For a long time, al-Qaeda has been the world’s biggest terrorist threat. It was responsible for a series of high-profile events in the 1990s, most notably the attacks on the WTC (1993), the Chóbar Towers (1996), or the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998). The success of the global jihad practiced by the group derived from the very broad membership of the terrorist network and the considerable financial resources which its founder – Osama bin Laden, was endowed with. After the 9/11 attacks which completely changed the shape of the security environment, al-Qaeda reaches its peak of notoriety among other jihadist factions.
Nevertheless, almost 19 years after 9/11, the terrorist organization al-Qaeda is only a shadow of the feared global terrorist network it once was. The main command of the group known as Al-Qaeda Central (also “al-Qaeda Central Faction” or “al-Qaeda Core” – AQC) has lagged behind the US-led counterterrorist campaign following these attacks, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other events in the region of the Middle East such as Arab spring. The position and attractiveness of the group were greatly reduced due to these external aspects and groups itself was far less dangerous than it was. In addition, the group was pushed out of several important territories in Afghanistan, and nowadays, its remaining members hide in the mountains on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban has given it a refuge. However, the organization as such was by no means defeated, and, conversely, there are indications that the group is quietly and patiently rebuilding and preparing new attacks in the West .
Following text describes how the strategic position of al-Qaeda Central has developed in the last few years, and shows how its influence and character have changed in comparison with other jihadist movements. Article discusses operational capabilities and future opportunities for the group itself as well.
The essential aspects of al-Qaeda’s survival
First of all, it is necessary to outline the main features of the continued existence of the organization as such. What still keeps the whole al-Qaeda alive is a strong ideological background, which will likely continue for a long time. Successful propaganda creates similarly ideologically oriented terrorist networks that pledge (as in the case of ISIS) loyalty to the central group of al-Qaeda. These armed groups, for instance, several rebel movements in West Africa and the Arabian Peninsula enjoy not only ideological but also significant financial backup. An important factor in the group’s „ideological invincibility“ is also the popularity of the globally established al-Qaeda brand which, in principle, can be adopted by any extremist group in the world . Sufficient funding is another key aspect of the survival of the group, which continues to benefit from a sophisticated network of individual providers or from illegal trade .
The importance and sovereign position of al-Qaeda among other jihadist movements have also long been closely linked to its prominent leader – Osama bin Laden. He was able to unite the devotees of the extreme interpretation of Islam throughout the world and became a symbol of world jihad for them. However, after his death in May 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri took up his post, abandoning the group’s original focus on offensive jihad as in the past. At this level, there was a strategic shift in the group’s paradigm, drawing attention to a much greater extent on the support of its affiliated organizations rather than own operational capabilities .
The paradigm shift evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy
Before proceeding to the analysis of the status of central al-Qaeda, it is necessary to take a closer look at the changeover in the strategy of the entire organization. As already outlined, after the elimination of bin Laden, the new al-Qaeda leadership adopted a new strategy to adapt to the changing environment in which it operated. Although the group’s main mission as such has not changed – to attack Western targets, key efforts have begun to focus on more limited strategic objectives. This became the support of regional jihadist groups that swore allegiance to al-Qaeda Central. In other words, there was a shift of major operational capabilities to localism and incrementalism. This transition in strategic direction has been called “controlled pragmatism” and “strategic patience” meaning that al-Qaeda is patiently taking gradual steps to rebuild and regain strong support. Pragmatically, the group was then replaced by the Islamic State as the number one jihadist group, resulting in a lesser burden of Western counter-terrorism operations against it. .
This transformation in the group’s strategy would not be possible without its flexible organizational structure, the details of which were gradually revealed after 9/11. Based on a free, decentralized, and easily renewable structure, al-Qaeda can be characterized as a new-generation transnational network. This essentially allowed the group to survive the difficult times when it was under the scrutiny of Western intelligence and counter-terrorism actions .
However, inspiring or supporting local extremist factions is not a new phenomenon, the group was based on the principle of „terrorist franchise“ that uses a wide range of subsidiaries, and has functioned this way for almost its entire existence .* In any case, the concentration on its autonomous organizations has intensified in recent years, as evidenced by the growing number of attacks in the name of al-Qaeda (see next chapters). This reorientation then led to a change from the original main strategic goal – the own establishment of purely Muslim states with a strict interpretation of Islam, to support affiliated organizations to achieve it, including the ongoing fight against the West. In addition to these core goals, it is in the interest of al-Qaeda Central to create suitable conditions for „safe havens“ and training camps for jihadists from around the world .
Several analysts  agree the real threat of terrorism no longer comes directly from al-Qaeda’s central leadership, but from groups inspired or directly supported by this extremist organization. Orientation to other jihadist movements in unstable regions in the Middle East (Syria, Yemen) and other parts of the world (West Africa, Somalia, Southeast Asia) has become the current domain of al-Qaeda´s strategic focus. The movement Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra) in northern Syria, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabaab in Somalia or jihadist groups associated under al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have long emerged as the strongest branches of current al-Qaeda and major players in local conflicts. The process of affiliation to al-Qaeda is changing the targeting of local groups, expanding their regional operations, and increasing their chances of achieving international goals in local and regional theaters .
