Five years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, taken by surprise at his fortified refuge in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by Navy SEAL commandos — this is the official version — and two years after the proclamation of a “caliphate” by its Islamic State rivals in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda remains an active and widespread organization, though it has suffered setbacks and has seen many of its leaders killed or captured.
Its attacks in Europe and Africa and its strength in Yemen and Syria confirm that the organization, able in 2001 to inflict the most devastating attack ever on U.S. soil, is still dangerous despite having lost one advantage to ISIS: the ability to attract new militants.
Born in January 2009, the Yemeni branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), with its tens of thousands of fighters is undoubtedly the most solid in the organization. AQAP has exploited the conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi Shiite rebels to expand its control in the south of the country. Led by Qasim al Raymi, the Yemen branch in January 2015 also claimed responsibility for the attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The other powerful arm of al Qaeda, the Nusra Front (7,000-8,000 men), commanded by Abu Mohammad al Julani, operates in Syria. Along with other jihadist formations, it controls major portions of Syrian territory: the province of Idlib, some districts of Aleppo and important areas in southern Syria and near the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel.
Well armed and composed of men trained and ready to sacrifice their lives, the Nusra Front is a real threat to the Syrian Army. The principal problem for al Qaeda in Syria is its rivalry with ISIS, which has often led to armed clashes. But it is possible that the need to better counter the government offensive by land and the air raids by Russia and the U.S.-led coalition will encourage the two parties to forge a military alliance.
Also active is al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), founded in 2007, when the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat proclaimed its allegiance to bin Laden. AQIM has attracted fighters from across the Sahara region, created bases in northern Mali, established drug trafficking networks and seized Westerners (some of whom were then executed). After the French intervention in Mali, AQIM has restored its strongholds in southern Libya and claimed attacks in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Mali.
Two years ago, al Qaeda announced the creation of an Asian branch, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which, besides having historical strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, operates in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Its strength is estimated at about 600 men but can count on the support of groups with thousands of fighters, such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
The violent Somali group al Shabaab also remains loyal to al Qaeda. Though it was ousted from Mogadishu in 2011, it remains a constant threat, even in Kenya where it carries out regular attacks.
Al Qaeda therefore maintains an extensive network five years after bin Laden’s death. But the organization’s weakness is its leadership. Foreign jihadists have joined en masse to the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, largely snubbing al Qaeda. Its leaders have been unable to overcome how effectively ISIS recruits and converts young Muslims into radicals across the West and Asia.
The Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took the place of Osama bin Laden in June 2011, remains a Salafist ideologue of the first order, who, first with the fight against Soviet communism and then against the United States, has inscribed global jihad with an eschatological perspective. At the same time, al-Zawahiri does not possess the leadership skills of the ISIS “caliph,” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
While two years ago, bin Laden’s successor sent appeals to his Islamic followers and occasional threats to the rest of the world through video recordings from his secret hideout, al Baghdadi meanwhile distinguished ISIS from al Qaeda, and then sprung into action by quickly erasing the colonial borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement and immediately proclaimed the “caliphate” that al Zawahiri believed premature.
Al Baghdadi and his men have skillfully used new communication technologies, putting together a formidable media war machine. They also managed to intercept generous “donations” from rich Gulf Wahhabis interested in achieving immediate goals — such as the fall of President Bashar al Assad in Syria and the end of Shiite power in Iraq — which remain anchored to the long-term (to say the least) realization of the “divine plan” that al-Zawahiri is always referring to.
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