Threat Report 2018: Al-Qaida Patiently Rebuilding

Photo: Aq Thu/AP

As the United States relocated its embassy in Israel to the city of Jerusalem, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri used the occasion to call for jihad, claiming the international system is hostile toward Muslims.

Al-Qaida has rebounded in recent years, rebranding its message and building local branches across the Middle East and Africa. The following brief is from The Cipher Brief’s 2018 Annual Threat Report. For more information on how to get the whole report, please click here.

Bottom Line: While the Islamic State (ISIS) grabbed the spotlight of international terrorism, al-Qaida has meticulously rooted itself in several conflicts across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, where it has seized upon local grievances to appeal to disenfranchised communities and build its brand as a champion of victimized Sunnis. Consequently, al-Qaida’s strategy, combined with its long-term vision, renders the movement the most dangerous and entrenched terrorist network devoted to carrying out spectacular attacks against the West, and the United States in particular.

Background: Al-Qaida, meaning “the base,” was established in 1988 in the Pakistani city of Peshawar close to the Afghan border under the guidance of Osama bin-Laden, prominent Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam, current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and several hardline mujahedeen rebels who had fought against the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.[i]

  • In April 1991, Bin Laden and his movement relocated to Sudan for a period of five years, during which Bin Laden was actively searching to procure nuclear weapons.[ii] After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in May 1996, bin Laden and his followers returned to Afghanistan and found safe haven under the Taliban-led government. Bin Laden publicly affirmed his loyalty to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in a video released in mid-2001.[iii]
  • Al-Qaida’s international network has conducted several high-profile attacks against U.S. targets around the globe, including: the attempted February 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City; the August 1998 bombings at the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole docked in Yemen; and the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.[iv]
  • Bin Laden served as al-Qaida’s leader from its inception until his death, which occurred during a May 1, 2011 U.S. special operations raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, located about 75 miles north of Islamabad. His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, assumed leadership and reaffirmed the group’s vow to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in a video message entitled titled “The Noble Knight Dismounted,” released one month after Bin Laden’s was killed.[v] Since Mullah Omar’s death was revealed in July 2015, al-Zawahiri has pledged allegiance to subsequent Taliban leaders including Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a May 2016 drone strike in Pakistan, and also to current emir Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.[vi]
  • In August 2005, leading al-Qaida ideologue Saif al-Adl articulated al-Qaida’s seven-phase plan, which was initiated in 2000 and is supposed to culminate in the year 2020 with the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and a “definitive victory” against the West.[vii]
  • Al-Qaida’s ideology pits the movement as the defender of Muslim lands battling Western forces led by the U.S., known as the “head of the snake,” that are attempting to occupy and impose their will on these territories. By assuming violence, al-Qaida aims to push Western forces out of the region and establish an Islamic caliphate.

Bruce Hoffman, Visiting Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

“Al-Qaida’s main achievement over the years has been its ability to rehabilitate its image to portray itself as a credible defender of embattled Sunnis everywhere. It is portraying itself as ‘moderate extremist’ in contrast to the unrestrained ISIS, and therefore a more palatable or acceptable alternative to ISIS. Today, al-Qaida is quite consciously letting ISIS take the heat, absorb all of our attention, and preoccupy our counterterrorism efforts in the hopes that this will exhaust us and undermine our resolve to continue a struggle that is approaching its second decade of prosecution.”

Issue: Despite years of targeted strikes and raids by the U.S. military and its allies that have decimated core al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the movement continues to pose a critical threat to U.S. security at home and America’s interests abroad. Al-Qaida affiliates have enmeshed themselves in ongoing civil conflicts in the Sahel, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and South Asia, where they have garnered support from local communities and have carved out safe havens from which to train, plan and launch attacks.

