Think al Qaeda is Dead? Think Again.


Think al Qaeda is Dead? Think Again.

Jan 21st, 2013 10 min read
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.

President Obama’s stump speeches last fall, which often featured phrases like al Qaeda “is on the run” or “on the path to defeat,” were—like much of his overheated campaign rhetoric—prone to wishful thinking.

Yes, al Qaeda’s founder and leader Osama bin Laden is dead, but from the looks of it, al Qaeda is very much alive.

It’s true that over the years the American military and intelligence agencies have done a fabulous job of taking down “al Qaeda’s core,” those who planned, plotted, and trained in Afghanistan for the 9/11 attacks, and later found refuge in the Pakistani tribal areas. But the terrorist movement bin Laden led and the ideology he continues to inspire even after his death will likely remain relevant for a while.

According to a series of articles penned in November 2012 for The Washington Post and titled “The Permanent War,” among senior government officials at that time, there was “broad consensus that such [kill or capture counterterror] operations are likely to be extended at least another decade. Given the way al Qaeda continues to metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.”

That is not good news.

Based on the above, the notion held by some that the U.S. is standing squarely in a post-al Qaeda era in light of bin Laden’s death appears rooted in hopeful—even convenient political— thinking.

Americans will need to re-familiarize themselves with an al Qaeda organization that still poses a near-global challenge 10- plus years after 9/11. Perhaps nowhere is the recent spread of the terror group’s influence more alarming than in Africa.

African AL Qaeda Allies

When one thinks of security challenges in Africa, one does not usually think of terrorism, particularly al Qaeda. But the group’s affiliates are putting down roots in places like Somalia, Mali and Nigeria, making this large continent the source of new worries.

From a review of the situation in Africa, counterterrorism officials are right to be anxious.

In fact, an article last summer in The Washington Post noted that the rise of radical Islamist groups in Africa has “raised alarm that an explosive cocktail of rebellion, terrorism, and religious extremism could spill across borders.”

Worse, according to the New York Times, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, told reporters in 2011 that al Qaeda allies such as al-Shabab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram “have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners, and the U.S. specifically.”

Perhaps the best known of these evil terror triplets is AQIM, due to its likely involvement in the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last fall, which resulted in the death of four brave Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

More specifically, it is likely that a pro-al Qaeda group associated with AQIM, Ansar al Sharia, is the perpetrator behind the terror attack that destroyed the American consulate and the annex with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.

AQIM and its al Qaeda allies operate in the northern regions of Africa, where they seek to take advantage of instability and governance issues not only in Libya, but in Mali, too.

Al Qaeda-friendly Islamist groups like AQIM, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa actually now control territory in northern Mali, reaping benefits from a security vacuum and weapons that became available after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, assert some analysts.

According to a news report in the Chicago Tribune in November, the African Union estimates that in northern Mali there are “2,500-3,000 core fighters amongst the Islamists coming from Africa, Europe and Asia,” though the U.S. estimates are lower.

For a terror group, taking and holding territory is critical for them and unnerving for those they are targeting. It provides them with a base from which they can recruit new foot soldiers and hatch plots free from interference, as well as set the foundation for building a caliphate—or Islamic empire.

Further into the heart of the African continent, there is Boko Haram of Nigeria, whose name translates as “Western education is sinful.” According to some watch groups, it may have killed around 1,500 people over the last two-plus years.

Boko Haram, which seeks the overthrow of the government and the creation of an Islamist state, has attacked, among other Nigerian government targets, Christian churches. Some believe the terror group is finding safe haven across the border in Niger and Cameroon—and could spread instability throughout the region.

Al-Shabab, meanwhile, is conducting an insurgency in largelyungoverned Somalia but also operates elsewhere in East Africa. In 2010, it launched a bloody terror attack in Kampala, Uganda on fans watching the soccer World Cup. According to the State Department, al-Shabab was responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in 2011 alone.

Unfortunately, al-Shabab has some direct ties to the United States. It has been reported, including by the House Committee on Homeland Security, that al-Shabab has recruited a number of Somali-American youth to fight in Somalia. There is particular concern these young men may one day return home with unfriendly intentions.

Middle East Menace

Following the blows dealt to it by the United States and its partners in the last decade, there is little question that al Qaeda is rebounding in a number of areas of the Middle East, where instability and insecurity provide fertile ground for the terror movement’s minions.

Take Iraq, where al Qaeda has been making a comeback since U.S. and coalition forces left, leaving Iraqis to fill the massive security void left by the drawdown of American military and intelligence capabilities.

Retired U.S. army Gen. Jack Keane claims in an October Wall Street Journal opinion piece entitled “Al Qaeda is Making a Comeback” that “Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] has doubled in size in the year since U.S. troops left the country” at the end of 2011.

In October, CBS echoed Keane on AQI by asserting that “[N]ow, Iraqi and U.S. officials say, the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago to about 2,500 fighters. And

Pentagon data shows it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks a week.”

Unfortunately, al Qaeda activities in the Middle East are not limited to Iraq.

Syria has become a new battlefield for al Qaeda. Some believe that AQI has extended its Grim Reaper reach next door, adding to the bloodletting which has already taken the lives of nearly 40,000 Syrians by a few estimates.

Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper told Congress in early 2012 that some of the violence in Syria had “all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.”

In late October 2012, Amman’s security services foiled a major al Qaeda-linked attack targeting shopping malls and Western diplomats, possibly even Americans. The firepower was reportedly smuggled in from Syria.

Al Qaeda and its allies are using the Syrian war to hone their skills. Their presence increases the conflict’s intensity and presents multiple opportunities for on-the-job terror training.

