Almost one year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, many of the more dire predictions from last August appear to be coming true — al Qaeda is regrouping and remains intent on becoming the leader of the global jihadist movement. Per a recent United Nations report, key al Qaeda allies have consolidated power in Afghanistan, providing the group with favorable conditions to mount a comeback.
Speaking recently at George Washington University, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen remarked, “This is among the most challenging and complex threat landscapes that I have seen in over 20 years working in counterterrorism.” He was talking about the growing threat that domestic violent extremists pose to the United States, coupled with the fact that Sunni jihadist groups such as al Qaeda “have not gone away” — and indeed, continue to evolve.
Last month, U.S. forces killed a high-ranking ISIS leader with a drone strike in northwestern Syria, continuing to decimate the group’s top-tier leadership. Meanwhile, al Qaeda, along with its branches and franchise groups, is poised for a potential comeback in hotspots throughout the globe, reversing a trend in the broader global jihadist universe that had made ISIS the alpha.
The most obvious starting point is in Afghanistan, where a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops in August 2021 led to a haphazard evacuation and the Taliban taking control of the country. With no troops on the ground and no intelligence assets — especially human intelligence, or HUMINT — the United States is forced to rely on an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism approach, which often leads to civilian casualties and falls short of its objectives. Nobody doubts the intent of al Qaeda to strike the U.S. homeland once again. In a hearing from mid-June on the current state of al Qaeda and ISIS before the House Homeland Committee, Subcommittee on Intelligence & Counterterrorism, Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) observed that both al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as their offshoots, “desire to attack the United States.”
So, the intent is there, but what about al Qaeda’s capabilities?
According to a recent United Nations Security Council Report, “the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida remains close” and “al Qaeda has a safe haven under the Taliban and increased freedom of action.” Safe havens and sanctuaries provide terrorist groups with the opportunity to increase their capabilities, including the ability to rebuild an external operations planning network. Assessments vary on how long it might take for al Qaeda to reconstitute this capability, but most estimates, including that of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fall somewhere between 12 and 36 months. Just last month, CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael E. Kurilla stated that the United States possesses intelligence that terrorist groups are building training camps inside Afghanistan — although, to anybody paying even a modicum of attention, that development always has been an inevitability.
Yet as an organization, al Qaeda as a whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts. Beyond South Asia, there is a growing threat posed by al Qaeda affiliates in both West and East Africa.
In the Sahel, jihadi groups have wreaked havoc since 2012 when conflict erupted in Mali. In March 2017, numerous groups unified to establish Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), representing al Qaeda in the Sahel. Since then, JNIM has exploited the region’s inefficient governance, incapable militaries and deliberations about negotiations to expand its dominance in northeastern and central Mali and in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. More recently, the group has started to expand its operational activities to Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Togo. In 2021 alone, 2,005 jihadi attacks were conducted in the Sahel, representing a 70 percent increase from the year before. While JNIM does not account solely for all of these attacks, it remains the most active jihadi outfit in the region and, compared to the local Islamic State affiliate, it has managed to win some local support.
In the attempt to counter the jihadi expansion, the French Barkhane mission succeeded in neutralizing several key al Qaeda leaders and commanders through ground raids and targeted airstrikes, but largely failed to achieve any sustainable, strategic victories. Now having announced that French troops will leave Mali after the fallout with the military junta, in addition to the transition from Barkhane to Takuba Task Force, it will become even more challenging for the French-led task force to deliver tactical successes while the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group makes further inroads. This prospect suggests a more opportune operational environment for JNIM in the coming years that may allow the group to strengthen its territorial control, expand geographically, and potentially re-emphasize the targeting of Westerners.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, in the Horn of Africa, Somali security forces aided by a 22,000-strong African Union contingent at times have succeeded in pushing al-Shabaab back, but political infighting and the lacking capabilities of the Somali military have enabled the local al Qaeda franchise to rise again, demonstrating significant momentum over the past 12 to 18 months. This strengthening is not least the result of al-Shabaab’s well-planned military strategy coupling asymmetric warfare tactics with large-scale terrorist attacks. Al-Shabaab has managed to adapt and embed further in local Somali communities, making it the most active al Qaeda affiliate globally, according to the authors’ data. In areas under its control, in especially southwestern Somalia and northeastern Kenya, the group attempts to implement its religious doctrine and judicial system — but offers social services to help local communities while documenting through its various propaganda channels.
Especially since the beginning of 2022, and in the lead-up to the Somali national election, al-Shabaab has intensified its operational activities, leading first to the U.S. launching its first drone strike in the country since August 2021 and later to President Biden’s decision to revert the Trump administration’s withdrawal and redeploy approximately 450 special forces. While the group on average carries out more than two attacks per day, and many of them are simple assassinations and raids, it is capable of launching massive attacks that net high casualty counts. On June 17, al-Shabaab fighters killed as many as 27 local forces in a raid on a base in Galguduud province, and in early May, the group killed at least 30 Burundian soldiers.
Although the al Qaeda franchise across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen traditionally has been the primary affiliate associated with terrorism targeting the West, it has been reported that al-Shabaab is increasingly focused on the “far enemy.” Such fear was aggravated after the arrest of Cholo Abdi Abdullah, an apparent Kenyan al-Shabaab operative accused of planning to carry out a large-scale, 9/11-style attack in the U.S.
While some terrorism scholars, including Daniel Byman, have argued that al Qaeda is growing irrelevant, others, such as Asfandyar Mir, believe the group still can pose a meaningful threat to the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests overseas. Both al Qaeda and Islamic State are grappling with immense losses. It remains a challenge for these groups to generate enthusiasm when their supporters witness continued defeats and setbacks. But premature obituaries have been penned for both groups before. As the recent terrorist attack against a gay bar in Oslo demonstrates, jihadist groups will continue to inspire homegrown violent extremists to act in their name. But to truly regain relevance, both al Qaeda and IS and their affiliates will seek to rebuild the capability for spectacular attacks in the West.
Even with the well-documented shortcomings of “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism efforts, there is no appetite in the U.S. for a situation where significant numbers of American troops are deployed for sustained counterterrorism operations. Some described the Biden administration’s decision to send several hundred special operations forces (SOF) personnel back to Somalia as the ceiling of how aggressive the president is willing to be on counterterrorism. It shouldn’t be. The Biden administration should buck the conventional wisdom and commit to continuing the fight against jihadist groups like al Qaeda. Sending troops to Somalia is a good start, but is not sufficient to degrade a global terrorist network.
After 9/11, the U.S. was unwilling to accept nearly any risk in terms of transnational terrorist groups. But following two decades of spilling blood and treasure while chasing terrorists to every corner of the globe, war-weariness has set in and the focus has shifted from violent non-state actors to near-peer competition with nation-states and great powers. This development will offer welcome respite to jihadist groups in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that are working to reestablish their organizational and operational capabilities and take advantage of a far less aggressive global counterterrorism campaign against jihadist groups.
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Pivoting to great power competition is smart, but not if it comes at the expense of erasing major counterterrorism gains from the previous 20 years. To ensure that does not happen and the U.S. suddenly finds itself back where it all started, but now facing an even stronger and more terrifying enemy, it must reprioritize and rethink its counterterrorism engagement. This should involve a reassessment of the “over-the-horizon” strategy, stronger local engagement, and investments in new international efforts to combat terrorism.
Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. Follow him on Twitter @ColinPClarke.
Tore Refslund Hamming, Ph.D., is founder of Refslund Analytics and a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, researching the intricacies of jihadism across the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and in the West. Follow him on Twitter @ToreRHamming.