Small Wars Journal

The Introspection and Rebuilding of al Qaeda

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 7:11am

The Introspection and Rebuilding of Al Qaeda

Drew McClean

September 11, 2001 is the date that changed how the world perceives Islamist terrorism. The terrorist group responsible for these attacks was Al Qaeda, which was spearheaded by a Saudi national named Osama Bin Laden. On that day, Bin Laden demonstrated that the world’s only superpower is susceptible to attack on home soil, using civilian aircraft to wreak carnage and murder 2,977 innocent people. From that day, it took the United States and her allies almost 10 years to locate and neutralise Bin Laden. During that time however, Al Qaeda was able to establish a global brand that other jihadist militant groups throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia swore allegiance to. Affiliates were established in Iraq, the Maghreb, Arabian Peninsula and recently the Indian Subcontinent, with the latter three still active today. The terrorist group’s planning and activities have subsequently not been confined to one theatre of operations. Al Qaeda has not been significantly weakened since the death of Osama Bin Laden and has been able to continue their jihad due to their belief system. The following will be detailed as to how this has transpired, covering Al Qaeda’s recalibration before and after Bin Laden’s death, the rise of the Islamic State, their current activities, and Bin Laden’s enduring influence within Al Qaeda and amongst aspiring jihadists.

On 9/11, Osama Bin Laden became the world’s most wanted man after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. For the next decade, Bin Laden would be hunted throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a strong emphasis on the tribal region known as Waziristan. Bin Laden saw Al Qaeda as the forefront for the liberation of the Middle East from the “noxious” influence of the United States, and that a holy war was necessary (Stenersen 2017, 175). The 9/11 attacks prompted severe retaliation by the United States and her allies. On October 7, 2001, the War in Afghanistan commenced, dislocating Al Qaeda from their stronghold; forcing them to flee to Waziristan. During their time of hiding and continuous movement, Al Qaeda was able to establish affiliates throughout the Middle East, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent established as recently as September 2014. The ability to create and raise new networks is testament to the adaptability, strategic thinking and long-term goals of Al Qaeda. As Jenkins (2012, 5) demonstrates, Al Qaeda are not on a timeline with restrictions. They view themselves in an everlasting war, started centuries ago that will culminate in what will be deemed Judgement Day. Even with successive setbacks and failures during the past 16 years, Al Qaeda interprets these as part of Allah’s will and communicates their views of past events via propaganda material; trying to rationalise these events to jihadists who may be disheartened. Jenkins (2012, 5) states that Al Qaeda sees the operations themselves as a strategy that will lead to victory, not the outcome of battles. This is evidenced by the United States and allies withdrawing or decreasing troop numbers in various countries, leaving reduced security and a power vacuum, with Iraq being a prime example.

The ferocious rise of the Islamic State, and the impact of their barbaric acts, turned attention away from Al Qaeda. This has enabled the organization to slip back into shadows, and to reassess their strategic options, in light of new factors that have developed in the Middle East. In an effort to exploit the continued turmoil in Syria, Al Qaeda established the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah. Jones (2017, 158) explains that AQ wanted al-Nusrah to conduct activities on their behalf within Syria. However, senior Al Qaeda leaders showed reluctance to publicly associate themselves with the newly established rebel group, due to concerns of possible Western intelligence services focusing their attention on the relationship. Jenkins (2012, 1-2) has also brought to attention how AQ survives, by focusing their efforts on local insurgent movements, slowly building trust before radicalising them. Stenersen (2017, 178) reinforces this viewpoint, by explaining how Al Qaeda does not build from the ground up, instead preferring to connect with local insurgents, and then eventually giving them permission to adopt the Al Qaeda moniker.

Before Bin Laden’s death however, Al Qaeda saw opportunities to expand in the upheaval throughout Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring. New mergers were created in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Mali (Zelin 2017, 5). Al Qaeda seized opportunities to recruit an influx of jihadists from around the world, prioritised their network’s goals, and moved key leaders to new safe havens (Zelin 2017, 3). Within this new area of operations, Al Qaeda was able to recalibrate their tactical goals in order to achieve their strategic one, which is a Pan-Islamic caliphate across the Muslim world. Al Qaeda’s leadership now believes in the hearts and minds strategy within local populations of various countries (Zelin 2017, 6). Zelin elaborates further, explaining that Al Qaeda’s leadership want to establish good relations and educational programs so that they can display logical reasoning behind the reforms they plan to institute in the future (2017, 6). Al Qaeda has reduced their global ambitions since Bin Laden’s death; their goals are narrowly focused on the immediate region they are operating in.

