A fighter from the Al-Nusra Front holds a flag representing the local al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Photo Credit: Rami Al-Sayed, AFP.
Prior to and following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, US intelligence and defense officials sounded the alarm regarding al-Qaeda. They specifically flagged al-Qaeda’s ability to reconstitute its capabilities and conduct an attack on US interests at home or abroad and how an Afghanistan without a US presence would inadvertently facilitate this. In September 2021, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen proclaimed that the intelligence community had identified potential movement of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan following the withdrawal, and estimates of al-Qaeda’s ability to conduct an attack on the United States were as soon as six months following the withdrawal.[i] Given al-Qaeda’s robust global network that existed prior to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the terrorist group will likely capitalize on the withdrawal to revitalize operations against US interests. The withdrawal will act as a catalyst for continued activities by al-Qaeda globally, and it will enable the group to easily bolster its capabilities and expand its influence. The following will highlight the current state of al-Qaeda globally, how the group’s strategy and tactics have enabled them to stay relevant, and finally, how the group will capitalize on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to grow its capabilities.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates span multiple regions across the world, which allows the group to sustain localized operations to potentially attack US interests. Al-Qaeda currently has a presence across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia that is larger than that prior to 9/11, and the two dozen local networks that span these regions comprise approximately 30-40,000 fighters.[ii] Moreover, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Shabab, have conducted attacks in at least five countries over the past five years, including the United States, France, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.[iii] Exacerbating the threat is the group’s affiliation with the Taliban, which has existed since the mid-1990s when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and began allowing al-Qaeda to operate and develop terrorist capabilities in Afghanistan with virtual impunity. This relationship will potentially be exploited post-withdrawal so the latter can continue building up its ability to conduct large-scale attacks. The two groups have maintained close ties since the U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal in March 2020 despite the Taliban’s vow to the United States that it would sever ties with terrorist groups,[iv] and al-Qaeda leaders even participated in the insurgency against the Afghan government prior to the US withdrawal.[v]
Al-Qaeda’s changing tactics and Osama bin Laden’s pervasive ideology have enabled al-Qaeda and its affiliates to maintain relevance and continue localized operations in spite of the decentralized nature of the terrorist organization. Integrating social media has been a key tactical change for al-Qaeda for purposes of communication, radicalization, and spreading propaganda.[vi] Al-Qaeda’s use of the social media platform Rocket Chat since late 2019 has streamlined organizational communication and the diffusion of propaganda.[vii] Al-Qaeda’s servers host hundreds of channels and groups across its various branches, media, and supporters; the content that it disseminates includes official propaganda and instructions for “lone wolves.”[viii] One such “lone wolf” attack occurred in December 2019 when an AQAP-affiliated terrorist, Mohammed Al-Shamrani, killed three US Navy sailors and injured eight others at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. Prior to conducting the attack, Al-Shamrani sent a Tweet echoing Osama Bin Laden’s and Anwar al-Awlaki’s rhetoric, criticizing the U.S. and Israel, and condemning the former for allegedly carrying out crimes against Muslims around the world.[ix]
Al-Qaeda has also shifted to focus on local conflicts and communities, which has been important strategically for the group’s sustainability. Al-Qaeda’s localized strategy that it has adopted since 9/11, whereby it supports the grievances of the local community in which it is residing, has allowed it to survive counter-terrorism efforts by US and other Western forces. Once the indigenous community benefits from a relationship with their respective al-Qaeda branch said community helps ensure the branch’s survival.[x] AQAP, located predominantly in Yemen, has been particularly adept at aligning with the grievances of local communities and tying them into a “wider narrative of persecution, marginalization, and threat” with the U.S. and Israel as the main enemies.[xi] This exploitation of local grievances has helped al-Qaeda recruit members, inspire “lone wolves,” and thereby sustain operations.
