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Al Qaeda's Challenge
WILLIAM MCCANTS is an analyst at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths From Antiquity to Islam.See more by this author
Following the assassination of bin Laden and several of his most capable operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda has largely shifted its attention away from Central and South Asia to Somalia and Yemen. In Somalia, the militant group al Shabab, engaged in a long struggle to conquer the country, formally joined al Qaeda in February to staunch recent losses at the hands of intervening armies. Although it remains unclear whether the entire organization endorsed the merger, al Qaeda can now likely count large parts of Somalia as its own. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the front group of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Sharia, has exploited the country’s political turmoil to capture territory in the south. The organization quickly began providing basic services to the inhabitants of captured areas, documenting its efforts as part of a savvy public relations campaign.
With its attention focused on its insurgencies around the Gulf of Aden and its top commanders imprisoned or killed, al Qaeda has proven unable to replicate the large-scale operations that it once conducted in the United States and Europe. Weakened and disorganized, the group has turned to calling on supporters to commit lone-wolf attacks -- calls that have largely gone unanswered. Those few attacks that have succeeded, such as the recent shooting spree in Toulouse, France, did kill innocent civilians, but caused nowhere near the same carnage as the Madrid train bombings or September 11th. Nevertheless, Western governments and media remain worried that the propaganda activity of al Qaeda supporters on the Internet, such as images portraying New York City as a terrorist target or the Twitter activity of al Shabab, will translate into attacks on the homeland.