Editor’s Note: To the surprise of many observers, the al-Qaeda core under Ayman al-Zawahiri has not launched a major terrorist attack in the West for years, and the rise of the Islamic State seemed to signal the group’s further decline. Asfandyar Mir of Stanford argues that this lack of focus is a mistake. He contends that al-Qaeda remains resilient and that the group continues to pose a major terrorism threat.
Al-Qaeda has diminished in policy and public debates. U.S. policymakers have shifted their attention to countering an assertive China and a vicious Putin, and in recent intelligence assessments of threats, al-Qaeda has dropped on the priority list. The U.S. public’s concern about the threat of international terrorist groups has declined over the past few years. In addition, there is policy fatigue toward counterterrorism. While many politicians still worry about the electorate’s sensitivity to terrorism by groups like al-Qaeda, they also question the cost of maintaining the fight.
Al-Qaeda’s loss of status in U.S. policy debates and public perception is partly due to the group’s failure to carry out an international terrorist attack in recent years. The last international attack in the West connected to al-Qaeda was the 2015 shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Al-Qaeda expert Daniel Byman has argued that this record indicates the group’s decline, and some see the reported death of Hamza bin Laden—once tipped to succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri—furthering al-Qaeda’s demise. Another factor is that a different jihadi organization, the Islamic State, eclipsed al-Qaeda over the past decade.
The current policy mood and competing national security priorities need calibration with al-Qaeda’s trajectory. Al-Qaeda remains committed to targeting the United States, has improved political control of major factions and rebuilt meaningful capabilities, and now seems poised to take advantage of a permissive strategic environment in Afghanistan. Addressing these strengths will continue to be a challenge for the United States and deserves sustained attention from U.S. policymakers.
Al-Qaeda’s Continued Ambition
Al-Qaeda is relatively weak, but it is politically resolved to continue the fight against the United States. American counterterrorism has seriously degraded al-Qaeda’s global capabilities. It has thwarted plots directed toward the United States and Europe, and prevented discernable expansion in al-Qaeda’s external operations capability. The degradation has resulted from airstrikes and special operations raids, enabled by a vast surveillance regime and intelligence-sharing arrangements.
The targeting, however, has not strained al-Qaeda’s political ambition of fighting the United States. In recent years, under the leadership of Zawahiri, al-Qaeda has not shown signs of moderation or a shift toward other goals. Zawahiri has disseminated video messages regularly, socializing al-Qaeda’s global cadres and supporters in the importance the group places on confronting the United States. According to his 2018 message, the United States remains the “First Enemy of Muslims.”
The continuity of this ambition was not a given. According to Barak Mendelsohn, al-Qaeda’s efforts to branch out with regional franchises had the potential to weaken its resolve through entanglement in local conflicts. In 2016, Zawahiri’s initial talks with al-Qaeda’s then-Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, briefly indicated he might have been ambivalent about al-Qaeda’s political direction. The early success of the Islamic State’s state-building strategy also put pressure on al-Qaeda to consider alternative goals. Since then, Zawahiri’s affirmation of its strategic goal to confront the United States suggests that a U.S.-centered vision has prevailed.
Al-Qaeda’s Political Cohesion
Contrary to expectations that decentralization would erode al-Qaeda’s cohesion and leadership authority, the organization’s global force posture remains largely unified and responds to Zawahiri’s directions. In recent years, its overall trajectory has been toward political consolidation, not fragmentation.
Al-Qaeda retains its unity and appeal in South Asia. Despite efforts by Pakistani intelligence to divide the group, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has not splintered and affirms its loyalty to Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda has also continued attempts to poach Kashmir-focused factions backed by Pakistan. Since 2018, a major faction in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, has aligned itself with al-Qaeda.
After setbacks in Syria, a relatively new faction pledging loyalty to Zawahiri, Hurras al-Din, has now gained strength. In 2016, al-Qaeda’s then-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra defected from Zawahiri and subsequently rebranded as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). But since 2018, Hurras’s expansion through mergers with other jihadi factions has allowed al-Qaeda to resurge. According to one assessment, Hurras is “steadily growing and attracting fighters disillusioned with HTS.”
Al-Qaeda has also consolidated power in North and West Africa. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), based in Algeria, reiterated just last May the primacy of Zawahiri’s directives. And in Mali, al-Qaeda integrated a number of local groups with the formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). Both AQIM and JNIM pledge allegiance to Zawahiri and appear to coordinate regional strategy.
