AMU Homeland Security Intelligence Original Terrorism

How Will the Death of al Qaeda’s al-Masri Affect Afghanistan?

By James Hess, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

On Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, Afghanistan declared that it had killed senior al-Qaeda leader and propagandist Abu Muhsin al-Masri (a.k.a. Husam Abd al-Rauf). Al-Masri, an Egyptian, was killed during an operation in Ghazni province.

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Christopher Miller, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, believes that al-Masri’s death “…is a major setback to a terrorist organization that is consistently experiencing strategic losses.”

Are Afghanistan’s Capabilities Improving?

One of the issues most concerning to the United States is whether Afghanistan’s military capabilities can provide security for the country after a U.S. withdraw. Perhaps the most significant concern has been that Afghanistan security forces have been suspected of being infiltrated by the Taliban. That the Afghan security forces led and executed this raid against al-Masri could be a good sign that the Afghan security forces are improving.

Al-Qaeda after al-Masri

Back in June, I wrote an article discussing how to evaluate a terrorist group based on the acronym, iSTART. The key point was how interrelated all of the variables are when it comes to analyzing terrorist groups. This means that the ideology of the terrorist group has a direct relationship to the ability to recruit new members. If that ideology does not demonstrate some improvement for would-be recruits, the group will ultimately fail, with or without outside interference.

The loss of a propagandist like al-Masri affects all iSTART variables when assessing the impact of his death. For starters, it is challenging to maintain a viable ideology that motivates, especially when there are other terrorist groups leveraging the same ideology, like ISIS, for example. Al-Qaeda will have a difficult time convincing followers that they are still a relevant organization fighting for the ideology of Jihadi Salafism.

Insurgencies Must Be Relevant or They Disappear

In his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl explains that insurgencies (and terrorist groups) need to remain relevant or they disappear. This lesson can be seen clearly in the disbandment of the Colombian insurgency group FARC. The loss of al-Masri affects al Qaeda’s ability to remain relevant. It is important that the counterterrorism efforts focus on determining if al-Qaeda tries to replace al-Masri.

Perhaps the most important change that could occur after the loss of a senior terrorist leader like al-Masri will be how it impacts the organization. The reason is ideology influences the other variables and any change that affects ideology impacts the entire organization. Understanding how terrorist groups respond to the loss of significant leadership tells analysts if there could be significant changes when it comes to transmitting their ideology or pursuing recruitment efforts.

About the Author

Dr. James Hess is a professor at American Military University. Dr. Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He is also a fellow and affiliated faculty with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where he researches Islamic jurisprudence and its impact on terrorism.

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