Fifteen years after the September 11, 2001, hijackings, the al Qaeda threat is growing. Al Qaeda has the capacity to attempt a mass casualty attack inside the U.S. and Europe today.
Many assume that al Qaeda is a spent force, especially after the surge of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. But they are wrong. Years of erroneous assessments have clouded our vision of an enemy that remains committed to its anti-American cause.
The Obama administration has repeatedly claimed that drone strikes have crippled al Qaeda’s “core,” which is not well-defined. Much of the reporting on al Qaeda focuses on this senior management layer, which al Qaeda refers to as its “general command.”
However, al Qaeda has taken steps to replenish its leadership ranks, with some of its top figures finding safe haven inside Iran. Moreover, al Qaeda probably has more members today than ever and its geographic reach has greatly expanded.
Documents recovered during the Abbottabad raid show that Bin Laden and his lieutenants managed a cohesive global network. By early May 2011, al Qaeda had grown to include groups everywhere from West Africa to South Asia. Despite the rise of the Islamic State, which was disowned by al Qaeda in early 2014, al Qaeda has continued to expand under the leadership of Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri.
The key to al Qaeda’s growth has been its regional branches, which are led by jihadists loyal to Zawahiri. The branches are: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Jabhat Fateh al Sham (formerly known as Al Nusrah Front) and Shabaab in Somalia.
Each of these regional branches is working to establish Islamic emirates, or states, in their designated geographic areas. But their members could be used in attacks against the West.
AQAP was founded in early 2009 and wages a prolific insurgency inside Yemen. From April 2015 until April 2016, AQAP controlled a large stretch of territory along Yemen’s southern coast, including major population centers. Al Qaeda could only dream of controlling entire Arab cities on 9/11. But AQAP did just that until an Arab-led coalition pushed the al Qaeda branch out of some of these locales earlier this year. But AQAP simply melted away, preserving most of its forces and living to fight another day. The U.S. has killed several senior AQAP officials since early 2015, but they have been replaced. One current top AQAP official is a former Guantanamo detainee named Ibrahim al Qosi. AQAP has threatened the U.S. on multiple occasions, including the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing and other plots. It also sponsored the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris.
AQIM, which became an official part of al Qaeda in 2006, remains a dangerous foe in North and West Africa. Organizations such Ansar al Sharia (infamous for the 9/11/12 Benghazi raids), Ansar Dine and others all operate within AQIM’s orbit. Late last year, a veteran al Qaeda loyalist named Mokhtar Belmokhtar rejoined AQIM’s ranks. The newly combined entity has carried out a number of high-profile assaults since then.
Shabaab in Somalia engages in heavy fighting against African forces on a daily basis. Shabaab’s men control significant territory and are a frequent target for U.S. Special Operations. Shabaab is most infamous these days for its high-profile massacres in Kenya, such as at the Westgate mall in 2013 and Garissa University College last year. Bin Laden’s files show that Shabaab was an al Qaeda branch as early as 2010, but it did not make its formal allegiance publicly known until 2012.
Jabhat Fateh al Sham (“Conquest of the Levant Front”) is the new brand name adopted by Al Nusrah Front in Syria. Al Nusrah was openly loyal to Zawahiri for years, but al Qaeda recently rebranded the organization for a variety of reasons. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri realized long ago that the al Qaeda name can carry significant baggage. So the leader of Al Nusrah, Abu Muhammad al Julani, announced during a televised speech in late July that he and his men had “no affiliation to any external entity.”
This was spun in the press as Nusrah’s “break” from al Qaeda. But Julani, who was dressed like Osama bin Laden during the announcement, praised al Qaeda’s leadership at length and never actually said that he was no longer loyal to Zawahiri. Indeed, al Qaeda itself isn’t an “external entity” in Syria because some of al Qaeda’s top figures, including possibly Zawahiri’s top two deputies, have moved to the country. Julani’s announcement was merely a ruse, directed by Zawahiri and his lieutenants. They want to distract people from al Qaeda’s expansion in the Levant.
On June 28, Brett H. McGurk, who serves as the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, testified before the Senate. McGurk accurately described Nusrah as al Qaeda’s “largest formal affiliate in history.” The group could have 10,000 or more members in its ranks. McGurk also warned that Nusrah is “providing safe haven for some of al Qaida’s most experienced terrorists.”
An al Qaeda cadre known as the “Khorasan Group” was embedded within Nusrah. Zawahiri ordered these operatives to start plotting against the West, but U.S. officials say Zawahiri never gave them the green light to actually strike. Al Qaeda didn’t want Nusrah to take the heat that comes with planning direct attacks against the West. Nusrah’s chief goal has been to topple Assad and then build a radical Islamic state on the regime’s ruins. This is part of the reason Nusrah was repositioned as Jabhat Fateh al Sham. But seasoned al Qaeda operatives, operating as part of another entity, could still use Syria as a launching pad for attacks in the West.
AQIS is the newest branch of al Qaeda. Zawahiri announced its creation in September 2014, saying it brought together several existing jihadist organizations under al Qaeda’s banner. AQIS has been exporting terrorism throughout the region since then. AQIS has infiltrated Pakistan’s armed forces and is allied with a number of Pakistani jihadist groups. Pakistani officials recently told the Washington Post that they suspect AQIS has a few thousand members in the city of Karachi alone.
Al Qaeda maintains a significant presence inside Afghanistan. In October 2015, for instance, Afghan and American forces conducted a massive operation to take out two large al Qaeda training camps in the southern part of the country. One of the camps was approximately 30 square miles in size. Gen. John F. Campbell, who oversaw the war effort in Afghanistan at the time, explained that the camp was run by AQIS and is “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”
Think about these two facts: The U.S. government recognizes that Nusrah is al Qaeda’s “largest formal affiliate [branch] in history” and the U.S. military took out the “largest” al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan’s history just last year.
Al Qaeda is hardly on death’s door.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, al Qaeda is not myopically focused on striking the West. Most of the organization’s resources have been devoted to waging insurgencies in the Muslim majority world. But as al Qaeda’s footprint has expanded, so has the threat to the U.S. and Europe. Al Qaeda could easily use members from one of these regional branches in an attack against the West.
Just days before the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, Ayman al Zawahiri released a video in which he threatened the U.S. once again. Zawahiri claimed that the 9/11 hijackings led to a “jihadi awakening.” He also praised bin Laden as the “reviving imam,” crediting his fallen comrade for helping to spark a jihadist revolution.
These are not empty words. America must take them seriously. Al Qaeda remains a threat to Americans fifteen years after the worst terrorist attack in history.