Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Al-Qaeda After the Arab Spring: A Decade of Expansion, Losses, and Evolution

Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Protestors chant as they ride on an army tank transporter in Tahrir Square on January 29, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Protestors chant as they ride on an army tank transporter in Tahrir Square on January 29, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Ten years ago, when popular uprisings and regime change ricocheted through the Arab world, many in the West wrote off al-Qaeda as irrelevant. What the Arab Spring protests stood for—democracy and better governance, not Islam and different governments—were inimical to al-Qaeda’s aims. U.S. counterterrorism pressure had already diminished the threat from al-Qaeda.1 The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 was trumpeted as the nail in al-Qaeda’s coffin. U.S. government officials soon thereafter described al-Qaeda as “on the ropes,” a shadow of its former self, and a movement on the verge of collapse.2 Yet al-Qaeda’s leaders saw opportunities in the uprisings as Sunni populations mobilized against their governments. These jihadists sought to redirect the revolutions toward al-Qaeda’s purposes. Al-Qaeda prioritized building and expanding its popular base in the conflicts that followed the Arab Spring, focusing locally without losing sight of its global jihad.

Al-Qaeda sees itself as the vanguard for Islam and the Salafi-jihadi movement.3 It seeks to reform Muslim societies under its narrow interpretation of shari’a (Islamic law)-based governance and frames its fight as defensive jihad, arguing that armed force is obligatory because Islam is under attack. The group seeks to unify the umma, the global Muslim community, in a struggle to lead revolutions across the Muslim world, replacing so-called tyrannical and infidel regimes and imposing governance following a Salafi interpretation of Islam. Ultimately, it seeks the reestablishment of the Caliphate in Muslim lands. Terrorism is only one of its means toward this end.

The Arab Spring revolutions served to re-initiate al-Qaeda’s efforts to overthrow the governments of Muslim-majority states. Breakdowns in governance and security created inroads for al-Qaeda to gain influence within vulnerable communities as counterterrorism pressure lifted. Paradoxically, al-Qaeda benefited further from the rise of the Islamic State, which, though it contested al-Qaeda’s status as the vanguard, galvanized the global Salafi-jihadi movement and drew the focus of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations. Al-Qaeda strengthened in the Islamic State’s shadow, eschewing transnational terror attacks that would shine a spotlight on it again, and pursued its larger strategic aim of transforming Muslim society.4 U.S. officials once again characterize al-Qaeda as on the verge of collapse, with the “contours of how the war against al-Qaeda ends” visible.5 Yet misconstruing the absence of terror attacks for weakness misunderstands al-Qaeda’s ultimate aims.

Al-Qaeda on the Eve of the Arab Spring

After nearly a decade of sustained counterterrorism pressure in Afghanistan and elsewhere, al-Qaeda was stronger at the start of 2011 than it was when it conducted the September 11 attacks. The “core” al-Qaeda group, which the U.S. government defined as the Pakistan-based senior leaders and a surrounding cadre of operatives, had been degraded.6 But al-Qaeda had established an operational presence in other theaters—Iraq, the Maghreb, and the Arabian Peninsula—through directly affiliated groups while also associating itself with groups in Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Its senior leaders and veteran operatives had dispersed with clusters in places like Iran and Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, provided strategic direction to al-Qaeda’s network and ensured that al-Qaeda, wherever it was, continued the jihad, including through transnational terror attacks.7

Al-Qaeda functioned as a global organization with a decentralized and networked hierarchy.8 A formal bureaucratic hierarchy sat at the helm of this organization, headed by Osama bin Laden, with Ayman al-Zawahiri as his deputy. Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, who constitute its global leadership, oversaw the operations of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan-Pakistan as well as the three publicly recognized affiliates. Many contemporary assessments in 2010 and 2011 wrongly distinguished the so-called core group from the affiliates, dismissing al-Qaeda as weakened while citing concerns about rising threats from its peripheries. Some argued that al-Qaeda, referencing the core, was almost irrelevant; bin Laden’s vision still inspired followers, but the al-Qaeda brand was just a label for attacks targeting the West.9 They cited al-Qaeda’s diminished capacity and argued that the need to survive under U.S. counterterrorism pressure “consumed” the group’s attention.10

