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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Al Qaeda’s Regional Affiliates Continue to Threaten Global Security

Al Qaeda is the most prominent terrorist organization in the history of terrorism due to its involvement in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Since then, counterterrorism strategies have focused on Al Qaeda and considered it as an imminent threat to the world. So far, the global coalition against Al Qaeda has successfully countered the group that has failed to make another September 11 type attack. However, Al Qaeda still has been a point of interest for the Western governments. This article, using the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID) from January 2018 to October 2023, examines whether Al Qaeda’s regional affiliates continue to threaten global security. 

Al Qaeda is the product of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Afghan warriors, who were called mujahedeen in those years, won a victory against the Soviets thanks to the support of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States. These warriors were trained in the camps and funded by these states. One of the trained warriors was Usama Bin Laden, who formed Al Qaeda and began to threaten American forces overseas. Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and collaboration with the Taliban government caused the US army to invade the country right after the September 11 attacks. Then, its offshoots mushroomed in the world, and local jihadist groups that were exposed to political and economic grievances competed with each other to be under the banner of Al Qaeda. One of the offshoots was its branch in Iraq that splintered from Al Qaeda and swiftly evolved into today’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Arab Spring created further opportunities for Al Qaeda, and local groups repressed under the newly-formed governments gravitated toward Al Qaeda, which had a strong representation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries. The killings of its founding leader, Usama Bin Laden, and its successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, did not yield the expected results, and the group has continued to operate worldwide. 

Al Qaeda’s changing strategies helped the group survive and threaten regional and global security. As opposed to ISIS, which has its core organization and conducts attacks in Syria and Iraq, Al Qaeda operates through its regional affiliates. Its localization policies have merged local groups and formed regional affiliates in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The annex of Statistical Information 2022 report listed Al Qaeda-affiliated groups as Al Shabaab, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Tehrik-e Taliban, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),  Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansaru, Al-Badr Mujahideen, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, Ansar al-Islam, and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad. 

Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups conducted 792 attacks in 2018 and maintained its operational capacity in 2019 and 2020. However, its attacks declined to the same numbers in 2021 and 2022, as seen in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Al Qaeda-affiliated Groups Attacks with Killed and Wounded People from 2018 to 2022.

Despite decreases in the number of attacks, Al Qaeda groups killed and wounded an increasing number of people in 2021 and 2022, as seen in Figure 1 above. The number of people killed rose from 1,953 in 2021 to 2,260 in 2022. Moreover, claiming responsibility —an action of a terrorist group to take credit— is another indicator of a group’s operational capacity. Contrary to ISIS, whose incidents of claiming responsibility reduced in 2021 and 2022, Al Qaeda groups’ incidents of claimed responsibility rose in the same period, as seen in Figure 2 below.  

Figure 2: Al Qaeda Attacks that Claimed Responsibility from 2018 to 2022

In the Middle East, Al Qaeda has a strong presence. After its branch in Iraq, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), left the organization and evolved into today’s ISIS, Al Qaeda maintained its presence using other jihadist groups in Syria, and one of them was Jabhat Al Nusra, which continued to operate in the region. The group was the perpetrator of hundreds of terrorist attacks in the early 2010s. One of its notable attacks was to inspire an individual to get the Russian ambassador to Turkey killed in an assassination attack in 2016. The following years recorded how the group changed its name and used Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria. Today, the group is confined to the Idlib province of Syria and has experienced fragmentations with several commanders who left the organization and formed new groups in 2023. The first ten months of 2023 recorded increasing HTS attacks in Syria, as seen in Figure 3 below.

Additionally, Ahrar al-Sham is another Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Allied with al-Nusra Front, it was one of the most prominent jihadist groups in the early 2010s that fought against Bashar al Assad’s government. The group was the perpetrator of two attacks in 2021 but did 9 in the first ten months of 2023.    

