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If al Qaeda were a corporation today, it would be roughly equivalent to Microsoft: A big name but an aging brand, one now strikingly out of touch with the 18–35-year-old-demographic. The group made its way back into the headlines this past January, after its affiliate—al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP—took credit for a deadly attack on the Paris offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. But the claim of responsibility came a week after the fact, and lacked the sort of insider accounts or video footage that typically accompany such announcements, leading some to conclude that al Qaeda may not have known about the attackers’ intentions.
Put simply, al Qaeda’s traditionally preeminent position in the jihadi hierarchy, long on the wane, is slipping still further. U.S. officials, for their part, are increasingly focused on the Islamic State, or ISIS, which continues to deliver a steady flow of battlefield victories and brutal beheadings. Yet al Qaeda has a clear path back to contention: a dramatic follow-up to the Hebdo attack. And with the group’s need for a win so great, Washington would be mistaken to count it out.
Al Qaeda’s latest chapter began with the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Shortly thereafter, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as al Qaeda’s global leader, found himself facing numerous constraints. Aggressive U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts, buoyed by a deadly drone campaign, forced top al Qaeda commanders into hiding, limiting Zawahiri’s ability to communicate with al Qaeda’s affiliates. Based in Pakistan rather than in Iraq, Zawahiri and his senior commanders lost touch with many fighters in Iraq. And with bin Laden dead, resources became tighter. Al Qaeda’s affiliates, which were now receiving less guidance and fewer resources from al Qaeda central, took on a new level of independence. Some four years later, al Qaeda is essentially a collection of relatively small, though still capable, affiliates.
AQAP, under the leadership of Nasir Wuhayshi, remained loyal to Zawahiri after bin Laden’s death. But with Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s senior leadership under siege from the drones in Pakistan, AQAP effectively became al Qaeda central. AQAP came close to executing three plots against Western targets, in 2009, 2010, and 2011. And it became the first affiliate to build its own insurgent force, Ansar al Sharia, which aimed to establish an Islamist emirate in Yemen.
In Zawahiri’s absence, other affiliates began to look to AQAP for guidance. Among them was al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, which was making a separate push for an Islamic emirate in northern Africa. By the spring of 2012, AQAP had sent the group’s leaders two instructional letters, one in May and another in August, covering both tactics and strategy.
AQAP further cemented its role by essentially creating its own affiliate, al Shabaab, in Somalia. Zawahiri confirmed al Shabaab’s membership in al Qaeda in February 2012, but evidence suggests that the group had little interaction with al Qaeda central. Omar Hammami, an American member of the group, noted in his biography that al Shabaab’s al Qaeda contacts came from Yemen rather than Pakistan. And even a senior al Shabaab leader, Sheikh Ali Muhamud Raage, seemed confused, at one time publicly stating that the group was joining AQAP.
Al Qaeda central, meanwhile, has continued to struggle. In Pakistan, the U.S. drone program has kept Zawahiri tied down and led to an exodus of his senior deputies to Egypt, Libya, and Syria in search of refuge and new opportunities. Despite the overthrow of a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt—a confirmation of al Qaeda’s narrative—the group has failed to gain traction there. Its so-called Nasr cell, which has allegedly plotted various attacks in the country, was disrupted in 2013, and its operatives in the Sinai have suffered losses at the hands of the Egyptian military and an attrition of followers to ISIS.
Today, the Syrian conflict represents al Qaeda’s greatest challenge. And here, too, al Qaeda’s performance has been lackluster. Zawahiri dispatched top veterans to Syria, forming the so-called Khorasan unit under the flag of their affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. But those operatives have become embroiled in a deadly turf war with ISIS, which has used suicide bombers to target senior al Qaeda commanders. Even with ISIS under fresh pressure from an aggressive U.S. air campaign, al Qaeda has been unable to win a position at the top of the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Had bin Laden and Zawahiri been holed up in remote tribal lands in 1994 rather than in 2004, they never would have been able to sustain their global network of affiliates or inspire far-flung supporters. But after 9/11, the expansion of the Internet provided bin Laden and his deputies the means to transmit their ideology, disseminate propaganda, communicate with subordinates, and guide new recruits from the remotest of locations. Al Qaeda’s password-protected forums became a global dissemination platform linking like-minded jihadis from all over the world.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a commander of al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, took jihadi Internet use in a new direction. The group’s online outreach activities tell their own story: Content shifted from still-motion shots of a finger-waving bin Laden to videos of violent assaults and bombings targeting U.S. soldiers. YouTube became the first two-way engagement platform for all jihadi supporters to chime in and promote the battlefield heroics of Zarqawi and company—not necessarily al Qaeda central.
