The terrorist organisation that changed the trajectory of global politics through its spectacular attack on September 11, 2001 has survived, but just.
A decade has passed since Al Qaeda's founder Osama bin Laden was killed in an American raid in Abbotabad, Pakistan. In spring 2011, with the charismatic bin Laden gone and Al Qaeda’s ambitions for regional upheaval seemingly preempted by widespread revolts across the Middle East, optimistic predictions abounded that Al Qaeda stood to lose.
Pessimists, on the other hand, darkly warned that Al Qaeda would hijack the revolts and replace the Arab dictatorships with its own radical emirate. Neither prediction has transpired: though Al Qaeda certainly attempted to infiltrate various conflicts across the world, their inability to affect direct control and the emergence of competitors has left them with few material prizes.
Originate as it did as a diffuse network of militants, the Al Qaeda terrorist group had long been forced to attach itself to larger Islamist organisations and infiltrate or influence them; they infamously benefited from the Afghan Taliban emirate’s hospitality before 2001 and heavily influenced the most radical fringe of the Somali Islamic Courts Union to break away and form Shabaab in the late 2000s.
With the war on terror spreading to Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan, by the 2010s Al Qaeda had established several affiliates in key areas across the Muslim world, which it is possible to categorise into five rough hotspots.
Afghanistan-Pakistan: A headquarters under fire
During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda escaped into what was then the largely autonomous Pakhtun northwest of Pakistan, the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Agencies, where large-scale sweeps by the Pakistani army provoked a widespread insurgency from among the area’s clans by the end of the decade. By 2010, Al Qaeda had not only established links with the rebellious clansmen, but also with longstanding sectarian militias and even within parts of the “mujahideen” factions once patronised by, but increasingly irate with, the Pakistani state.
The government’s tacit outsourcing of the counterinsurgency to American drone strikes, which devastated the frontier, exacerbated the problem but also yielded the deaths of several major Al Qaeda leaders: within a year of bin Laden’s death, his Libyan aides Attiatullah Abdelrahman and the military commander Hassan Qaid. The Pakistani insurgent commanders – Qari Waliur-Rahman, Jamshaid Hakeemullah, Fazlullah Hayat, Ilyas Kashmiri, and others – would also one by one fall prey to airstrikes on either side of the Afghan-Pakistani border. In these circumstances bin Laden’s successor Ayman Zawahiri laid low and let the repercussions of the war play themselves out.
2014 proved a watershed year in several ways. As the Pakistani army launched a major assault that wrested control of the Agencies, the Pakistani insurgency also fragmented. Many commanders, led by Orakzai commander Saeed Khan, defected to the newly formed Daesh organisation. Scrambling to reassert Al Qaeda relevance, Zawahiri announced the foundation of a subcontinental Al Qaeda franchise. This was limited in scope, however, and in 2019 both its main leaders, Kashmiri defector Zakir Musa and Pakistani ideologist Sanaul-Haq Umar, were killed.
Yet Daesh’s arrival also strengthened, at least in public, solidarity between Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban insurgency, both of whom Daesh directly challenged. Al Qaeda rhetoric and Taliban battlefield prowess both opposed the Daesh regional franchise, whose leaders also fell prey to American airstrikes and which was tottering by the decade’s end. Therefore the successful Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan carries major potential value for Zawahiri.
Taliban leaders have not cut links with Al Qaeda but have also promised to bar attacks off their territory; whether their increased leverage over Al Qaeda translates into a more effective censure than in 2001 remains to be seen.
Iraq-Syria: Unfertile soil in the Fertile Crescent
By 2011, Al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing had become the major faction in the Iraqi insurgency. But it was also running out of steam, particularly after the American assassination of its leaders in April 2010. While its last emir Ibrahim Badri laid low in order to rebuild the organisation, a Syrian lieutenant called Ahmad Sharaa, established an Al Qaeda front within the recently formed Syrian insurgency. Ambitious and crafty, Sharaa would have a major impact on Al Qaeda’s fortunes.
The Nusra Front that Sharaa founded distinguished itself in the Syrian battlefield; by the mid-2010s they had established a valuable partnership with Ahrarul Sham and were even probing into Lebanon. Yet this prompted a costly break between the Syrian and Iraqi wings, in which Zawahiri refusedto put Sharaa under Badri’s control. An indignant Badri seceded the Iraqi Al Qaeda wing into what became known as Daesh, and in a lightning campaign conquered the Iraqi-Syrian borderland to announce himself caliph at Mosul.
Not only had Al Qaeda lost its infamous Iraqi franchise, but that franchise had outbid it by making a direct claim to caliphate.
Zawahiri’s woes were compounded when Nusra, pressured by other Syrian factions and targeted by both Russia and the United States, broke with Al Qaeda. At first dismissed by many observers as a facelift, the break was genuine enough that in 2018 a group of Al Qaeda loyalists, led by military commander Samir Farouq, broke away from Sharaa. By that point, however, the wily Sharaa had seized Idlib from Ahrarul-Sham and had a strong foundation. With two regional emirs having broken away, Al Qaeda had little to celebrate in a region where it had furnished major expectations.
Libya-Masr: The limits of camaraderie
If the Fertile Crescent proved unfertile for Al Qaeda, northeast Africa proved even more disappointing. Much of the founding Al Qaeda generation had cut its teeth in the Salafi opposition of the 1990s; Zawahiri had been a leader in the Gihad group that opposed Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, while such Libyan Al Qaeda commanders as Attiatullah and Qaid started their careers in the Muqatila insurgency against Muammar Gaddafi.