Of course, there is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which calls Yemen home. Some experts see AQAP as al Qaeda’s most dangerous wing, responsible for at least three sophisticated terror plots against the United States over the last few years.

AQAP was behind the first “Underwear Bomber” plot, which attempted to bring down an American transatlantic flight over Detroit in December 2009, as well as a second, similar foiled plot, which was revealed in May 2012. AQAP also tried to mail explosives concealed in printer cartridges to the United States from Yemen, using commercial air freight shippers.

Today, AQAP has taken advantage of the political and security chaos in Yemen in the aftermath of the turbulent Arab Spring to seize territory in the southern part of the country, where it likely continues to hatch plots.

Steadfast in South Asia

There is also the part of the world where al Qaeda got its start, South Asia.

While U.S. and coalition forces have dealt a serious blow to al Qaeda in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan since 9/11, these hotbeds of extremism remain worrisome; the embers of radicalism could once again erupt into a bonfire of terrorist violence that could easily reach far beyond the region.

For instance, with the Obama administration leading the charge for exiting Afghanistan by the end of 2014, some experts expect—after U.S. forces withdraw—the Taliban and al Qaeda will be able to take and hold territory from Afghan national forces.

The concern, of course, is that the U.S. will find itself in a situation like the one prior to 9/11 in Afghanistan: The Taliban will once again have al Qaeda as a guest on Afghan soil, from which the terrorist organization will set up camps to indoctrinate and train fighters for attacks.

In October, Fox News reported that, despite small al Qaeda numbers, “[t]he group remains active inside Afghanistan, fighting U.S. troops, spreading extremist messages, raising money, recruiting young Afghans and providing military expertise to the Taliban and other radical groups.”

Pakistan’s tribal areas, which run along the border with Afghanistan, are not comforting, either. This region is already used by al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban as safe havens for attacks on U.S., coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Taliban has said, “NATO has all the watches, but we have all the time.” The point is that while Americans and their allies may come and go, the Taliban is not going anywhere—and can wait out the NATO drawdown.

Of course, these violent extremist groups do not just have their eyes on Kabul. They also have Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in their crosshairs. While a remote possibility, the toppling of the Pakistani government would be a major prize for al Qaeda and its allies.

Not only would al Qaeda come into possession of, perhaps, hundreds of nuclear weapons—a nightmare scenario in itself—it would put al Qaeda and its allies in a position to foster instability.

Homegrown Horror

Unfortunately, while Americans may like to think of al Qaeda as a far-away danger in places like Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, in truth, the terror threat can be very close to home, too.

Arguably, nothing worries American counterterrorism officials more than the violent extremists that are already in the country as opposed to those which come from places outside the U.S. Imported terrorists must at least navigate U.S. immigration, often at a border entry point, where a red flag can possibly be raised.

But the resident terrorist wannabes can fly below the intelligence or law enforcement radar. They may never have left the United States to go to a country of concern such as Pakistan or Yemen, which might set off alarm bells with counterterrorism officials.

Instead, they could become self-radicalized or inspired to terror duty right here in America, surfing Islamist websites which encourage violence while using a WiFi hotspot at a local coffee shop or from the privacy of their own bedroom.

The list of homegrown terrorists includes the likes of Jose Padilla, who wanted to explode a “dirty bomb” (a non-nuclear bomb that would spread radioactive material) for al Qaeda in 2002. Another example is Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent who—inspired by al Qaeda—came one spark away from detonating an SUV filled with explosives in New York’s Times Square in 2010.

Another example, of course, is the story of U.S. army Major Nidal Hasan, an active duty military psychiatrist, who tragically killed 13 and wounded nearly 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.

Hasan never attended an al Qaeda terror camp but followed the online radical writings of Anwar al-Awlaki, an AQAP leader. Hasan corresponded via email with Awlaki in Yemen, which led to his decision to turn a gun on his fellow soldiers, according to CNN.

Unfortunately, these examples are not unique. While not all of the 53 terror plots against the United States (from September 2001 through October 2012) have been of the homegrown variety, 43 of them fall into this category, according to research from The Heritage Foundation.

This means Americans are likely to see more of these types of terrorists as al Qaeda looks to recruit foot soldiers that are already in place, can operate without suspicion and are willing to take the lives of innocents for their twisted cause.

Complacency Concerns

Some analysts contend that al Qaeda cells or affiliated wings are residing in as many as 30 countries, according to The New York Times. The former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, in a November opinion piece in The Washington Post wrote:

“Although important, the killing of bin Laden did not end the war that began with Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to recruit from North Africa to Southeast Asia. The ideology of Islamist revivalism, rooted in a culture of grievance and victimhood, remains powerful. Newly elected Islamist governments in some Arab countries, such as Egypt, will most likely fuel hatred of the West as substitute for economic and social progress, just as Iran has done since the 1979 revolution. This, in turn, will continue to produce a steady flow of terrorists ready to kill Americans.”

Worse, some of these terror groups not only share an Islamist ideology, they are collaborating in the terrorist dark arts. For instance, the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage

Foundation experts and the BBC have expressed concern about ties between al-Shabab and AQAP, al-Shabab and AQIM, and Boko Haram and AQIM.

If accurate, this situation serves as a “force multiplier,” improving their operational and training capabilities while complicating efforts to deal with them.

Considering the threat a dispersing and evolving al Qaeda renders, what is equally—if not more—dangerous to Americans’ well-being is a complacent mindset that posits they are in a postal Qaeda world.

Of course, that is exactly what bin Laden’s acolytes want Americans—and others in their terrorist gun sights—to think.

-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First appeared in Townhall Magazine.