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No, There is No ‘End in Sight’ to the Battle Against Al-Qaeda
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No, There is No ‘End in Sight’ to the Battle Against Al-Qaeda

The terror group has grown its base since 9/11.

On the eve of the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 hijackings, Christopher Miller, the new head of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), declared that the “war against al-Qaeda” is nearly over. Miller made his case in an op-ed for the Washington Post. It is unconvincing.

For starters, we’ve heard this before. In 2012, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, declared that al-Qaeda would meet “its demise” sometime in the decade to come. That didn’t happen. Instead, al-Qaeda adapted to the post-bin Laden world. Meanwhile ISIS, an even more virulent jihadist organization that broke off from al-Qaeda, mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon. Take a look around the world today and you’ll see al-Qaeda and ISIS groups waging jihad everywhere from West Africa to South Asia. 

The problems with Miller’s analysis begin with the very first word. “Remnants of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization that launched the 9/11 terror attacks 19 years ago remain active throughout the world,” Miller writes at the opening of his op-ed. “Remnants”? 

Al-Qaeda has grown its base for jihad since September 11, 2001. On September 10 of that year, al-Qaeda was stationed mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with terror cells operating in several countries throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Today, branches of al-Qaeda are fighting for territory in West Africa, East Africa, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, while also maintaining networks in still other countries. This war is led by groups that are often referred to as al-Qaeda “affiliates”: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Shabaab (in Somalia). There are also multiple al-Qaeda actors in Syria, where the group’s chain of command has been interrupted by a series of controversies and setbacks. 

Each of the aforementioned “affiliates” is really a regional branch of al-Qaeda’s international network. They are led by emirs who are openly loyal to Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. These same men are responsible for waging insurgencies in their designated regions, in which their followers are attempting to replace existing governments with Islamic emirates. These emirates, in al-Qaeda’s view, would then join together to form a new caliphate. ISIS claimed to have fulfilled this vision, but ultimately failed. Al-Qaeda is still not close to succeeding, but its caliphate goal continues to motivate much violence. No one really knows how many jihadists belong to each of these al-Qaeda branches, but their total enrollment is easily in the thousands and perhaps in the tens of thousands. 

Echoing Brennan’s proclamation from eight years ago, Miller writes that “it is now possible to see the contours of how the war against al-Qaeda ends.” Miller does not explain what those “contours” are, exactly. And contemporaneous evidence leads one to the opposite conclusion.

Miller was sworn in as NCTC director on Aug. 10. It just so happens that the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) published assessments of al-Qaeda and some of its branches shortly after Miller’s swearing-in ceremony. There is no hint of al-Qaeda’s pending defeat in the reports.

In an August 14 assessment, the OIG writes: “The United Nations Security Council and U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) both reported that the Taliban remained supportive of al-Qaeda, even to the point of working together to attack Afghan security forces.” This contradicts claims by senior Trump administration officials, who are pretending that the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement, signed on February 29 in Doha, will somehow lead to a rupture between the Taliban and its longest standing ally, al-Qaeda. The Trump administration plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by the spring of 2021. It’s a safe bet that al-Qaeda, including AQIS, will continue fighting alongside the Taliban after America’s exit.   

While surviving the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has blossomed elsewhere.

“In East Africa,” an August 28 OIG analysis reads, Shabaab continues to move “freely and launched attacks in Somalia and Kenya.” Shabaab controls at least 25 percent of Somalia and threatens to take even more ground. Both al-Qaeda and ISIS are prolific actors in West Africa, where “violence continued at high levels and expanded to new territories.” At best, the OIG reported, the U.S. and its allies have made “limited progress” (namely, by killing some top figures) this year. However, there is no reason to think al-Qaeda’s defeat in Africa is imminent. Despite suffering setbacks in Yemen and Syria, al-Qaeda retains a significant presence in both countries as well. 

Looking at this global picture earlier this year, a monitoring team that works for the U.N. Security Council concluded that while ISIS has garnered more headlines of late, al-Qaeda’s “affiliates” (meaning the aforementioned regional branches) are actually “stronger than [ISIS] in many conflict zones.” Miller and the NCTC staff are free to disagree with this conclusion, but they have to present specific arguments to bolster their case. 

