Expert Commentary

Al Qaeda: Quietly and Patiently Rebuilding

Bruce Hoffman
Professor, Georgetown University

As ISIS incurs the firepower of the international community, al Qaeda has quietly rebuilt its resources, rebranded itself, and “rehabilitated its image” explains terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. In an October interview with The Cipher Brief, Hoffman said al Qaeda has been “maneuvering to affect some kind of a forced merger or a takeover or even a voluntary amalgamation with ISIS” and the merger of both groups “would be very dangerous, especially if al Qaeda got their hands on ISIS’ external operations network in Europe.”

The Cipher Brief: What is your overall assessment of the current state of core al Qaeda and its affiliates? Is the group’s strength in its core or in its affiliates around the globe?

Bruce Hoffman: I’d say it’s in both. Al Qaeda has succeeded in preserving its strength in a number of different venues. In many cases it has expanded, certainly in Syria and Yemen. Over the past four years, it has created al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and has taken advantage of opportunities across that region. So in many respects, it is far from a dying enterprise.

TCB: Is the connection between core al Qaeda and its affiliates more of an ideological link or are there actual transfers of money and messages?

BH: There is certainly overall strategic guidance that the core provides its affiliates, and that has existed for years. The affiliates generally conform with al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s overall strategic vision and general goals for the organization.

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 – especially at a time of continued, acute sectarianism, al Qaeda has been able to portray itself as a credible defender of embattled Sunnis everywhere.  One sees this especially in Syria and Libya and also to an extent in Yemen and elsewhere.

TCB: We’ve seen core al Qaeda beaten back and ISIS emerge in the spotlight of the global jihadist movement. After ISIS, perhaps a new and more deadly group could emerge in its place. Is this a pattern we will have to live with for the foreseeable future or could al Qaeda reemerge as it has rebranded itself?

BH: ISIS isn’t going to die with its defeats in Mosul or even in Raqqa. It will exist at some level, somewhere if only by reverting to form as a pure terrorist entity. But I think al Qaeda has positioned itself to emerge from ISIS’ ashes with the potentiality, as I have long argued, for a merger or forced amalgamation of the ISIS rumps that survives the current multi-national onslaught. Al Qaeda has been maneuvering to affect some kind of a forced merger or a takeover or even a voluntary amalgamation with ISIS once the overall ISIS organization is catastrophically weakened.

This strategy benefits al Qaeda on a number of levels. It positions itself once again as the vanguard of the Salafi-jihadi ideology and most effective exponent and protector of its constituents, and it would be able to assert control and discipline over what is increasingly seen as a wayward renegade and undisciplined force that has been the architect of its own demise through over-expansion and excessive brutality.

And it’s also a reflection of al Qaeda’s current trajectory and new-found embrace of governance of populations and territorial control. Years ago, al Qaeda wasn’t interested in holding territory or exercising sovereignty over a population. It left that to other affiliated or allied groups. But because of the competition from ISIS, al Qaeda has become much more involved in state-building and in behaving less like a terrorist group and more like a political entity. This was of course bin Laden’s dream shortly before his killing, as we know from the Abbottabad files.

TCB: Has al Qaeda’s rebranding helped increase the group’s influence?

BH: Yes. They are now well positioned to become more influential. Part of al Zawahiri’s strategy has been to hold back, sit tight and to very quietly re-build al Qaeda, while ISIS makes all the noise, gets all the attention, and sucks up all the counterterrorism energy and oxygen throughout the world. Al Qaeda has been consistently playing a much longer game, I believe, and has been very careful about not playing its hand until al Zawahiri believes the timing is right.

We know that al Qaeda is consciously re-building, and it’s also strengthening its combat capabilities, particularly in Afghanistan. Exactly one year ago, one of the largest arms facilities and weapons caches was discovered in the Shorabak district near Kandahar, which included acres and acres of weaponry and of concrete reinforced revetments – something on the order of what bin Laden was building in Afghanistan before 9/11.  Given how extensive the Shorabak facility was, I believe that it was emblematic of al Qaeda’s quiet, behind the scenes marshalling of its resources to resume its struggle. And I suspect that’s not the only such facility in Afghanistan, thus evidencing al Qaeda’s pretensions to once again become a decisive force in that country’s fortunes.