Yet the affiliates were no less “al-Qaeda” than the al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan-Pakistan. The leaders of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were previously members of the U.S.-government-defined “core” group before 2001.11 Osama bin Laden accepted pledges of loyalty, bay’a, from the leaders of what al-Qaeda recognized as al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (more commonly, al-Qaeda in Iraq) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in effect establishing those affiliate leaders as equals to other members of al-Qaeda’s organization. These affiliate leaders followed directives from al-Qaeda’s senior leaders.

The global network’s operational focus was outward against the West, its “far” enemy. Osama bin Laden framed the West and particularly the United States as the enemy that propped up corrupted regimes in Muslim lands and prevented Muslims from determining their own governments. Cutting these regimes’ lifeline by weakening the West and compelling it to withdraw from the Muslim world, bin Laden argued, would precipitate the eventual overthrow of these regimes. Al-Qaeda senior leaders directed their followers to undermine American influence through direct attacks on Americans and American interests, attacks on American “agents” such as U.S.-aligned governments, and by subverting the U.S. economy.12

Al-Qaeda thus targeted American and other Western interests in Muslim lands as well as in the United States and Europe. After 9/11, al-Qaeda struck trains in Madrid in 2004, killing 191 people, and then the Underground and a double-decker bus in London in 2005, killing 52 people.13 The shoe-bomber Richard Reid and underwear-bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab each smuggled explosives past airport security, seeking to bring down commercial airliners in December 2001 and 2009, respectively.14 Al-Qaeda bombed American hotels in Amman, Jordan, in 2005, killing 57 people.15 Less spectacular attacks and failed attempts are scattered throughout the decade.16

Yet al-Qaeda also continued to fight locally against its “near” enemies: the regimes that governed Muslim-majority states. By the end of 2010, al-Qaeda’s most dangerous and successful affiliate was AQAP. AQAP, whose size the U.S. government estimated at the time as several hundred fighters, had been behind two attacks on the U.S. homeland and multiple attacks on U.S., British, Saudi, and Yemeni targets in the region.17 AQIM was conducting small-scale attacks under significant pressure in Algeria but had just attempted its first vehicle-borne suicide attack in Niger followed by one in Mauritania. Its most visible activities were kidnappings-for-ransom targeting Europeans in the Sahel. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was a shell of what it had been but conducted regular attacks against Iraqi security forces. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda faced increasing pressure from a U.S. drone campaign but received support from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Al-Shabaab in Somalia, which had declared its allegiance to bin Laden but was not yet recognized as al-Qaeda, controlled most of south-central Somalia and contested the Somali government’s few blocks of control in the capital.18

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda senior leaders were concerned with how the prosecution of their near war affected the local populations’ sympathies. An undated letter to senior leader Atiyah Abdul Rahman called on him to tell AQIM’s leaders that their “job is to uproot the obnoxious tree by concentrating on its American trunk” rather than being “occupied with local security forces” and to warn AQAP against targeting Yemeni security forces.19 In a May 2010 letter, bin Laden expressed concerns over the “miscalculations” of local groups in killing Muslim bystanders in their attacks.20 He advised prioritizing attacks inside the United States, as well as active theaters like Afghanistan, and then attacks targeting American interests in non-Muslim countries with the origins masked.

