WASHINGTON — No terrorist group, not even the Islamic State, has had the fame and instant name recognition of al Qaeda.
But the killing of the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a CIA drone strike early Sunday marks a pivotal turning point for the global organization. Eight of its top leaders have been killed in the past three years and it is unclear who will succeed al-Zawahri.
However, al-Qaeda is in more countries and has more total fighters than it did on September 11, 2001, when it attacked the United States. Some of its franchises that have sprung up since then, particularly in Somalia and West Africa’s Sahel region, are on the rise, grabbing chunks of territory from weak governments and spending millions of dollars on new weapons despite a decade-long effort to weaken and contain them. .
None of these affiliates pose the same kind of threat to the American homeland that al-Qaeda did on 9/11. But they are deadly and durable. Qaeda’s East African affiliate killed three Americans at a US base in Kenya in 2020. A Saudi officer trained in Florida killed three sailors and wounded eight other people in 2019. The officer acted alone but was in contact with the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen as he finalized attack plans.
And as al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul suggests, al Qaeda and its leaders feel confident moving into Afghanistan now that the Taliban are back in control of the country, counterterrorism officials said.
“The question is not what does this do to Al Qaeda, but what does this do to the witch terrorists in Afghanistan?” said Brian Katoulis, vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute.
Al Qaeda is not the only global terrorist network in transition. A dangerous pre-dawn raid in northwestern Syria in early February by US Special Operations forces resulted in the death of Islamic State’s overall leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. ISIS fighters have returned to guerrilla warfare since the last remnant of its caliphate, or religious state, in Syria was seized by US-backed Syrian Kurds in 2019.
But al-Zawahri’s death has put the spotlight back on al-Qaeda, which had been largely overshadowed by its rising rival Islamic State, also known as ISIL, after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Many terrorism analysts said Saif al-Adel, a senior Qaeda leader wanted by the FBI for the 1998 bombings of two United States embassies in East Africa, was likely to succeed al-Zawahri. He is believed to be living in Iran.
“The international context is favorable for al-Qaeda, which intends to re-establish itself as the leader of global jihad.” UN report concluded in July. “Al Qaeda’s propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL as the key player in inspiring the international threat environment and may eventually become a greater source of directed threat.”
No country is under more U.S. scrutiny for an al-Qaeda return from Afghanistan. In announcing al-Zawahri’s death on Monday, President Biden said the strike would help ensure Afghanistan could no longer “become a terrorist safe haven” or a “launch pad” for attacks against the United States.
But the withdrawal of US forces from the country last August has put pressure on the military and intelligence agencies to monitor the resurgence of Qaeda with only limited networks of informants on the ground and drones flown from the Persian Gulf on “over-the-horizon” surveillance missions. ».
This spring, another UN report warned that al-Qaeda had found “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. The report noted that several al-Qaeda leaders were likely living in Kabul, and that an increase in al-Zawahri’s public statements and videos suggested he was able to lead more effectively and openly after the Taliban took control.
However, information shared by UN member states in the July report showed that al Qaeda did not pose the same immediate threat as the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.
“Al Qaeda is not considered to pose an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause international difficulty or embarrassment to the Taliban,” the UN report concluded.
Outside Afghanistan, distant al-Qaeda affiliates enjoyed local autonomy while adhering to al-Zawahri’s overall strategy. As a result, his death will likely have little impact on the day-to-day operations of the franchises, counterterrorism experts said.
“Today, Al Qaeda Central is very much an intellectual authority to guide — but not directly oversee,” said Rita Katz, the co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups online. “The global jihadist movement has proven resilient.”
Al Qaeda’s richest and deadliest affiliate today is Al Shabab, the franchise in Somalia and the rest of East Africa, military and counterterrorism officials said.
According to the most recent UN report, Al Shabab currently has 7,000 to 12,000 fighters and spends about $24 million a year – a quarter of its budget – on weapons and explosives and increasingly on drones.
And the threat is getting worse. “In my judgment, due to the lack of effective governance and counterterrorism pressure, al-Shabaab has become more powerful and emboldened over the past year,” said Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command. he told the Senate in March.
In the latest sign of trouble, nearly 500 Shabab fighters crossed into eastern Ethiopia last month and clashed with Ethiopian forces along the border, General Townsend said.
In May, Mr. Biden signed an order authorizing the Pentagon to redeploy hundreds of Special Operations forces inside Somalia — largely reversing President Donald J. Trump to withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops stationed there.
In addition, Mr. Biden approved a Pentagon request for standing authority to target about a dozen suspected al-Shabaab leaders. Since Mr. Biden took office, airstrikes in Somalia have been largely limited to those intended to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.
Together, Mr. Biden’s decisions resurrected a seamless American counterterrorism operation that amounted to a low-level war through three administrations.
Military officials said the total number of US troops with a “persistent presence” in Somalia would be reduced to about 450. This would replace a system in which US troops trained and advised Somali and African Union forces during short visits .
The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to try to reduce the threat from al-Shabaab by suppressing its ability to plan and conduct sophisticated operations, such as the January 2020 attack on a US airbase in Manda Bay, Kenya that killed three Americans. .
In the Sahel, the vast arid region south of the Sahara, fighters from both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have been fighting local governments in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso for years.
Despite the arrival of French troops and a UN peacekeeping force, the militants spread across Mali and then into neighboring nations. In Burkina Faso, to the south, nearly two million people have been displaced by the conflict.
Gulf of Guinea countries such as Benin and Ivory Coast have also suffered sporadic attacks as violence spills south. The Qaeda affiliate, known as JNIM, trains new recruits in Burkina Faso before redeploying them “to their countries of origin,” a UN report said in July.
The most serious terrorism concerns in Syria center on the thousands of Islamic State fighters in the country’s northeast.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have expressed concern in recent years about a Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Din, that they say is plotting attacks against the West by taking advantage of the chaotic security situation in the country’s northwest and the protection inadvertently provided by Russian air defense. Syrian government forces.
But recent US airstrikes, such as one in June in Idlib province that the military said killed Abu Hamza al-Yemeni, one of the group’s senior leaders, have eased some of the concerns.
For more than a decade, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has been one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations on the planet. The group spent years inventing explosives that were difficult to detect, including trying to disguise bombs in devices such as mobile phones. He tried at least three times to blow up American aircraft, without success.
But several of the group’s leaders have been killed in recent years, hurting its ability to orchestrate or conduct operations against the West, US and European counterterrorism experts say.
Clashes with rival Islamic State and Houthi rebels in Yemen have also weakened the group, whose full name is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Although the group has been reduced, intelligence and counterterrorism officials warn that the organization remains dangerous.