July 26, 2021

IntelBrief: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same: Al-Qaeda 20 Years After 9/11

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Bottom Line Up Front 

  • In the two decades since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its network have evolved in terms of size, strength, strategy, and operational capacity. 
  • The factors that have driven al-Qaeda’s evolution include its strategy, opportunistic nature, adaptivity, strategic patience, and resilient ideology. 
  • Al-Qaeda currently boasts around 30,000-40,000 members worldwide with branches and affiliates in the Levant, North Africa, South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere.
  • Given U.S. efforts to reduce its military footprint, Washington should more readily allocate resources to counter the drivers of al-Qaeda’s success: geopolitical chaos and conflicts, a resilient ideology, disinformation, and sectarianism. 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda that significantly altered the global counterterrorism landscape. Over the coming weeks, in the lead up to the 20-year anniversary of the attacks, The Soufan Center will publish a series of Intelbriefs reflecting on the global impact and consequences of 9/11 and the ensuing response.

Undoubtedly, the world has changed since nearly 3000 victims representing over 70 different countries lost their lives on that fateful day. However, since the Global War on Terror commenced, al-Qaeda has also evolved in terms of size, strength, strategy, and operational capacity. The al-Qaeda of today is immensely different than it was in the early 2000’s. At the same time, the organization’s survival and evolution continue to be driven by enduring factors that, if left unaddressed, will allow the organization to continue its agenda of global terror for years to come.

The first factor that has endured for twenty years is al-Qaeda’s grand strategy, most succinctly codified by Abu Bakr Naji in The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass. In this treatise, three stages of strategy are outlined with the long-term objective of establishing a global Caliphate. First is the use of violence to create “regions of savagery” in which Westphalian nation-states are undermined. Next, the organization must justify its rule “rationally and through Sharia” with efficient governance to gain popular support amongst Muslims and recruit more followers. The final stage, dependent on the success of the previous two, is the establishment of permanent governing structures to create and sustain an Islamic state. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, al-Qaeda operated patiently. In early 2011, however, Osama Bin Laden’s thinking shifted with the advent of the Arab Spring, a development that, in his mind, catapulted the Salafi-jihadist movement from stage one into stage two. From then on, al-Qaeda oriented its focus on local insurgency and fighting the ‘near enemy.’ Soon after this shift from global terror to local insurgency, Bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces. While decapitation of the organization was considered a tactical success for the US, the array of al-Qaeda franchises carried on the gradualist and grassroots approach that we see today with varied success.

This leads to other enduring factors that have driven the organization’s evolution: namely strategic patience, opportunism, and adaptivity. In the past two decades, al-Qaeda has demonstrated impressive patience as it directed the Salafi-jihadist movement. For example, there were a number of opportunities in Yemen, Pakistan, and West Africa in which al-Qaeda could have sought immediate territorial gain. However, Bin Laden decided not to risk long-term loss for short-term gain and urged the leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates to push for cease fires and truces with local forces. Of course, one franchise in particular, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), refused to do so. Instead, in 2014, ISI accelerated the phases outlined in the Management of Savagery and went to work establishing a Caliphate in Iraq – a decision that precipitated the organization’s break with al-Qaeda in February of 2014 and ultimately led to its downfall. While the break with ISI created a new “near enemy” in the Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda adapted and allowed IS to take the brunt of the US counterterrorism apparatus while continuing its efforts to exploit geopolitical conflicts and grow its network from the Maghreb to Southeast Asia.

The final factor, and one that has proven to confound the coalition of nations fighting al-Qaeda, is the resilience of the group’s ideology. For decades, al-Qaeda has successfully promoted a narrative that the West is waging a war against Islam. Tragically, U.S. missteps have fueled the narrative rather than counter it, as evidenced by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the images released from Abu Ghraib prison and the use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”, and the indefinite detention of al-Qaeda members without trial in Guantanamo. Rather than countering extremist narratives, Washington and its allies have lent credence to them through sanctions, errant drone strikes, and supporting autocratic leaders that merely serve to exacerbate Jihadist grievances and bolster recruitment into their ranks. Thus, al-Qaeda’s fighting strength is exponentially greater today than in 2001. Estimates over the past few years suggest that al-Qaeda currently boasts between 30,000-40,000 members worldwide.

This is not to say that al-Qaeda does not face genuine challenges. The Global War on Terror eliminated many of al-Qaeda’s top leaders and substantially attenuated the organization’s ability to execute spectacular attacks and external operations against the West. The absence of another 9/11 scale attack reaffirms this success to date. However, as the United States reduces its military footprint in the Middle East and shifts its counterterrorism priority to focus more heavily on countering domestic violent extremism at home and responding to great power competition abroad, al-Qaeda and its vast network cannot be treated as an afterthought in terms of counterterrorism strategy development and resource allocation. The timing of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will offer significant opportunities to the organization, as the resurrection of a safe haven under Taliban protection could give the jihadists the operational space necessary to recruit, rearm, and reunify al-Qaeda’s robust transnational network. Thus, the United States should consider being selective with hard security commitments and more readily allocate sufficient resources to counter the roots of terrorism on which al-Qaeda has thrived: geopolitical chaos, a resilient ideology, disinformation, and sectarianism. To do so would require abandoning the hard security lens through which counterterrorism has been viewed for the past two decades and adopting an approach that implements preventive and rehabilitative measures, effective diplomacy, and digital literacy and resilience in vulnerable communities – measures which, unsurprisingly, are also required to counter other foreign and domestic terrorist threats of the day.

The evolution of al-Qaeda since 9/11 has had global repercussions for Salafi-jihadism and beyond. As the organization established its franchise network, the threat landscape expanded, now ranging from West Africa to East Asia. And along with the United States, the rest of the world has been forced to bolster its counterterrorism efforts with a greater need for accountability processes and rule-of-law based approaches, as evidenced in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Even beyond Salafi-jihadism, al-Qaeda’s attacks, leadership, and recruitment have also provided inspirationfor violent far-right and white supremacist extremist groups across the globe.

The forthcoming IntelBriefs in our 9/11 Series will explore these global perspectives in greater depth, and at the outset, we would like to thank all of our guest contributors whose insights have enriched the global discourse on terrorism and violent extremism and their root causes and dire consequences.