Osama Bin Laden’s death may be viewed as a critical step towards destroying Al Qaeda. However, Bin Laden’s legacy, a man who came from considerable wealth and a comfortable life, to relinquish all of it for a life of jihad, continues to inspire admiration around the globe. Jenkins (2012, 2-3) describes a man whose personal life surpassed the ideology of Al Qaeda that won him legions of admirers and followers, and he was Al Qaeda’s most effective communicator. Bergen (2012, 251) reports that Bin Laden’s ideology has been adopted by Islamist groups around the globe, identifying this as his most poisonous legacy. The author elaborates further, saying Bin Laden effectively communicated a message of Islam under attack by the West that requires vengeance. The idolatry of Bin Laden has ensured continued recruitment for Al Qaeda’s affiliates. Another recruitment tool for Al Qaeda is Bin Laden’s son, Hamza Bin Laden, who as recently as May 2017, called for Muslims to carry out attacks (Zelin 2017, 6). A family link can be used to great effect, as potential recruits could possibly feel a connection to Bin Laden, through his lineage.

The final reason that Al Qaeda has successfully continued operations, without Bin Laden, for the past 6 years is their theocratic view of the world. Religious terrorist groups are more likely to survive various afflictions due to their spirituality-based teachings, which are considered sacred (Jones and Libicki 2008, 16). For religious terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, their centre of gravity is the teachings of Islam. Whilst Bin Laden was the spiritual leader, Al Qaeda’s convictions are deeply held and rooted within their interpretation of the teachings of Islam, and as such Al Qaeda will continue, as these convictions are not reliant on a leader. Ayman al-Zawahiri stated after Bin Laden’s death:

The strength of Al Qaeda, however, is derived from the message it spreads to the ummah and the downtrodden all around the globe. It spreads a message calling on them to revolt against the world order of tyranny, the international arrogance, and the global robbery (Jones 2017, 133).

In conclusion, Al Qaeda has not been significantly weakened since the death of Osama Bin Laden and has been able to continue their jihad due to their belief system. Al Qaeda did suffer from mounted pressure to demonstrate that the death of their spiritual leader would result in extreme retribution for the United States. But as stated earlier, Al Qaeda is strategic and is not on a timeline. Since their founding in 1988, Al Qaeda have been able to adapt to a rapidly evolving world. The technological advancement of Western telecommunications, surveillance equipment, weaponry and drones has forced Al Qaeda to change their tactics, techniques and procedures. Yet within this time frame, Al Qaeda has managed to establish several affiliates, inspire numerous terrorist attacks and has kept Western intelligence agencies on high alert. The fall of the Islamic State verifies Al Qaeda’s long-term strategy of patience and subversion rather than the Islamic State’s ruthless seizure of areas and violently enforced rules. Most importantly, Al Qaeda has demonstrated that even the death of Osama Bin Laden will not derail or end their jihad with their enemies. With the demise of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda will once again be at the forefront of global Islamist terrorism.


Bergen, Peter L. 2012. Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad – The ten year search for Osama Bin Laden, 250-251. London: The Bodley Head.

Jenkins, Brian Michael. 2012. Al Qaeda in its third decade: Irreversible decline or imminent victory?, 1-6. Vol. OP-362-RC. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Jones, Seth G. 2017. Waging Insurgent Warfare. Lessons From The Vietcong To The Islamic State. Corby: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Seth G., and Martin C. Libicki. 2008. How terrorist groups end: Lessons for countering al Qaeda, 9-44. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Stenersen, Anne. 2017. Al-Qaida In Afghanistan, 175-179. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zelin, Aaron Y. 2017. How Al Qaeda survived drones, uprisings, and the Islamic State, 1-7. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


About the Author(s)

Drew McClean is an infantry soldier in the Australian Army. He is currently studying a BA majoring in Security, Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Murdoch University in Perth, WA.