Al-Qaeda has had a tough year. Since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, the organisation has suffered a series of setbacks. On June 25, Ibrahim al Afghani, a senior terrorist belonging to Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, was killed in a drone strike in southern Somalia. On July 5, Saifullah, a 50-year-old Australian described as a key aide to bin Laden, was reportedly killed in a drone attack in Pakistan’s North Waziristan. On August 22, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaeda’s number two, was killed in another CIA drone attack in Pakistan. Then, on September 5, Pakistan announced the arrest of Younis al Mauritani, a senior al-Qaeda leader suspected of directing attacks against the United States, Europe and Australia.
This series of losses poses serious existential challenges for the organisation, and on the surface would seem to have forced al-Qaeda into self-preservation mode, rather than allowing it to expand and execute any major attacks against its stated enemies.
Such a view has prompted the United States to issue a number of optimistic assessments over its ability to defeat al-Qaeda once and for all. Indeed, on August 31, White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan described al-Qaeda as being ‘on a steady slide’, ‘on the ropes’ and ‘taking shots to the body and head.’ Newly-installed Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, meanwhile, affirmed that the US focus had narrowed to capturing or killing 10 to 20 crucial al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
And less than a month later, a more forceful pronouncement surfaced. Media reports quoting unnamed CIA sources have suggested that only ‘a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish’ al-Qaeda. According to these new assessments, 1,200 al-Qaeda militants have been killed since 2004, including 224 this year alone. Violence by al-Qaeda proper, the reports suggested, ‘as the global, borderless, united jihad’ may thus be close to an end.
But there are good reasons to believe this optimism should be tempered.
Notwithstanding the public posturing, a closer examination of some of the trends identified in several other assessments of al-Qaeda by US agencies suggests that the outlook for the organisation's capacity to survive – and even thrive – is not as bleak as some proclamations would have us believe.
For a start, al-Qaeda’s core leadership and structure is intact in Pakistan. Its new chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions, largely because of the safety the region provides. And even after Atiyah Abd al-Rahman’s death, attempts to target top leaders could prove difficult, especially with the ongoing bickering between the United States and Pakistan. Even with the September 5 arrest of Younis al Mauritani, which appeared to have introduced some much needed sobriety into the two countries’ bilateral relations, it seems unlikely that ties will return to normal anytime soon. This reality provides al-Qaeda’s leadership a chance to survive and regroup.
Second, while al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) might have been weakened considerably, the terrorist group’s Algerian-based North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), remains the organisation’s most dangerous affiliate. Indeed, then-US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in March that AQAP remains ‘the most active and at this point perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaeda.’
The 2010 US State Department Country Report on Terrorism released in August, meanwhile, highlighted the growing threat posed by AQAP, and noted the group’s capacity for hatching terrorist plots outside of its usual stomping grounds. AQAP was, for example, behind the failed December 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, and a 2010 plot to destroy several US-bound cargo planes.
Third, al-Qaeda continues to receive support from several anti-US regimes (Iran and North Korea – the so-called ‘axis of evil’ – being the prominent ones) which will likely help the organization survive the US military onslaughts. Iran has been accused by the United States of aiding al-Qaeda, and on July 28, documents filed by the US Treasury Department accused Iran of facilitating an al-Qaeda-run support network that transfers large amounts of cash from Middle East donors to al-Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan’s tribal region, debunking the myth that radical Shiites and Sunnis could never cooperate. The Treasury Department blacklisted six members of al-Qaeda working with Iran. Previously, Washington has also accused Tehran of supporting militias inside Afghanistan and Iraq that carry out attacks against US forces.