Much has been written about how Al Qaeda (AQ), is a shadow of its former self and how the end of the war against the terrorist organization is in sight. However, some leading European observers do not think this is the case. The excerpted article by a researcher from a top European think-tank, the Barcelona Center for International Affairs claims otherwise. The author provides a useful summary of the decades-long transformation of AQ, which enables it to survive, adapt and thrive despite the predominant focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and its affiliates. In addition, it is a gloomy assessment of the status of fighting Sunni violent extremist groups, as well as a pessimistic outlook for the future. The author notes that in the 20 years since 9/11, the number of jihadists in the world has at least doubled, if not tripled. He states that AQ has survived the death of Bin Laden, the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS, and attributes the group’s resilience to two critical and strategic moves by the organization: transforming itself into a decentralized global network and increasing its fronts where its branches can wage local ‘jihad.’
According to the author, the first change, evolving from a hierarchical and centralized organization to a decentralized global network, took place gradually as a result of the counter-terrorism efforts to destroy the group, which limited its communication capabilities. This took place at a time when the AQ brand was consolidated as the main global jihadist organization, and led AQ to alliances with local jihadists, giving birth to local franchises such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),. These alliances and local franchises enabled the “parent organization” to have branches in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, while giving the local groups prestige, finance and visibility due to their “Al Qaeda” label. In addition, given the conflicts in Libya, Syria, Mali, Iraq and Yemen, AQ gave strategic autonomy to local franchises, enabling them flexibility to benefit from these situations of instability. The second change is that AQ focused more on expanding locally in the last decade, and less on transnational terrorism. Instead of focusing on the United States and its allies, it focused on expanding in certain conflict zones. The author writes AQ’s “objective is now to fight against the ‘close enemy,’ …or regimes that are ‘falsely Muslim’.” He closes by claiming AQ is more active than ever, and that eradicating the organization remains elusive. Regardless of perspectives that write off AQ, it remains at the top of the list of some critical European analyses.
Thus, ten years after the death of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda demonstrates its resilience and capacity to adapt. Through a decentralized global network and a multitude of local franchises, the group remains more active than ever.
Source: Moussa Bourekba, “Al Qaeda after Bin Laden: decentralization and adaptation,” Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB- a top European independent think-tank based in Barcelona), May 2021. https://www.cidob.org/publicaciones/serie_de_publicacion/opinion_cidob/2021/al_qaeda_despues_de_bin_laden_descentralizacion_y_adaptacion
Al Qaeda has survived the so-called war on terror. A decade after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and two decades after 9/11, the organization is still active and operating as a decentralized global network.
…Neither the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor the assassination of Osama Bin Laden meant the end of the jihadist organization. In the two decades since 9/11, the number of jihadists in the world has doubled or even tripled. What’s more: AQ has survived the death of its founder, the so-called Arab springs and the rise of the Islamic State. How to explain? In large part, AQ’s resilience is due to two strategic changes initiated by its founder and meticulously implemented by his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri: the transformation of the organization into a decentralized global network and, as a consequence, the proliferation of fronts different where the different branches of the group can wage a local “ jihad”.
The first strategic change has to do with the structure of the organization: AQ went from being a hierarchical and centralized organization to a decentralized global network. After 9/11 2001, a surprising combination of factors led to this gradual change: on the one hand, counter-terrorism efforts to end Al Qaeda considerably restricted the acting and communication capabilities of the terrorist organization’s top brass. On the other hand, the Al Qaeda “brand” was consolidated as the main jihadist organization worldwide. Hence, alliances were woven between Bin Laden’s organization – turned into central Al Qaeda – and other jihadist organizations to give birth to local franchises. Thus, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was formed from the group led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi (2004), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (2007) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from the merger between the Saudi and Yemeni branches of the organization (2009) . In this way, the parent organization was able to have effective relays in Africa, the Middle East and Asia while various local groups
gained visibility, prestige and finances thanks to the “Al Qaeda” label.
Implemented a few years before bin Laden’s death, the decentralization strategy also became a priority for Ayman al Zawahiri, his successor. In a context marked by the US withdrawal from Iraq, the Arab springs and the subsequent conflicts in Libya, Syria, Mali, Iraq and Yemen, it was a question of giving sufficient strategic autonomy to local franchises so that they could react with some agility and benefit from these situations of instability. Thus, in 2012 AQIM, together with Ansar Eddine, took control of Northern Mali. A month later, the Somali jihadist movement Al Shabaab swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. In 2013, the Al Nusra Front – in the midst of the fight against the Syrian regime – made its affiliation to Al Qaeda official…
The second change, resulting from this dynamic of decentralization, is related to Al Qaeda’s own strategy: in the last decade, the organization focused more on expanding locally and less on transnational terrorism. In the 1990s, and with more intensity in the 2000s, transnational terrorism was a priority for Bin Laden’s organization: the attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (1998), New York (2001), Madrid (2004) and London (2005) are examples of the long series of large-scale attacks planned or inspired by Al Qaeda and directed against Western countries and interests. The objective was the withdrawal of the “distant enemy” (the United States and its allies) from Muslim lands. Instead, in the last decade, the group led by Al Zawahiri has been more dedicated to expanding in certain conflict zones; the objective is now to fight against the “close enemy”, that is to say against the regimes “ falsely Muslim”.
Through alliances with local leaders and jihadist groups – such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Ansar Dine and local groups in Mali, or Al Shabaab in Somalia – AQ pursues different strategic objectives such as territorial control (Syria and Yemen), the establishment of a protocaliphate (Mali) or planning terrorist attacks (Somalia and Kenya). Their strategy is less about exporting violence to the West and more about establishing their franchises locally, earning the trust of local leaders and populations, and ultimately managing territories. We have even seen cases, such as Syria, where the leader of the Front al Nusra declared that he did not intend to attack the West and prioritized his strategy of territorial expansion. In this way, and despite the fact that AQ lost dozens of senior managers of the organization in recent years, the group has more than ten local franchises in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and has tens of thousands of jihadists. with significant destabilization capabilities.
Thus, ten years after the death of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda demonstrates its resilience and capacity to adapt. Through a decentralized global network and a multitude of local franchises, the group remains more active than ever. Against this background, and in a context marked by the US will to close the “war on terror”, the eradication of the organization increasingly resembles an impossible dream.
- Original source: OEW Watch | June 2021 – Foreign Military Studies Office