September 2017 marks the sixteenth anniversary of the fateful 9/11 attacks which changed the face of global terrorism. Since then, Al-Qaeda, the main perpetrator of these attacks, has evolved as a jihadist organization operationally and ideologically. Notwithstanding its recent quiet years, the threat from the transnational terrorist group has not receded but evolved.
Following the killing of its chief Osama Bin Laden in 2011, Al-Qaeda went underground. The rise of its rival jihadist organization the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 further eclipsed Al-Qaeda’s standing as the leader of global jihad. However, it is now coming out of hibernation and attempting to stage a comeback. Over the last few years, it has engaged in organizational restructuring, the grooming of its future leadership, the re-thinking of its approach to jihad, as well as the re-strategizing of its policies.
Terrorism experts are split over the prospects for Al-Qaeda’s revival. A few believe that Al-Qaeda is past its glory and that the damage inflicted upon the terror group is irreversible. Others opine that, notwithstanding its large-scale destruction, Al-Qaeda is resurging as a much more dangerous and long-term security threat to global peace and security.
Al-Qaeda is indeed bouncing back, albeit in a different manner. It has shifted its focus from planning high-profile attacks in the West to strengthening its local and regional jihadi affiliates. Given this, measuring Al-Qaeda’s strength and efficacy solely based on its ability to mount attacks is no longer valid. It now poses a qualitatively different nature of threat as it is metamorphosing into what could be described as the third phase of its evolution: from a hierarchical organization in the 1990s and a decentralized ideological-jihadist movement after 9/11 to a network of (jihadist) affiliates stretching over Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.
Four important developments signify Al-Qaeda’s efforts to revive itself. First, the inauguration of Bin Laden’s son, Hamza Bin Laden, as the new face of the terror group in May this year. Hamza is a charismatic ideologue and an eloquent speaker like his father. Al-Qaeda is nurturing him for the future leadership role with a view to unify the global jihadist movement. Second, the emergence of a new pro-Al-Qaeda militant group, Jamaat Ansar Al-Shariah, in Pakistan. It comprises of jihadist returnees from the Middle East. Third, the Kashmiri militant commander Zakir Musa’snew-found alliance with Al-Qaeda in Indian Administered Kashmir in July. Musa is a former operative of the Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). Four, the regrouping of the Al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani militant groups, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which were its operational arms in Pakistan in the post-9/11 period.
These developments are taking place against the backdrop of major setbacks suffered by the IS in the Middle East and elsewhere. The anti-IS coalition has evicted IS from its Iraqi and Libyan strongholds of Mosul and Sirte respectively, and the territory under its control in Syria and Afghanistan has also shrunk.
Unlike 2014, Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in 2017 is markedly different. In 2014, Al-Qaeda was on the defensive and it was reacting to the rise of IS to retain its space in the global jihadist landscape. However, in 2017, it is on the offensive and responding to the fall of IS to reclaim its lost space.
As long as the Afghan conflict remains a festering wound in the South Asian security architecture, it will keep Al-Qaeda in business.
Most of Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates, such as Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Africa, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQP) in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS), and the Pakistani Taliban remain loyal to it. Moreover, Al-Qaeda’s operational ties with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network have intensified over the last few years. The current AQ chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri has twice reaffirmed his oath of allegiances to Mullah Umar’s successors Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor and Haibatullah Akhundzada.
US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the scaling up of the war effort in Afghanistan has provided Al-Qaeda with the right political environment to appeal to its low-lying jihadist cadres from around the world to return to the Afghan battlefield for a new phase of jihad against the US.
Another factor, which will enable Al-Qaeda’s resurgence endeavors, is its roots in the South Asia region and its ability to exploit local issues and conflicts to its advantage. The Af-Pak region is Al-Qaeda’s birthplace and backyard. Following the end of the Afghan Jihad, Al-Qaeda was born in Peshawar in August 1988. Since then, the terrorist group has enjoyed a close partnership with almost all the jihadist groups in the region. All the South Asian jihadist groups are signatories to Bin Laden’s 1998 “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders.” During the late 1990s, their cadres trained in Al-Qaeda operated training camps in Afghanistan.
Ideologically, Al-Qaeda’s localized jihadist narratives built around local conflicts such as Kashmir; atrocities against the Muslim minorities in India and Myanmar; and the continued US occupation of Afghanistan; are much more appealing to aspiring local jihadists, in contrast to IS’s oversimplified message of the so-called Caliphate.
Operationally, Al-Qaeda’s network in South Asia is well entrenched throughout the region. In the last few years, Al-Qaeda’s quiet efforts to blend itself with local militant groups in Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan has given it grassroots penetration. While everyone was fixated on IS’s rise, Al-Qaeda quietly slipped off the security radar and re-cultivated itself with localized forces.
A new pro-Al-Qaeda group, Jamaat Ansar Al-Sharia, emerged in Karachi in June this year. It comprises of well-trained, highly skilled, and battle-hardened militants who have returned to Pakistan from the Middle East. It is active in the port-city of Karachi and the south-western Balochistan province. So far, the group has carried out five terrorist attacks (four in Karachi and one in Balochistan) targeting police and the law enforcement agencies. In one of these attacks, the Al-Shariah fighters left a leaflet noting that the group is working to revive Al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
Similarly, Zakir Musa represents the new generation of Kashmiri militants who find jihad for the implementation of Shariah more appealing than the nationalist-political struggle of liberating Kashmir from India and merging it with Pakistan. His defection to Al-Qaeda is more symbolic than strategic but it has opened a window of opportunity for Al-Qaeda to further its influence in war-weary Kashmir, where majority of the youth are alienated and looking for alternatives. The fact that the new generation of aspiring South Asian jihadists still looks towards Al-Qaeda for ideological mentoring and direction is alarming.
Against all odds, Al-Qaeda has managed to survive and it has defied all the doomsday projections of its annihilation and decimation. Its wait-and-see policy seems to have paid off and it looks all set to bounce back. As long as the Afghan conflict remains a festering wound in the South Asian security architecture, it will keep Al-Qaeda in business. Al-Qaeda’s future focus will be on localized conflicts targeting the near-enemy (local governments) instead of the far-enemy (US and the West).