  • “Al-Qaida almost certainly will remain a major actor in global terrorism because of the combined staying power of its five affiliates. Not all affiliates will have the intent and capability to pursue or inspire attacks in the U.S. homeland or elsewhere in the West. Al-Qaida’s affiliates probably will continue to dedicate most of their resources to local activity. Al-Qaida leaders and affiliate media platforms almost certainly will call for followers to carry out attacks in the West, but their appeals probably will not create a spike in inspired attacks.” – 2018 World Wide Threat Assessment[viii]
  • Decimated by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and America’s subsequent counterterrorism efforts, core al-Qaida has taken a back seat to its affiliates, though it remains the brain of the al-Qaida nervous system. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – presumed to be residing in the vicinity of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border[ix] – continues to release audio messages sanctioning decisions undertaken by affiliate groups[x] and declaring that the U.S. remains the number one enemy of Muslims worldwide. [xi]
  • Al-Qaida’s North African offshoot, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was created in January 2007 and initially fixated its operations in and around the Algerian capital of Algiers, conducting more than 600 attacks against Algerian government targets.[xii] Eventually, the Algerian army pushed AQIM southward, where, in June 2012, it hijacked an ethnic Tuareg-nationalist rebellion in Mali and assumed control over the northern Mali region of Azawad.[xiii] From there, AQIM has continued to orchestrate attacks throughout the Sahel region, including targeting several western hotels in Mali and in neighboring Burkina Faso. Of all the al-Qaida affiliates, AQIM is most notorious for snatching foreigners, and turning the hostages into profit. Between 2008 and 2014, AQIM received approximately $91.5 million dollars in ransom payments, nearly three times the amount of the second largest total, which was generated by al-Qaida’s Yemeni offshoot during that same time span.[xiv]
  • Al-Shabab, meaning “the youth,” was formed in December 2006 and was designated by the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in March 2008. The group officially pledged allegiance to al-Qaida in February 2012 and remains al-Qaida’s affiliate in East Africa.[xv] Al-Shabab operates primarily in southern Somalia, but has orchestrated attacked across the country, in the self-declared republic of Somaliland and in neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti. Despite concentrated international efforts headed by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to oust al-Shabab from its areas of operation, the group continues to mount deadly attacks on a regular basis and poses a significant threat to regional stability in the Horn of Africa.[xvi]
  • Al-Qaida’s Syrian offshoot, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front, emerged in January 2012 against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war and has strategically positioned itself as the largest rebel force battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[xvii] Jabhat al-Nusra served as al-Qaida’s overt Syrian affiliate until July 2016, when leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani announced that his group was “splitting” from the al-Qaida network and rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh el-Sham or JFS.[xviii] However, there was significant skepticism that a real separation had occurred. In January 2017, JFS merged with four smaller Syrian jihadist factions to form an umbrella organization called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an estimated force of at least 10,000 fighters that now dominates approximately two million people living in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.[xix]
  • Al-Qaida burst onto the scene in Yemen in October 2000 after carrying out the bombing of the USS Cole. The network’s Yemeni branch, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was officially formed in January 2009 and infamously helped facilitate the attempted Christmas Day underwear bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 later that year.[xx] The group has produced some of the network’s most impactful and dangerous figures, including notorious cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (also known as the underwear bomber), now-deceased former commander Naser al-Wuyahshi and at-large bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri.[xxi] More recently, AQAP has exploited the ongoing civil war in Yemen to increase its influence and attract new recruits by offering key social services to a population ravaged by constant violence, starvation and disease. Throughout the conflict, AQAP has proven resilient by returning to liberated areas once security forces vacate. The group continues to amass support by actively fighting against the Houthis in southern Yemen alongside many local tribes, and remains focused on launching attacks against the West, as demonstrated by the numerous warnings issued by the Department of Homeland Security over the past year about threats to commercial aviation originating out of Yemen.
  • Al-Qaida in the India Subcontinent (AQIS) was born in September 2014 when al-Zawahiri released a video announcing the creation of an al-Qaida affiliate spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and appointed Asim Umar, a former commander in the Pakistani Taliban, as the group’s leader.[xxii] Over the last few years, AQIS has carried out several attacks in the region, most notably a spree of hacking deaths against secular activists, bloggers and academics in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In May 2015, Umar published a video in which he said AQIS carried out the attacks, declaring that the group “assassinated several blasphemers of the Prophet and insulters of Islamic law.”[xxiii]

Frank Archibald, former Director of the National Clandestine Service, CIA

“Areas where there is weak central authority and long-standing internal conflicts offer fertile ground for exploitation by those who preach that terrorism is an appropriate response to grievance. Terrorist groups also provide micro financing for weddings, pay, status, identity and a weapon. A narrative that says you have been exploited and your grievances are justified along with money, status and a gun are powerful inducements to a young man with few other options.”

