The death of Osama bin Laden a decade after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon didn’t quash al-Qaeda, but events since then have shaped the terror group into a force that has absorbed lessons from ISIS’ stumbles, dug in for the patient long game, and strategically assessed and incorporated not just the role of its chapters but lone inspired jihadists.
Here comes the son making a play for millennials while veteran al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri offers his familiar messaging to the established set. In his late 20s, Hamza bin Laden said in a September 2017 message, “Let us be proud of the anger of the West and its hatred for us. Let us be proud of the West’s profiling of us as ‘terrorists,’ for this is no allegation; it is a badge of honor.” Last November, he invoked his dad as “encouraging and inciting you to continue the journey of the revolutions.” Youths have to be prepared for revolt, he added, “physically in the arts of military training and fighting.” He also called on Muslims to avenge the death of his father, and has encouraged a new Arab Spring that’s Sharia-based. In April, he pitched an al-Qaeda promise to “redistribute the riches” of Saudi Arabia among the poor.
Younger leaders such as late al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi have been integral in tailoring the group’s message to a youth demographic, but Hamza bin Laden has the messaging for the younger set with the legacy to please followers of all ages. Hamza was formally unveiled as an al-Qaeda member a little over a year after ISIS declared the founding of their “caliphate,” and since then bin Laden’s offspring has taken to his PR, recruiting and outreach role with relish.
2. Embracing and engaging with new media
TVs were banned by the Taliban, and now the al-Qaeda allies operate a video studio as one cog in their multimedia propaganda operation. The Taliban are into series as well now – some with English subtitles – releasing this summer “The Real Men 3” and “Victorious Caravan 12.” Al-Qaeda has rolled with the evolution of effective outreach, and though their videos tend to not borrow from the recycled videogame graphics and gore-plus-nasheed choreography of ISIS videos they do understand how to reach various demographics with different media products. It could be an audio message from Hamza, al-Zawahiri giving one of his lengthy video addresses, a quick-hit essay on a current events topic circulated through social media, or their women’s magazine “Your Home.”
Occasionally this yanks the weirdest operatives out of the woodwork, like with July’s open letter from a professed al-Qaeda superfan in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to Swiss tennis star Roger Federer, begging for his conversion to Islam and vowing if Federer does so he’ll have “hundreds of millions Muslim supporters who will pray and invocate Allah for your triumph and success all your life.” But what al-Qaeda has demonstrated in their media engagement is that they’ve grasped how to talk to their target audiences: a video last year, for example, from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qasim al-Raymi featured a smiling terror leader telling audiences in a friendly tone, “Don’t complicate matters, take it easy and simple, the same as our brother Omar Mateen did – he took an AK-47 and headed toward their gatherings and attacked them.”
3. Steady evolution of affiliates
From the Islamic Maghreb to Somalia and the Sinai, al-Qaeda has worked to maintain affiliates and pull militants under their umbrella while also planting roots in new territories. After the formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was announced in 2014, the group undertook a terrifying campaign of brazen machete assassinations in Bangladesh, carefully choosing writers and activists who, through a publicized list of criteria, AQIS determined were steering people away from jihad. Among the AQIS murders: the February 2015 machete slaying of an American citizen, atheist blogger Avijit Roy, on a Dhaka street and the April 2016 apartment assassination of USAID worker Xulhaz Mannan, a former U.S. Embassy protocol officer who founded Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine.
In his role as CIA director last year, Mike Pompeo warned last year that AQAP “represents one of the most serious threats to our country and around the world today” as “a group that is devoted not only to bringing down civil passenger planes but our way of life as well.”
4. Taking terror training beyond the camps
The first issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine published in June 2010 saw the terror group pulling in readers with a cheesy rhyme courtesy of “The AQ Chef”: “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” The magazine was found on the laptop of pressure-cooker Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And while ISIS’ forays into magazine publishing with Dabiq and Rumiyah told lone jihadists to attack – sometimes with basic infographics but usually in rambling paragraph form – al-Qaeda publications tell them in glossy detail how to do it with step-by-step, pictorial instructions.
Al-Qaeda has been creating a library of jihad references for use by would-be terrorists pledging allegiance to any group or no group. They’ve praised attacks by ISIS, such as the Orlando massacre, while publishing attack postmortems to educate future jihadists on what went right in the attack and what could have been done more effectively. They’ve not only embraced but foster a universal jihad in which do-it-yourself operatives pluck their ideological mentors and at-home terror training cafeteria-style, regardless of which terror group published the lecture or the manual.
Al-Qaeda also still has a highly effective posthumous recruiter in Anwar al-Awlaki. The New Mexico native’s lectures turn up in the study materials of jihadists from all walks, and it wasn’t until last November that YouTube wiped tens of thousands of al-Awlaki videos from their site. Yet the YouTube jail hasn’t stopped al-Awlaki, killed in a 2011 airstrike, from finding new ways to reach new recruits: a Google Play app listed this spring called “Anwar Al Awlaki Lectures,” including audio and video, was categorized under “entertainment” and rated E for everyone. Up until January, the first issue of Inspire was available as a free download on Barnes & Noble’s website; the dates on the reviews indicated that the two copies of these publications had been left there for years without anyone noticing enough to remove them – even though the explicit listing said, “Al-Malahem Media Foundation presents A Special Gift to the Islamic Nation The first Magazine issued by al-Qaida in the English language.”
5. Keeping the long view in the age of ISIS
A UN Security Council report earlier this year noted that as ISIS “continues to transform into a terror organization with a flat hierarchy, with cells and affiliates increasingly acting autonomously,” al-Qaeda “has remained remarkably resilient” and in several regions “poses a greater threat” than ISIS. The report warned of potential convergence of the two terror groups in some regions, and al-Qaeda, which waited through Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s flare and expected fizzle, wants to catch those who were inspired by the ISIS leader’s fiery call to jihad. A common theme in al-Qaeda messaging has been unity: a February Al-Nafir Bulletin published by al-Qaeda’s Global Islamic Media Front urged jihadists to “forget your differences and put them behind your backs” as “the hearts of the mujahedin are open and their hands are extended to cooperate and collaborate while serving the religion.”
This past January, Al-Qaeda’s General Command stressed that for a “contemporary battle” jihadists need to “transcend our disagreements” and come together in an “absolutely vital” alliance. They’ve left the slash-and-burn techniques and shock-stylized videos up to ISIS and are saying to terror organizations and anyone leaning toward jihad, in the words of General Command, “let us cooperate, come closer, join ranks, correct mistakes and fill the gaps.”
When it comes to filling the gaps in not just ideology but manpower, al-Qaeda is estimated to have tens of thousands of fighters in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia alone.