TCB: Last year, you wrote an article for us about al Qaeda’s grand strategy and the group’s 20-year plan to achieve global domination. Has al Qaeda stayed the course on its strategy?

BH: It’s been slightly delayed because the fifth phase, which was the phase of the declaration of a caliphate, was meant to last from 2013-2016, and clearly ISIS beat them to it. Hijacking al Qaeda’s seven-stage plan to victory, first articulated by senior al Qaeda commander, Saif al-Adl in 2005, was clearly behind ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate all of a sudden in June 2014. So al Qaeda has clearly fallen behind in the implementation of this multi-stage strategy, but I think al-Zawahiri is confident that things will still unfold in a manner beneficial to al Qaeda. It is still, maybe not exactly positioned in the fifth phase, but the group is certainly strengthening itself so that when the time is right, it can emerge from the shadows and re-assert itself at the vanguard of the Salafi-jihadi terrorist movement.

I think al-Zawahiri is a patient enough strategist that he understands that sometimes time-tables have to be adjusted due to unforeseen developments, such as ISIS’ mercurial emergence, which caught al Qaeda as off-balance as it did everyone else.

Nonetheless, what I find so worrisome is that al Qaeda is hunkered down while we’ve focused on ISIS. Al Qaeda has been quietly and patiently rebuilding and repositioning itself to once again get on track with that strategy when the time is right.

TCB: Is this strategy being employed just by core al Qaeda or also by the entire al Qaeda network?

BH: The entire network. Al Qaeda has always pursued a dual track strategy. It’s never been an either/or – it works to both strengthen its affiliates in its various far-flung outposts and also to ensure their adherence to a strategic plan defined by al Qaeda core.

But that’s exactly the problem. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, is clearly in ascendance where ISIS is in decline. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has certainly been holding on to the territory it seized over the past four years or so. And al Qaeda has certainly expanded in South Asia, in places such as Bangladesh and the Maldives, where there previously was little to no al Qaeda presence or influence, and is already repositioning itself in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, in a number of different venues, including where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operates, the group has also benefitted greatly from ISIS’ depredations in Libya and has been part of the force that has been weakening and displacing ISIS in that country.

In all of al Qaeda’s main theatres, 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.

TCB: The U.S. continues to kill top AQ leaders, but it seems as though they are constantly replaced. How effective has the strategy of leadership decapitation been?

BH: Just the description of al Qaeda as a viable force at the end of 2016 evidences that while the target strikes have been an effective tactic, as a strategy in terms of destroying al Qaeda, it alone hasn’t succeeded. It’s weakened al Qaeda, and it’s knocked al Qaeda off-balance in serial fashion, but again, for the past few years, our attention has been riveted on ISIS, and we have been less concerned with al Qaeda. The unfortunate confluence of events is that al Qaeda has taken advantage of that preoccupation to rebuild and prepare itself to carry on this struggle against the U.S., the West, and its regional satraps as envisioned by bin Laden exactly 20 years ago.

The bottom line is, I don’t see al Qaeda’s struggle ending any time soon, and I worry that because of these factors, the threat from al Qaeda will continue to manifest itself for some period of time in the near future. 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 Qaeda is following precisely such a strategy – refusing to collapse and disappear despite our most optimistic hopes and assessments.

TCB: Could the removal of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri have significant ramifications for the organization?

BH: Possibly, but the problem is that even as we’ve eliminated a lot of the senior leadership, old, battle-tested and time-proven leaders, such as Sayif al-Adl, have reentered the mix. Another leader, Hamza bin Laden, is viewed as an heir. Clearly killing al-Zawahiri would weaken the group and knock it off-balance, in the same way that killing bin Laden right after 9/11 might have signaled the death of al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s death was of course a serious blow to the organization but, as we have seen the past five years, not a grievous one.  I almost think that now, even taking out al-Zawahiri after all of the time that has passed would not fulfill that objective. He’s likely deliberately put into place a strategic vision and a means to achieve it that would outlive him.

