Al Qaeda expands armies, territory
Takes advantage of U.S. focus on Islamic State
Al Qaeda is making a comeback in the Middle East and North Africa by expanding its armies and infiltrating new territories, complicating President Trump’s priority of destroying the world’s other major Salafist Sunni group, the Islamic State.
Whether al Qaeda could organize another transnational plot such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. is questionable. But it is exploring bombmaking techniques to bring down airliners as well as ways to destabilize local governments.
In recent months, the Pentagon has shifted more firepower against al Qaeda, which is trying to capitalize on Washington’s focus on the Islamic State, or ISIS. The ultraviolent group shocked the world in 2014 when it invaded Iraq and began inspiring mass slaughter in the West.
Terrorism analysts have told Congress in recent weeks that al Qaeda’s plan is to recruit quality terrorists instead of mass sign-ups. The group, founded by Osama bin Laden, is relying on a social network of mosques and financiers to select jihadis instead of the Islamic State’s flashy internet media productions.
The Trump administration is reacting. The Pentagon announced Thursday that Mr. Trump has approved an expansion of “precision strikes” on al-Shabab, al Qaeda’s persistent franchise that is trying to overthrow the federal government in Somalia.
In January, Mr. Trump approved a major special operations raid on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. It marked a rare on-the-ground confrontation with a group dedicated to attacking the U.S. homeland and bringing down airliners. U.S. military officials, who learned much about AQAP’s fighting style in that raid, have signaled that more ground strikes are planned.
Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee that al Qaeda is growing.
“One of the common [themes] that was repeated was that ISIS was concerned with controlling territory, whereas al Qaeda is not. This is false,” Mr. Joscelyn testified. “Al Qaeda has a different strategy for doing so, but they are building Islamic emirates right now, as we sit here, in several countries, including Yemen.”
AQAP is not just a franchise, but also an al Qaeda headquarters to coordinate attacks outside the country, he said.
With al Qaeda building “emirates,” Mr. Trump finds himself in a two-front war akin to fighting two fascist enemies, Germany and Japan, in World War II. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda must be defeated to win the war on terrorism, but the two Salafist groups keep expanding outside their core areas.
“While the Islamic State is burning very brightly, it’s also burning very quickly,” terrorism consultant Geoff Porter told a House Homeland Security subcommittee last week. “And al Qaeda has employed a more conservative, longer-term strategy and is likely to be more enduring of an organization than the Islamic State will be.
“I would argue that it’s less aggressive in its recruiting because it’s more selective in its recruiting. And the membership of al Qaeda, I think, is more capable than the membership of the Islamic State over the longer term,” Mr. Porter said.
Al Qaeda has been greatly overshadowed by the Islamic State since 2014. ISIS, as it is officially called by the Pentagon, built a huge foreign fighter army in Syria, boldly and viciously invaded Iraq and established a so-called caliphate. It was terrorism’s first large, maneuverable land force complete with a social-mediasavvy propaganda arm.
But all the while, al Qaeda was studying the same upheaval left by the 2011 Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East and started capitalizing.
“Where al Qaeda perhaps has an advantage as an ideology and its ideological roots is the fact that it’s built on a matrix that has been developed over years of foreign money, foreign influence, mosques and social networks,” said J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council.
President Obama’s assessment that “al Qaeda is on the run” seems a distant boast today.
Al Qaeda is operating at least five major organizations: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al Shariah in North Africa, AQAP in Yemen, al-Shabab in Somalia and a burgeoning army in Syria. In Afghanistan, where the war on al Qaeda began as the World Trade Center lay in smoking ruins, it remains a threat.
AQIM has expanded from coastal areas of Algeria into Libya and Tunisia.
The think tank Long War Journal reports that al Qaeda increased attacks by 150 percent in North Africa, from 106 in 2015 to 250 last year.
Planning for growth
“With its ongoing operation in Tunisia and its regroupment in the Sahara and the [sub-Sahara] Sahel, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is now the strongest terrorist organization in North Africa and poses the greatest threat to U.S. national interests in the region,” Mr. Porter told the House Homeland Security subcommittee.
Steve Stalinsky, who directs the Middle East Media Research Institute, told The Washington Times that jihadi groups are forming in North Africa and pledging allegiance to al Qaeda.
One new group, the Union of Sahel Jihadi Groups, popped up in mid-March and was immediately embraced by AQIM.
“This highlights a big focus of al Qaeda,” Mr. Stalinsky said. “These groups have also been warning France of coming attacks.”
AQAP has increased in size thanks in part to Iran’s decision to back Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. This created another Sunni-Shiite flashpoint, beckoning recruits to al Qaeda. AQAP continues research into bombs that can be sneaked onto passenger aircraft.
Last month, the Pentagon unleashed one of its largest bombing raids on AQAP terrorists, their weapons and their compounds.
“AQAP has taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Yemen to plot, direct and inspire terror attacks against the United States and our allies,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, director of Pentagon press operations. “U.S. forces will continue to work with the government of Yemen to defeat AQAP and deny it the ability to operate in Yemen.”
Said Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal: “The large number of strikes over a short period of time indicates the U.S. is changing its tactics in fighting AQAP in Yemen. The U.S. military previously described AQAP as one of the most dangerous terrorist networks that is determined to strike U.S. interests, yet it had been overly cautious in targeting the group. Over the previous five years, the U.S. military averaged just two to three strikes against AQAP a month.”
Mr. Joscelyn testified that AQAP in Yemen was planned by bin Laden in the early 1990s as a future al Qaeda state, rather than an adaptation to the U.S. invasion of al Qaeda’s headquarters in Afghanistan in 2001.
“That’s how far in advance they have been thinking about this,” he said.
He said the U.S. has killed al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, “yet their insurgency grows, their insurgency prospers.”
Meanwhile, al Qaeda in Syria has been gaining some territory as U.S.-backed rebels recede and President Bashar Assad, backed by Russian airpower and Iranian commanders and militias, cements his brutal hold on power.
Al Qaeda, once aligned with what was then called the Nusra Front, has cobbled together various jihadi groups into a formidable standing army that has taken land in central Syria. Press reports say some U.S.-backed rebels abandoned their units and joined al Qaeda, weapons and all.
In Afghanistan, where the hot war against al Qaeda and its headquarters, safe houses and training camps began 15 years ago, officials say it remains a threat to the capital, Kabul.
National security official Masoom Stanikzai told CNN: “They are really very active. They are working in quiet and reorganizing themselves and preparing themselves for bigger attacks. They are working behind other networks, giving them support and the experience they had in different places. And double their resources and recruitment and other things. That is how — they are not talking too much. They are not making press statements. It is a big threat.”
In the run-up to his re-election in 2012, Mr. Obama declared al Qaeda “is on the run.”
In a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, he talked of “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates” and said the “core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat” and the “core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self.”
Later that year, he said that “core al Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated.”
Today, Mr. Joscelyn looks at the al Qaeda map and sees a different story.
“The bottom line here is … al Qaeda’s core was never defeated, it was never decimated,” he said. “They suffered dozens of leadership losses for sure, but they had thought that through and they knew that they were going to suffer those losses, and we are still killing guys, to this day, who first joined the jihad in 1979 and 1980.”