Al-Qaeda’s narrative began to shift fundamentally by the start of 2010 as “individual jihad” became a central theme.21 In 2004, an al-Qaeda strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri, had published a lengthy treatise calling for a global wave of jihad initiated independently by individual or small-group cells of Muslims under al-Qaeda’s strategic guidance.22 Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic Yemeni-American cleric, accelerated al-Qaeda’s evolution toward this approach.23 Awlaki’s lectures on jihad were readily accessible online in colloquial English. He spearheaded al-Qaeda’s first English-language magazine, Inspire, which placed the ideological justifications next to jihadi how-to manuals for individual attackers.24 However, the absence of any real support for al-Qaeda (and Salafi-jihadism more broadly) among Muslims at the time limited the impact of this message to a limited pool of radicalized individuals.25

The Arab Spring Accelerates al-Qaeda’s Localization

The eruption of anti-government protests that spread across the Arab world in early 2011 caught al-Qaeda senior leaders off-guard and unprepared to respond to the rapidly unfolding collapse of regimes. Al-Qaeda had no role in these popular uprisings nor in shaping the people’s demands for what came next. Senior leaders scrambled to react and remain relevant, especially after losing the group’s charismatic founder, Osama bin Laden, in May 2011. The Arab Spring accomplished what al-Qaeda had never been able to do itself: mobilize the Sunni masses against the Arab regimes. Yet the instability that followed the uprisings presented opportunities for al-Qaeda, which shifted its narrative and prioritized building local relationships to advance its operational objectives within the Muslim world.

The peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt undercut al-Qaeda’s central premise that these regimes could be overthrown only after weakening the United States—and then only through violent means.26 In 2007, then-deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said, “Whatever its form, method, and means, force remains a necessary element for bringing about change.”27 As Anwar al-Awlaki later wrote on the Arab Spring, “when it came from Tunisia, no one saw it happening in Egypt.”28 The late Senator John McCain remarked after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation that Egypt’s “revolution is a direct repudiation of al-Qaeda, who believe that the only way you bring about change is through violence.”29 To add insult to injury, nationalist and democratic values drove the popular uprisings.30 Moreover, other Salafis who had been potential allies for al-Qaeda before the uprisings opted to participate in the successor governments, pushing al-Qaeda further to the fringes of society.31 Al-Qaeda neither wrote the script nor directed how the events played out in the early days of the revolutions.

Osama bin Laden’s death and the resulting spike in successful targeting of senior leaders compounded al-Qaeda’s problems. With bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda lost its key visionary figure on the global stage. What his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri lacks in charisma, he makes up for in dour and long-winded diatribes. Zawahiri’s authority stems from his experience as a long-time credentialed mujahid and decades’-worth of crucial relationships rather than any ability to lead or inspire. Adding to al-Qaeda’s woes, the intelligence recovered during the raid that killed bin Laden informed additional counterterrorism targeting: The United States and its partners removed at least five of al-Qaeda’s top figures in the months that followed. In Pakistan, U.S. drone strikes killed a member of al-Qaeda’s military committee, Ilyas Kashmiri, in June; al-Qaeda’s “number two,” Atiyah Abdul Rahman, in August; and al-Qaeda’s leader in Pakistan, Abu Hafs al-Shahri, in September.32 A joint U.S.-Pakistani operation also detained senior leader Younis al-Mauritani in September.33 In Yemen, a U.S. drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki in September.34 Additionally, al-Qaeda in East Africa leader Fazul Abdullah Mohamed was shot dead at a checkpoint in Somalia in June, apparently by happenstance.35 Yet, as the June 2011 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism noted: “It is unlikely that any single event—even the death of Osama bin Laden, the only leader al-Qaeda has ever known—will bring about its operational dismantlement.”36

By mid-2011, al-Qaeda was already taking steps to engage proactively with the Arab Spring developments, as revealed by correspondence recovered during the bin Laden raid. Multiple letters welcomed what these al-Qaeda senior leaders characterized as the end of U.S. dominance in the Middle East and evidence of the West’s weakness.37 A key thread woven through the letters is al-Qaeda’s intent to ensure the revolutions unfold in a way that favors al-Qaeda’s objectives. Bin Laden provided internal guidance for his followers that “their main duty now is to support the revolutions taking place.”38 He continued that al-Qaeda must prevent half-solutions to the revolutions, and separately framed what was happening as a “transitional phase” to the next one, which would then advance Islam.40