Nevertheless, al-Qaeda Central in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be left out. Especially in Pakistan, the group was able to rebuild jihad which is both local and global. Security experts warn there is little information about the group and therefore little knowledge of its operational capabilities . This issue is analyzed in the next chapter.
For better conception and understanding of the topic, the following map shows major al-Qaeda affiliates. The estimated number of members is valid as of 2018. The map represents al-Qaeda has the most adherents in Syria, which has generally become a jihadist seedbed within the ongoing civil war.
In ideological terms, the group has not changed significantly, as evidenced by Zawahiri’s statement of 2017 entitled „One Umma, One War on Multiple Fronts“, highlighting the original basic ideology of Al Qaeda and calling on all Muslims to engage in jihad against the United States and their allies . However, this initiative has largely been taken up by ISIS, which has become the main jihadist movement since at least 2014, when it established its caliphate in Syria and Iraq. From this point of view, al-Qaeda still plays a rather secondary role .
The current position of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan
In this part of the text, attention is already paid to the core al-Qaeda, which currently operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to available reports, al-Qaeda is very deeply rooted in Afghanistan, despite severe weighty defeats since 2001. What is evident is that the regional terrorist threat embodied in part by al-Qaeda is closely linked to the overall security situation in Afghanistan or its spill-over into neighboring Pakistan. The group is, therefore, able to use all the security gaps in the region to regain more influence there. Moreover, after the withdrawal of some international forces from Afghanistan, new opportunities have arisen for al-Qaeda .
The actual existence of the group would then not be possible without a show of loyalty to the Taliban movement which provided it with a safe haven. Genuine cooperation between these extremist organizations, even after a series of successful counter-terrorism operations, raises strong concerns. Although al-Qaeda has never become a part of the Taliban’s leadership, their relationships can be portrayed without exaggeration as al-Qaeda is “the skin of the Taliban” concerning very similar mutual interests or ideology. However, one of their different features is the strategic goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the Taliban is still striving for establishing an Islamic Emirate, in the case of al-Qaeda, as already mentioned, the main effort is to stabilize and strengthen its position through the recruitment and training of new members. A refuge in areas under control by the Taliban allows the AQC to do all this, including planning further attacks against the United States and its allies . Although there have been indications it has relocated its base to Syria where its affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has gained extraordinary popularity among the jihadists, it is evident that relative safety of Afghanistan and Pakistan is the best option for the leadership to reinforce its influence .
Besides, in September 2014, al-Qaeda leader az-Zawahiri publicly announced the establishment of a new branch on the Indian subcontinent (AQIS) which became “an extended arm” of the central leadership operations. In fact, this meant the central al-Qaeda was refocusing on supporting jihadists in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and parts of India and Kashmir. Nonetheless, the branch’s operational capabilities remain limited to this day. At present, it seems likely al-Qaeda’s leadership is trying to unite all its supporters within the South Asian jihad under one common organization .
In recent years, al-Qaeda has become more involved in the strategic and operational support of sympathizers on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, where it has contributed to several attacks on state authorities or security forces. Cooperation with the movement Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has significantly helped al-Qaeda to establish itself in Pakistan, or the so-called Haqqani Network, which brings together insurgents in Afghanistan, has also given al-Qaeda greater maneuverability and strengthened its strategic and tactical support in the region . Another strong al-Qaeda ally contributing to its strategic goals in South Asia is the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) movement, which some reports referred to as „next al-Qaeda“ a few years ago. This group has become important to al-Qaeda for technological sophistication, broad global recruitment, or an advanced financial network . By merging with several ideologically similar groups, al-Qaeda is gaining more influence, and the situation in the region is worsening due to the growth of various established networks. Although the total number of supporters within al-Qaeda is not known, it can be estimated there are many thousands together with all the allies in the region . It also cannot be overlooked that after many years of living in this region, some Al-Qaeda commanders are married to local women and therefore, have close family ties with the locals .
The operational capabilities of al-Qaeda Central
Al-Qaeda Central’s operational capabilities remain a major question mark today. Even after bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda Central is still considered as the brain of all operations and the primary base of the ideological support for its branches. Al-Qaeda Central, directly linked to the command led by az-Zawahiri and the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), continues to sanctify the attacks carried out on behalf of al-Qaeda. In this respect, terrorism in the name of al-Qaeda is still very strong and many affiliated groups seem clearly robust. However, it is difficult to determine to what extent the central leadership has a real share in the attacks of all affiliated organizations in different regions of the world. On the contrary, in recent years, the branches of al-Qaeda have been shown a high degree of autonomy in terms of operational capability. Therefore, these attacks are believed to take place independently of the actual leadership of al-Qaeda Central.
If we measure the operational capabilities of AQC in terms of the number of terrorist attacks carried out by the group, it can be described as almost defunct given the low number of such actions. The Global Terrorism Index (GTD), a recognized database of terrorist attacks, has not even recorded any attacks by AQC in the last five years (but until 2018 only). In addition, the group itself has not carried out any major attacks in the West for more than a decade. On the contrary, the number of attacks may not indicate the overall military strength of the organization .
