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Al Qaeda on the Ropes

The terrorist group is reeling. But that doesn't mean the fight is over.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 10, 2012, the emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, officially accepted Somalia’s al-Shabab movement’s pledge of allegiance. In a video statement, Zawahiri crowed that such displays indicate that "the jihadi movement is growing with God’s help." This may have been true just before and after the 9/11 attacks, when "homegrown" jihadi extremists in Western countries and regional affiliates valued the al Qaeda brand. But today, al Qaeda’s core organization in Pakistan is battered, the effort to spur homegrown jihadists in the West has faltered, and its regional affiliates are more often losing ground than gaining it.

Public displays of unity don’t change the reality that — more than a decade after their greatest triumph — al Qaeda’s central leadership and its affiliates are generally in decline.

After 9/11, al Qaeda’s model seemed destined to spread. The plan was to support and inspire affiliate organizations, from the Philippines through Indonesia and into South Asia, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. The central leadership would organize major attacks and develop propaganda while al Qaeda’s web of regional partners traded their local reach for the use of a global brand that helped attract recruits, financial donors, and attention.

Affiliates from Indonesia to Iraq seemed to gain ground, spreading al Qaeda’s ideology to reject Western cultural and political influence among local governments and conducting major attacks that showed their relevance. At least five close allies or co-branded al Qaeda affiliates conducted a major operation during the mid-2000s: Jemaah Islamiyah in Bali and Jakarta, al Qaeda’s followers in Riyadh in 2003 and afterward, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters in Iraq, and groups in Algeria and Yemen against targets from oil facilities to U.N. offices. And new battlegrounds showed promise: Al-Shabab surged into Mogadishu, and the Pakistani Taliban threatened Pakistan’s government.

Al Qaeda’s expansion was particularly worrisome in regions where extremists could play on deep Islamist roots within the population. Indonesia, with a long history of Islamist politics, harbored the best-organized group beyond core al Qaeda. The string of attacks in Saudi Arabia looked like it might represent growing extremism among the conservative population of the Arabian Peninsula. Jihadists gathered in Iraq, which they considered this generation’s Afghanistan, igniting sectarian tensions and briefly threatening to dominate swaths of western Iraq.

Yet a decade later, the strategy is faltering in almost every arena. Some affiliates remain focused on local agendas; others have been crippled by their own mistakes and operational successes against them. Two legs of al Qaeda’s three-legged stool, the core group in Pakistan-Afghanistan and the affiliates, are weak. The third leg, so-called homegrown jihadists, has not shown the capability to pose more than a modest threat. Al Qaeda’s allies are lethal and broadly dispersed, but they show little sign of producing the global revolution they espouse.

So what happened?

Al Qaeda was partially a victim of its own violent success. Political overreach and excessive violence undercut its claim to be a protector of Islam in the face of Western imperialism. Those failures have proved debilitating during the Arab Spring, where al Qaeda has been a sideshow to tech-savvy young people and more mainstream Islamist groups. Al Qaeda’s schizophrenic reaction to the revolt in Libya — backing the popular movement against Muammar al-Qaddafi but warning against the Western support for the uprising that helped the opposition succeed — is symptomatic of a leadership that wants to stay relevant but has little street appeal. Al Qaeda’s contortions reflect its desire to remain relevant in a dynamic news cycle by embracing wide-ranging affiliates, an approach that carries risk because many potential affiliates have little operational capability.

Another problem for al Qaeda is that its brand is now closely identified with controversial suicide attacks that kill Muslims. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders are aware of that danger. Just after 9/11, al Qaeda’s leadership hesitated to embrace North African militants, even as those fighters talked openly of their transition from a local revolutionary group to one with al Qaeda-like goals. The leaders remembered the backlash against violent and doctrinaire jihadi movements, especially the murder of tens of thousands of Muslims in Algeria during the 1990s. Zawahiri saw firsthand the unintended consequences of excessive violence undermining jihadi movements in Egypt in the 1990s, and he tried to steer al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate away from publicly reveling in its violence against Iraqis.

Counterterrorism successes have played a role as well in weakening al Qaeda. The decapitation of leadership across al Qaeda affiliates has limited these groups’ ability to plot major attacks and has undermined the resonance of al Qaeda’s message when prominent communicators are either captured or killed. Such activities have spurred popular backlash in some arenas, but they have no doubt had a major impact on the al Qaeda organization itself. Sometimes killing leadership has redirected the strategic focus of affiliates. From Marwan in the southern Philippines through Hambali, Dulmatin, and Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia, to Zarqawi in Iraq, Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin in Saudi Arabia, and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the elimination of leadership figures has moved the focus of jihadi affiliates toward local concerns rather than the United States.

