Al Qaeda's Generational Change | Opinion

Nineteen years after 9/11, al Qaeda's name is fading from American consciousness, mostly reduced to a mention in an occasional news story in the rare event that one of its senior leaders is eliminated by U.S. forces. While Americans may be all-too eager to forget about al Qaeda and the terror it evoked on 9/11, they must not do so. The United States must be ready for what comes next.

A new generation within al Qaeda is coming of age and will soon assume leadership. The original al Qaeda we knew is transforming, stepping away temporarily from the global jihad to grow, broaden its reach and deepen its grip before it returns stronger than ever and targets the West. The cadre that surrounded Osama bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, in Afghanistan and Pakistan is old and mostly dead, except for the few remaining individuals who offer strategic guidance. The new generation, however, has already witnessed much more success than the old guard, and has learned vital lessons from al Qaeda's now decades-long experience of jihad.

Al Qaeda today is active in more countries and has a greater number of fighters than it did on 9/11. Its dispersed senior leadership has found sanctuaries in Afghanistan-Pakistan, North and West Africa, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere from which to direct the al Qaeda network. And despite the scale of the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda leaders, a number of them are still alive.

Over the past decade, the revitalized terror group has actively sought to embed itself in lower-profile local conflicts, seizing opportunities after the 2011 Arab Spring to strengthen worldwide while U.S. and European allies sought to reduce their commitments abroad. As a UN report noted, "Al Qaeda's affiliates are stronger than [the Islamic State] in many conflict zones." What Americans missed in 2001 is that al Qaeda's terror attacks in Europe and the United States are a means to an end—meant to weaken American and Western influence in Muslim-majority lands so that al Qaeda's vision for society could take root. The collapse in governance and security across the Muslim-majority world has been the opening al Qaeda needed.

Al Qaeda's rising generation of leaders have cut their teeth in these local conflicts. Their jihad is not just on the battlefield, but also in courtrooms, public squares and schools. Many remain in their own homelands, where they understand complex social dynamics and have led their forces in defense of local communities. They have changed their approach, softened their image and gained popular support by providing justice, security and humanitarian assistance. Their approach juxtaposes sharply with that of the Islamic State, which favors coercion over cooption and imposes rather than molds governance. Today, al Qaeda affiliates worldwide are building a big tent to unify Sunnis under their influence, leaving the ideological differences to sort out later. They seek to first overthrow local governments and then rule over them in the name of Islam.

War-torn Yemen, where AQAP is active
War-torn Yemen, where AQAP is active Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Unlike the first generation, the new generation never fought together as a cohort in a single theater of jihad. While these younger jihadis were born during the Afghanistan jihad against the Soviets and were too young to follow the fight to Somalia, Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s, some joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Iraq in the early-to-mid 2000s and others joined elsewhere. They stayed put, observing and absorbing al Qaeda's successes and mistakes. Veterans mentored them, sharing their war stories and lessons from the 1990s, while they rose through the ranks during the 2010s. These new leaders include Abu Mohamad al Julani, a Syrian who moved to Iraq in 2003 to fight against Americans and who has been captured, released and in and out of Syria—where he has been catapulted on the world stage by the success of Jabhat al Nusra, now Tahrir al Sham. Also, Khalid al Batarfi in Yemen, a Saudi-born with Yemeni roots, trained in Afghanistan, who fought with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen since its founding, was imprisoned and later freed by AQAP.

The new al Qaeda leadership is revitalizing the organization to again lead the global Salafi-jihadi movement, recapturing the position it held before the Islamic State usurped it. Global trends only favor that growth: Chinese and Russian neo-colonialism reinforces autocratic leaders, which only worsens the popular grievances that Salafi-jihadi groups exploit, while the U.S. and partners are shifting resources away from counterterrorism efforts. Americans take the tapering of homegrown Islamist terrorist attacks and absence of another 9/11-style attack as signs al Qaeda is weakening, but al Qaeda's principal metric of success has been the number of Sunnis under its governance.

Al Qaeda's focus on the local fight does not erase the group's intent to attack the West, but is calculated instead to build strength before returning to its war on America. The 9/11 Commission famously labeled one of the greatest national security mistakes the U.S. government made before the greatest attack on this nation as a "failure of imagination." Americans must not let al Qaeda slip from their imagination again.

Katherine Zimmerman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Beyond Counterterrorism: Defeating the Salafi-jihadi Movement.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.