Al-Qaeda’s operations can currently be divided into three types of attacks. Most often, which is not surprising given the above, these are attacks by local radicals inspired by al-Qaeda propaganda, but not directly controlled by the leadership. Secondly, there are remote attacks run by operatives in the West who use its networks, including social media, to plan and carry out attacks. The last of these are so-called top-down controlled attacks, where recruits are trained by the group and then directly sent to commit an attack. However, these operations (as of 9/11) are exceptional nowadays due to the change in its strategic goals. Overall, the latter two types of operations are failing due to the disruption of sanctuaries or the rooting out of terrorist networks in Europe by local intelligence services .
In the last few years, there has been a significant decline in the operational activities of al-Qaeda Central. Byman in his study distinguishes four main causes of a dramatic reduction in al-Qaeda’s operational success. A successful global campaign like the military and police efforts in the Middle East or directly in Europe to subvert al-Qaeda have already been mentioned, as well as localization of AQC in the sense of reassessing jihad from the global to the local or shift from “far” enemies to “near” ones. But what Byman also brings to light is the loss of a haven and uninspiring leadership .
Although al-Qaeda still has significant havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it does not reach such proportions as in the pre-9/11 era. Besides, conflicts such as in Iraq, Syria or Somalia have fundamentally tested the quality of current recruit training, which, however, is not based on the same sort of structured training as before in Afghanistan. It is also no longer a matter of preparing for clandestine operations in the West, but of insurgent warfare .
Another cause for the group’s decline is its uninspiring leadership. Byman emphasizes az-Zawahiri lacks the vital leadership charisma bin Laden abounded. For this reason, associated chiefs find it difficult to follow their leader, which is not publicly heard and has recently rarely appeared on jihadist communication channels. This is the exact opposite of bin Laden, whose charisma has been able to unite jihadists around the world. Recently, efforts have been made to improve reputation in this regard thanks to bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden. However, like az-Zawahiri, he lacked experience directly from the battlefield or the character he would follow in his father’s steps. Additionally, Hamza bin Laden was killed by the United States in 2019 .
The opportunities for al-Qaeda Central
The analysis of the current status of al-Qaeda Central cannot ignore its contemporary opportunities. Although al-Qaeda is currently in decline for the reasons presented above, it still poses a relevant security threat. In recent years, several indicators have emerged that can strengthen the position of al-Qaeda Central again. The first major opportunity appears to be the physical defeat of al-Qaeda’s main jihadist rival, ISIS, in March 2019. As a result of the defeat, many Islamic radicals dispersed and joined other movements, including al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups . However, the direct connection of former ISIS members to al-Qaeda Central can be ruled out rather than confirmed, as the Islamic State is also invigorating its position in unstable Afghanistan besides its main bases in Syria and Iraq. Thus, in recent months, al-Qaeda has been trying to be far more competitive to attract new recruits. Nonetheless, to achieve this, it must be able to offer something more than other jihadist movements .
Another opportunity to revive al-Qaeda’s operational activities are connected to ongoing conflicts in which are jihadists involved and related weak governments in Arab countries (currently mainly Yemen), which increases the chances of strengthening al-Qaeda’s influence in the Middle East region, but also Africa or South Asia, through its affiliates. A big question mark is also how the group will react to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which opens security gaps for hidden jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda Central .
At present, al-Qaeda Central still plays a secondary role in the jihadist world, which continues even after the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This analysis concludes that, from a strategic perspective, central al-Qaeda is paying increasing attention to support regional jihadist movements in fragile parts of the world. This support, mainly based on ideological or financial aid, nowadays poses a greater security threat than the organization’s actual operational capabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Consequently, although the group as such finds itself in a deeper crisis, it still poses a security threat through its „tentacles“, which are scattered through its affiliates almost all over the world. What is speaking in favor is a globally established jihadist brand and strong propaganda, which can still attract a large number of jihadists. A central leadership based somewhere on the Afghan-Pakistani border is patiently waiting for new opportunities and chances to return to where it was before 9/11. Indicators confirming a resurrection of the organization are, above all, the still strong presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as evidenced by several newly discovered training camps in the hard-to-reach terrain of the mountains. The relevance of the threat in this area also lies in the withdrawal of US-led Western armies from Afghanistan and the unification of jihadists in the entire region of South Asia under al-Qaeda’s branch AQIS.
Despite the opportunities, al-Qaeda is expected to remain weak in its ability to threaten the West. However, isolated attacks by lone wolves – individuals acting in the name of al-Qaeda, cannot be ruled out. Thus, a serious threat to Western interests can be expected directly in Muslim regions, where the activities of al-Qaeda’s branches are very unpredictable. Nevertheless, the overall uncertainty and unproven facts about the activities of central al-Qaeda leave more questions than answers.
*Besides that, the group was able to create a wide circle of subcontractors in the Muslim world who it could use to „outsource“ various terrorist acts.
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