September 11, 2020
IntelBrief: 19 Years After 9/11, al-Qaeda Has Evolved, and Remains a Threat
Nearly two decades after the attacks of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda is a much different organization than the group formerly led by Osama bin Laden. Headed by bin Laden’s longtime deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda remains a threat, even if its ability to conduct spectacular attacks on U.S. soil has been significantly degraded. Speaking in March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that ‘al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self.’ And while true that many of its leaders have been killed or captured, it remains a learning organization and a case study in the resiliency of terrorist organizations. Some estimates suggest that al-Qaeda boasts between 30,000-40,000 members worldwide, and the group is active in a number of conflicts, from the Levant to Southeast Asia.
Franchise groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, Hurras al-Din in Syria, and affiliates in West Africa, Somalia, the Philippines, and the Indian subcontinent may vary in the degree of their respective capabilities, but taken as a whole, demonstrate al-Qaeda’s resilience and commitment to continuing the global jihad. In Afghanistan, as the United States seeks to extricate its military forces and push forward a political solution that brings the Afghan Taliban into a power-sharing agreement with the current Afghan government, al-Qaeda and its relationship to the Taliban remains a major wild card. Most observers expect the partnership to continue, and a U.S. drawdown could infuse al-Qaeda in Afghanistan with new life and an ability to cooperate more closely with other dangerous jihadist groups in the region, including the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, to name just a few.
Al-Qaeda has worked tirelessly to make inroads among tribes, clans, and local populations at the grassroots level, shunning the spotlight while simultaneously allowing the Islamic State to suffer the brunt of Western counterterrorism efforts over the course of the past several years. Moreover, al-Qaeda is grooming a new generation of leadership to supplant the old guard. These individuals have been shaped by their experiences fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the Sahel, and have cultivated networks of jihadists forged by the aftermath of the Arab Spring. If al-Qaeda is able to refashion its brand and appeal to a younger cohort of potential recruits, it could position its affiliates to benefit from future waves of foreign fighters in any number of flashpoints in the Muslim world. Moreover, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are patient, as evidenced by the years-long operation planned in part by AQAP and conducted by a member of the Saudi Air Force in his December 2019 terrorist attack on a U.S. military base in Pensacola, Florida.
As the United States continues pivoting from the so-called Global War on Terrorism to great power competition with adversaries and near-peer challengers like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, Washington must be careful not to neglect hard fought gains against terrorists and insurgents in weak states and ungoverned spaces. Drawing down U.S. military forces in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan will shape conflict dynamics in these theatres, and provide groups like al-Qaeda with the opportunity to recruit new members and further destabilize the areas where they operate. It is critical that the United States and its allies avoid the binary trap of counterterrorism or great power competition. To be sure, the United States can and must pursue both, although properly calibrating the balance will be difficult, especially given the resource constraints imposed by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on U.S. national security priorities.