Think Again: Al Qaeda

A year after Osama bin Laden's death, the obituaries for his terrorist group are still way too premature.

Rehan Khan/EPA
Rehan Khan/EPA
Rehan Khan/EPA

"Al Qaeda Is on the Brink of Defeat."

“Al Qaeda Is on the Brink of Defeat.”

Keep dreaming. Osama bin Laden was fond of recounting the following parable from the Quran to rally his followers in times of despair: A much-better-armed Christian army employed war elephants in a fearsome assault against Mecca, aspiring to destroy the Kaaba shrine, one of Islam’s most sacred sites. But birds showered the Christian army with pellets of hard-baked clay, and the Arabs eventually defeated the invaders. To bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, this demonstrated that God was on their side — even in the face of certain defeat.

Over the past decade, U.S. policymakers and pundits have repeatedly written al Qaeda’s obituary. The latest surge of triumphalism came after bin Laden’s killing a year ago. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserted that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda,” while President Barack Obama proclaimed, “We have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat,” and academic experts churned out a new wave of books with such bullish titles as The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda.

These declarations of victory, however, underestimate al Qaeda’s continuing capacity for destruction. Far from being dead and buried, the terrorist organization is now riding a resurgent tide as its affiliates engage in an increasingly violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa. And for all the admiration inspired by brave protesters in the streets from Damascus to Sanaa, the growing instability triggered by the Arab Spring has provided al Qaeda with fertile ground to expand its influence across the region.

Al Qaeda’s bloody fingerprints are increasingly evident in the Middle East. In Iraq, where the United States has withdrawn its military forces, al Qaeda operatives staged a brazen wave of bombings in January, killing at least 132 Shiite pilgrims and wounding hundreds more. The following week in Yemen, fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized the town of Radda, while expanding al Qaeda’s control in several southern provinces. “Al Qaeda has raised its flag over the citadel,” a resident told Reuters.

Beyond these anecdotes, several indicators suggest that al Qaeda is growing stronger. First, the size of al Qaeda’s global network has dramatically expanded since the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia’s al-Shabab have formally joined al Qaeda, and their leaders have all sworn bayat — an oath of loyalty — to bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

These al Qaeda affiliates are increasingly capable of holding territory. In Yemen, for example, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited a government leadership crisis and multiple insurgencies to cement control in several provinces along the Gulf of Aden. Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Somalia and Iraq also appear to be maintaining a foothold where there are weak governments, with al-Shabab in Kismayo and southern parts of Somalia, and al Qaeda in Iraq in Baghdad, Diyala, and Salah ad Din provinces, among others.

The number of attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates is also on the rise, even since bin Laden’s death. Al Qaeda in Iraq, for instance, has conducted more than 200 attacks and killed more than a thousand Iraqis since the bin Laden raid, a jump from the previous year. And despite the group’s violent legacy, popular support for al Qaeda remains fairly high in countries such as Nigeria and Egypt, though it has steadily declined in others. If this is what the brink of defeat looks like, I’d hate to see success.

“Al Qaeda’s Mergers Are a Sign of Weakness.”

Wishful thinking. In recent years, al Qaeda leaders have consciously developed a strategy to expand their presence in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Rather than weakening the organization, this mergers-and-acquisitions strategy has been fairly successful in allowing al Qaeda to expand its global presence.

Today, al Qaeda has evolved from a fairly hierarchical organization at its 1988 founding to a more decentralized one composed of four main tiers. First, there’s al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan. Zawahiri took over as emir after bin Laden’s death, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, the head of al Qaeda’s religious committee, became his deputy. They are flanked by a new cast of younger operatives, such as Hassan Gul, Hamza al-Ghamdi, Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, and Abu Zayd al-Kuwaiti al-Husaynan — figures charged with plotting al Qaeda operations, managing its media image, and developing its religious dogma.

Security concerns, however, have prohibited this core group — al Qaeda Central — from playing a major strategic and operational role. Its leaders can’t meet together anymore, are unable to provide timely information or guidance to operatives, and spend an inordinate amount of time simply trying to survive. This reality makes the proliferation of al Qaeda franchises critical to the network’s survival. Still, as documents seized from bin Laden’s home in Abbottabad show, al Qaeda Central is not entirely isolated. It has remained in contact with its affiliates overseas and provided strategic advice on issues from leadership appointments to fundraising, as well as mandates for attacks. Before his death, bin Laden himself instructed deputies to focus “every effort that could be spent” on targeting the United States and even to plot the assassinations of Obama and Gen. David Petraeus.

