Will al Qaeda Make a Comeback?

The Factors That Will Determine Its Success

A fighter of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, rides in an armoured vehicle southwestern Aleppo, Syria, August 2016.  Ammar Abdullah / REUTERS

Although the United States has focused its efforts on defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), al Qaeda has quietly lingered on and is attempting to make a comeback. But whether it will succeed is up for debate. Assessments about its future vary between two broad camps. Some, such as Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman, maintain that the group has been in decline because of limited popular support, effective counterterrorism efforts by the United States and other countries, and al Qaeda’s killing of Muslim civilians. He concludes that there is “good reason to be optimistic that al Qaeda’s decline is for real and might even be permanent.”

Others, such as former FBI agent Ali Soufan, disagree. Soufan contends that al Qaeda is transitioning from a small terrorist outfit with struggling affiliates to a potent transnational network of branches that has gained in numbers and fighting strength and now spans the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argues that the group has “emerged stronger by pursuing a strategy of deliberate yet low-key growth.”

But many such predictions about whether al Qaeda will resurge or further decline are presumptuous because they fail to identify the most important factors that could impact its trajectory. Al Qaeda’s past strength has never been linear, but has waxed and waned based on such factors as the collapse of governments in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Consequently, the initial task in analyzing al Qaeda’s future is a methodological one: to identify those factors that could affect its future path. Most of the debate about the future of al Qaeda or the Islamic State has lacked such an analytical approach, and policymakers and academics have too quickly jumped to conclusions about whether al Qaeda will strengthen or weaken, which is mostly guesswork.

In this regard, al Qaeda’s revival will likely hinge on its ability to take advantage of future opportunities such as the

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