As a result, some affiliates have abandoned the al Qaeda moniker, both to avoid attention from the United States and due to the weakening of the al Qaeda brand. Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate abandoned the label in 2006 and now operates as the Islamic State of Iraq. And the Yemeni Ansar al-Sharia, which has seized swaths of territory near the southern port of Aden, seems to have a relationship with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but has avoided taking the al Qaeda name. Jihadi groups with the most expansive local agenda seem to avoid the al Qaeda brand.

Another problem is that al Qaeda’s affiliates tend to "think global" when they are losing the ability to "act local." There is dissonance between al Qaeda’s effort to build a global brand and its ability to project power in regional settings. Al-Shabab is a good example. Pushed out of Mogadishu and battered by the international community and tribal forces in Somalia, the group is less capable of projecting power in Somalia today than it was three years ago. Even reports of the group’s recruitment of Westerners over the past half-decade, many of which came from the Somali-American community around Minneapolis, have declined amid a renewed push against extremism. Al-Shabab’s decision to swear allegiance to al Qaeda comes at a moment of weakness, not strength.

One measure of al Qaeda’s decreased brand is the attention it gets in international media. After 9/11, the international community pilloried Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, for showing al Qaeda propaganda videos at length. Today, though such propaganda is available online, the reach of such material is an order of magnitude smaller. Al Jazeera is no longer seen as too close to jihadists, but rather as a critical media outlet that has contributed some of the most daring and powerful coverage of the Arab uprisings. The impact is that voices like Zawahiri’s are largely unheard outside already friendly circles.

These successes come not just from Western powers but from political leaders across the globe who confronted al Qaeda, even when doing so required serious political courage. Operations in the southern Philippines, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria have limited the affiliates’ ability to build the sort of networks Jemaah Islamiyah used to devastating effect a decade ago. Consistent U.S. intelligence and military assistance to these countries has been vital, from sharing technical information that helped local units track terrorists to military backing for strikes in isolated areas, such as the Philippines’ archipelago.

None of this is to say that al Qaeda is dead. Jihadists in Iraq are aggressively eyeing Syria, where sectarian dynamics and escalating violence offer the group an opportunity to project influence. Besides the still-dangerous al-Shabab in Somalia, al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate has proved resilient and forceful locally, and the allied group Ansar al-Sharia has proved its ability to take and hold territory amid the country’s political unrest.

It’s important to remember, though, that the fight against al Qaeda was begun not to prevent jihadists from exerting power in Yemeni political squabbles, but to limit attacks on the United States and the West. That’s why the elimination of Awlaki was significant: not because he was the leader of AQAP — he wasn’t — but because as an American, he was uniquely positioned to threaten the United States. Effective counterterrorism policy must be efficient to be sustainable. That means killing or detaining individuals that offer al Qaeda unique capabilities to threaten the United States; it also means being willing to call al Qaeda’s bluff by responding with resolute subtlety to empty provocations.

Al Qaeda’s leaders brag that they only have to plant their black flag in a far-flung corner of the globe in order to provoke a massive, and potentially counterproductive, American response. Ten years after 9/11, we should not hesitate to attack real threats, but must be tenacious enough to carefully ensure that we are reacting to a persistent threat, not the empty fluttering of an al Qaeda that intends to provoke us into hurting ourselves.

Al Qaeda is down, but not out. The group’s ideology is now global, and a small but serious rash of homegrown arrests underscores the persistence of this message over the course of years. Carefully calibrated and quietly delivered counterterrorism support — training, money, technology, even military backing — to regions that face an ongoing threat, from Africa’s Sahel to the southern Philippines, could prevent a local Qaedist group from evolving into a more globally oriented threat. Engagement with the Islamists who gain power in the new Arab world, such as in Egypt, Tunisia, and potentially Syria, will be critical. Recent arrests of extremists in Tunisia highlight how more moderate Islamist groups can help isolate radicals on the fringe. But the outcome of the Arab revolutions is far from clear; Syria, Yemen, Libya, and even Egypt could slip into chaos. And al Qaeda, while very much in decline, is patient.

<p> Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and a fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, where he previously served as director of research. </p> <p> Phil Mudd is senior global advisor at Oxford Analytica and previously served as deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and deputy director of the FBI's National Security Branch. </p>