This is similar to Anwar al-Awlaki, whose propaganda efforts outlived him in a way that no one expected. You still see from al Qaeda’s perspective a gift that keeps on giving, in terms of al-Awlaki, from his grave, continuing to animate, inspire, and motivate radicalized individuals. I almost feel that in al Qaeda’s case, both the foundation bin Laden gave it and then the strategic vision that al-Zawahiri put into place over the past five years, means that this is potentially something that goes beyond one or two individuals. Their strategic vision has accordingly now been embedded into the movement itself.

TCB: What more can be done as part of the strategy to combat the al Qaeda network?

BH: First and foremost, it is countering al Qaeda’s attempts to revive its military strength in Afghanistan, because that will be the fulcrum, I would argue, that it is going to use to enhance its credibility and to demonstrate its continued vitality and relevance. Afghanistan has become almost a backwater in the war on terrorism and has become forgotten as a central historical element in al Qaeda’s DNA and memory and will thus emerge as a crucial battleground for the group in the coming months and years.

Secondly, it’s understanding that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is just a rebranding of al Qaeda, which is something bin Laden also talked about six years ago. It’s not a meaningful split, and it’s understanding the danger that it poses in supplanting and replacing ISIS as the preeminent military force in the Levant.  ISIS had military capabilities that in many respects eclipsed many of those of the local and regional militaries. Al Qaeda is poised to supplant ISIS in that manner and indeed sees itself as assuming that mantle. If there is a hostile takeover or a forced merger, where ISIS amalgamates with al Qaeda, al Qaeda’s military capabilities will thus be enhanced.  In sum, the threat from al Qaeda in the Levant is just as pernicious as the one from ISIS.

These two groups differ more in tone and style, than in substance and significance. But because of ISIS’ horrific depredations, there are those across the region who now see al Qaeda and groups aligned with al Qaeda as a more “moderate” alternative, which is something that we have to actively push back against to prevent any possibility of a merger or leaving ISIS in any meaningful shape that could affect al Qaeda’s designs and enhance al Qaeda’s power should it absorb whatever is left of ISIS following its defeat.

TCB: What is the potential for ISIS-al Qaeda merger? Are the two groups completely separate or could they unite?

BH: I never think they are completely separate. Neither are monolithic organizations. Of course, ISIS was created with many senior al Qaeda operatives, and many of them still remain very sympathetic to the parent organization – the more so as ISIS continues to weaken and al Baghdadi’s ambitious strategy fails.

I think especially as ISIS’ fortunes continue to decline, there is going to be a hard core of ISIS people who see the only salvation of their movement and the only way to carry on the struggle will be by making common cause with al Qaeda. It’s not that this is a certitude, but the possibility is quite strong. It is always there and is always something that we have to guard against and not dismiss. It may ebb and flow in probability, but it is still there and alive among a hardcore of ISIS fighters who increasingly see no alternative to some modus vivendi with al Qaeda.

A combined force would be very dangerous, especially if al Qaeda got their hands on ISIS’ external operations network in Europe. This is a prize that I’m sure al Zawahiri and his chief lieutenants are salivating over. Any sort of merger, any sort of demise of ISIS on the battlefield will still leave its external operations department susceptible to takeover or merger or amalgamation of some sort, and that would greatly revitalize al Qaeda’s power. 

The Author is Bruce Hoffman

Professor Bruce Hoffman is a tenured professor at Georgetown University and the Director of the Center for Security Studies.  He has served as a commissioner on the Independent Commission to Review the FBI's Post-9/11 Response to Terrorism and Radicalization, a Scholar-in-Residence for Counterterrorism at the CIA, and an adviser on counterterrorism to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2004.

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