Operational guidance to AQAP revealed how al-Qaeda had already shifted its strategic approach and sought to manipulate the unrest to its advantage, which AQAP did to great effect.41 An undated letter called for patience from AQAP and noted the benefit of preserving Yemen’s current regime, led by Ali Abdullah Saleh, over heralding in one that would oppress all Islamists.42 Saleh prioritized Yemen’s few security resources against more imminent threats to his regime, creating a semi-permissive environment for AQAP. Minimizing AQAP’s threat to the Yemeni regime optimized AQAP’s ability to use its Yemeni sanctuary for external operations against the West. AQAP was to focus on attacking American targets while working with local powerbrokers to stabilize the country as it collapsed.43 Senior al-Qaeda leader Atiyah Abdul Rahman ordered AQAP to conduct a covert assassination campaign in Yemen, avoid actions that might provoke a response, and support local tribes’ authorities.44 In sum, the plan remained simple: exhaust the United States, then the local regimes, and finally establish an Islamic state.45

Publicly, al-Qaeda sought to craft a narrative of the Arab Spring as the start, not end, of the umma’s revolution. Senior leaders, particularly Ayman al-Zawahiri, discussed the revolutions as the first phase in a greater struggle for justice that would eventually return Islam to its proper place in society.46 Al-Qaeda dismissed the compromise that other Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood offered to the masses. Bin Laden’s sole public statement before his death warned revolutionaries to “beware” of negotiations.47 Senior leaders also sought to empathize with the masses, purporting to understand their aspirations but also warning against straying from al-Qaeda’s prescribed way forward.48 Zawahiri later contested the prevailing narrative that al-Qaeda had lost influence during the Arab Spring, claiming that the group’s work over the previous two decades had set the conditions for the revolutions’ successes.49 For its audience outside of the Arab world, al-Qaeda still called for “lone jihad.”50

Conditions grew increasingly favorable for al-Qaeda as 2011 progressed, catalyzing its growth across the Middle East and North Africa. Many prisoners, including veteran Salafi-jihadis, were released under amnesty programs or escaped amid unrest across the region.51 Former prisoners led new groups in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and eventually Syria that received support from the al-Qaeda network.52 The uprisings disrupted counterterrorism operations and cooperation across the region, giving al-Qaeda some much-needed breathing space in places like Yemen. Significantly, the overthrow of secular regimes and outbreak of civil wars in Libya and Syria created an unprecedented chance for al-Qaeda to try to realize its vision of governance. Al-Qaeda’s devolution of authority to the local level, a trend that predated the Arab Spring, positioned its local leaders well to make the most of their newfound situations. These affiliate leaders would advance al-Qaeda’s aims on the local front in their respective theaters while also supporting the global jihad, whether directly or by buttressing al-Qaeda’s global network.

Al-Qaeda operated in each of the conflicts that emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring. It supported the establishment of multiple groups under the name, “Ansar al-Sharia,” in Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere, perhaps reflecting its own awareness that the “al-Qaeda” brand had tarnished.53 In Yemen, Ansar al-Sharia brought tribal forces under its command, multiplying AQAP’s size without requiring members to swear allegiance to al-Qaeda itself. AQAP, through Ansar al-Sharia, briefly controlled what it declared to be the “Emirate of Waqar” until Yemeni counterterrorism operations resumed in 2012. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia, which had fought against Muammar Qaddafi, controlled Benghazi and its environs. In Tunisia, Ansar al-Sharia, which focused on service delivery and proselytization, pushed for the Islamization of society and developed a militant wing.54 In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra formed with support from al-Qaeda in Iraq and quickly became the most successful faction of the armed opposition.

