Al Qaeda has not been neutralized

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at The Weekly Standard.

Secretary of State John Kerry believes that al Qaeda’s “top leadership” has been “neutralize[d]” as “an effective force.” He made the claim while discussing the administration’s strategy, or lack thereof, for combating the Islamic State, which is al Qaeda’s jihadist rival. Kerry believes that the US. and its allies can finish off the Islamic State quicker than al Qaeda. There’s just one problem: It is not true that al Qaeda or its top leaders have been “neutralize[d].”

Dozens of senior al Qaeda terrorists, including of course Osama bin Laden, have been eliminated. But al Qaeda is not a simple top-down terrorist group that can be entirely vanquished by killing or detaining select key leaders. It is a paramilitary insurgency organization that is principally built for waging guerilla warfare. Terrorism is a part of what al Qaeda does, but not nearly all. And a key reason why al Qaeda has been able to regenerate its threat against us repeatedly over the past 14 years is that it uses its guerilla armies to groom new leaders and identify recruits for terrorist plots against the West.

The summary below shows what al Qaeda looks like today – it is far from being “neutralize[d].” Instead, al Qaeda and its regional branches are fighting in more countries today than ever. They are trying to build radical Islamic states, just like ISIS, which garners more attention but hasn’t, contrary to conventional wisdom, surpassed al Qaeda in many areas.

In Afghanistan, al Qaeda remains closely allied with the Taliban and is participating in the Taliban-led insurgency’s advances throughout the country. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s new emir, Mullah Mansour, who publicly accepted Zawahiri’s oath of loyalty in August. Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters are playing a key role in the Taliban’s offensive, with the Taliban-al Qaeda axis overrunning approximately 40 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts this year alone. This is part of the reason that President Obama decided to leave a small contingent of American forces in Afghanistan past his term in office.

To give you a sense of what al Qaeda is really doing in Afghanistan, consider that U.S. forces led raids against two large training facilities in the country’s south in October. One of the camps was approximately 30 square miles in size. Gen. John F. Campbell, who oversees the war effort in Afghanistan, explained that the camp was run by al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and is “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

Think about that: U.S. officials just discovered what is probably the largest al Qaeda camp since 2001. Al Qaeda hasn’t been neutralized in Afghanistan. In fact, numerous al Qaeda leaders have relocated into the country.

AQIS, which answers to Zawahiri, was established in September 2014 and is exporting terrorism throughout the region. The group has claimed attacks in Pakistan and Bangladesh. And al Qaeda is still allied with Pakistan’s many jihadist groups, which frequently carry out operations, especially in the northern part of the country.

In Syria, Al Nusrah Front, which is openly loyal to Zawahiri, is deeply enmeshed in the anti-Assad insurgency. It is such an effective fighting force that it disrupted the Pentagon’s $500 million train and equip program multiple times this year, leading the Obama administration to cancel it. Multiple senior al Qaeda leaders have relocated to Syria since 2011 and they are guiding Al Nusrah’s efforts. In addition, some of these leaders work for what is known as the “Khorasan Group,” which has been planning attacks against the West. In September 2014, the administration began targeting the Khorasan Group with airstrikes. Some top figures in this al Qaeda subunit have been taken out, but others have survived thus far. Even so, al Qaeda has thousands of fighters in Syria today. And Al Nusrah Front jointly leads a coalition known as Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”), which took substantial territory from Bashar al Assad’s regime earlier this year.

In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates a prolific insurgency and has gobbled up territory, particularly in the country’s south. The U.S. has killed several senior AQAP officials this year, but that hasn’t stopped the organization from taking advantage of the Houthis’ surge and the Gulf states’ intervention. The AQAP leaders who replaced those killed in U.S. drone strikes since January are al Qaeda veterans and answer to Zawahiri. AQAP has also threatened the U.S. on multiple occasions, including the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing and other plots.

Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, in Somalia, Shabaab remains one of the most prolific jihadist organizations on the planet. It, too, does not hide its fealty to Zawahiri. Thousands of Shabaab fighters battle African forces regularly and still control significant territory. Shabaab is most infamous these days for its high-profile massacres in Kenya, such as at the Westgate mall in 2013 and Garissa University College earlier this year. Shabaab has a long history of exporting terrorism throughout East Africa, where it is attempting to build a radical Islamic nation on behalf of al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated groups remain a potent force in North and West Africa. Groups such Ansar al Sharia, Ansar Dine and others all operate within AQIM’s orbit and are regularly engaged in heavy fighting against their opponents.

Al Murabitoon, led by Mohkthar Belmokhtar, is another al Qaeda group that operates in North and West Africa. Belmokhtar, a former AQIM commander, is a Zawahiri loyalist. His group has reportedly claimed responsibility for a hotel siege in Mali earlier today.

To this brief sketch we can add a number of al Qaeda-affiliated organizations around the globe. But the point is that al Qaeda has a guerilla army totaling tens of thousands of fighters across a large geographic expanse.

AQIS, AQAP, AQIM, Al Nusrah Front, Shabaab – these are al Qaeda’s regional branches. Each of them is fighting to implement al Qaeda-style sharia law in its designated region. All of them are part of Zawahiri’s organization. They have not been “neutralize[d].”

