Almost Forgotten: The Danger of Al-Qaeda and its Global Affiliates
Since the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rolled over large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014, assessments of the global terror threat have focused disproportionately on the danger posed by the notorious terrorist group. Through dramatic executions broadcast via internet videos, slick propaganda, and attacks by members and lone actors, ISIL grabbed headlines and dared the world to look away. Even after the fiery collapse of ISIL’s physical caliphate, the abovementioned focus persists unmitigated.
As ISIL's seemingly unquenchable thirst for violence pushed politicians and voters to prioritize its defeat over almost all other security goals, Al-Qaeda and its worldwide affiliates flew under the radar and seized on the empty space. With attention elsewhere, Al-Qaeda has studied the ISIL experience, quietly surpassing ISIL's capabilities while capitalizing on widespread backlash to the worst atrocities carried out by the pseudo caliphate.
Statements from U.S. officials and observers have repeatedly stated that while ISIL grabs headlines, Al-Qaeda and affiliates continue to represent a different, perhaps greater, long-term security threat to the United States and its allies. While statements such as these might seem counterintuitive to the casual observer, few should be surprised. Much of the credit for Al-Qaeda’s sustained threat is due to its focus on a unified goal – a slow cultivation of popular support while planning attacks on Western targets and symbols.
With global attention focused on the prospect and reality of ISIL attacks in European and Middle Eastern cities, Al-Qaeda presented itself as a softer alternative, one whose opposition to the "crusaders" was beyond reproach but whose bloodshed would fall elsewhere, to others far away. Affiliates publicly issued statements criticizing unpopular attacks on civilians, while attacking civilians elsewhere. Al-Qaeda condemned ISIL's use of women in attacks (and put forward a more domestic model of the female Al-Qaeda supporters) and publicly released captured U.N. peacekeepers. One theme unifies Al-Qaeda's criticism of ISIL: the latter's wanton violence, especially the targeting of civilians in Syria and Iraq, is a distraction from and damaging to the goal of inflicting damage to America and killing its civilians.
In contrast to ISIL's attempts to portray itself as a state relatively early on, Al-Qaeda branches have remained true to the strategy that has proven successful for them. While paying lip service to ISIL's goal of a self-proclaimed caliphate, Al-Qaeda has repeatedly discouraged followers from doing so too quickly and chastised those who act otherwise. Statements by current Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri have criticized attempts by ISIL to impose their dreamed-of caliphate as premature. Such a state, he says, "is based on consultation and accepted by Muslims," emphasizing the importance of popular support.
Despite this attempt to portray a softer touch, evidence abounds for the sustained threat posed by Al-Qaeda. In Bangladesh, the local arm of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Ansar al-Islam, launched a wave of attacks targeting individuals challenging conservative norms, from atheists to the editor of the country’s first magazine for the LGBT community. AQIS has also launched attacks on security forces across the subcontinent, exploiting operational links with its parent organization and the Taliban.
In Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has exploited the chaos in Yemen’s ongoing war. While holding the strategic city of Mukalla for almost a year, it launched waves of attacks on Yemen’s security forces and orchestrated a jailbreak that freed their second-in-command from prison, setting back years of counterterrorism efforts. Arguably the terror group's most dangerous branch, it was AQAP who trained and unleashed the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Tunisian officials also pointed to a local Al-Qaeda affiliate as the perpetrator of the 2015 Bardo museum attack.
While Al-Qaeda split bitterly with its former Iraq branch (which ultimately became ISIL), it has not been above learning lessons from it. AQIS chief Asim Umar called on his followers to engage in ISIL-like lone wolf attacks in India, a claim echoed by AQAP head Qasim al-Raymi. Al-Qaeda's English-language magazine, Inspire, has also tried exploiting outrage over injustices in the United States, including scenes of police brutality, to recruit disaffected groups and young people, a tactic that echoes ISIL's recruitment efforts in Europe. And in Mali, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) trades explosives know-how with a local ISIL outfit, oblivious to the lines that divided their parents groups in Syria and weakened efforts to overthrow the state there. The work of ISIL and Al-Qaeda affiliates made Mali the most dangerous place in the world for peacekeepers in 2017.
As ISIL has dominated attention in capitals, few are ready for developing situations that will follow its demise. When an aide to AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud was killed earlier this year, it was later revealed that he was on a mission to unify disparate terror factions in Tunisia. Al-Qaeda has also begun recruiting disaffected ISIL fighters. While results have been mixed, the potential damage of Al-Qaeda’s deliberation mixed with ISIL’s destructive theatrics is uncomfortable, but necessary, to imagine.
Counter-ISIL efforts have achieved serious gains and should be commended, but the battle against terror will remain long after the last pockets of ISIL are defeated in Syria and Iraq. While eyes were focused on the horrors in Brussels, Paris, and Istanbul, Al-Qaeda has rebranded, regrouped, and learned – cementing itself a serious long-term security threat to the United States, its interests, and its allies. With lessons learned from the self-proclaimed caliphate's public failures and the terrorist know-how brought by former ISIL fighters, Al-Qaeda may be more dangerous now – and better positioned to deliver on its vision of terror – than at any point in its history. With the world focused on the horrors of the past committed by ISIL, the future for Al-Qaeda might be terrifyingly bright.