Twenty years after the terror group led by Osama bin Laden mounted the 9/11 attacks, counterterrorism experts say al-Qaida still poses a dangerous threat to the United States.
Though the “War on Terror” decimated large chunks of the terrorist network and took mastermind bin Laden out of the equation permanently, the group is far from defunct.
“I still think we have to be concerned,” said Kyle Shideler, a senior analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy. “They are one of the predominant threats that we face in this country.”
Jason Campbell, a policy researcher at RAND Corporation who served as country director for Afghanistan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2016-18, agrees that al-Qaida “remains the preeminent name or brand in international terrorism.”
“As long as that remains the case, there is always going to remain a threat and a fairly good one that given the space or, proverbially, oxygen to operate, that it could metastasize at a rate probably greater than any other competing organization,” he said.
According to a United Nations Security Council report published in July, the first half of the year “saw broad continuity” in threats posed by al-Qaida and its affiliates “along with heightened threats emerging in some regions,” particularly in Africa.
Steve Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, believes the threat al-Qaida poses two decades after 9/11 has diminished significantly and is a “shadow” of its former self. But he still wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another 9/11-style attack.
“There are certain areas you don’t want to engage in predictions: sports and terrorism,” he said. “Anything is possible if someone is determined and patient.”
Over the past 20 years, experts say global measures taken to combat terrorism have transformed how al-Qaida operates.
“It’s definitely a different world, post 9/11,” Shideler said. “But, I don’t think we can just immediately assume things will go right back to a Sept. 10 paradigm. We should not mistake that al-Qaida’s intentions haven’t changed, their desire to strike us hasn’t changed, and that they do still have advantages and resources in their corner. And one will be a Taliban-led Afghanistan.”
But Campbell says the al-Qaida of today is a “very different organization” in terms of how it is managed and run.
Before 9/11, for instance, al-Qaida enjoyed support from Muslim groups pushing the jihadist movement and several Arab Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia. Under the leadership of bin Laden, the group was focused on targeting the U.S. in large-scale attacks.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Campbell said the U.S. was successful in its efforts to push the Taliban out of power, along with targeting central al-Qaida leadership and degrading the group’s fighting forces.
He said the mission to kill bin Laden proved just how much of a risk the U.S. was willing to take to eradicate the organization’s leader, considered to be the world’s biggest threat.
While taking out bin Ladin delivered a devastating blow to the group – practically and psychologically – he said the al-Qaida brand still has been able to spread throughout the world.
Emerson noted that, because the group has become so fragmented, however, it poses less of a threat.
“There is no al-Qaida central anymore,” he said. “It’s been fragmented. It’s like taking a glass jar and smashing it into different shards. Shards can be dangerous when you pick them up, but they are nowhere near as dangerous as if you were to have one large Shard.”
When bin Ladin was killed, Emerson said the group had been stripped of its leadership, money, and safe haven.
But the group was able to rebound, and bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was promoted to lead the organization.
Shideler said the Egyptian leader al-Zawahiri took a different approach. Since the group no longer had a strong relationship with Gulf nations, al-Qaida cozied up to Iran instead. Additionally, instead of drawing attention to itself as it had in the past, he said al-Zawahiri implemented a new strategy: infiltrating areas closer to home.
While the Islamic State insisted on showcasing how large and spread out its so-called “caliphate” was, Shideler said al-Qaida began taking the opposite approach by hiding behind local movements spread out throughout the Middle East and Africa to make it appear that there were multiple groups rather than one large terror organization.
“There are a variety of actors in West Africa that are al-Qaida affiliated, but we don’t hear about them as being as large of a threat,” he said.
Shideler said al-Zawahiri strategically opted to target the “near enemy” in Arab and African states instead of going after “the far enemy of the U.S.” in order not to draw too much attention to the group.
Another change in strategy was a shift away from carrying out large-scale attacks. Shideler said instead of crafting a major attack, the group is “far more interested” in carrying out a “daily drumbeat of violence” in which one or two people may be injured or killed in a stabbing or shooting on the street.
The group was forced to stick with the lower-key strategy amid the coronavirus pandemic, particularly with most large gatherings canceled for more than a year. With lockdowns in effect worldwide, the Security Council report noted that terrorist groups turned to the internet to recruit members.
Overall, Shideler said al-Qaida is not as strong as it was, yet, in other ways, “they are stronger.”
With U.S. service members fully gone from Afghanistan and the Taliban back in control, experts believe the country will once again be a safe haven for al-Qaida.
Shideler said it’s likely that al-Qaida also will use the removal of U.S. service members to fundraise and recruit more soldiers.
“Withdrawing from Afghanistan will be viewed as a victory for them,” he said.
He expects the group to claim they defeated not one, but two superpowers — the U.S. and the former USSR, since, back in the 1980s, jihadists traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.
Shideler believes that the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida is “far tighter” than military analysts publicly will admit. Ideologically, he said the Taliban and al-Qaida easily gel, noting al-Qaida backed the Taliban’s desire to be a true Islamic emirate and members of the terror group often intermarry into Taliban clans to solidify their position.
“We have to absolutely be prepared that when the Taliban takes charge in Afghanistan that al-Qaida will ride back in with them,” he said. “I absolutely believe the Taliban will begin to collaborate and associate with al-Qaida once we depart.”
The Security Council report said al-Qaida aligned groups to dominate the northwest region of Syria with more than 10,000 terrorist fighters, and there is a fear that these fighters could be relocated back into Afghanistan “should the environment there become more hospitable.”
Campbell said the withdrawal agreement that the U.S. inked with the Taliban in February 2020 will limit the U.S. from being able to keep tabs on what is going on regarding any potential Taliban team-up with al-Qaida or terrorist organizations.
While the U.S. was very detailed and pointed in what steps it would take to leave Afghanistan, he said the agreement with the Taliban was extremely weak when it comes to ensuring the Taliban would break from its past working with terrorist groups.
Campbell said the deal essentially told the Taliban that, if it doesn’t attack the U.S., “we will effectively let you do whatever you want,” which leaves the U.S. in a “real predicament” when it comes to evaluating what is going on in the country.
“We have seen plenty of evidence over the last year-and-a-half that the Taliban have made no effort and aren’t being held accountable to break relationships with not only al-Qaida but other like-minded groups,” he said.
Campbell said the Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan is somewhat irrelevant because groups like al-Qaida “don’t need a lot of space to continue to become more and more dangerous.”
But even with the Taliban providing some safe room to move, Emerson believes al-Qaida will have a tough time strengthening because they have competition from other jihadist movements that weren’t around before.
“All of these groups are competing for the same dollars and recruits,” he said. “They are all competing for different slices of a smaller pie.”
Another factor that is threatening a contemporary resurgence of the group is its leadership structure. Currently, the status of al-Zawahiri is unknown. The Security Council report noted that, if he is alive, they believe his health is failing, which could mean a leadership vacuum isn’t far off for the group.
The Egyptian last surfaced in a video threatening Myanmar in March, but the video used dated footage, which only added to rumors that his health was declining – or perhaps that he was already dead.
“Leadership counts in terrorist groups in terms of charisma and recruitment,” Emerson said. “A lot of the leadership has been taken out.”
Because of that, Shideler said, determining whether al-Zawahiri is dead or alive is something that “keeps counterterrorism experts up at night.”