to understand after 2001 is only a shell of its former self — increased American drone strikes have killed more than 60 top leaders since 2004 — it has morphed into smaller forms. When intelligence experts warned that cutting the head of the snake would only result in many more snakes, they couldn’t have been more accurate.
Farhan Zahid, an independent counter terrorism expert, told The Huffington Post in an interview recently that terrorist cells pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda continue to exist in at least 60 countries. Although they may not train in desert boot camps like the videos Americans grew used to seeing following 9/11, they have gone underground and connect on the internet.
“At times, Al-Qaeda has established itself as a mother-ship organization, in effect franchising to smaller local groups,” Zahid said. “In this way, Al-Qaeda has managed to keep itself afloat amid a significant effort from the U.S. and its allies to pulverize the organization.”
Perhaps even more disgruntling on this anniversary is learning how bin Laden’s death may have exacerbated the growth of the terrorist organization today known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. That group began as an al-Qaeda franchise founded following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but after bin Laden’s death, ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sought more independence.
He clashed with other al-Qaeda factions, targeted Shia Muslims and entered the Syrian civil war, seeking to capitalize on the dilapidating state. The more he went rogue against al-Qaeda, the more issues between collaborators arose, until ISIS was eventually de-franchised.
Now out on its own, ISIS sought to make a name for itself and put down a stronghold in Syria, drawing support from Iraqi war veterans and Sunni tribes. As its numbers grew, so too did ISIS’ territory until it swallowed up the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and its nearby oil fields. After it claimed an Islamic caliphate, essentially a religious kingdom, its power grew even further with new franchises connecting to ISIS rather than al-Qaeda.
Now Islamic extremists are more dangerous and prevalent than ever, with recent attacks in Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., happening in just the last six months. The internet offers an easy way for sleeper cells to communicate attacks of mass terrorism, which can be perpetrated by just a handful of individuals. More terrifying yet is the fact the Brussels and Paris attacks have been directly connected back to ISIS operatives, and the San Bernardino attack is believed to be only influenced by ISIS ideology but not directly backed by the organization.
The growth of rogue terrorists like the San Bernardino shooters may be the unfortunate byproduct from the death of bin Laden five years ago. While it felt good to achieve some measure of justice in the al-Qaeda leader’s death, we only worry what else came from Pandora’s box along with it.