoaib Hasan, Saeed Shah, and Siobhan Gorman, “Al Qaeda Militants Tried to Seize Pakistan Navy Frigate,” The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2014,

[18] Claire Felter, Jonathan Masters, and Mohammed Aly Sergie, “Al-Shabab,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 9, 2018,

[19] Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowski, “Afghan mission releases district-level assessments,” FDD’s Long War Journal, April 13, 2018,

[20] Andrew Byers and Tara Mooney, “Al-Qaeda in the Age of ISIS,” Small Wars Journal, July 24, 2017,

[21] Andrew Byers, “Islamic State Futures,” in Hammer of the Caliphate: The Territorial Demise of the Islamic State, ed. Dave Dilegge and Robert J. Bunker (Small Wars Foundation, 2018), 443-457.

[22] Yassin Musharbash, “What al-Qaida Really Wants,” Spiegel Online, August 12, 2015,

[23] Thomas Joscelyn, “Ayman al Zawahiri discusses al-Qaeda’s goal of building an Islamic emirate in Syria,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 8, 2016,

[24] Lizzie Dearden, “Al-Qaeda leader denounces Isis ‘madness and lies’ as two terrorist groups compete for dominance,” The Independent, January 13, 2017,

[25] Shane Drennan, “Constructing Takfir,” CTC Sentinel, June 2008 (Vol. 1, Issue 7),

Categories: terrorism

About the Author(s)

Faith Stewart is a Middle East analyst with the Counter Extremism Network (

Andrew Byers is a visiting assistant professor of history at Duke University who has served as an intelligence and counterterrorism analyst and is a co-founder of the Counter Extremism Network (