30 years after its establishment and 17 years since it launched the worst and largest terrorist attack in world history, Al Qaeda—which translates to “The Base”—is experiencing a newly discovered resurgence. Immediately following the attacks of September 11th, the United States and a few allies launched the Global War on Terror that specifically targeted Al Qaeda and its charismatic leader Osama bin Laden. The campaign was a steady and heavy presence in countries throughout the Middle East and had a goal of uprooting and destroying the terrorist group. This long, hotly debated effort culminated with bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ten years after the attacks on the World Trade Centres. The goal of the mission was simple: “cut the head off the snake” and expect the group to fall apart from within. The targeting of bin Laden had two dynamic components. First and foremost, the U.S. government wanted to remove Al Qaeda’s prominent leadership. The second factor behind the constant search for bin Laden was an unspoken motivation within the U.S. government but widely understood and accepted: to provide solace to families of victims of Al Qaeda’s terror and avenge the lives lost. 17 years later the United States and its allies must commence a careful analysis and consider the group’s potential and presence today. Did the efforts produce the intended effects or does Al Qaeda still remain a prominent organization today?
The main strategy behind targeting Osama bin Laden can be colloquially described as “cutting the head off the snake.” In the parlance of counterterrorism strategy, this is known as a “targeted killing.” The general idea behind the tactic is that by removing leaders of terrorist organizations, terrorist groups will fall into disarray without clear guidance and ultimately disband or cease operations. In Keith Patrick Dear’s paper, “Beheading the Hydra? Does Killing Terrorist or Insurgent Leaders Work,” he explains how the tactic was widely favoured after bin Laden’s death and how he expects it to continue to be favoured by the U.S. government and the intelligence community in the subsequent years. Dear continues his paper with the conclusion that the strategy of targeted killings is ineffective against terrorist groups and is found to be an “often counterproductive tactic.” The operation against bin Laden in 2011 in Abbottabad was initially thought to be an effective strategy but proved to be counterintuitive years later.
The most compelling reason as to why this strategy was ineffective against Al Qaeda is best expressed in a Los Angeles Times article written by Nabih Bulos. Bulos writes, “What U.S. officials didn’t grasp, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, in a recent phone interview, is that Al Qaeda is more than a group of individuals. It’s an idea, and an idea cannot be destroyed using sophisticated weapons and killing leaders and bombing training camps.”
The intended effect of bin Laden’s death was meant to fragment the group and fracture the leadership; however, it immortalized bin Laden as a martyr, and while al Qaeda spent the subsequent years after his death in relative confusion, they were able to ultimately recruit more cadres and strengthen the group’s presence across other countries. With the Islamic State on the decline across Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda filled the power vacuum. Immediately following the Arab Spring revolts, al Qaeda and its new leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, jumped on the opportunity to recruit new members and push the group’s Salafist ideology. Since then, they have experienced a resurgence that allows them to spread ideology to other countries and begin, once again, launching attacks against close neighbouring countries, as well as against targets in Russia and across Europe.
With the Islamic State on the decline across Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda was able to fill the created power vacuum. Immediately following the Arab Spring revolts, al Qaeda and its new leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, jumped on the opportunity to recruit new members and push the group’s Salafist ideology. Since then, they have experienced a resurgence that allows them to spread ideology to other countries and begin, once again, launching attacks against close neighbouring countries, as well as against targets in Russia and across Europe.
While much of the organization’s key members reside in Syria, approximately 10,000-20,000 armed fighters according to The Council on Foreign Relations, Al Qaeda has managed to establish loyal offshoots in countries across northern Africa, the Maghreb and Sahel, Somalia, Yemen, Russia, as well as in Bangladesh and Myanmar. The new and revitalized bases of operation dramatically increase the group’s potency and potential to both recruit new members and stage attacks. Much of this new resurgence in numbers is due to the fact that al Qaeda has changed its tactics. Nabih Bulos writes in the Los Angeles Times, “Instead of the headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, brutal public executions and slick propaganda used by Islamic State (Al Qaeda’s onetime affiliate and now rival), Al Qaeda now practices a softer approach, embedding itself and gaining the support of Sunni Muslims inside war-torn countries.” The terrorist organization was able to capitalize on the recent political turmoil faced across the Arab world. Uprisings and military coups allowed al Qaeda to appeal to disenfranchised Muslims providing them an alternative life than what they would have had under authoritarian rulers.
It would seem that the stage is set. Al Qaeda is on the rise, and the United States faces a relatively adapted and changed terrorist threat. If the current administration hopes to slow the new resurgence then it must first treat al Qaeda as the real and prevalent threat that it is. It cannot afford to write al Qaeda off as a dying group because bin Laden is dead, and because there has not been as devastating of a terrorist attack as the one in 2001. Such negligence could be dangerous and could potentially lead to deaths of innocent people at the hands of al Qaeda.
The U.S. government, as well as its allies, must recognize the impending threat that the terrorist group poses. Then, once we realize the dangers we’re facing, we can adequately respond with more effective strategies of counterterrorism. It is apparent that targeted killings cannot be effective against such a group. Killing Zawahiri will not lead to victory. The past has showed us that someone else would fill the void. Instead, the group as a whole should be targeted. However, we should not repeat the past with a conventional ground war in the Middle East. This tactic has been proven to be ineffective since al Qaeda operates by not engaging in conventional warfare. Seth Jones highlights in his book, Hunting in the Shadows, that the most effective way to combat al Qaeda is through a “light footprint” approach using covert operations instead of traditional ground war. Furthermore, cutting off funding to al Qaeda and its sources of revenue would prove to be an effective way of curbing the group from launching terrorist attacks.
The new al Qaeda threat has only just begun and it is difficult to argue what the most effective strategy is at the present moment. Until then, we must continue to remain vigilant and keep a careful eye on the emerging threat.
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