Within a year of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda’s network was rapidly expanding. Ayman al-Zawahiri formally recognized al-Shabaab in Somalia as an al-Qaeda affiliate in February 2012.55 The decision countermanded Osama bin Laden’s position, which had been to keep the relationship secret to prevent further mobilization against al-Shabaab and to facilitate donations and support to the group.56 Al-Qaeda also saw opportunities in Libya, having called for fighters from neighboring countries to support the revolution there.57 “Libya is now ready for the jihad,” claimed senior official Atiyah Abdul Rahman. “Because of its important location, it will be a jihadist battlefield opening on Algeria and the Sahara, Sudan, Darfur, Chad, and the depth of Africa.”58 By March 2012, al-Qaeda was well positioned to expand in North Africa as well as into the Sahel through a new group affiliated with ethnic Tuareg rebels, Ansar al-Din, that sought to take advantage of Mali’s collapse.59 Its Iraqi group was also gaining strength, benefiting from the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The so-called core in Afghanistan-Pakistan remained under pressure even as al-Qaeda strengthened across all other fronts.

Overall, al-Qaeda had softened its call for global jihad, favoring instead the local fight. This adaptation better enabled al-Qaeda to extend its relationships into various communities, preying on their vulnerabilities, and broaden its reach into the Muslim world. However, localization presented al-Qaeda with other challenges, including a new requirement to ensure that local compromises did not undercut its global efforts or change its fundamental nature. For many foot soldiers, including some field commanders, local political dynamics played a greater role in drawing them to al-Qaeda’s ranks than any desire to destroy the West. Al-Qaeda’s ideology and methodology emphasizes an interplay between local and global jihad, however, such that success on the local front advances its objectives globally.60 Al-Qaeda’s focus on its “near” enemies and entrenchment in Muslim communities did not mean that it had abandoned its “far” enemies either: Even as it engaged in the local fight, AQAP attempted to bring down an airliner again in May 2012.61 Al-Qaeda simply chose not to pursue external attack capabilities in every battlefield. Despite a common assessment among analysts to the contrary, al-Qaeda was very much not “in decline.”62

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: Contest for Vanguard Status

The Islamic State’s 2013 transformation from the down-and-out group in Iraq to challenger of al-Qaeda’s primacy within the Salafi-jihadi movement produced greater cohesion within the al-Qaeda network. The late leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke away from al-Qaeda in April 2013 and then declared the Caliphate’s return in June 2014. The public falling out surfaced a major schism within the Salafi-jihadi vanguard that had existed since at least the mid-2000s when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had led al-Qaeda in Iraq. Islamic State leaders openly denigrated al-Qaeda’s strategy and its claim to be the vanguard. The key ideological disagreements—over takfir, the practice of declaring other Muslims to be apostate; the role of da’wa, i.e. proselytization; and application of shari’a—led to radically different strategic approaches to reestablishing the Caliphate.63

Al-Qaeda’s dominance over other Salafi-jihadi groups had traditionally derived from its founders’ jihadi credentials, its access to the wealth of Osama bin Laden and his fundraising network, and its influence among the Afghan Arabs—the Arab mujahideen who had gone to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. The group outlasted more locally focused Salafi-jihadi competitors that collapsed during authoritarian crackdowns in the 1990s. By 2001, few other groups had global brand recognition, and al-Qaeda’s spread to Iraq catapulted it to the forefront in 2003. Salafi-jihadi groups sought to associate themselves with al-Qaeda to reap perceived benefits, though al-Qaeda withheld recognition from those who did not adhere fully to its ideology, such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram.64

