Fifteen years to the date after the U.S. launched its invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda still remains a force to be reckoned with. And with international attention focused on decimating the Islamic State’s (ISIS) capabilities and ISIS continually losing both ground in its self-declared caliphate and strongholds around the globe, al Qaeda’s allure may be growing even stronger by the minute.
“In all of al Qaeda’s main theaters, very unfortunately and tragically, it is gaining credibility and gaining respect, and amassing additional power at a time when we thought we could just write off al Qaeda as having strategically collapsed, if not decisively defeated,” explains terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman.
Just as ISIS was poised to overtake al Qaeda as the leader of the global jihadist movement, al Qaeda has reemerged. Part of al Qaeda’s newfound appeal stems from its efforts to be viewed as an organization that seeks to enact the will of the people in its areas of operation.
“Al Qaeda core shifted its strategy to try to make its network more of an organic extension of people’s aspirations in local areas,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Cipher Brief expert and Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It made the effort to rebrand itself, making it more population centric.”
Additionally, al Qaeda’s ability to present itself as a more moderate alternative to ISIS’ savagery has enabled it to attract followers who detest ISIS’ brutal tactics. At the same time, al Qaeda has managed to fly under the radar while ISIS bears the brunt of foreign military firepower.
“I would say that al Qaeda’s main achievement over the years has been that it has rehabilitated its image, and it’s been very deft at using the global opprobrium of ISIS to burnish al Qaeda’s credentials and to portray itself as a more moderate, acceptable alternative to ISIS,” says Hoffman.
Under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the global al Qaeda network appears to be united under a common vision and strategy. And although core al Qaeda in South Asia has been beaten back by the U.S. over the years, al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia continue to hold territory and attack coalition forces in their respective regions on a regular basis. Al Qaeda’s branch in North Africa has maintained its aptitude for kidnapping westerners, targeting western businesses, and attacking UN forces and other regional militaries.
Leadership decapitation continues to be the primary strategy of the U.S. in the war on terrorism, and the use of targeted killings has provided its fair share of dividends.
“The tactical victories against al Qaeda senior leadership have derailed countless terrorist plots that were stopped before the terrorists ever had the chance to launch their attacks against the West,” writes Kevin Hulbert, Cipher Brief expert and former CIA Chief of Station. “No major terrorist attack has been successfully launched against the U.S. from abroad since 9/11.”
However, while the U.S has successfully eliminated several key al Qaeda leaders, including former al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden, the group seems to replenish its vanguard with ease and its ideology persists uninhibited.
“We are scoring tactical victories and ‘winning’ every military engagement we have, but we are unfortunately losing the greater war as the al Qaeda ideology is flourishing,” says Hulbert.
U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement have worked tirelessly to ensure that a repeat of 9/11 does not occur on American soil. However, some experts say that to truly realize the defeat of al Qaeda, American policymakers may need to go back to the drawing board and reassess how the al Qaeda threat should be understood.
“We need to understand this organization and what it’s doing before we can actually fashion an effective strategy,” explains Gartenstein-Ross. “There needs to be at some point, an analytic reckoning and a realization that the dominant paradigm for understanding al Qaeda has been wrong for over half a decade.”
As we reflect back on the last fifteen years in the battle against al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement, it is apparent the U.S. has achieved some strategic successes in the fight against al Qaeda, but the war is far from over. Terrorism will continue to be, as has often been labeled, a generational challenge.
Bennett Seftel is the Deputy Director of Editorial at The Cipher Brief.