After the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, a question has popped up frequently in debates at various think tanks in Washington: “Is Al-Qaeda dead?” On October 16, 2012, Peter Bergen, author of several books on Al-Qaeda, defending a debate motion that Al-Qaeda stands defeated, uttered: “In the US, an individual is ten times more likely to be killed by a dog than a jihadi terrorist.” Bill Roggio, a terrorism expert, countered: “Dogs... don’t plot attacks to kill Americans and to kill Muslims the way Al-Qaeda does.” Some analysts, buoyed by bin Laden’s killing, thought that Al-Qaeda is fragmenting.
In July 2011, Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary and former CIA chief on way to Kabul just weeks after bin Laden’s killing, predicted that the US is “within reach of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda.” However, the goal of Al-Qaeda’s strategic defeat appears thwarted by the diversification of its leadership at multiple levels. On 9/11, Al-Qaeda’s leadership was limited within Afghanistan; a decade later its organisational and decision-making capabilities have diversified across many countries.
At a March 12, 2013, hearing of a US Senate Committee, US National Intelligence director James R. Clapper observed: “Terrorist threats are in a transition period as the global jihadist movement becomes increasingly decentralised... The dispersed and decentralised nature of the terrorist networks active in the (Middle Eastern) region highlights that the threat to US and Western interests overseas is more likely to be unpredictable.”
Today, Al-Qaeda remains a much more vibrant terrorist group than it was a decade ago, as more groups follow it. Last January, Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of Mali-based Ansar Al-Din, commented on how a group joins Al-Qaeda: “the extreme belligerent logic against Muslims and their just issues, which has become the hallmark of international policy, pushes everyone to adopt Al-Qaeda’s manhaj (approach).”
Many Al-Qaeda affiliates do not get instructions and funding from Al-Zawahiri, but they share the jihadist objectives against the West. Despite the Al-Qaeda central damaged by bin Laden’s killing, several of its operational nucleuses appear dangerous.
With a track record of lethal attacks, the following groups are more dangerous than the dented Al-Qaeda central: the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of North Africa, Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia. Formally, only four groups are part of Al-Qaeda: ISI, AQIM, AQAP and Harkat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, but others work as allies. Some formidable allies include the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Mali-based Ansar al-Din, Boko Haram and Ansaru of Nigeria and like-minded groups in the Caucasus and Gaza. The jihadist groups share a singular goal: establishment of shari’a emirates in their operational domains, expected to eventually constitute a global Islamic caliphate. Western jihadists, including from the US, Canada and Europe, are in their ranks.
Recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat Al-Nusra, which comprises over 7,000 fighters including Chechens in Syria, have carried out deadly attacks. Reports indicate that jihadists of Indian origin from the UK are also fighting in Syria. While Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen of Somalia has come under pressure from an African Union force, AQAP and AQIM pose major threats to Western interests. Also, each of these groups consists of, not hundreds, but thousands of fighters. Jihadist groups are also exercising varying degrees of control over territories in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To imagine how Al-Qaeda will look like in ten years from now, consider these battlefields as combat training grounds for future terrorist commanders.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the jihadi infrastructure remains unharmed. The Al-Qaeda central group continues to survive in Pakistan. In July 2011, General David Petraeus, days before he handed over his command of Afghanistan, said that 50 to 100 Al-Qaeda militants are hiding in Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. However, this figure is misleading as it refers only to foreign militants, generally Arabs and Chechens, and not the locals. The Haqqani Network is launching spectacular attacks in Kabul and other cities. US officials have tried to depict the group as separate from the Afghan Taliban, but the Islamic Emirate led by Mullah Mohammad Omar has rejected such portrayals as US propaganda aimed at dividing the Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the chief of Haqqani Network, has stressed that his group is part of the Islamic Emirate. According to US officials, there are about 20,000 jihadi fighters in Afghanistan and about the same in Iraq, with no signs that the number is falling anywhere.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is dismissed as a Pakistani group, though its letterhead shows Mullah Omar as emir-ul-momineen, or leader of the faithful. It works alongside Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Party of Turkistan. Hakimullah Mehsud, its emir, was a member of the group that executed the bombing of CIA’s Khost base in 2009. Mehsud has reiterated that his group owes allegiance to Mullah Omar. Recently, he described the TTP as an international organisation. In May 2010, New York’s Times Square was attacked by a militant recruited by Mehsud. In early 2013, media reports indicate that the TTP is recruiting jihadists from as far as Fiji. In Pakistan, another group that works alongside the TTP and Al-Qaeda is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Protected by government leaders in Punjab, it is systematically killing Shi’ite Muslims, a goal shared by all jihadist groups. At his Senate testimony, James Clapper also warned that Lashkar-e-Taiba “will continue to be the most multifaceted and problematic of the Pakistani militant groups” and has the “long-term potential to evolve into a permanent... presence in Pakistan,” like Hizbollah in Lebanon.
The US appears safe due to the extraordinary work of its aviation security officials, not because Al-Qaeda has weakened. Recently, a UK-based Henry Jackson Society report, which profiled 171 terrorists convicted in the US from 1997 to 2011, argued that the US homeland continues to face Al-Qaeda threat.
Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC