Eighteen years after the 11 September attacks, the original core leadership of al Qaeda has almost been completely neutralised. However, international events, particularly insurrections and conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, have enabled the organization to reorganise and present itself with a different face that, in part, has also changed the perception of the threat itself.
Established as an elite group of just over a hundred militants, al Qaeda now has publicly recognised branches in Africa and Asia: Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), in the Sahel region; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa and the Sahel region; Katiba Uqba Bin Nafi (KUBN) in Tunisia; Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahidin in Somalia; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen; al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The al Qaeda network also has operational and strategic links with a number of jihadist organisations, such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and uses other branches that – for operational reasons – have not yet been publicly recognised, including the Syrian branches Tanzim Hurras al Din, Ansar al Tawhid and Ansar al Din, recently hit by two US raids in Idlib province, and the al Qaeda branch in Kashmir, Ansar Ghazwatul Hind.
The marked delocalisation undertaken by al Qaeda has however resulted in tensions between the transnational agenda of the group’s central leadership and the local agendas of the single regional branches. In some cases, the regional agendas of local branches successfully combine with the international aspirations of the central leadership; sometimes, instead, regional agendas take quite different routes, which can also lead to splits from the central al Qaeda leadership.
LOCAL BRANCHES AND REGIONAL AGENDAS
Since 2007, when the group recognised its first local branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and started its delocalisation process, the al Qaeda network seems to have given up on the goal of hitting the West, the far enemy, and begun to focus on the nearby enemy – i.e. the ‘apostate’ governments of the regions where the group’s branches operate – thus shifting to a more regional agenda.
If on the one hand this new strategy of promoting local agendas instead of the transnational one has been necessary for al Qaeda to be better-rooted regionally, the group has received harsh criticism from the hardliners of jihadism and has progressively lost popularity globally, also due to the simultaneous rise of the Islamic State.
The birth of the Islamic State in 2014, with its various local branches spread across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, has been a significant obstacle to the al Qaeda delocalisation strategy. Many wilayat (provinces) of IS were established precisely after some of the militias previously operating within the regional branches of al Qaeda had defected; this is the case for the Islamic State branches in Yemen and Somalia, that were created following splits within AQAP and Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahidin, respectively. These regional areas are still witnessing fierce operational and ideological rivalry between al Qaeda and Islamic State branches.
Nevertheless, al Qaeda can now count on a network that is well structured and rooted in the regions where the group operates. The delocalisation strategy has been particularly fruitful in the Sahel area, where the al Qaeda branch, JNIM, has sympathised with the demands of the Fulani and Tuareg communities and managed to undermine government authority, having its operational capabilities increased in the whole region.
Moreover, in some countries where it is present but cannot rely on sound operational capabilities, Al Qaeda is now opting for less radical propaganda, with the aim of better sympathising with the local people and acting as a key actor in the fight against Islamic State extremism. To that end, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has recently called on the population to demonstrate against authoritarian regimes in Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria without resorting to violence of any kind, in order not to prompt an even more violent reaction by the regimes that the group intends to overthrow.
CORE LEADERSHIP AND INTERNATIONAL AGENDA
Devastated by the US intervention in Afghanistan and the airstrikes against the first members of the organisation who had fled to Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, the remaining original core of al Qaeda has mostly focused on the delocalisation process. The militants who escaped the first reprisals of Washington and their allies contributed to the creation of the various local branches of al Qaeda, using both the experience gained in training camps in Afghanistan and their personal contacts in their countries of origin. Giving its various local branches considerable leeway, al Qaeda’s core leadership has since then been exclusively interested in promoting ideological, doctrinal, and sometimes logistical support for the organisation’s regional affiliated groups, and at the same time continued to find refuge at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In this context, the central leadership of al Qaeda has exploited its alliance of convenience with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, providing the latter with ideological legitimacy and training in return, and pledging allegiance to the Emir of the Taliban (called the ‘Emir of all believers’).
Currently, the central leadership is especially focusing on two countries: Afghanistan and Syria.
In Afghanistan, al Qaeda is very concerned about the progress in negotiations between the Islamic Emirate and the US administration. Al Qaeda fears that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for the group, should this agreement be put into effect, with the Taliban promising to engage in anti-terrorism operations against the international jihadist organisations in the country. To undermine the negotiations, al Qaeda is providing logistic and financial aid to the most extremist shuras of the Taliban – that continue to strike during the negotiating sessions – and is creating publicity with videos and statements around the strong alliance between the two organisations; al Qaeda’s ultimate goal is to make the Emirate not credible in the eyes of the international community.
As for Syria, al Qaeda sent many of its lieutenants to the country to deal with the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 and the rift with its local branch, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (2017), which publicly cut ties with the core leadership in an attempt to act as a more credible and moderate actor within the fragmented anti-Assad front. The al Qaeda lieutenants created three groups (Tanzim Hurras al Din, Ansar al Din e Ansar al Tawhid) to bring together the militants that had left Hayat Tahrir al Sham after refusing to split from the central leadership. The United States Central Command, CENTCOM, has recently hit those three organisations with airstrikes, accusing them of planning attacks on the United States and their partners abroad. Such events therefore suggest that the local al Qaeda branches in Syria may have moved back to the international agenda imposed by the group’s central leadership.
Outside of the said two areas and the Sahel region (where branches are quite autonomous, though), the al Qaeda central leadership’s agenda might shift to Southeast Asia, where the group already relies on a well-structured network (AQIS), which is ready to exploit the many problems affecting Muslim communities in Myanmar, India and China. Besides, the considerable growth of the Muslim population in the region has made Southeast Asia one of the catchment areas which the Islamic State and al Qaeda vie for the most, with a view to attracting more fighters and funding.