- Frank Gardner
- BBC security correspondent
The sudden and violent, but not entirely unexpected, disappearance of the al Qaeda leader last weekend raises the inevitable question: what about the organization he leaves behind?
In fact, there are more questions: what is al Qaeda and is it still relevant in 2022?
Al Qaeda in Arabic means “the base”. It is an outlawed terrorist organization dedicated to attacking Western interests around the world and toppling governments in Asia and Africa, governments it views as too close to the West and insufficiently Islamic.
It was formed in the late 1980s on the Afghan-Pakistani border from the remnants of the Arab volunteer army that went to fight the Soviets who had invaded and occupied Afghanistan.
Just a generation ago, al Qaeda was a household name around the world and was considered the main threat for security in the West.
Why? Because by that time he had managed to carry out a series of increasingly audacious, complex and successful attacks, which in turn inspired more violent followers to join his ranks.
In 1998, he carried out simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing mainly African civilians.
In 2000, he crashed an explosives-laden small boat into the USS Cole in Aden harbor, killing 17 sailors and disabling the billion-dollar warship.
Then, on a clear, blue New York morning on September 11, 2001, “the world was forever changed.”
After months of secret planning, al Qaeda agents hijacked four US planes mid-flight and directed two of them at New York’s iconic World Trade Center, bringing down these two gigantic skyscrapers in a ball of fire and dust.
Another plane crashed into the Pentagon, headquarters of the US Defense Department, while a fourth plane’s passengers outnumbered the hijackers and crashed into a field, killing all on board. That day almost 3,000 people died.
It was quite simply the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated in continental America and set in motion two decades of the controversial “war on terrorism” led by the United States.
9/11 was planned from al Qaeda bases in the mountains of Afghanistan, where the Taliban gave them sanctuary. So the United States and the United Kingdom invaded that country, deposed the Taliban, and expelled al Qaeda.
It took another 10 years for the United States to track down and kill elusive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
What has happened since then and what state is al Qaeda in now?
Osama bin Laden was quickly replaced at the top of al Qaeda by his former mentor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a bespectacled man who was killed in a CIA drone strike over the weekend.
During his 11 years as leader, this former Egyptian eye surgeon never quite matched the charisma his predecessor enjoyed among young, violent-minded jihadis.
His videotaped messages, in which he always called for attacks on the West and its allies, were often long-winded and boring. He had no mass appeal.
In a short time, al Qaeda suffered the desertion of a new ultraviolent group that called itself Islamic State, or “ISIS“short for Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (Greater Syria).
The young jihadists, impatient to commit new attacks, mocked the leaders of al Qaeda, saying that while they talked a lot, ISIS was taking action.
doSures in afghanistan?
The 9/11 attacks were a monumental failure of US intelligence.
Despite the leads lost by Washington, the attacks were successful in part because the CIA did not share its secrets with the FBI and vice versa.
That has changed. US and Western intelligence agencies are now much better informed, more collaborative, and their recruitment of informants from within al Qaeda and ISIS has led to fewer successful terrorist attacks.
But one cannot ignore the fact that last year’s chaotic Western withdrawal from Afghanistan opened dangerous new opportunities for al Qaeda.
The mere fact that Al Zawahiri found himself living comfortably in a Kabul “safe house” close to the Taliban leadership shows that the hard-core jihadi elements within the Taliban have no intention of severing ties with al Qaeda.
Afghanistan has a special meaning for al Qaeda.
It was here that the young, wealthy and idealistic Osama Bin Laden brought his family’s engineering skills to bear to build cave complexes in the 1980s to fight the Soviet invaders.
It was here that he lived for five years under the protection of the Taliban between 1996 and 2001. And it is here that al Qaeda is keen to reestablish its presence now that its friends in the Taliban are back in power.
Africa: the new jihadist battlefield
If before al Qaeda was a geographically small, centralized and united organization, today it has become a global franchise with groups of followers spread all over the world, most of them in ungoverned or poorly governed spaces.
In Somalia, for example, al Qaeda’s affiliate, “al Shabab”, remains the main jihadist group.
Africa has become the new battlefield for jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, especially in the Sahel area of northwestern Africa.
Not only are they fighting to bring down what they see as “rogue” governments, they are fighting each other, leaving civilians caught in the crossfire.
However, al Qaeda remains at heart a Middle Eastern terrorist group.
Bin Laden was a Saudi, Al Zawahiri was an Egyptian, and the top brass – those who remain – they are almost all arabs.
It maintains a significant presence in northwestern Syria, where drone strikes and US special forces raids regularly hit its suspected hideouts.
With Al Zawahiri dead, al Qaeda may now decide to revive its flagging fortunes with a new leader and a new strategy.
It would be naive for an intelligence agency to conclude that this group’s threat died along with its leader.
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