In mid-August al-Qaeda threatened to derail Britain’s train system, urging its supporters to heed its call. This brought up the debate about whether the extremist organization was on the rise again, 16 years after the United States declared war against it.
There are many factors that support this possibility, starting with the defeats that the ISIS terrorist group has been dealt on the ground and also with the Taliban regaining some of its foothold in Afghanistan. Contrary to his pledges during his electoral campaign, US President Donald Trump vowed to send more forces to combat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to prevent it from returning to power. So have Washington and the world failed in confronting al-Qaeda throughout a decade-and-a-half?
Security agencies in Europe took seriously al-Qaeda’s threat to target the British railways. They consequently upped security at train lines throughout the country, which shows, in one way or another, that al-Qaeda’s plotting has not weakened in recent years. In fact, it may have taken advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the fight against ISIS to quietly regroup to build resources and alliances to continue its eternal war against the United States.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy released one of the best reports to address al-Qaeda’s future and reawakening in light of the consecutive ISIS failures. It examined the extremist group’s ability to rise again from the rubble of the war against it in Afghanistan. It also tackled the recent crises in the region and the emergence of ISIS, which was originally a dogmatic and more radical branch of al-Qaeda itself.
Al-Qaeda and new host environments
It is perhaps ironic that the years of the so-called Arab Spring would produce new host environments for al-Qaeda and provide it with new allies that would allow it to continue its approach, as un-innovative as it is.
Syria was without a doubt the prime background for the reemergence of al-Qaeda. Since the beginning of the conflict, the extremist group has looked for new allies there and it appears to have found them in al-Nusra Front, which boasts thousands of fighters that believe in al-Qaeda’s ideals and goals. There is no doubt that al-Qaeda took advantage of the civil unrest in a number of Arab countries to gain new followers.
Some of the new host environments for al-Qaeda lie in Libya. The whole world saw how one country, Qatar, had the sole purpose to spread al-Qaeda’s forces in the North African country to seize control of it.
Perhaps the Libyan national consensus government security agencies’ unveiling of a terrorist plot to target with chemical weapons officials in the country’s capital spurred western circles to action. The plot was to be carried out by one of al-Qaeda’s branches in the Arab Maghreb. Revealed in August, the plan raised questions among European security agencies about whether these lethal chemical weapons are still in al-Qaeda’s possession in Libya. Are these weapons being used locally or will they cross the Mediterranean to be used in a terrorist attack in Europe?
Al-Qaeda: From Yemen to Africa
In early August, the US Department of Defense dispatched special forces to Yemen to help the pro-legitimacy forces in their operations against al-Qaeda in the country. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis stated that the special forces’ operations will be focused in the Shabwa province where the extremist group is particularly active in the Arab peninsula. So what can we interpret from this statement?
Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have certainly taken advantage of the situation in Yemen, which is on the verge of being declared a failed state. The country today is divided between pro-legitimacy forces, led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and a fragile alliance between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi insurgents.
Amid the complexities of this scene, al-Qaeda has found ways to recruit new members and spread its network beyond the Arab peninsula and reach the Arab Gulf. The organization may be weak in Yemen, and not as powerful as the media, especially western ones, claims. This does not mean that the group is not any less active in the absence of the state. Its power grows as the state weakens. The equation is simple: As long as the civil war in Yemen rages on, al-Qaeda will be able to strengthen itself and defeating it will be difficult.
The catastrophic spread of al-Qaeda in Yemen will have consequences on Africa, where the group is seeking to spread, through Libya and Yemen’s coast that is near several African countries.
In fact, al-Qaeda has not stayed away from the spotlight in Africa and it has claimed responsibility for violence there. The latest of its terrorist crimes was an August 10 attack against a restaurant in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. The country itself has been a target of al-Qaeda attacks and it boasts the very active Ansar al-Islam group, led by Ibrahim Malam Dicko, as one of its affiliates. Established in 2016, this group’s ideology is more in line with al-Qaeda than ISIS.
The question about al-Qaeda’s future was best answered by former aide to US forces in Afghanistan, Seth Jones. Now a political scientist at the RAND Corporation specializing in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, Jones published an article in the American Foreign Policy magazine in which he discusses al-Qaeda’s future.
In it he quoted Daniel Byman of Georgetown University as saying that the extremist group will weaken due to its poor popular support and the effective international efforts to combat terrorism. In addition, he said that resentment has grown against the group due to its killing of Muslim civilians
Others in Jones’ article shared a different view. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan said that al-Qaeda will undoubtedly make a comeback. He explained that the group is now transforming itself from a small terrorist organization to a powerful network. He asserted that it has grown in numbers, developed its fighting ability and is spreading in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Jones examined many hypothetical scenarios where al-Qaeda either returns to power of weakens.
One of the most dangerous scenarios is the probability that with ISIS’ demise, its members would join al-Qaeda and form a new organization. Al-Qaeda is different from what it was a decade ago and its movement is less centralized, meaning loyalties to it are changeable and therein lies the catastrophe.
Al-Qaeda welcomes Trump’s plan
On August 21, Trump announced a new plan on Afghanistan that sees the deployment of more US troops there in an attempt to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Has this plan come as the kiss of life for al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan in particular, and its supporters across the globe?
The truth is that prior to Trumps’ announcement, al-Qaeda saw in him and his former aide Steve Bannon a new lifeline to return to spotlight. How is that?
Very simply, before he was sacked, Bannon was the screaming voice of the US administration that claimed that “the power of Islam cannot be stopped by peaceful means.”
Bannon here gave al-Qaeda an opportunity to re-portray the West as being at an existential war with Islam. This is the way that the organization justifies its violence and fundamental ideology.
Now Trump is planning to start a new military war against Taliban and the remaining al-Qaeda affiliates, which will undoubtedly redraw the world map between peaceful and war-torn countries.
The New York Times recently said that even if all the world’s terrorists were killed tomorrow, they will come back again as long as both religious and racial fundamentalism and the lucrative heroine trade on the Afghanistan Pakistan border remained.
So does the solution in Afghanistan lie in leaving the country like Barack Obama did?
Of course not, because that will transform it into a new ISIS hub even if the name of the group changed. Perhaps Trump’s new strategy will provide a temporary solution.
Is there an end?
The extremism embodied by ISIS and al-Qaeda will not suddenly disappear for good. The hostile ideologies will remain in one way or another - whether in the wars in Africa or Asia or the Middle East and as long as central issues are unresolved and preachers of hatred, the end of the world and the clash of civilizations remain.