Instead of rebutting these competing analyses, however, it appears that Miller continues to rely on a phony paradigm for understanding al-Qaeda. He writes that Ayman al-Zawahiri is the group’s “sole remaining ideological leader.” That is not close to being true. And you’d never know from Miller’s op-ed that at least thousands of fighters in the aforementioned battlefields remain loyal to Zawahiri to this day.

Let us focus on Miller’s description of Zawahiri as an “ideological” leader. If he is implying that Zawahiri plays no operational role, then he is mistaken. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound show that Zawahiri has long had an operational portfolio, overseeing al-Qaeda’s branches. In some of his letters, for instance, Osama bin Laden made it clear to AQIM’s leadership that they should copy Zawahiri on all of their requests, because he (Zawahiri) was ultimately responsible for managing the group’s relations. On rare occasions since bin Laden’s death in May 2011, U.S. intelligence has intercepted some of Zawahiri’s communications with al-Qaeda’s branches. And just last September, U.S. and Afghan forces killed a courier who was reportedly running communications between the head of AQIS and Zawahiri. These are just some of the reasons that Zawahiri is not merely an ideologue. 

Zawahiri isn’t the “sole remaining” al-Qaeda leader, ideological or otherwise, either. It is easy to point to other al-Qaeda veterans who are likely in the line of succession, should Zawahiri finally perish. They include figures such as Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, both of whom have been wanted by the U.S. government since the 1990s. In 2018, the State Department increased the rewards for information on both men from $5 million to $10 million, thereby underscoring their importance. Adel and Abdullah were last reported to be inside Iran, where they are safe from America’s counterterrorism capabilities. Other veterans, such as Zawahiri’s son-in-law Hossam Raouf, are thought to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as are a number of others. Raouf’s jihadist career began in the 1980s. There are still more veterans in Mali, Somalia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. Al-Qaeda has a network of clerics who are truly the group’s ideological backbone. And Miller’s statement also does not take into account the “new generation” of al-Qaeda leaders who were groomed to replace their fallen comrades.  

Miller’s op-ed inadvertently points to some of the failures in the U.S. counterterrorism mission. He writes that “the campaign to defeat al-Qaeda began immediately after 9/11, when committed Americans and like-minded partners sallied forth to destroy the terrorists’ havens in Afghanistan and to wreck their command-and-control capabilities.” As much evidence shows, including the OIG report cited above, al-Qaeda is still in Afghanistan 19 years later and its well-positioned to have safe havens once the U.S. presumably withdraws. The U.S. didn’t “wreck” al-Qaeda’s command-and-control capabilities either. The files recovered in bin Laden’s compound show that he and Zawahiri were managing a sprawling international network, much of which remains intact today. And Miller himself notes that al-Qaeda “can still direct others to commit acts of violence, as seen by the heinous killing of three Americans in Florida at Naval Air Station Pensacola last year.” Thus, al-Qaeda must retain at some degree of command-and-control.   

Miller is confident that al-Qaeda “is no longer capable of conducting large-scale attacks.” Maybe that is true with respect to attacking the U.S. It has been 19 years since 9/11 and al-Qaeda has failed to replicate that success inside America, relying instead on smaller inspired and directed operations with far fewer casualties. But if al-Qaeda can direct a sleeper agent inside a U.S. military base, such as was the case in Pensacola last year, then why couldn’t it try something bigger? Al-Qaeda hasn’t attempted to orchestrate a 9/11-style attack in years. Some assume that is because the group can’t do so. But it is always possible that Zawahiri and his loyalists have decided to bide their time. Al-Qaeda continues to kill people overseas, sometimes in large-scale operations, every single day. We shouldn’t assume that some of those same fighters couldn’t be repurposed for other missions inside the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere.

None of this should be read as an attempt to inflate the terrorist threat to Americans. The U.S. faces many challenges today. But Americans should know that some in the counterterrorism community have been playing disconnect the dots with respect to al-Qaeda for many years. Christopher Miller’s op-ed is just the latest example from that genre.

Photograph by Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.