But it was Al-Awlaki, based in Yemen, who brought al Qaeda its greatest online success. The American cleric’s online preaching, one-to-one communication with Western jihadis, combined with the dissemination of the English jihadi magazine Inspire provided al Qaeda with new recruits in the West. But Awlaki’s death in 2011, along with that of his online provocateur, American Samir Khan, dealt a major blow to al Qaeda’s Internet footprint. Subsequent issues of Inspire have been less frequent, of lower quality, and largely overshadowed by the new media prowess of ISIS.
Bin Laden’s death, coupled with the expansion of social media, opened the floodgates. Until 2011, respect for bin Laden and al Qaeda’s use of controlled forums kept al Qaeda’s message synchronized and its supporters in line. Not so under Zawahiri, and amidst the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Suddenly, any jihadi supporter regardless of ideological credentials could lead jihadi discussions, challenge al Qaeda’s direction, or lead his or her peers to support one campaign over another.
Online, the meaning of global jihad shifted from an emphasis on violence as a means of pursuing an Islamic state (an approach advocated by al Qaeda) to statehood as a means of pursuing violence (one championed by ISIS). Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter who defected from al Shabaab, signaled this shift best when he was on the run from the group’s leader. “Terrorism is a staple so long as shari’ah is followed. Post-aq = broadbased jihad,” he tweeted in January 2013.
It increasingly appears that young jihadis have moved on from al Qaeda, more inspired by the violence of the Syrian conflict than the Islamist cause. In Syria, al Qaeda has applied its favored approach of behind-the-scenes capacity maneuvering, working primarily through senior envoys embedded with Jabhat al Nusra. ISIS, by contrast, has taken to the Internet with some of the most brutal jihadi content to date. In a break with tradition, Zawahiri began issuing his guidance and directives openly to bypass disobedient subordinates in September 2013, but it has largely failed to keep pace with ISIS in building a younger following.
Bin Laden’s al Qaeda, unlike its new challengers, achieved notoriety primarily through its spectacular attacks on Western targets—successes the group has failed to replicate in recent years. Attacks on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salam and Nairobi 1998, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, the 9/11 attacks, and the London bombings of 2005 set a high bar. Al Qaeda’s supporters have been waiting for an equal success, but no such attacks have occurred in a decade.
To avoid becoming completely marginalized, al Qaeda could move in a number of different directions. First, the group could match ISIS in declaring its own state. But al Qaeda’s recent failures in northern Africa, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen suggest that it lacks the capacity to undertake such an effort, although the recent collapse of the Yemeni state could provide an ideal opportunity to seize territory. Second, al Qaeda could pick up the pace of its attacks on Western targets in the hope of reclaiming the spotlight and reestablishing its resource and recruitment base abroad. ISIS provides a model here, too: the Charlie Hebdo attack was evidence that terrorist groups no longer need to plan complex, spectacular bomb plots when two armed individuals can achieve similar results. Third, al Qaeda could give up its independence entirely and join ISIS, effectively recognizing that its time has passed and the hearts and minds of young disenfranchised Muslims have sided with an even more violent strain of jihad. This outcome is unlikely, of course. Al Qaeda recognizes that ISIS’ brand of jihad is more alienating to mainstream Muslims. And Zawahiri, so long as he lives, will likely never bend to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
All of these potential outcomes could result in major harm to Western countries. And so the United States and its allies must remain vigilant. Counterterrorism efforts against the group should continue apace, with a focus on al Qaeda’s external operations groups in Yemen and Syria. Western intelligence agencies should also use clandestine operations to sow more discord between al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan, degrading both groups’ capacity and popular support. And Western governments should prepare to counter more plots modeled on the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The coming months will be telling. If al Qaeda wants to be more than a chapter in the jihadi history books, it will try to author a bloody new installment. Otherwise, it will become nothing more than the group that spawned the Islamic State.