Al-Qaeda’s powerful Somalia branch, al-Shabaab, has emphasized Zawahiri’s leadership in its messaging. In January this year, al-Shabaab and JNIM carried out attacks in Kenya and Mali, respectively, describing the attacks as part of Zawahiri’s campaign of avenging the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Al-Qaeda’s recognized regional branches are constrained, but they are rebuilding patiently. Much of their capability is geared toward local conflicts, but this does not indicate that they are interested only in local fights and not in international terrorism. Since the bin Laden years, al-Qaeda has sought to strike a balance between the two, and there is evidence that the organization is building up toward regional and transnational operations.
For example, the ambitious South Asia branch still hosts some of the main leaders of the movement, including purportedly Zawahiri, while supporting the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency against the U.S. and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan. Under Luqman Khubab, the son of al-Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction expert, Abu Khabab al Masri, al-Qaeda’s South Asia division is rebuilding its chemical, radiological, biological and nuclear cell. In a poem accompanying a propaganda video from Afghanistan, it threatens: “First we will dislodge the enemy from Kabul, then we will conquer London and Washington.”
In Syria, under Hurras, al-Qaeda’s Syria-based supporters are focused on establishing support networks and specialized cells, including for external operations despite competing local priorities. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also appears resilient, notwithstanding some important losses. Its leader, Qassem al-Raymi, has advocated lone-wolf attacks in the United States and operates a wing dedicated to targeting “Western and regional interests.” AQAP also helps al-Shabaab with material resources, including weapons.
An important dimension of al-Qaeda’s capability is its pool of foreign fighters. After the Islamic State declared its caliphate in 2014, the majority of foreign fighters flocked to the new, apparently ascendant group, but this has changed with the Islamic State’s fortunes. According to a July 2019 report by the United Nations, “[The] largest concentrations of active foreign terrorist fighters are in [Syria] and Afghanistan, the majority of whom are aligned with Al-Qaida.” In Syria, there are signs that some of these fighters may be involved in preparations for external operations against the United States and allied interests.
The Favorable Politics of Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s politics are moving in a favorable direction for al-Qaeda. Last night, President Trump appeared to call off peace talks with the Afghan Taliban but has otherwise signaled a strong intent to finalize a peace agreement that will lead to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Much like during the pre-9/11 period, the Afghan Taliban are offering guarantees on preventing the use of Afghan soil for international terrorism, but they appear questionable. For one, the Afghan Taliban are reluctant to denounce al-Qaeda—or even mention its name. Afghan Taliban diplomats have so far been willing to provide generic assurances against international terrorism but not against specific international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
Afghan Taliban leaders have privately assured Afghan civil society leaders that they are ready to break with al-Qaeda. But a close look at the battlefield suggests that parts of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to collaborate. Such coordination exists in eastern and northern Afghanistan. This is consistent with al-Qaeda leadership’s long-standing allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban. In recent months, Zawahiri has reiterated his allegiance to Afghan Taliban chief Maulvi Hibatullah Akhundzada. Al-Qaeda also shows no overt discomfort with the Taliban’s strategy of using peace talks to secure a U.S. withdrawal.
The U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan is likely to energize al-Qaeda’s other allies in the country. Among the largest armed groups in Afghanistan after the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban—and specifically its Mehsud faction—remains committed to supporting al-Qaeda. The Mehsud Taliban hosted al-Qaeda in Waziristan and shares al-Qaeda’s animosity toward the United States, including efforts to target the West. In 2009-2010, it attempted an attack on Times Square in New York and pulled off a complex suicide bombing against a CIA outpost in Afghanistan. The Chinese separatist group East Turkistan Islamic Movement also maintains a robust relationship with al-Qaeda and enjoys salience in al-Qaeda propaganda criticizing China’s repressive crackdown on the Muslim population in Xinjiang.
The U.S. exit from Afghanistan will do more than strengthen al-Qaeda’s allies; it will be an iconic moment for the group, in ways similar to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since 9/11, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been an abiding theme of al-Qaeda’s call for global jihad. In a July 2019 message, Zawahiri emphasized that jihad in Afghanistan is a duty of every Muslim. Afghanistan is also significant to the organization’s theology.
Given this importance, al-Qaeda will frame the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan as a major victory. This may affirm the faith of current supporters while signaling the group’s resilience to fence-sitters. It will provide al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the world with an opportunity to market themselves and rebuild.
Al-Qaeda’s continued ambition of fighting the United States, appreciable political cohesion, and careful rebuilding of capability are not a minor feat, especially in the face of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. With conditions in Afghanistan growing more favorable, it would be a mistake to write off al-Qaeda.