The next tier of al Qaeda includes a growing list of affiliated groups in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, and Somalia. Al Qaeda’s most recent merger was this February, when it publicly announced a formal relationship with Somalia’s al-Shabab. These affiliates benefit from al Qaeda Central’s ideological inspiration and guidance. Take al-Shabab. In announcing his group’s official merger with al Qaeda, al-Shabab’s emir, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair, gloated that his group’s prestige had now been lifted in the jihadi world and beckoned Zawahiri to “lead us to the path of jihad and martyrdom that was drawn by our imam, the martyr Osama.”

The third tier incorporates more than a dozen allied groups that remain formally independent but work with al Qaeda on operations when their interests converge. One example is Pakistan’s Tehrik-i-Taliban, which, though focused on South Asia, has been involved in terrorist plots overseas, notably the failed 2010 attack in Times Square. Al Qaeda has assisted in several Tehrik-i-Taliban-led attacks, including the May 2011 siege of the Pakistan Navy’s Mehran naval base in Karachi. In Nigeria, the Salafi group Boko Haram has emerged as an increasingly deadly threat — most spectacularly killing more than 200 people in January — and has also developed relations with al Qaeda. Since 2009, according to U.S. government officials in the region, Boko Haram operatives have traveled to Mali to train with members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in explosives manufacturing and suicide attacks.

Finally, al Qaeda draws on support from inspired networks — groups and individuals that have no direct contact with al Qaeda Central but are motivated by the movement’s cause and outraged by the perceived oppression of Muslims. Lacking direct support, these networks tend to be amateurish, if occasionally lethal. The quintessential example is Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major who in November 2009 gunned down 13 people and wounded 43 others at Fort Hood, Texas. There are more recent cases as well. In February 2011, Khalid Aldawsari was arrested in Lubbock, Texas, on charges of planning terrorist attacks after purchasing sulfuric acid, nitric acid, wires, and other bomb-making material. Last September, Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

Sure, al Qaeda’s mergers could eventually create fissures among increasingly autonomous groups. For now, though, these mergers have allowed al Qaeda to survive — and expand.

“Al Qaeda Is Unpopular.”

Not as much as you might think. In May 2011, shortly after bin Laden’s death, the Pew Global Attitudes Project released an opinion survey with the pithy headline: “Osama bin Laden Largely Discredited Among Muslim Publics in Recent Years.” Its findings have been widely trumpeted by those seeking to highlight the organization’s decreasing popularity in Muslim countries. And indeed, the poll found that support for al Qaeda, and for bin Laden himself, has been steadily declining among Muslims in Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, and a handful of other countries.

Yet a closer look at the data reveals that al Qaeda’s support has not fallen as far as the headlines would have you believe. According to the same Pew poll, roughly one-quarter of the Muslim population in the Palestinian territories, Indonesia, and Egypt still supports al Qaeda — some 73 million people. Even if that estimate is high, this seems a significant foothold for the organization, because al Qaeda doesn’t appear to require significant levels of public support to accomplish its bloody work. Indicators of al Qaeda’s support elsewhere are even more disturbing. Its popularity among Nigerian Muslims was just under 50 percent — a striking finding for a country that has witnessed the growth of Boko Haram.

Before we write al Qaeda’s epitaph, it would be wise to understand what the available facts tell us — and what they don’t. After all, al Qaeda’s popularity is frequently less important than that of insurgent groups to which it is attached. That is exactly al Qaeda’s objective: to establish a symbiotic relationship with local groups that have more support and legitimacy. In Afghanistan, for example, a Taliban overthrow of President Hamid Karzai’s government would be an enormous victory for al Qaeda, which would almost certainly re-establish a sanctuary in the country.

“The Arab Spring Was Bad for al Qaeda.”

If only. The Arab Spring triggered an initial — perhaps naive — wave of optimism that al Qaeda had lost the war of ideas. Take Egypt, where a group of plugged-in liberal youths in Cairo appeared to be guiding the revolution. “The young men and women who had filled Liberation Square,” wrote scholar and author Fouad Ajami, “wanted nothing of that deadly standoff between the ruler’s tyranny and the jihadists’ reign of piety and terror.”

