Al Qaeda Isn’t Dead Yet

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has put 9/11’s planners back in the terror cockpit.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A primary and secondary school is destroyed.
A primary and secondary school is destroyed.
The destroyed building of a primary and secondary school is seen at a bomb explosion site in Mogadishu on Nov. 25, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

The United States, under then-President Donald Trump, made a peace pact in 2020 with the Taliban under the pretense that they would break ties with al Qaeda. It didn’t happen then, it hasn’t happened since, and now the group that blew up the twin towers is enjoying Taliban hospitality while remaining the dominant ideological and operational influence for jihadis from South Asia to North Africa.

U.S. officials, in both the Trump and Biden administrations, saw the Islamic State rather than al Qaeda as the biggest threat to the American homeland. Al Qaeda, it was argued, was a spent force, especially after the forehead-tap elimination of leader Osama bin Laden in a raid by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in 2011.

The reality is that al Qaeda remains the driving force of international terrorism, more than the locally focused Islamic State has ever been, and continues to inspire terrorist groups from Syria and Somalia to Mali and Mozambique.

The United States, under then-President Donald Trump, made a peace pact in 2020 with the Taliban under the pretense that they would break ties with al Qaeda. It didn’t happen then, it hasn’t happened since, and now the group that blew up the twin towers is enjoying Taliban hospitality while remaining the dominant ideological and operational influence for jihadis from South Asia to North Africa.

U.S. officials, in both the Trump and Biden administrations, saw the Islamic State rather than al Qaeda as the biggest threat to the American homeland. Al Qaeda, it was argued, was a spent force, especially after the forehead-tap elimination of leader Osama bin Laden in a raid by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in 2011.

The reality is that al Qaeda remains the driving force of international terrorism, more than the locally focused Islamic State has ever been, and continues to inspire terrorist groups from Syria and Somalia to Mali and Mozambique.

Al Qaeda is ultimately the more dangerous enemy,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Congress. “Al Qaeda continues to maintain effective insurgencies in multiple countries while using these bases to plot attacks against our homeland and our allies,” he told the House Committee on Homeland Security this year.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to bin Laden, is alive and in control of the al Qaeda global network, Roggio said. “The next generation of al Qaeda leaders, military commanders, and operatives are taking the field while key elements of the old guard remain to guide them.”

For now, al Qaeda is laying low. Al Qaeda members are “slow movers, very calculated. They are waiting for the right time; they are consolidating,” said Pakistani journalist Iftikhar Firdous, an expert on terrorism in South Asia.

Al Qaeda is a godfather to terrorists who want to overthrow governments from China to Nigeria and from Kashmir to Yemen. 

Yet an official U.S. assessment of the jihadis threat emanating from Afghanistan downplays the role of al Qaeda as inspiration and mentor for Islamist groups worldwide. Part of the reason why is that U.S. President Joe Biden fell back on an apparently downgraded al Qaeda to justify the U.S.-led military withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, which handed the country to the militant group. Asfandyar Mir of the U.S. Institute of Peace said ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November and alongside the Biden administration’s pivot to China, that’s become the official narrative.

“Despite immense pressure to do so, the Taliban haven’t broken from al-Qaeda,” Mir wrote in a recent paper. “Instead, members of al-Qaeda’s core and al-Qaeda’s Indian subcontinent affiliate remain in Afghanistan, well positioned to pursue a steady buildup for deniable operations.”

Yet the narrative runs through a recent report by the U.S. Defense Department on U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, which says that al Qaeda has been “restricted” by the Taliban. The main threat to the United States, the report suggests, now comes from the Islamic State, known in Afghanistan as Islamic State-Khorasan. It benefited from prison openings as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan last year and recruited disenfranchised Taliban fighters and former Afghan military, the report says.

It also says al Qaeda’s regional franchise, al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, has only 200 fighters, and the core has even fewer. In the first quarter of 2022, “the U.S. Government did not take any actions to disrupt or degrade al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan, including its media operations, which have increased since August 2021.”

But numbers aren’t the issue. Al Qaeda’s hallmarks are seen from Pakistan to the Sahel: suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, roadside bombings, hijackings, and complex paramilitary-style operations.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which seeks to establish an Islamic emirate in Pakistan, has carried out more than 100 attacks on Pakistan, many of them al Qaeda-style complex attacks against military targets. Incensed that the Taliban are giving protection to the TTP, Pakistan has bombed TTP positions in Afghanistan’s Khost and Kunar provinces to force the Taliban—which won their war with Pakistani support—to halt the attacks.

The Institute for Economics and Peace said in its recent report that al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Maghreb and West Africa region, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Muslimin (JNIM), was the world’s “fastest growing terrorist organization” in 2021. Mir said the JNIM threatens the stability of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and West Africa writ large. It’s no better in the east. This month, Biden approved the deployment of U.S. special forces to Somalia to counter the growing threat there of al Qaeda-affiliate al-Shabab.

As al Qaeda; the TTP; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU); the anti-China East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM); Jamaat Ansarullah, known as the Tajik Taliban; and many others “are now enjoying the protection of a state, an ungoverned state, why would the strength of any of these groups decrease?” asked Pakistani lawmaker Mohsin Dawar.

At the center of the Taliban-al Qaeda web is Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the al Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network, the most brutal of the Taliban’s offshoots. He is the Taliban’s deputy leader and Afghanistan’s acting interior minister, a position that controls domestic security and finances. He is reputedly on the al Qaeda leadership team.

Links between the Haqqanis and al Qaeda stretching back generations are now reflected in the Taliban’s leadership. Sirajuddin’s fellow Haqqani alum, Tajmir Jawad, known for his ability to network across terrorist groups to pool operational talent, is deputy head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency; his uncle Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani is the interim minister of refugee affairs. Along with half the Taliban cabinet, they are listed terrorists and wanted by the FBI.

For Dawar, the Pakistani parliamentarian, “the biggest threat is militancy, and I believe it will remain a threat, not just al Qaeda but TTP, [the Islamic State-Khorasan], IMU, [Lashkar-e-Taiba], they are all there [in Afghanistan], and they all have their own agenda.”

“They have comparatively more space to operate, recruit, train, and plan operations now with the Taliban,” he added. “All the regional countries are feeling threatened.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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