Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (Al-Qaeda video)

Has al-Qaeda Learned from Its Mistakes?

The destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is undoubtedly a significant success, but it will not be the end of worldwide Islamist insurgencies. The Islamic State may be eradicated, and ISIS as an organization may be eclipsed, but the forces and mentality it represents within Islam and jihadism—virulent intolerance and murderous hyper-violence targeting the entire world, including any jihadists who disagree with it—will continue to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East, Muslim-majority countries, and the world at large. And while it remains to be seen whether ISIS will be able to recuperate from its defeat, it is not the only jihadist group the world faces. In particular, al-Qaeda, including its nominally independent major affiliate in Syria, Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham, may turn out to be the greater long-term threat, having survived a massive worldwide campaign to destroy it and having modified its strategy to reflect lessons learned from past mistakes.

The destruction of the ISIS polity is but the latest setback inflicted on the forces of global jihad. Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have already endured a string of major defeats in Egypt, Algeria, and in the 1990s, in the Balkans. Al-Qaeda, along with its Taliban and other allies, was expelled from Afghanistan in 2001, and its attempted uprising in Saudi Arabia two years later was crushed, with the survivors fleeing to Yemen. The Taliban have regained strength in recent years, not due to anything al-Qaeda has done, but as a result of the weakness of the Afghan government, the duplicity of the Pakistani regime, and the disastrous short-sightedness of President Barack Obama’s military drawdown. ISIS’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), was largely eradicated in the previous round of warfare in that country. Over time, al-Qaeda Central (AQC) has endured serious attrition to its command structure by drone and air strikes and special forces raids, including the loss of Osama bin Laden. In spite of these assaults, the organization has survived.

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