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.
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