While the self-proclaimed Islamic State has dominated the headlines and preoccupied national security officials for the past four years, al-Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding. Its announcement last summer of another affiliate—this one dedicated to the liberation of Kashmir—coupled with the resurrection of its presence in Afghanistan and the solidification of its influence in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, underscores the resiliency and continued vitality of the United States’ preeminent terrorist enemy.
Although al-Qaeda’s rebuilding and reorganization predates the 2011 Arab Spring, the upheaval that followed helped the movement revive itself. At the time, an unbridled optimism among local and regional rights activists and Western governments held that a combination of popular protest, civil disobedience, and social media had rendered terrorism an irrelevant anachronism. The longing for democracy and economic reform, it was argued, had decisively trumped repression and violence. However, where the optimists saw irreversible positive change, al-Qaeda discerned new and inviting opportunities.
The successive killings in 2011 and 2012 of Osama bin Laden; Anwar al-Awlaki, the movement’s chief propagandist; and Abu Yahya al-Libi, its second-in-command, lent new weight to the optimists’ predictions that al-Qaeda was a spent force. In retrospect, however, it appears that al-Qaeda was among the regional forces that benefited most from the Arab Spring’s tumult. Seven years later, Ayman al-Zawahiri has emerged as a powerful leader, with a strategic vision that he has systematically implemented. Forces loyal to al-Qaeda and its affiliates now number in the tens of thousands, with a capacity to disrupt local and regional stability, as well as launch attacks against their declared enemies in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Russia. Indeed, from northwestern Africa to southeastern Asia, al-Qaeda has knit together a global movement of more than two dozen franchises. In Syria alone, al-Qaeda now has upwards of twenty thousand men under arms, and it has perhaps another four thousand in Yemen and about seven thousand in Somalia.