By James Hess, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Security and Global Studies
In an exclusive interview with CNN conducted through intermediaries, two al Qaeda operatives tell CNN that “war against the US will be continuing on all other fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic world.” This statement was in response to the Biden administration’s recent declaration that U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center Towers in Manhattan and damaged the Pentagon.
Since the 2011 U.S. operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, al Qaeda has had a difficult time reorganizing. A significant reason for that is due to ISIS’s emergence and perceived successes in capturing lands throughout the Middle East.
Many terrorist groups that were affiliated with al Qaeda shifted their allegiance to ISIS, for example Boko Haram. Most attacks that al Qaeda now takes credit for have been conducted by Al Qaeda affiliates, for example al Shabaad and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Since bin Laden’s Death, Ayman al Zawahiri Has Emerged as the Leader of al Qaeda.
Since bin Laden’s death, Ayman al Zawahiri has emerged as the leader of al Qaeda. Zawahiri served as bin Laden’s deputy and master ideologist. He also was a member and then leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, heavily influenced by Sayyid Qutb who was known for his work Milestones. That work laid out the premise for the Jihadi Salafist movement. Perhaps Zawahiri’s strategy is one of refining the organization’s networks to conduct operations. According to a Foreign Affairs review of Fawaz A. Gerges’s book, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, Zawahiri “reversed his long-standing concentration on the ‘near enemy’ (the Egyptian regime), joined forces with bin Laden, and became number two in the al Qaeda hierarchy.” The far enemy strategy is one that al Qaeda adopted, which focuses on the U.S. and the West. ISIS adopted a near enemy strategy, which is more specific toward Islamic governments that Jihadi Salafists view as too secular.
So, why would al Qaeda try to reassert itself now? Most likely, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen as an opportunity to push its ideology again, a push that focuses on trying to influence young Muslims, who may not know of bin Laden’s fatwas against the West.
Also to consider, a terrorist group remains relevant when it conducts attacks. Rhetoric alone does not sustain a terrorist group. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan provides an opportunity for al Qaeda to reassert itself into what the leadership perceives as the start of a post-U.S. Middle East.