Response: U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement have worked tirelessly to capture or kill leading figures of the al-Qaida movement and ensure that a repeat of 9/11 does not occur on American soil. However, to truly realize the defeat of al-Qaida, American policymakers may need to go back to the drawing board and reassess how the al-Qaida threat should be understood.

  • The Trump administration has specifically targeted AQAP operatives through air strikes and special operations raids including one that was carried out in Yemen’s central Al-Bayda Province in January 2017 that killed 14 AQAP militants but also cost the life of U.S. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens.[xxiv]S. Central Command later said civilians, including children, may have been killed by aerial gunfire during the raid.[xxv]
  • Under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed on September 14, 2001, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes against al-Qaida targets in several countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.[xxvi]S. counterterrorism strategy has generally revolved around the tactic of leadership decapitation, executed through targeted strikes or special operations raids. Captured terrorists, including 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have also been sent to Guantanamo Bay where they have been held as prisoners of war.[xxvii]
  • The U.S. has also collaborated with and supported partners on the ground in their efforts against al-Qaida. Last October, the U.S. provided $60 million in support of the G5 counterterrorism initiative, a unified front formed in February 2014 by five countries – Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso – to combat terrorism in the Sahel region.[xxviii] To date, G5 member states have deployed a total of roughly 5,000 troops that conduct joint patrols aimed at stemming the flow of terror groups and traffickers across porous borders in the Sahel.[xxix]

Kevin Hulbert, former Chief of Station, CIA

“While the successes in battle against al-Qaida have been many, the tactical victories against core al-Qaida are a bit hollow when viewed in the context of the backdrop of a larger strategic failure against the spread of radical Muslim extremism. And this is not a failure that the good operators at CIA or Joint Special Operations Command can fix – they don’t make policy. The strategic failure lies at the feet of politicians around the world who have failed to develop governments and economies that better support their people and by doing so, discourage the appeal of radical Muslim extremism.”

David Shedd, former Acting Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

“To really go after al-Qaida, it is necessary for the U.S. and our allies to implement a bold strategy that consists of all elements of national power. A military campaign alone is not going to do it; it’s going to require bringing a better way of life to regions in need of basic resources and services such as water, healthcare and education. Helping countries build that local capacity with clearly established strategic objectives is critical. However, such a strategy remains unclear today.”

Looking Ahead: The ongoing battle against al-Qaida has honed the United States’ ability to identify and eliminate terrorist leaders, and has also generated increased cooperation among U.S. law enforcement and intelligence to head off potential 9/11-style attacks. But as long as poor governance and instability provides a breeding ground for radical ideology, terrorism will pose a generational challenge.

Bruce Hoffman, Visiting Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

“All terrorist organizations pursue a strategy of attrition: of resurrecting themselves from the ashes of near-defeat to continue to prosecute their campaigns and thereby undermining the resolve and determination of their enemies. Al-Qaida is following precisely such a strategy – refusing to collapse and disappear despite our most optimistic hopes and assessments. Al-Qaida has been quietly and patiently rebuilding and repositioning itself to once again get on track with its strategy when the time is right.”

Bennett Seftel is the analyst who wrote this report. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.

[i] “Al-Qaeda around the world.” BBC, Aug. 5 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-13296443.

[ii] Mowatt-Larseen, Rolf. “Al Qaeda’s Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Foreign Policy, Jan. 25 2010, http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/01/25/al-qaedas-pursuit-of-weapons-of-mass-destruction/.

[iii] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Analysis: Al Qaeda attempts to undermine new Islamic State with old video of Osama bin Laden.” Long War Journal, Jul. 15 2014, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/07/osama_bin_laden_disc.php#

[iv] Mowatt-Larseen, Rolf. “Al Qaeda’s Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Foreign Policy, Jan. 25 2010, http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/01/25/al-qaedas-pursuit-of-weapons-of-mass-destruction/.

[v] Goodman, J. David. “Qaeda No. 2 Delivers Video Eulogy to Bin Laden.” The New York Times, Jun. 8 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/09/world/asia/09zawahri.html.

[vi] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Ayman al Zawahiri swears allegiance to the Taliban’s new leader.” Long War Journal, Jun. 11 2016, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/06/ayman-al-zawahiri-swears-allegiance-to-the-talibans-new-leader.php.

[vii] Roggio, Bill. “The Seven Phases of the Base.” Long War Journal, Aug. 15 2005, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2005/08/the_seven_phase.php.

[viii] Coats, Daniel R. “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Feb. 13 2018, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA—Unclassified-SSCI.pdf.