Not so fast. A growing body of research conducted by such scholars as Stanford University’s David Laitin and James Fearon has found that weak, ineffective governments are critical to the rise of insurgencies — and, ultimately, are fertile ground for terrorist groups. Weak states do not possess sufficient bureaucratic and institutional structures to ensure the proper functioning of government, and their security forces are unable to establish basic law and order.

In other words, the Arab Spring revolutionaries may not be sympathetic to violent jihad, but the instability they sow may be al Qaeda’s gain. The unfortunate reality, at least for the moment, is that the uprisings over the past year have weakened governments across the Arab world from Syria to Yemen. The World Bank ranks many among the world’s worst-performing governments.

Even on the off chance that democracy takes root in the Arab world, a dose of reality is still appropriate. Research conducted by the University of Vermont’s Gregory Gause and other scholars has found that democratization does not reduce the likelihood of terrorism. Democratic states are just as likely to face terrorism and insurgency as undemocratic ones. Nor is there any evidence that democracy in the Arab world would “drain the swamp,” as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it in 2001, eliminating support for terrorist organizations among the Arab public. Just ask Turkey, which has suffered through several decades of terrorism by Kurdish groups, despite remaining one of the Muslim world’s longest-lasting democracies. Terrorism, in short, is not caused by regime type.

If Zawahiri gets his wish, the Arab Spring will be a boon for al Qaeda. In an eight-minute video released in February, titled “Onward, Lions of Syria,” Zawahiri urged each Muslim to help “his brothers in Syria with all that he can, with his life, money, opinion, as well as information.” Al Qaeda in Iraq responded to the call by standing up terrorist cells in Syria and participating in several attacks, as U.S. intelligence officials had warned publicly.

“Zawahiri Lacks bin Laden’s Charisma.”

Yes, but… Western assessments of Zawahiri have almost uniformly brushed him aside as too unpopular to consolidate and hold power. Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor, bluntly remarked that Zawahiri “is not anywhere near the leader that Osama bin Laden was.”

Zawahiri, however, has now bested bin Laden in an important category: He has survived. Zawahiri has certainly been through the fire before. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Egyptians in the early 1980s for his involvement in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. After his release, he fled to Pakistan and then survived repeated threats in Sudan, Afghanistan, and finally Pakistan again. Meanwhile, he has become one of the chief architects of al Qaeda’s mergers-and-acquisitions strategy, supporting a formal relationship with al-Shabab and encouraging al Qaeda to exploit the Arab Spring.

Zawahiri has long been one of al Qaeda’s most important writers and strategic thinkers, from his 1992 Black Book to his 2001 Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, which outline al Qaeda’s vision of overthrowing Arab regimes — the “near enemy” — and replacing them with governments that implement an extreme interpretation of sharia law. Despite the bromides and incongruities, Zawahiri’s writings have been pillars of al Qaeda’s ideology.

Still, Zawahiri has weaknesses. Among jihadists, he does not enjoy the swashbuckling aura of bin Laden. He is a scholar and a medical doctor, not a vaunted warrior. Zawahiri has also been a deeply polarizing figure, publicly feuding with Islamist movements and rival leaders. “Zawahiri’s policy and preaching bore dangerous fruit and had a negative impact on Islam and Islamic movements across the world,” Issam al-Aryan, a top Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figure, shot back in 2007 after the al Qaeda leader criticized the Brotherhood’s refusal to advocate the violent overthrow of the Egyptian government.

It is tempting to dismiss Zawahiri as an irascible leader incapable of bin Laden’s strategically daring feats. But he has survived on the run for almost three decades. If his persistence and organizational savvy tell us anything, it’s that he can be an implacable, dangerous, and sometimes underappreciated enemy.

“Al Qaeda Will Never Work with Iran.”

Never say never. Some scholars and former policymakers dismiss the possibility of al Qaeda-Iranian cooperation. “I think [there] is a war-fevered hysteria that is going on now,” protests Hillary Mann Leverett, a National Security Council aide during the Clinton and Bush administrations. “A lot of this stuff is really flimsy.” On the surface, she seems right. Not only is Iran a fundamentalist Shiite regime while al Qaeda is violently Sunni, but the two groups also have different long-term goals and have occasionally clashed.

Yet on the geopolitical chessboard, they share a common enemy: the United States. Iran has held several al Qaeda senior leaders since they were driven from Afghanistan in late 2001. Some have raised funds for the terrorist organization by leveraging wealthy Persian Gulf donors, while others have provided strategic and operational assistance to al Qaeda Central. Of particular importance are members of al Qaeda’s former management council, which bin Laden established as a backup command-and-control node in Iran. They include Saif al-Adel, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani — all of whom apparently remain in Iran under various forms of house arrest, according to my interviews with government officials from Britain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

The details of al Qaeda’s relationship with the Iranian government are hazy. Many of the operatives under house arrest have petitioned for release. In 2009 and 2010, Iran began to free some detainees and their family members, including members of bin Laden’s family, while the management council remains in Iran under limited house arrest. Members are allowed to communicate with al Qaeda Central, fundraise, and help funnel foreign fighters through Iran, according to several senior U.S. government officials.

Iran is likely holding al Qaeda leaders on its territory first as an act of defense. So long as Tehran has several leaders under its control, the terrorist group is unlikely to attack Iran. The strategy, however, might also have an offensive component if the United States or Israel were to target Iran’s nuclear facilities. Tehran has long used proxies to pursue its foreign-policy interests, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon. And several of al Qaeda’s leaders in Iran, such as Adel, the group’s onetime security chief, have extensive operational experience that would be valuable in such a situation.

Al Qaeda is likely making similar calculations about working with Iran. To be sure, some al Qaeda leaders revile the ayatollahs. In a 2004 letter, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late al Qaeda chief in Iraq, called Shiites “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion.” In a sign of Churchillesque pragmatism, though, Zawahiri publicly chastised Zarqawi, writing that the Shiites were not the primary enemy — at least not for the moment. It was crucial, he explained, to understand that success hinged on support from the Muslim masses in Iraq. “In the absence of this popular support,” argued Zawahiri, “the Islamic mujahid movement would be crushed in the shadows.”

For al Qaeda, Iran is a refuge. The United States has targeted al Qaeda in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries, but it has limited operational reach inside the Islamic Republic. What’s more, Iran borders the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, making it centrally located for most al Qaeda affiliates.

With the management council under limited house arrest, Iran and al Qaeda’s relationship remains at arm’s length. But that could change if Washington and Tehran finally come to blows. Should the United States or Israel decide to attack Iranian nuclear facilities or tensions otherwise escalate, Iran and al Qaeda could find that they share a common interest in bloodying America’s nose.

“Al Qaeda Is Too Weak to Strike in the United States.”

Dead wrong. It only takes one attack to be successful. Also, lest we forget, there have been some close calls in recent years: In June 2009, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad attacked a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, fatally gunning down one soldier and wounding another. He had listened to the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Yemeni-American al Qaeda operative, and had spent time in Yemen. Najibullah Zazi, Nidal Malik Hasan, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Faisal Shahzad, and the 2006 transatlantic plotters based in Britain also planned or carried out al Qaeda-inspired terrorist attacks on American soil or on U.S.-bound airplanes — some with deadly results. What if more of these attempts had succeeded?

But that’s not all. Dozens of people have been arrested and prosecuted in U.S. courts in recent years for their ties to al Qaeda and its affiliates. They include Zachary Adam Chesser, who was arrested by the FBI in July 2010 for his ties to al-Shabab, and Jamshid Muhtorov, an Uzbek refugee arrested in Chicago this January for allegedly providing material support to the Islamic Jihad Union, an al Qaeda ally. These examples — and there are many more — should dampen any exuberance about the group’s supposed demise.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the West has repeatedly declared al Qaeda all but dead and buried — only to see it rise again. This time, the weakness of governments across the Arab world and South Asia, the durability of some of al Qaeda’s main allies, and the decreasing U.S. presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries could contribute to al Qaeda’s post-bin Laden survival. Drones and special operations forces may kill some al Qaeda leaders, but they will not resolve the fundamental problems that have turned the region into a breeding ground for terrorism and insurgency.

Predictions of al Qaeda’s imminent demise are rooted more in wishful thinking and politicians’ desire for applause lines than in rigorous analysis. Al Qaeda’s broader network isn’t even down — don’t think it’s about to be knocked out.

<p> Seth G. Jones, author of Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa'ida Since 9/11, is senior political scientist at Rand Corp. and former senior advisor to U.S. Special Operations Command. </p>

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