Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper announced his retirement during a hearing held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) earlier today. In his written testimony, Clapper offered this assessment (emphasis added):
Violent extremism, which has been on an upward trajectory since the late 1970s, has generated more IC collection and analysis against groups, members, and safe havens than at any other point in history. These include: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; al-Qa’ida with its nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen; al-Shabaab, al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in East Africa; and Iran, the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, which continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force, its terrorist partner Lebanese Hizbollah, and proxy groups.
It is clear from his description that what Clapper describes as “violent extremism” is what we call jihadism. The Islamic State and al Qaeda are on the Sunni side of the jihadi coin, while the Shiite side is led by the Iranian regime.
What specifically stands out is Clapper’s testimony regarding al Qaeda’s “nodes.” Al Qaeda maintains a cohesive international network more than fifteen years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In Syria and Yemen, these “nodes” are known as Jabhat Fath al Sham (formerly Al Nusrah Front) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), both of which are regional al Qaeda branches devoted to waging insurgencies against the local governments and their allies. Likewise, Shabaab is headquartered in Somalia and is al Qaeda’s regional arm throughout East Africa. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is the newest branch of the group, operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan and neighboring countries as well. To this list we can also add Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which maintains a footprint in North and West Africa. There are multiple other al Qaeda-linked groups as well.
In each case, the emir of the regional al Qaeda arm has been openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri. The only wrinkle is in the case of Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS), which is led by Abu Muhammad al Julani.
In late July, Julani claimed that his group would no longer be affiliated with any “external” or “foreign” entity. His language was deliberately ambiguous, but many ran with the idea that JFS was no longer really part of the al Qaeda network. The Long War Journal offered an extensive rebuttal to that interpretation of Julani’s statement. Indeed, al Qaeda’s senior leadership never wanted to formally acknowledge the group’s presence in Syria, so Julani’s message was a return, of sorts, to al Qaeda’s original strategy for the war against Bashar al Assad’s regime. Julani did not renounce his bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri and Julani heaped praise on Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden even as he supposedly distanced his organization from them. Moreover, one of Zawahiri’s top deputies gave his blessing for Julani’s statement beforehand. Some break. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Al Nusrah Front rebrands itself as Jabhat Fath Al Sham.]
Although the Islamic State generates most of the headlines these days, al Qaeda remains an international organization, albeit one that is not keen to advertise its presence in the same manner as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise.
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership is not confined to South Asia. It is well documented that the group sent cadres to Syria, Yemen and elsewhere to lead the charge. The Obama administration’s drone campaign has repeatedly targeted veteran al Qaeda figures throughout 2015 and 2016.
The al Qaeda threat to the West and the US homeland is not confined to South Asia either. In October, the Pentagon announced that the US carried out airstrikes targeting jihadists serving al Qaeda’s “external operations” arm in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Clapper warned that the threat emanates from multiple countries. Clapper testified that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.”
There is no question that the Islamic State expanded rapidly beginning in 2013 and 2014, thereby cutting into al Qaeda’s share of the jihadi market around the globe. But as Clapper reminded Congress today, al Qaeda is far from out of the game.
The HPSCI hearing was devoted to the US intelligence community’s role supporting the Defense Department. Clapper explained that the war in Afghanistan continues to demand resources.
“In addition, we must continue to provide intelligence to assist in the transition of our mission in Afghanistan by supporting the Kabul government against persistent hurdles to political stability including eroding political cohesion, assertions of authority by local powerbroker, recurring financial shortfalls, and countrywide, sustained attacks by the Taliban,” Clapper’s written testimony reads.
That transition is not going smoothly, to put it mildly. Al Qaeda remains closely allied with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Siraj Haqqani is now one of the Taliban’s top deputies. Zawahiri has announced his allegiance to Taliban emir Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. The US military and its partners are forced to hunt al Qaeda throughout much of Afghanistan, while also attempting to turn back the Taliban’s rising insurgency, which threatens several provincial capitals at once.
It is easy to see why the intelligence community is forced to collect and analyze more intelligence on jihadi groups now “than at any other point in history,” as Clapper testified. Sunni and Shiite jihadis are operating in more countries now than ever.