On the Run or On the Rise? Al-Qaeda After Bin Laden

There has been a lot of talk lately about the demise of Al-Qaeda. The death of Osama bin Laden prompted excitement among politicians and the general public, as it finally seemed that the modern archenemy of the U.S. was in its final throes. But this elation, however appropriate, has the potential to cloud judgment about the reality of Al-Qaeda’s threat to the U.S. and its allies, and poses a threat of its own to national security as some experts conclude prematurely that the battle against this deadly terrorist organization has been won.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, told reporters that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda” and that only 10 to 20 leaders of the group still existed in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Based on that assessment, it would seem that the U.S. military could simply pick off the lingering warriors, ending the decade-long rivalry.

But which Al-Qaeda was Panetta talking about? And, what exactly did he mean by “strategically defeating” them?

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, those questions could be answered more easily. Al-Qaeda was a concentrated, hierarchical organization that was based out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its structural core operated as a cohesive unit or command center; its affiliates stretched out from that base much like tentacles stretch out from the body of an octopus. At that time, the death of bin Laden and subsequent attacks on Al-Qaeda would have been a more significant, if not lethal, blow to the group. Today, however, it is not clear that the fragmentation has diminished their threat. Former top American commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, recently said that despite the enormous damage done to Al-Qaeda,  “the brand will be out there.”

Indeed, the Al-Qaeda brand is out there and it is growing. Call it the “Bin Laden Effect.” 

The death of the world’s most hunted terrorist and the subsequent shift in Al-Qaeda’s grand strategy (whereby they will emphasize attacks on Western targets overseas) has resulted in a more widespread diffusion of the group’s ideology. Moving their mandate beyond the rigid borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qaeda has relied on regional affiliates for tactical support while benefiting from independent terrorists who seek to enhance their own platform by associating themselves with the Al-Qaeda brand.

This month alone, in an unusual surge of activity, several high profile terrorist attacks were labeled as the work of Al-Qaeda. These events would have likely received more attention if not for the media's debt ceiling overload. 

For example: Yemen’s embattled government announced that militants with ties to AQAP had overrun the capital of the Ayban province, Zinjibar. And, the Somali-based terrorist organization, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for twin bombings in Uganda that killed 74 people.

Nearly 2,000 miles northwest, in Niger, rumors of an planned Al-Qaeda base rippled through diplomatic circles. Additionally, AQIM said it carried out two suicide bombings in Algeria, killing 15 security officers, while further east, in Iraq, the Al-Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization for Iraqi insurgency groups, claimed responsibility for a bomb just north of Baghdad that killed 54; in late June, the same group killed 3 and wounded 18 at a police station in Tarmiyah. 

Meanwhile, in Libya, rebel fighters are joining forces with Al-Qaeda operatives who, as a result of the turmoil, are taking advantage of arms flow and flagging security systems. One estimate suggests there are nearly 1,000 Al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists in the country.

In light of these events, is this really Al-Qaeda’s last parade? 

For those who still see Al-Qaeda as a unified clan of high-value targets, based in the mountains of Afghanistan just as they were in 2001, perhaps this is the end. But for others, who understand the adaptability of the group and the transformational, borderless power of their ideology, this is the beginning of a new fight. Al-Qaeda is not on the run but rather, on the rise.

Photo Credit: Khalid Albaih

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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