Al Qaeda realized long ago that this is a generational war, and the next generation of leaders are fighting in several countries today. The US government still doesn’t get it.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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13 Comments

  • m3fd2002 says:

    “The US government still doesn’t get it.” Sad but true. Is anyone shocked? This administration has the credibility of Baghdad Bob. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a new sheriff in town after the election (2016). I don’t hold much hope for that, regardless of who is elected president. I don’t think the Western nations have the stomach for a “final” solution. We are to entrenched in our easy lifestyles, unwilling to sacrifice our own blood or those of our kin anymore. Face it, the post-WWII generations are soft and complacent. We will have to wait until a mushroom cloud is over one of our major metropolitan centers.

    • Arjuna says:

      Problem management, pinpricks and containment and waiting for the Iraqis to suddenly become organized and aggressive ain’t no strategy. This global jihad gang is a mortal threat. At least France and Russia are getting serious. That UN resolution against “the Islamic State terrorists” was great except they should have said simply “the Islamic terrorists.”

  • Arjuna says:

    Way to stick to your guns, gentlemen. I worry about a government so at odds with itself that the Director of Central Intelligence states AQ is a greater threat than Islamic State while merry Kerry says a short time later that Al Qaeda has been neutralized. Didn’t he read the reports about Zawahiri dispatching the same guy Tenet thought could have been buying nukes from Russia to Syria on a top level mission to build bridges between Al Nusra and IS? Does Kerry want to sit down with Hamza Bin Laden?

    It takes courage to admit you’re wrong (in bed w Sunni snakes). As Steven Covey once said, a true leader is one who climbs to the top of the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation and shouts “wrong jungle.” We need to drop our objections to Assad and kill the enemy alongside him and Putin.

  • K Maag says:

    Give the chekists credit for not being foolish during the last century’s of M.A.D. cold war; and for watching their own for M.I.C. E. too.

  • skyking239 says:

    AP 20 November 2015, Bodies lay piled up in pools of blood in gore-spattered corridors of Mali hotel where at least 27 hostages were slaughtered by jihadi gunmen.

    Automatic weapons fire was heard on the seventh floor of the 190-room Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, where it was thought as many as 10 militants roamed through the building, looking for guests and members of staff. Two of the extremists have been killed, and all the remaining hostages have since been freed – many running for their lives along the dirt track outside the hotel, which is popular with foreigners. The al-Qaeda affiliated group Al-Mourabitoun, based in northern Mali, have claimed responsibility for the attack, which began when the armed militants entered the grounds in a vehicle which witnesses claim had diplomatic plates.

    So much for the lies of Sec Kerry.

  • Vlad The Descaler says:

    “Al Qaeda hasn’t been neutralized in Afghanistan. In fact, numerous al Qaeda leaders have relocated into the country.”

    Thanks in large part to long overdue pressure from Pakistani Army operations.

  • Fred says:

    Don’t forget the Ansar al Shariah(s) in Libya. They’re Al Qaeda too, they’re just sneaky about it. AQIM and AAS cooperated during the Benghazi attack.

    //intelligence.house.gov/sites/intelligence.house.gov/files/documents/Benghazi%20Report.pdf

    And fun fact: the February 17 Brigade, which was providing security for the diplomatic compound (and was mysteriously absent during the initial attack), is currently fighting alongside Ansar al Shariah as well. Al Qaeda blurs at the margins.

  • Frank Dunn says:

    “Neutralized”, “contained”, “on the run”, “a video”, “climate change” and “Jayvee” are lies designed for broadcast by US “news” media. These and a hundred other lies told by Obama and the Demlusionals are designed to be heard and possibly read by the 52% of voters who fell for these ridiculous claims in 2012.

    The truth doesn’t matter, even if Robert Redford is playing the role of Dan Rather. It’s the headline story on the news that Obama is concerned with since he and his ilk know that the false narrative won’t be challenged by the Obama supporting news reader.

  • rtloder says:

    Zawahiri claims not to target Muslims as easy target with greatest spoils, but he lies through his teeth, Mansour should dump the idiot, times are changing, reprisal without the exceptional US approval is the new world order.
    Bombs and drones does not control the who owns the turf.
    A no Army America is a non event, Emir Mansour should not make the same mistake as Mullar Omar, what’s happening in Syria will turn out in Afghanistan, without any doubt.
    Zawahiri is no longer viable, in the new world.

    • Dale says:

      Sadly you are mistaken. Al Qaeda will deliberately not bomb Sunni mosques. That is what separates Isis from al Qaeda. Although Isis is very powerful they made the mistake of making to many enemies while al queda silently grows stronger in my places such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Africa. Isis may be causing some defections in Afghanistan and Somalia but not enough to truely threaten the al Qaeda machine

  • rtloder says:

    The attack on the Shi’ia in Kandahar today should be thoroughly condemned by Emir Mansour.

  • Adam says:

    Your leadership is a reflection of who you are as a people. Why don’t any of you come here to fight us. You can volunteer, you know. You will find a lot if support from your own people. However, the truth is that all of you brave warriors, will not do a thing, except talk, talk, talk. You are worse than those you criticize for not doing what you would like them to do.

  • Roy says:

    No one is talking about the elephant in the room, Wahabbists from saudi arabia. Why?
    Saudi arabian money along with pakistani treachery is responsible for Afghanistan falling into hands of AQ.
    Pakistany army operations, lol… How many of you remember “airlift of the evil”. Kunduz might a ring a bell.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis