Features | Security | South Asia

A Decade Later, Al-Qaeda Threat Real

Al-Qaeda has had a difficult year with the loss of bin Laden and other senior leaders. But discounting it as a threat would be dangerously premature.

By Shanthie Mariet D'Souza for

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.

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.

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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.

Fourth, a chemical or biological attack by al-Qaeda and its offshoots remains a genuine threat. Mike Leiter, who stepped down as director of the US National Counterterrorism Centre in July, said that despite the killing of bin Laden, there are ‘pockets of al-Qaeda around the world who see’ the use of chemical and biological weapons ‘as a key way to fight us, especially the offshoot in Yemen.’

While a biological attack may not end up claiming many lives, the new breed of terrorist that has been seen in recent years understands that killing even a few Americans can generate almost as much fear as the spectacular plots bin Laden supported. More worryingly, though, is the continuing efforts by terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons. 

Fifth, a substantial number of US citizens (including those with diaspora connections and networks) have been radicalized, with some having developed links with al-Qaeda. Such citizens could prove to be strategic assets for the organisation within the US homeland. As White House National Security Advisor John Brennan noted in a May 2010 speech, ‘We have seen an increasing number of individuals here in the United States become captivated by extremist ideologies or causes.’

Last June, meanwhile, two US citizens from New Jersey were arrested at New York's JFK Airport following allegations that they planned to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. The arrests reflect a growing trend in which radicalised Americans have become involved in terrorism-related activities.

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In addition, the presence and expansion of sleeper cells is a further troubling development.  A recent US congressional report indicates that al-Shabab has recruited 40 Muslim Americans and 20 Canadians to join its terror campaign in the African country, meaning there’s the additional danger that these individuals could try to return to the United States. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda is continuing to function through ‘sub-contracting’ to regional organisations, groups which are no less committed and lethal than their more infamous parent. Regional affiliates like al-Shabab are taking responsibility for carrying out attacks beyond their known areas of operation, including twin suicide attacks in Uganda in 2010, which claimed 79 lives.

Similarly, outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the Haqqani network and other Pakistani Taliban affiliated groups have expanded their horizons considerably, and are believed to have the capacity to replace al-Qaeda as the primary terrorist group in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Recent reports also indicate the creation of another al-Qaeda branch in Egypt, with a statement from a group claiming to be the newest al-Qaeda branch having been posted online as recently as last month.

Interestingly, in March this year, an anti-Gaddafi rebel commander in Libya admitted that his fighters included some al-Qaeda militants who had fought in Iraq. Such coalescence of regional affiliates, and the splintering and formation of new groups, would make the presence of these groups hard to detect and effectively counter.

The spectre of lone wolf terrorists adds to this complex web of threats. The failed plot to blow up an explosives-packed vehicle in Times Square last May was apparently the work of a lone  Pakistani-American, trained by the Pakistani Taliban, while the July 22 massacre in Norway further demonstrated the capacity for carnage of a lone, self-radicalised terrorist.

The reality is that the inordinate hurry to declare military victory against al-Qaeda, and even to write its obituary, is as much as anything to do with the financial difficulty of keeping going an unsustainable military effort against a dispersed enemy. Against the backdrop of rising US disenchantment with what is increasingly seen as a wasteful war effort, such public posturing undoubtedly boosts President Barack Obama’s re-election bid for 2012. Opinion polls suggest that American citizens are no longer interested in the country's overseas conflicts when there are such pressing economic difficulties at home.

Yet underplaying the latent but potent threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and then retreating in such a hasty manner when the conditions for such organisations to thrive haven’t been addressed, seems risky.  The existing infrastructure, training, funding and support networks – especially in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – still need to be reckoned with right now. The need to engage radical Islamists and focus on effective deradicalisation programmes as part of the counter-terrorism effort should therefore be clear. Such effort needs to be sustained and coordinated, and must be undertaken alongside host nations, not without them.      

Shanthie Mariet D'Souza is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.