“I can announce to the American people and the world that the United States has carried out an operation in which Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, has been killed.” With these words, the US president, Barack Obama, revealed on May 2, 2011 the death of what had been the most wanted man in the world.
Ten years later, the terrorist organization that created and committed the worst attack to date remains a threat.
The disappearance of its leader did not end with Al Qaeda which, under the baton of the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, its ‘number two’, has managed to survive in a decade of changes on the world scene and also in the jihadist, mainly due to the irruption in 2014 of the Islamic State and its caliphate, and maintain the threat, thanks to its presence on several continents.
Bin Laden’s death occurred in the middle of the ‘Arab Spring’, a moment of turmoil in several Muslim countries that Al Qaeda knew how to take advantage of, focusing on the local situation in the different countries and the concrete discomfort towards its authorities, but without ever losing of in view of its objective of a global jihad that allows, ultimately, the establishment of a caliphate.
At the beginning of the last decade, the terrorist group, whose central nucleus was in the area of Afghanistan / Pakistan, had subsidiaries recognized in the Maghreb (AQIM), in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), in Somalia (Al Shabaab) and in Iraq. . Today, its presence has remained in these countries with greater or lesser success, and has spread to other areas, in particular towards the Sahel, where the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) operates.
Under the leadership of Al Zawahiri, who has always been criticized for his lack of charisma compared to Bin Laden, Al Qaeda has not only managed to overcome the loss of its leader, but has also survived the split of the Islamic State, whose Its origin was the branch in Iraq, and later the Al Nusra Front, which became the official branch in Syria after the schism with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
AL ZAWAHIRI KEPT THE GROUP UNITED
The veteran Egyptian jihadist got all affiliates to swear their loyalty to him and even in 2014 launched a new franchise, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and although he saw the Islamic State become the star terrorist group on the world stage, he knew how to avoid a bleeding with a massive transfer of combatants.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for keeping the network cohesive in such challenging times,” summarizes Tore Hamming, an expert at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), in a recent Lawfareblog article.
Although the loss of preeminence in the global jihad can be considered as a failure of Al Zawahiri, it is not clear whether had Bin Laden remained alive, the schism with Al Baghdadi would not have occurred, given the distancing that the group he led had starred in with Al Qaeda doctrine and practices.
And at the same time it had a beneficial counterpart for those of Al Zawahiri, since the anti-terrorist efforts worldwide focused mainly on the Islamic State, leaving Al Qaeda free to reorganize and consolidate, accelerating its “localization” and its ties. with local groups, supporting the population in their areas of activity and avoiding alienating them with their activities.
MORE FIGHTERS THAN EVER
“Today, Al Qaeda has more active fighters in more countries than ever. It has gone from strength to strength without sounding alarms in western capitals, building a popular base through its ‘localization’ effort while still pursuing its ability to target. carry out transnational terrorist attacks, “sums up Katherine Zimmerman, an expert at the American Enterprise Institute, in an article for the Hudson Institute.
According to The Soufan Center, Al Qaeda currently has between 30,000 and 40,000 fighters worldwide. The group has concentrated its actions in several specific scenarios: Afghanistan / Pakistan, the Indian Subcontinent, Syria, Yemen, East Africa, the Maghreb and the Sahel.
In the past, Zimmerman stresses, the main leaders of Al Qaeda, its central nucleus, were concentrated in the first region, where it is believed that Al Zawahiri would be found, but today “they are dispersed in the affiliates as well as in Iran and continue to offer the strategic lines to the leaders of the subsidiaries “. “The affiliates themselves continue to be strong, in many cases stronger than their counterparts in the Islamic State,” says the expert.
However, the fact that al Qaeda has not perpetrated large-scale attacks in recent years has generated a certain sense that the group is no longer the threat it once was, something that jihadism experts are struggling to refute. , especially at a time when the United States and its allies plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, where the leaders of the terrorist group continue to have a safe haven despite the agreement between Washington and the Taliban.
REMAINS A THREAT
“A decade after the death of Usama bin Laden, Al Qaeda remains a threat, one that could metastasize after the withdrawal of the United States,” wrote this week The Soufan Center, the think tank run by Ali Soufan, a A former FBI agent who was one of the first to investigate the terrorist group and its leader.
“The fatigue of the West with the so-called ‘endless war’ and the need to divert resources from the fight against terrorism to other national security priorities will ease the pressure on Al Qaeda,” warns Zimmerman, who stresses that “the group is waiting patiently to claim victory after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. ”
The organization that Bin Laden founded in the late 1980s has managed to position itself to return to the forefront of Salafi jihadism in the coming years, he warns, stressing that “the task of separating Al Qaeda from the communities in which it has been Consolidating is not easy “, as this localization strategy offers them “access to land, resources and potential recruits” and in many contexts even enjoys the approval of the local population.
RUMORS ABOUT AL ZAWAHIRI
But the terrorist group also faces an uncertain time regarding its leadership. In the last two years it has led to the loss of several of its leaders – among them Hamza bin Laden, son of its founder, or Abu Muhamad al Masri, its ‘number two’ – to which they have joined in recent months. rumors that Al Zawahiri himself had died or was very ill.
Al Qaeda published a message from Al Zawahiri a few weeks ago with which it a priori sought to offer proof of life but did not end speculation, since his comments on the persecution of the Rohigya Muslim minority in Burma were timeless. If the death of the Egyptian is confirmed, the next in line would be Saif al Adel, ‘number three’ in the ranks until just a few months ago.
Al Adel would be the logical successor, given his history in the ranks of Al Qaeda and his proven loyalty to Bin Laden, but the fact that he is in Iran – where part of the Al Qaeda leadership settled after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 – would be a problem.
“Iran would have significant influence over the al Qaeda emir and would likely impose restrictions on him,” says Hamming. “This would not only limit its control over the group but would make al Qaeda vulnerable to criticism from rival jihadists, who would discredit the group” since Iran is a majority Shiite country and the terror group is predominantly Sunni.
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