The Islamic State’s emergence created a second powerful force within the Salafi-jihadi movement, causing those groups and individuals that did not fully adhere to al-Qaeda’s approach to realign themselves.65 After declaring its Caliphate, the Islamic State expanded as groups on the fringes of al-Qaeda’s network and small al-Qaeda splinters shifted allegiance and foreign fighters flocked to respond to the Islamic State’s slickly broadcast call. These new Islamic State branches formed from a preexisting Salafi-jihadi base and benefited from their new affiliation by gaining access to Islamic State resources, global media attention, or, for splinters, newfound autonomy. Al-Qaeda leaders called for an end to the perceived fitna (sedition) and pressed for tawhid (unity) under al-Qaeda. Both sides accused the other of heretical beliefs, an accusation that also justified killing the other, but neither prioritized such actions. Outright battles between the two have occurred in Syria, primarily in the immediate aftermath of the schism; in Yemen, where local disputes erupted starting in mid-2018; and in the Sahel, where the Islamic State and al-Qaeda coordinated and even cooperated before fighting broke out in spring 2020.66

As the rift deepened, the Islamic State’s open questioning of al-Qaeda’s authority generated a series of al-Qaeda leadership statements defining its methodology and basing in Islam. Ayman al-Zawahiri published guidance clarifying al-Qaeda’s strategic approach in September 2013.67 The guidance explains al-Qaeda’s stance on jihad and takfirism—only fighting those Muslim groups who initiate fights against the Sunni community and then only targeting combatants—and calls for cooperation with other Islamist groups as part of tawhid.68 This document reflects a consensus among al-Qaeda leaders, as it was reportedly provided to them for comment prior to release.69 In a similar vein, AQAP issued guidelines for suicide attacks in December 2015, outlining six recommendations to inform whether an attack is permissible. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) also released a lengthy code of conduct for its followers in June 2017.70 Al-Qaeda’s actions have not always observed these guidelines, but they nonetheless inform how al-Qaeda operates globally.71

Al-Qaeda’s methodology is visible across its network. It has embedded into the local contexts where it operates, forming pragmatic alliances with indigenous actors and building non-ideological ties to communities.72 The distinctly local flavor of al-Qaeda’s affiliates masks their advancement of al-Qaeda’s global aims, which ultimately lie in the Muslim world, not the West. Al-Qaeda’s intermingling with local insurgencies, insinuation into local institutions, and focus on local issues are key adaptations that have better enabled it to gain acceptance and support.73 It has learned from experience—especially that of al-Qaeda in Iraq during the 2006 “Anbar Awakening”—that developing and maintaining relationships with local communities is critical: being isolated from Sunni communities increases al-Qaeda’s exposure to counterterrorism actions and inhibits progress toward its aim of transforming these communities into ideal Islamic societies.74 Demonstrating strategic patience, al-Qaeda has opted for retreat or concessions in lieu of provoking outright rejection.75 It has moderated its activities and rhetoric to avoid alienating local populations, distilling its ideology to be more palatable and slowly infusing its extremist views rather than engaging in a state-building project. Al-Qaeda has better defined itself and its methodology in contrast to the brutal and exclusivist nature of the Islamic State, building more coherence across its network.

Understanding the al-Qaeda Network Today

Today al-Qaeda has more fighters active in more countries than ever before. It has strengthened without raising alarms in Western capitals, building a popular base through its “localization” effort while still pursuing capabilities to conduct transnational terror attacks. The globally networked organization remains united under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who provides strategic guidance and direction to followers across the Muslim-majority world.76 Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders are dispersed more intentionally across theaters to defend against decapitation efforts, though Western counterterrorism operations eliminated over a dozen top figures in 2020.77 Few of al-Qaeda’s early members survive, though a new generation of leaders is rising to carry al-Qaeda’s mission forward.78 These leaders have tasted success, governing in some fashion in Mali, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, and have cut their teeth in conflicts in their own homeland rather than far afield in Afghanistan. They will lead an organization that is ethnically diverse and geographically disparate, stretching into the far corners of the Muslim-majority world and engaged on multiple battlefields.79

Al-Qaeda is the global network of individuals who have sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and are united by their purpose to conduct global jihad. Its leadership hierarchy remains significant in charting the strategic course for the organization: its shura council and other senior leaders help advise Zawahiri and provide guidance to the general members. The framework that constructs a “core” al-Qaeda group in Afghanistan-Pakistan as the central node and affiliated groups as subordinates wrongly infers hierarchical structure from geographic location. Al-Qaeda has organized itself across defined theaters based on territorial regions: Afghanistan-Pakistan, the Indian Subcontinent, Syria, Yemen, East Africa, the Maghreb, and the Sahel.80 Each of these regional groups constitute the al-Qaeda affiliates—including the local al-Qaeda forces fighting in Afghanistan. Previously, senior leaders had been concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which increased their direct influence over local forces there. Today senior leaders are dispersed throughout the affiliates as well as in Iran and continue to provide strategic direction to the affiliate leaders.81 The affiliate leaders are almost certainly card-carrying al-Qaeda members, even those who have come up behind the original leaders.

The affiliates themselves remain strong—in many cases stronger than their Islamic State counterparts.82 In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has expanded beyond its historical strongholds and is now active in at least 11 provinces, having exploited the weakening of the Islamic State’s Khorasan province and the easing of Western counterterrorism pressure.83 The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban both work closely with al-Qaeda in the region.84 Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent complements the Pashtun recruitment into Afghanistan by targeting Punjabi populations.85 In Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, dominates Idlib province and controls significant territory and local commerce.86 Another Syrian group, Hurras al-Din, has been weakened but remains more closely aligned with al-Qaeda’s global objectives and coordinates activities with foreign-fighter-dominant Salafi-jihadi groups.87 In Yemen, AQAP is far weaker than it was a decade ago but has begun recovering from significant setbacks due to Emirati-U.S. counterterrorism operations that severely attrited its leadership.88 In Somalia, al-Shabaab’s influence remains strong, administering territory in parts of south-central Somalia, and the group regularly conducts attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, and northern Kenya. In the Maghreb, French and Algerian decapitation efforts have disrupted AQIM operations, killing senior al-Qaeda leader and AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel in June 2020.89 The AQIM-affiliated group Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) has sanctuary in north-central Mali and is expanding down into the littoral states around the Gulf of Guinea.90

Identifying al-Qaeda members outside of the senior and affiliate leadership becomes more challenging. Whether all members of the affiliates are themselves full-blown members of al-Qaeda is less clear. Adherence to al-Qaeda’s mission and strategic aims, namely the eventual restoration of the Caliphate through violent jihad, is a requirement for al-Qaeda membership; the intent to pursue this through global rather than local jihad not necessarily so. Multiple al-Qaeda-associated groups operate—some with relations directly to al-Qaeda senior leadership, such as Hurras al-Din—without the public imprimatur of al-Qaeda. Veteran al-Qaeda operatives are among Hurras al-Din’s leaders, and the group has attracted fighters from the Syrian front that identify with al-Qaeda. Zawahiri has not yet recognized it as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, however. Changes in self-identification probably indicate a group’s closer alignment with al-Qaeda: Militants who had previously identified as members of JNIM in the Sahel, for example, now increasingly identify themselves as being al-Qaeda members.91

The al-Qaeda network has deliberately woven itself into the fabrics of local Sunni communities to capture them for its own purposes. It has embedded itself deeply into local political dynamics, choosing sides of a conflict or becoming a go-to mediator or security guarantor. Yet al-Qaeda’s seemingly parochial engagements and activities aspire to achieve much more strategic effects: through its alliances and partnerships, often non-ideological in scope, al-Qaeda increases influence over local governance and the practice of Islam. Though many communities reject al-Qaeda and what it promotes, they are too often without a viable alternative or too weak to expel the group. While such localization bears management costs—and certainly risks of miscalculations—it also yields promising rewards. Al-Qaeda benefits from access to terrain, resources, and potential recruits. Separating al-Qaeda from a community in which it has entrenched itself is no easy task. As Americans have learned at various times in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, and the French have learned in the Sahel, al-Qaeda can make common cause with local communities to generate popular resistance to counterterrorism operations. Disentangling al-Qaeda from penetrated communities is a much more complex effort than mere terrorist targeting.