The downfall of both dictators – Gaddafi to a Nato-backed revolt in which Muqatila played a significant role, and Mubarak to a non-violent uprising – in 2011 certainly presented Al Qaeda with an opportunity.
Attiatullah is on record as having attempted to coopt Muqatila under the Al Qaeda banner, but met with refusal. One reason was that Muqatila was unwilling to jeopardise international support, which included Western powers, in the campaign against Gaddafi. Several Muqatila leaders occupied key political or military posts after Gaddafi’s downfall, which Al Qaeda’s insurrectionist ambitions further threatened to undermine. The upshot was that even as its former contacts enjoyed major influence in post-dictatorial Libya, Al Qaeda was unable to get a look-in.
The only affiliate that Al Qaeda managed to set up in the region was a modest front in the Sinai insurgency, founded by a Masri army defector called Hesham Ashmawy, though it was dwarfed by the regional Daesh franchises in Libya and the Sinai. Ashmawy himself moved to the eastern Libyan city Darna, then held by a highly fragmented array of Islamists, and was captured for execution when it fell to an attack by Khalifa Haftar’s Cairo-backed Arab Army in 2018.
Algeria/Mali: Unquiet on the Western Front.
Northwest Africa, by contrast, seemed for a tantalising period to provide Al Qaeda with a homegrown emirate. Al Qaeda had in the 2000s coopted an Algerian Salafi militant group, the Predication and Combat led by Abdelouadoud Droukdal, to serve as its front in the region.
By 2010, this front – led by such freebooting commanders as Khaled Belmokhtar – had established strong links in the Sahara desert, especially northern Mali whose Tuareg populace had a troubled history with the government. The downfall of the Libyan dictatorship came with a massive influx of weaponry and arms into the Sahara, on which the Tuareg rebels capitalised to seize most of the Malian north and found the shortlived Azawad polity by summer 2012.
Al Qaeda commanders Abdelhamid Ghadir, Nabil Mekhloufi, and Yahia Okacha participated in the revolt, allied to an Islamist adventurer from Tuareg nobility called Iyad ag-Ghali. They soon displaced more indisciplined Tuareg rivals and seized control in the Kidal mountains and the historic city Timbuktu, marking the first territorial Al Qaeda rule in the Sahara.
Yet this in turn provoked a major campaign in 2013, led by the colonial power France in league with Chad, that reconquered most of the north. The brittle rebel coalition fragmented, a small portion eventually defecting to Daesh. Painstaking Al Qaeda efforts to rebuild the coalition were plagued by the elimination of its leaders, including Droukdal himself to a French ambush in 2020.
The Sahara presents Al Qaeda with a conundrum in that there is no shortage of ungoverned territory and dissident movements on which to latch. But forming and maintaining coordination between these highly autonomous dissidents is a terribly tricky process, taking years of delicate negotiation to maintain yet easily lost.
Somalia/Yemen: Peaks and troughs along the Red Sea
As the 2010s began, the Red Sea’s twin shores constituted as promising a region as any for Al Qaeda. The Shabaab emirate controlled southern Somalia and even contested the capital Mogadishu. Meanwhile the woes of the tottering Yemeni regime enabled Al Qaeda’s franchise, aided by clans who had been antagonised by American airstrikes, to seize Zinjibar and Mukalla in the deep Yemeni south.
Yet the moment passed. Both Zinjibar and Mukalla were lost within a year of their capture, while the conquest of Sanaa by the Houthis prompted many of the clansmen who had joined Al Qaeda to switch their services to the larger Gulf-led campaign against the Houthis.
Meanwhile an African Union campaign in the early 2010s helped the Somali government reclaim much ground, including Mogadishu and Kismayo, from Shabaab. The emirate’s losses came alongside a ferocious internal purge by its autocratic emir Mukhtar Goodane, who was himself killed in 2014. Senior defections accompanied Shabaab’s decline, most notably Goodane’s rival Mukhtar Robow in 2017.
Unexpectedly, however, Shabaab has recuperated under Goodane’s successor Ahmed Omar. The group still holds a slice of territory around Jilib, while mounting devastating attacks on the capital. This can be partly explained by the missteps of a fragmented government – who, for example, bizarrely appointed former Shabaab spymaster Zakaria Hersi as spymaster even while barring such other defectors as Robow – but it also speaks to Shabaab’s resilience. In spite of Shabaab’s practical autonomy, this should come as a relief to an Al Qaeda in need of friends with benefits.
Alive, yet wilting
In the past decade, Al Qaeda have faced major disappointments, particularly the breakaway of their fronts in the Fertile Crescent and the challenge by the Daesh “caliphate”, which poached thousands of followers. Equally underwhelming was their performance in northeast Africa after the downfall of their old foes Mubarak and Gaddafi. Promising fronts along the Red Sea and the Sahara have been sharply cut to size, while Al Qaeda’s leverage with the Taliban movement has shrunk.
Ayman Zawahiri can take some comfort in the fact that his terror organisation has survived. But the overriding pattern of the 2010s was the loss of his control over Al Qaeda fronts, which to practical purposes enjoyed an autonomy whose loyalty is by no means guaranteed.
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