Figure 3: Al Qaeda-Affiliated Groups’ Attacks in the Middle East from January 2018 to October 2023

Another prominent Al Qaeda-affiliated group in the Middle East is Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) group that has operated in Yemen. The group is considered to be one of the most dangerous Al Qaeda branches due to its previous attempts to target Americans and American military facilities. The group has been far away from its operational capacity of 2014 and 2015, but AQAP has been able to maintain its presence in Yemen since 2018. Its attacks were lowest in 2020, but the increasing trend continued in 2023, as seen in Figure 3. 

In Africa, recent military coups, security vacuums, ongoing political and economic grievances of Muslim communities, and the popularity of jihadist terrorist groups have paved the way for the local jihadist groups to merge with Al Qaeda and ISIS. Both groups have been active in African countries with ongoing clashes and ethnic conflicts. Jam’at al Nusra Wal Muslimin (JNIM) operates in the Sahel region, specifically in Mali. Being the merger of four previous regional and local jihadist groups, JNIM has benefited from the opportunities to address the grievances of Muslim communities in Mali and spread its influence in Burkina Faso. The coup’s consequences have generated a favorable environment for JNIM to flourish and expand its operational capacity to the neighboring countries of the Sahel region. Togo and Benin are two countries that have recorded the attacks of JNIM. Also, JNIM has intensified its attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger in 2023.

Figure 4: Al Qaeda-Affiliated Groups’ Attacks in Africa from January 2018 to October 2023

Al Shabaab occupies a special place in the list of terrorist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. It is one of the top terrorist groups with the most terrorist attacks on the list of jihadist groups. GRID recorded a decreasing number of terrorist attacks from Al Shabaab in Somalia since 2018, but it grew in Kenya. For example, it had 34 attacks in 2022 but reached 54 in 2023. However, the group’s complex and advanced terrorist tactics indicate its operational capacity. For example, Al Shabaab used suicide bombings in 21 attacks in 2019, 25 in 2020, 33 in 2022, and 34 in the first ten months of 2023. Its explosives attacks rose from 80 incidents in 2021 to 123 in 2022. There were 96 incidents in the first ten months of 2023. 

In Asia, Al Qaeda has a presence in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s historic presence in Afghanistan dates back to the early 1990s. The group enjoyed operating under the Taliban government until it planned the September 11 attacks. The US invasion did not stop Al Qaeda from having solid relations with the Taliban during the period of clashes that continued until the Taliban’s takeover in 2021. Al Qaeda operated in Afghanistan under the flag of Haqqani Network, whose leader is appointed as the Minister of Interior after the Taliban’s takeover. Despite promises of the Taliban government, the killing of Ayman al Zawahiri in Afghanistan was seen as another indicator of the ongoing symbiotic relationship between the two organizations. Since the takeover, the Haqqani Network group has not been attributed as the perpetrator of terrorist attacks. Instead, ISIS-Khorosan is an active group representing jihadism and targets the Taliban government.

Pakistan was one of the few countries giving its support to the Taliban when it was fighting against US troops in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban’s success in taking over the government in 2021 had unanticipated consequences for the Pakistan government. The number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan was 216 in 2020 but rose to 320 in 2021, 554 in 2022, and 529 in the first ten months of 2023. Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan increased its attacks from 34 in 2022 to 50 in the same period of 2023. Similarly, the Lashkar-i Tayyiba group continued its attacks in 2023, as seen in Figure 5 below. It should be noted that GRID recorded several attacks from Al-Badr Mujahideen and Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in India in 2022. 

Figure 5: Al Qaeda-Affiliated Groups’ Attacks in Pakistan from January 2018 to October 2023

To conclude, Al Qaeda affiliates have continued to threaten regional and global security in the world. Its decreasing attacks by 2022 have shifted in 2023, and its affiliates have been the perpetrators of the rising number of attacks in the Middle East, Africa, and Pakistan. More specifically, Al Qaeda affiliates in Africa have spread their operational capacity to the neighbors of their origin countries. For example, while JNIM has intensified its attacks in Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, and Benin, Al Shabaab has conducted terrorist attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia. Considering the lack of resources in these countries, it would not be wrong to assume that the coming years will record the growing operational capacity of Al Qaeda. 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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