Al-Qaeda will probably continue this momentum after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan by exploiting ISIS’s decline in the Middle East and expanding its capabilities and presence within the Middle East and into neighboring regions, such as Europe and South Asia. The decline in ISIS’s power in recent years provides opportunities for al-Qaeda to expand geographically, which it has done, and fill that power vacuum.[xii] Since January 2019, al-Qaeda and its Salafi-Jihadist factions are now the most influential terrorist factions in Idlib province in Syria, a province formerly dominated by ISIS. The strongest faction, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), consists of 12-15,000 fighters; HTS claims to be independent of al-Qaeda, but the United Nations and the U.S. consider it to be associated with al-Qaeda.[xiii] Al-Qaeda may also take advantage of the decreased regional influence of the United States to collaborate with remaining ISIS militants to conduct attacks on the United States and the West. This move has precedent as both groups view the United States and the West as common enemies. In February 2020, The Independent reported that al-Qaeda and ISIS were collaborating in West Africa to take over agreed-upon territory in the Sahel not long after the US government announced that it was considering withdrawing troops from West Africa.[xiv]
With its global reach, improved strategy and tactics, and relatively free rein in the region post-US withdrawal, al-Qaeda is arguably stronger now than it was immediately after 9/11. The United States should acknowledge, if it has not already done so, that managing the threat is more realistic than eradicating it entirely. Bolstering regional partnerships, exploiting intelligence capabilities, and exerting economic pressure on regimes that tacitly support al-Qaeda activities are all plausible steps to ensure that the terrorist group is controlled and incapable of carrying out another 9/11.
[i] “U.S. and Taliban Hold First Talks since Afghanistan Withdrawal,” CBS News (CBS Interactive, October 11, 2021), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/taliban-united-states-talks-afghanistan-withdrawal/.
[ii] Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, “Al-Qaeda: Threat or Anachronism?,” War on the Rocks, March 11, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/03/al-qaeda-threat-or-anachronism/.
[iii] Colin Clarke, “The Pensacola Terrorist Attack: The Enduring Influence of Al-Qa`Ida and Its Affiliates,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, March 25, 2020, https://ctc.usma.edu/pensacola-terrorist-attack-enduring-influence-al-qaida-affiliates/.
[iv] Dan De Luce, Ken Dilanian, and Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Taliban Keep Close Ties with Al Qaeda despite Promise to U.S.,” NBCNews.com (NBCUniversal News Group, February 17, 2021), https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/taliban-keep-close-ties-al-qaeda-despite-promise-u-s-n1258033.
[vi] Colin P Clarke, “How Terrorist Groups Learn: Implications for Al Qaeda,” RAND Corporation, March 14, 2019, https://www.rand.org/blog/2019/03/how-terrorist-groups-learn-implications-for-al-qaeda.html.
[vii] Héni Nsaibia and Rida Lyammouri, “The Digital Transformations of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the Battle against Online Propaganda,” GNET, May 20, 2021, https://gnet-research.org/2021/05/19/the-digital-transformations-of-al-qaeda-and-islamic-state-in-the-battle-against-online-propaganda/.
[ix] Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, “Tweet Purportedly from Gunman in Pensacola Navy Base Shooting Suggests Al Qaeda Inspiration,” CNN (Cable News Network, December 9, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/07/us/pensacola-shooting-gunman-analysis/index.html.
[x] Daniel Green, “The Al-Qaeda of Today Has Changed since 9/11 and the U.S Must Adapt,” The Washington Institute, September 4, 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/al-qaeda-today-has-changed-911-and-us-must-adapt
[xi] Alistair Harris, “Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ”(Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment , 2010).
[xii] Frank Gardner, “Afghanistan Withdrawal Stokes Fears of Al-Qaeda Comeback,” BBC News (BBC, July 6, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-57738731.
[xiii] Zulfiqar Ali, “Syria: Who’s in Control of Idlib?,” BBC News (BBC, February 18, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-45401474.
[xiv] Danielle Paquette and Joby Warrick, “Isis and Al-Qaeda Join Forces in West Africa,” The Independent (Independent Digital News and Media, February 23, 2020), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/isis-al-qaeda-terror-west-africa-mali-burkina-faso-niger-a9353126.html.