Al-Qaeda faces a global narrative problem, despite its successful expansion. The terrorism threat it poses to the United States and others has not grown relative to its size. Yet interpreting the absence of a major al-Qaeda attack as weakness judges al-Qaeda’s strength by the wrong metric.92 Al-Qaeda measures success by the number of Sunni Muslims living under its governance. Al-Qaeda’s decisions whether or not to strike the West have been calculated, sometimes wrongly. In 2015, al-Qaeda’s leader in Syria revealed he had orders “not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the U.S. or Europe,” a shift from 2014, when al-Qaeda veterans were actively planning external attacks from Syria.93 Presenting a diminished threat to the West, which had launched military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while prioritizing the anti-Assad fight probably drove this decision. But even though al-Qaeda has decided to focus on its “near” war, it still must respond to criticism that it has abandoned the global fight. Last September, Ayman al-Zawahiri dedicated his annual 9/11-anniversary remarks to defending al-Qaeda’s jihadist credentials rather than offering the usual diatribes against the West.94

Al-Qaeda’s threat to the West is not gone, however. In Syria, al-Qaeda again poses an external attack threat, perhaps usurping the position AQAP had held since 2009.95 AQAP, under counterterrorism strain, most recently claimed responsibility for the December 2019 shooting of U.S. Navy personnel on an airbase in Pensacola, Florida.96 Concerningly, al-Shabaab has sought to develop 9/11-style attack capabilities, which nearly slipped under America’s radar.97 Whether al-Qaeda’s senior leadership sanctioned al-Shabaab’s pursuit of these capabilities or al-Shabaab has done so of its own initiative is unclear. What is clear is that components of al-Qaeda’s network, embedded in local contexts, have chosen to also launch attacks against the “far enemy.”

Conclusion: Al-Qaeda’s Prospects

The future seems to favor al-Qaeda. The group has laid a strong foundation in key regions and has proven that its strategy of building non-ideological relationships with local populations effectively increases its influence. The local conflicts where it has strengthened remain unresolved and many are expanding. The coronavirus pandemic challenges the ability of governments to respond to multiple, simultaneous crises and has exacerbated already poor conditions in many of the areas where al-Qaeda operates.98 Moreover, the misreading of al-Qaeda’s strength based on an absence of major terror attacks has led Western countries to begin to draw down resources committed to counterterrorism.

Western fatigue with the so-called “forever war” and the requirement to shift resources from counterterrorism toward other national security priorities will lift pressure from al-Qaeda. The group is waiting patiently to reclaim victory in the wake of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. It has capitalized on its relationship with the Afghan Taliban to rebuild in Afghanistan and to advise on the negotiated terms for the peace deal with the United States.99 The U.S. military’s re-posturing in the Horn of Africa will also likely afford al-Shabaab space to recapture territory in Somalia.100 In Yemen, counterterrorism progress has already backslid after the United Arab Emirates drew down its presence in 2019, though AQAP will likely remain weak for the immediate future.101 France, which has led the counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda in the Sahel, has also signaled recently that it may draw down its commitments.102 On nearly all fronts, al-Qaeda’s prospects are rising.

Al-Qaeda has positioned itself well to reassume its place at the helm of the Salafi-jihadi vanguard in the years to come. Its entrenchment in the local contexts in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia as well as the recent decapitation of much of al-Qaeda’s leadership may make the threat appear more “manageable,” but al-Qaeda has proven its resilience.103 Nothing indicates that al-Qaeda has altered its aims in any way or changed how it seeks to achieve them. The growth of its popular support base through its local efforts increases its access to resources, sanctuaries, and networks—both licit and illicit—through which to connect its disparate branches. Enhanced local influence through cooperation rather than coercion also reduces its vulnerability to another “Awakening.”104

Al-Qaeda may be focused on the local contexts today, but it still understands its work as part of the global jihad. When the mirage of weakness fades, al-Qaeda’s long-term threat will be evident.