The enthusiastic celebrations in America surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of Seal Team Six on May 2, 2011 were entirely understandable. The President’s dramatic announcement in the early hours that morning added to the sense of the achievement and occasion. Despite evading justice for nearly a decade, the White House finally got its prize target.
In the aftermath, however, a number of key commentators were quick to join in on the wave of euphoria and claim, albeit in somewhat guarded words, that the end of Al Qaeda was in sight. The loss of its leader did create a hiatus. Al Qaeda’s franchises were unsure of the leadership credentials of Bin Laden’s natural successor Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri.
While Al Zawahiri was the source of the theological inspiration behind Al Qaeda’s actions, he had little operational experience. The lack of attacks by Al Qaeda in the West since the death of Bin Laden seemed to back up that hypothesis. But what was going on was far more complex. The hierarchical structure that had served Bin Laden so well started to morph into a federated relationship structure. And this was always likely to have its problems as Al Qaeda franchises and jihadi groups vied for position.
It seemed to some caught up in the moment that the end of the so-called “War on Terror” could be imminent. Sadly, though, such prophesies have proven to be a false dawn. As the attacks in Paris just before Christmas dramatically revealed, Al Qaeda and its franchise in Yemen – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – still retain the ability to launch attacks on the West.
The attack in Paris gave Al Qaeda’sleadership a much needed boost. Its lack of any significant headline attacks in the West since events in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005 saw the jihadi group losing support. Some of its acolytes were clearly beginning to lose patience with the hierarchy, and reports emerged across North Africa that some franchises were deserting the brand of Al Qaeda to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) –provide additional evidence of a state of unease in Al Qaeda’s support base.
These claims may turn out to have been exaggerated. While some previously loyal groups have declared their support for ISIL, this has not turned into a tidal wave. Al Qaeda remains a significant player on the international stage, even if its ability to direct operations is severely constrained.
Yet, that situation does not mean all is well for Al Qaeda. The operations conducted in its traditional sanctuary in North Waziristan by the Pakistani Army have restricted its room for maneuver. Rumors that its leadership have hadto move to Kumar Province continue to circulate and Al Zawahiri appears to be an isolated and marginalized figure. This may be indicative of the fact that he has yet to establish a new base from which to operate.
While the ever loyal AQAP stated the order for the Paris attacks came from the very top of the Al Qaeda organization — and implication that Al Zawahiri personally authorized the attacks — he has yet to substantiate that claim. AQAP’s leadership certainly understands the significance of their words in trying to prevent any hemorrhaging of support to ISIL. However, this messaging hides a much deeper malaise within Al Qaeda. Past supporters are now openly questioning the leadership of Al Zawahiri.
Doubts about his leadership style have recently re-surfaced in jihadi forums. Doubts initially appeared following Bin Laden’s death, but today there’s been much more vocal discontent over which Al Zawahiri should be replaced by Nasir Al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni citizen who leads AQAP.
Such suggestions have their merit from an operational viewpoint. AQAP clearly enjoys a great deal of maneuver room in Yemen as a direct result of the increasing instability in that country. It also has shown it can use that freedom to its advantage, as its attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo showed. Fears that Yemen could become the vanguard of yet more attacks on the West have some justification, but imagine how that dynamic would change if Al Qaeda and ISIL were to be reconciled.
Al Wuhayshi leads the one Al Qaeda franchise that looks outwardly towards the West as well as conducting operations to destabilize Yemen. AQAP’s past track record of using novel developments in chemical explosives and trying to attack airliners also has to be kept in mind. So, in many ways, it’s understandable that Al Wuhayshi he is seen by many Al Qaeda acolytes to be a better leader than Al Zawahiri.
Role-reversal, however, does not seem to be compatible with the ego of Al Zawahiri. Having been bestowed the mantle of leadership of Al Qaeda, he isn’t about to give it up. His attempts to reign in ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi over Al Baghdadi’s move into Syria created a legacy of distrust that makes a collaboration or subservience to the self-proclaim leader of the new Caliphate an unlikely outcome. The open sores between Al Qaeda and ISIL date back to Al Zawahiri’s attempts to reign in Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi at the height of the insurgency in Iraq. This history between the two players is a major hurdle to any reconciliation that unites the groups, which, if it occurs, would radically change the threat dynamic.
It would seem the only way those commenting on jihadi forums about Al Zawahiri’s replacement would get their wish is if the White House gets a bead on his whereabouts and decides to kill or capture him. Such a decision would have profound consequences.
One possible trajectory for the evolution of the international Islamic terrorist movement in a post-Al Zawahiri world is a rapprochement between Al Qaeda and ISIL. Such a move would be greatly facilitated by the removal of Al Zawahiri. In his recent report in Homeland Security Today, If Jihadi Groups Form Alliances, Threat to West Will be Unprecedented, Contributing Writer Godfrey Gardner argued that in the background “alliances are already forming.” Should Al Zawahiri be removed, this might add a dramatic catalyst to the rate at which such realignment occurs. Gardner made the point that if Al Qaeda and ISIL were to be reconciled, the West would be facing a “radically empowered enemy,” His analysis is clearly not a work of fiction.
[Editor’s note: Also see Garner’s report, The Potential that Jihadi Groups will Unify … and With it, More Savagery]
The conflagration of ISIL and Al Qaeda would combine the long-term, deliberate planning approach of Al Qaeda with the more spontaneously generated lone wolf attacks that currently characterize the ISIL threat to Western societies. Such a merger under the leadership of Al Baghdadi would provide another boost to his claim to be re-creating the caliphate. It also would provide a major potential boost to recruitment into the emerging organization.
While some Al Qaeda franchises may choose to try and remain isolated from ISIL, it is more likely they would quickly fall into line. Any momentum recently lost by ISIL as a result of the tepid bombing campaign being conducted by the West against it would be quickly reversed – amidst an overall deteriorating Middle East.
Such a scenario is possible. The Obama administration should therefore approach any opportunity to capture or kill Al Zawahiri with extreme care. Sometimes it’s better to deal with the devil you know.
Dr. Dave Sloggett has more than 40 years’ experience analyzing international security issues. His most recent books are, Focus on the Taliban, and, Drone Warfare. His article, Kenyan Fault Lines: An Unstable Divide Ideal for Terrorist Exploitation, appeared in the June/July, 2014 Homeland Security Today. He also recently wrote, The End of Al Qaeda — and the Emergence of a More Dangerous Jihad?