[ix] Hussein, Rikar and Nisan Ahmado. “Al-Qaida Releases Call for Jihadist Unity, Purportedly From Leader.” Voice of America, Oct. 6 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/al-qaida-releases-audio-leader-calling-for-unity/4059837.html.

[x] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Analysis: Ayman al Zawahiri calls for ‘unity’ in Syria amid leadership crisis.” Long War Journal, Dec. 2 2017, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/12/analysis-ayman-al-zawahiri-calls-for-unity-in-syria-amid-leadership-crisis.php.

[xi] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Al Qaeda chief says America is the ‘first enemy’ of Muslims.” Long War Journal, Mar. 21 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/03/al-qaeda-chief-says-america-is-the-first-enemy-of-muslims.php.

[xii] Seftel, Bennett. “Al Qaeda Thrives Across Weak West African States.” The Cipher Brief, Sep. 14 2017, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/al-qaeda-thrives-across-weak-west-african-states.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Callimachi, Rukmini. “Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror.” The New York Times, Jul. 29 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/world/africa/ransoming-citizens-europe-becomes-al-qaedas-patron.html.

[xv] Seftel, Bennett. “AMISOM: A Decade into the Fight Against Al Shabaab.” The Cipher Brief, Nov. 19 2017, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/africa/amisom-decade-fight-al-shabaab.

[xvi] Seftel, Bennett. “AMISOM: A Decade into the Fight Against Al Shabaab.” The Cipher Brief, Nov. 19 2017, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/africa/amisom-decade-fight-al-shabaab.

[xvii] Seftel, Bennett. “First Assad, Then the World: Al Qaida’s Strategy in Syria.” The Cipher Brief, Feb. 6 2018, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/first-assad-world-al-qaidas-strategy-syria.

[xviii] Seftel, Bennett. “First Assad, Then the World: Al Qaida’s Strategy in Syria.” The Cipher Brief, Feb. 6 2018, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/first-assad-world-al-qaidas-strategy-syria.

[xix] DeYoung, Karen and Adam Goldman. “Is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria no longer a ‘sideshow’?” The Washington Post, Jul. 20 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/is-al-qaedas-affiliate-in-syria-no-longer-a-sideshow/2016/07/20/e29f9012-4e9a-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html?utm_term=.b0dd3dd9f2ad.

[xx] Seftel, Bennett. “No Respite for Yemen, Middle East’s Forgotten Child.” The Cipher Brief, Feb. 28 2018, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/middle-east/no-respite-yemen-middle-easts-forgotten-child.

[xxi] “Yemen al-Qaeda chief al-Wuhayshi killed in US strike.” BBC News, Jun. 16 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33143259.

[xxii] Seftel, Bennett. “Al Qaeda Quietly Expands in South Asia.” The Cipher Brief, Apr. 14 2017, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/al-qaeda-quietly-expands-in-south-asia.

[xxiii] Burke, Jason. “South Asia al-Qaida group video claims responsibility for blogger murders.” The Guardian, May 3 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/03/south-asia-al-qaida-group-video-claims-responsibility-for-blogger-murders.

[xxiv] “U.S. Service Member Killed in Raid on Terrorists in Yemen.” U.S. Department of Defense, Jan. 29, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1063593/.

[xxv] “U.S. Central Command statement on Yemen raid.” U.S. Central Command, Feb. 1 2017, http://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/PRESS-RELEASES/Press-Release-View/Article/1068267/us-central-command-statement-on-yemen-raid/.

[xxvi] United States Congress. “Joint Resolution to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” Government Publishing Office, Sep. 18 2001, https://www.congress.gov/107/plaws/publ40/PLAW-107publ40.pdf.

[xxvii] “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Fast Facts.” CNN, Dec. 14 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2013/02/03/world/meast/khalid-sheikh-mohammed-fast-facts/index.html.

[xxviii] Tillerson, Rex W. “United States Pledging up to $60 Million in New Support for Security Assistance in the Sahel Region.” U.S. Department of State, Oct. 20 2017, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2017/10/275175.htm.

[xxix] “G5 Sahel: 5,000 troops to win the war against terrorism in the region.” Gouvernment.fr, Dec. 14 2017, http://www.gouvernement.fr/en/g5-sahel-5000-troops-to-win-the-war-against-terrorism-in-the-region.

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