Five Years On: Al-Qaeda Down But Far From Out After Bin Laden’s DeathMay 4, 2016 in al-Qaeda
The first of May 2016 marks five years of the death of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, however the network that he founded is far from dead despite suffering a series of setbacks.
While al-Qaeda has been replaced as the preeminent global jihadist power by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which has held on to territory in Syria and Iraq and has a foothold in Libya, experts maintain that al-Qaeda nonetheless remains a potent force and dangerous threat. Attacks, such as the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, France, and a string of shootings in West Africa over the last several months have shown that al-Qaeda continues to maintain the capabilities to carry out large-scale attacks. Furthermore, in Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda militants have taken advantage of the continued chaos to take control of significant territory, in some instances presenting themselves as an alternative to the brutality of IS rule.
When United States Special Forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, the militant group that he had founded in the late 1980s had been baldy damaged as many of its militants and leaders had either been killed or captured during the US’ “War on Terror.” Dissention grew within the jihadist ranks as al-Qaeda’s new chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, struggled to replace bin Laden. One of the militant group’s branches, originally al-Qaeda in Iraq, would later break away to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). After successfully capturing parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the group declared an Islamic “caliphate” in areas under its control, and would later call itself the Islamic State. Since then, IS has eclipsed its former partner, and many other global militant groups. It has drawn thousands of jihadists, both local and foreigners, to its cause and has claimed responsibility for attacks in Brussels, Paris, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabi and on a Russian airliner over Egypt – All of which have left hundreds dead. It continues to threaten European states with attacks such as those that were carried out in Paris and in Brussels. IS’ self-declared “emir” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also won pledges of allegiance from extremist groups across the Middle East and in Africa. Powerful IS affiliates operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in Libya have carried out a string of deadly attacks, with growing international concerns that the jihadist group is spreading from the Middle East into Africa and beyond. Experts have noted that IS has been especially effective at using new technology to surpass al-Qaeda, which has been less tech-savvy. According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Paris-based expert on Islam and jihadist groups, “al-Qaeda propaganda has become invisible on social networks thanks to the media war machine that Daesh (IS) has managed to successfully create,” adding, “al-Qaeda has lost everywhere to Daesh, except in the Sahel” desert region of northern Africa.
Other experts however, such as William McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington, note that while al-Qaeda has lost some ground to IS, the organization has recovered, noting that “al-Qaeda has a strong showing in Syria and in Yemen.” In Syria, the group’s local affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, is one of the strongest forces that is fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The group also holds large parts of the northern province of Idlib. Meanwhile in Yemen, the local branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has seized significant territory in the south and southeastern regions of the country as the Yemen government struggles against Iran-backed Shi’ite insurgents who have taken control of the capital city Sanaa and other areas of the country. AQAP did however suffer a significant setback in late April 2016 when Yemeni troops recaptured the key port city of Mukalla, which it had occupied for more than a year. McCants notes that despite this loss, AQAP remains the key jihadist force in Yemen as it has thousands of members compared with only several hundred who are affiliated with IS. AQAP, which is considered by Washington to be al-Qaeda’ most well-established and dangerous branch, has also claimed responsibility for one of the group’s most important attacks abroad in recent years. In January 2015, gunmen stormed the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. That assault, which was claimed by AQAP, killed 12 people.
Since November 2015, Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Sahel region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has carried out a string of deadly assaults on hotels and restaurants in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, which have left dozens dead, including many foreigners. In March, New York-based intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group disclosed that the attacks in West Africa “have reasserted the regional presence of AQIM and shown its expanding reach…AQIM has used the attacks to challenge the influence of the Islamic State, to demonstrate and build its local support and to show that it is united after earlier damaging divisions.”
The International Crisis Group notes that while IS has reshaped the jihadist landscape, al-Qaeda “has evolved,” noting that its branches in North Africa, Somalia, Syria and Yemen “remain potent, some stronger than ever.” The United States also continues to see al-Qaeda as a major threat, as has been exemplified in Yemen, where the US is pursuing a vigorous drone war against the group. The strikes have killed many senior operatives, including al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Nasir al-Quhayshi in June 2015. In March, a US strike on an AQAP training camp in Yemen killed at least 71 recruits. In Somalia, the US has also carried out a string of drone strikes against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is trying to topple the western-backed government in the capital Mogadishu.