Reports of Al-Qaeda's Demise are Greatly Exaggerated | Opinion

In mid-November at The Soufan Center's annual Global Security Forum, Ambassador Nathan Sales of the U.S. Department of State Counterterrorism Bureau commented that "the question of who leads al-Qaeda core matters a little bit less today than it did a decade ago." Given recent news circulating online about the alleged death of al-Qaeda's current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, this is more than just an academic issue.

If Zawahiri is indeed dead (news that was initially broken by terrorism expert Hassan Hassan but not yet confirmed by either al-Qaeda or the United States government), his death would be even more devastating considering it comes on the heels of the announcement that al-Qaeda's number two, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed in Tehran by Israeli agents in August of this year. Given the killing of al-Masri, the alleged death of Zawahiri, and the targeted assassination of several other high-ranking al-Qaeda figures, including longtime veterans Abu al-Qassam, Abu Muhammad al-Sudani, and Hossam Abdul al-Raouf, the organization's senior leadership is reeling.

Yet, al-Qaeda has always been capable of adapting and evolving, but by shifting its organizational structure to afford its affiliates in the Sahel, the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere with the operational autonomy to develop attack plans and map out strategic objectives, the group has sidestepped the dilemma of leadership decapitation. Since the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda has focused on grassroots organizing in an attempt to make inroads with local populations in countries like Mali, Yemen, and Syria. By lowering its profile, including by working through front organizations, al-Qaeda has concentrated its resources on gaining popular support.

Most terrorism analysts expect al-Qaeda to tap veteran terrorist Saif al-Adel as the group's next leader, given the weight his name still carries and as a function of his jihadist pedigree. But even this is not straightforward. Like al-Masri, al-Adel is believed to be living in Iran, which makes him similarly vulnerable to the fate met by al-Masri, as well as open to the accusations that al-Qaeda is serving as a puppet of the Iranian regime, accusations that al-Qaeda's primary rival, the Islamic State, is sure to promote aggressively.

What most of the recent analysis prematurely celebrating an end to al-Qaeda gets wrong is the organization's reliance on a central leadership figure in 2020. If Zawahiri is dead, it will unquestionably be a blow to al-Qaeda from a logistical perspective, especially given the terrorist leader's penchant for managing relationships between the core and its affiliates. However, the number of fighters under arms for al-Qaeda is estimated at upwards of 40,000 jihadists.

Meanwhile, affiliates including al-Shabaab in Somalia, Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) in West Africa, Hurras al-Din in Syria, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent in South Asia, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen have each made significant inroads with local populations in the countries and regions where they operate, respectively. The ability of these affiliates to strike the West has been diminished, but the intent is still there. U.S. officials have recently noted that Hurras al-Din continues to plot attacks against the West. The chaos of the Syrian civil war has provided al-Qaeda militants and other jihadists with enough space to operate, specifically in Idlib Province in the country's northwest.

In his remarks at the Global Security Forum, Ambassador Sales also noted that al-Qaeda was "on the ropes." But that could change if the organization is able to make a strong comeback in countries where the United States is reducing its presence. With recent announcements by the Trump administration to draw down troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps Somalia, there is an opportunity for al-Qaeda to take advantage of the resulting power vacuum. Afghanistan likely presents al-Qaeda's most viable change to rebuild its network, with a minimal U.S. presence and a looming power-sharing deal that includes the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda is well-positioned to regroup. Al-Qaeda fighters remain "heavily embedded" within the Taliban and few knowledgeable observers expect the Taliban to distance itself from its longtime ally.

Given the way with which al-Qaeda central has devolved authority from the core to its regional branches, recent leadership losses may not be the death knell that many in the U.S. counterterrorism community might be hoping for. Al-Qaeda's demise has been predicted before, perhaps too many times to even keep track of. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the group "a shadow of its former self." In some ways, that is true. Al-Qaeda's old guard—those jihadists that have fought with the organization since its inception nearly three decades ago—is an increasingly smaller circle.

The risk for the West is once again underestimating the organization's resilience. The U.S. military is ready to close the chapter on the so-called Global War on Terrorism, while preparing for the shift to great power competition with near-peer adversaries including China and Russia. Washington and its allies may be eager to move on, but al-Qaeda and its network of global affiliates will remain a significant challenge, and in some parts of the world may be poised for a major comeback.

Colin P. Clarke is a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center.

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