The US drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in Kabul last weekend shook the Americans, reminding them that Islamic extremists are still active. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, climate change and the COVID pandemic are among the many pressing issues that have relegated foreign terrorism to the rearview mirror.
Yet, as President Biden pointed out, the American national security apparatus never forgets. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide,” he said Monday night, “if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
But how much of a threat was Zawahiri? Will his death protect the Americans?
While the success of the manhunt demonstrates the necessary determination against terrorists attacking the United States, the Al Qaeda that Zawahiri has left behind has already been dwarfed by internal and external forces. Since Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of the United States in 2011, and since 11 September itself, it has been the shadow of the organization that once attracted world attention. A new leader may revive his fortunes in some way, but Al Qaeda’s threat to the US homeland will remain limited.
Drone strikes, a global intelligence campaign and improved homeland defenses have had a substantial impact on the group, as have the infighting within the radical Islamist movement and the atrocities its adherents inflicted on Muslim civilians in Iraq and elsewhere. other countries. Key planners, fundraisers, trainers and other lieutenants have been killed, arrested or forced to remain silent, making it difficult to plan spectacular attacks or even maintain a consistent movement.
Al Qaeda proper hasn’t successfully attacked the United States or Europe since 2005, an eternity for a terrorist group trying to get the world’s attention. Rival but related organizations such as the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, have also been undermined by concerted efforts to combat terrorism and infighting. The loss of ISIS territorial control in Iraq and Syria was a major blow to a group whose brand was centered around creating a genuine caliphate governed by Islamic law.
Under the non-charismatic Zawahiri, Al Qaeda survived but did not thrive. He was unable to stop ISIS from violently rejecting his leadership and proved uninteresting to many potential recruits. Bin Laden’s number 2 could claim an advantage during his tenure, the expansion of the group, often converting terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia into al Qaeda affiliates.
Some of these branches – most notably the Yemen branch known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – have inspired and perhaps even orchestrated attacks on the West, including the most recent attack in the United States, Florida, in December 2019. attacker, a Saudi military trainee, killed three and wounded eight others at a naval base before being killed. According to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, the intern was “more than inspired” by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he “shared plans and tactics” with it.
Most of the other affiliated groups, however, focus on civil wars and other local concerns. They threaten regional stability but are less dangerous to the US AQAP, whose leader was killed in a US drone strike a few months after the attack in Florida, is said to be chipping away.
Lone wolf attacks such as the Boston Marathon bombing, in which self-radicalized individuals act without the direction of an organization, remain a concern, but the perpetrators tend to be less trained and therefore less lethal.
Afghanistan under the Taliban is a different concern, highlighted by the fact that Zawahiri took refuge in Kabul, and the terrorist presence there should remain an intelligence priority. However, it does not follow that a more pragmatic Taliban seeking Western aid and funding will allow Afghanistan to become a base for training camps and recruits, as it was in the 1990s. Furthermore, the Zawahiri attack shows that US counterterrorism efforts, despite the US exodus in 2021, can still be devastating.
Much depends on the next generation of Islamic radicals. A new Al Qaeda or ISIS leader looking to revive his movement could try to attract donors and recruits by conducting high-profile operations in the West.
Continued counter-terrorism efforts, however, make another 9/11 or an attack like the one in Paris in 2015 difficult, one of the reasons why Al Qaeda turned to its affiliates’ local campaigns in the first place. It is not easy to command a movement when your organization is under siege. Isis is a case in point. He founded a series of insignificant leaders, who spent more time hiding than directing their followers.
Ultimately, the threat posed by Al Qaeda and its ilk will depend on a new cause making them urgently relevant again. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 electrified the Muslim world and vindicated Al Qaeda’s argument that the United States was leaning towards regional domination. After 2011, the Syrian civil war and the declared ISIS caliphate in 2014 led to huge surges globally in the recruitment and support of Islamic militants.
Today, civil wars in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb involve local fighters but have limited motivational appeal globally. Without another galvanizing Iraq or Syria, Al Qaeda and like-minded groups could fade even further into yesterday’s news.
Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a research fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. @dbyman