Al-Qaeda Is Thriving, Despite Our Endless War. Can We Ever Defeat It?
Al-Qaeda’s most potent weapon is an idea that we’ve been unable to defeat, writes Ali Soufan, the author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State.
This month marks 18 years since one of al-Qaeda’s worst pre-9/11 atrocities: the suicide bombing of the US Navy destroyer Cole in the harbor of Yemen’s port city of Aden. Seventeen American sailors died in the blast — five of whom were just 19 years old. The day after the attack, I arrived in Yemen to help lead the investigation into the bombing — a case in which, far too often, justice was thwarted by politics, not only in Yemen but in Washington, too.
Almost exactly a year after the Cole attack, the first US ground forces arrived in Afghanistan. In order to gather evidence against bin Laden and the other al-Qaeda figures under indictment in the United States, I went in with one of the early contingents. What I saw there — bin Laden’s hideouts in ruins, al-Qaeda’s fighters dead and scattered, their Taliban enablers in chaotic retreat — gave me hope that we might at last be on the verge of cutting out the cancer of bin Ladenism.
All these years later, that optimism is but a distant memory. Instead of withering away after the defeat of the Taliban, al-Qaeda morphed into a looser network, its nodes spread across continents. Between 9/11 and Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs in May 2011, al-Qaeda’s membership grew by an order of magnitude — from 400 to around 4,000. Nor has bin Laden’s departure from the stage done anything to slow this expansion. Far from being “a shadow of its former self,” as then-president Obama was still insisting as recently as December 2016, al-Qaeda has drawn sustenance from bloody civil wars and sectarian conflicts around the world. Today’s al-Qaeda can boast tens of thousands of fighters under its command, and that is not even counting the thousands more who still swear allegiance to al-Qaeda’s wayward progeny, the Islamic State.
Why have jihadi groups survived and grown? In short, because their ideology remains strong. “We have become an idea and we are no longer a group,” wrote Harun Fazul, an architect of the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings, in 2009. That evolution, Fazul predicted, would make al-Qaeda much harder to defeat. Unfortunately, he was right. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other jihadi groups have become adept at luring disaffected young men with false claims of an epochal war between Islam and the West and fraudulent promises of history-shaping adventure.
Bin Laden had always been an eager consumer of the news; one of the few enduring luxuries of his otherwise austere lifestyle on the run was a satellite dish with which to pick up Al Jazeera and the BBC. While in hiding, he kept on top of —and penned a torrent of memos about — developments like the Gaza Freedom Flotilla (a Turkish-backed attempt to defy Israel’s naval embargo on the Gaza Strip), the floods that devastated Pakistan in 2010 (in which, typically, he saw a propaganda opportunity), and the release by WikiLeaks of 92,000 classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan (which bin Laden quickly ordered translated into Arabic).
The events that would put al-Qaeda on a new course began to unfold at the very end of 2010. On December 17, a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the deep-set corruption of the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime. By so doing, this otherwise unremarkable young man lit the fuse on popular protests that would spread throughout North Africa and beyond. Within a month, Tunisia’s president had fled into exile in bin Laden’s own native Saudi Arabia, and demonstrators in Egypt had taken to chanting “Ben Ali, tell Mubarak there is a plane waiting for him, too.” Sure enough, by the middle of February, Mubarak, the despised “Pharaoh” whose regime and its predecessors had spilled the blood of many Egyptian jihadists, had announced his own resignation.
By then, protests had erupted in Yemen, Sudan, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Iraq, Jordan, and beyond. There was even talk of an uprising in Saudi Arabia, although in the event it was swiftly suppressed by the Kingdom’s security forces, which also played a role in putting down the revolt in the neighboring island nation of Bahrain. Finally, on March 18, Syria began its long descent into barbarism when President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces opened fire on activists in Daraa, near the border with Jordan.
In the face of this tectonic upheaval, the role of al-Qaeda itself would have to change. Instead of attacking the West — bin Laden’s exclusive focus since the group’s founding — it should now turn its fire on hated governments in the Muslim world. This was beginning to happen organically in any event; already, militants from North Africa and the Middle East were leaving al-Qaeda’s bases in Pakistan and returning home, using the cloaking chaos of revolution as an opportunity to see their loved ones again after so many years — and to wage jihad in their countries of origin, against regimes they had long despised.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership therefore saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity for a renaissance of their own. Bin Laden’s favorite wife, Khairiah Sabar, captured the mood around the Abbottabad compound in jubilant terms. “We consider this to be the beginning of a new era,” she wrote to a friend, “especially since our security is getting better and the signs for victory for our mujahideen have begun to be seen.”
Within a week, Osama bin Laden was dead.
The strategic shift bin Laden ordered in his final weeks has served his organization well. In place of the liberal democracy for which many had hoped, al-Qaeda and other militant groups have used the Arab Spring to foment chaos — exactly as described in The Management of Savagery, a key jihadi text published in 2004 — especially in Syria and Yemen. Al-Qaeda may have lost its Iraqi branch, which morphed into the Islamic State in 2014 following an arcane dispute over supremacy within the organization; but in the meantime, its loyal franchises have vastly strengthened their grip.
In bin Laden’s old heartland of Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting jihadi militancy for the better part of 20 years — at a cost of $840 billion and more than 2,200 lives — the trends are in al-Qaeda’s favor. Assessments of the Taliban’s fighting strength vary, but the analyst Bill Roggio has put the “low end” of the range at 60,000 — about four times the number of US troops currently deployed to the country. At the time of writing, Roggio’s Long War Journal was estimating that the Taliban held overall control of at least 52 Afghan districts — home to more than 3 million people — and was actively battling the Afghan army for 198 more, for a total of half the country’s population. Against this background, it is no surprise to see the Pentagon once more increasing troop numbers.
In Yemen, where bin Laden’s father was born, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has exploited a ferocious conflict, and Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed sectarian intervention, to recruit, according to a March 2018 estimate from the Council on Foreign Relations, at least 4,000 fighters — 10 times the size of al-Qaeda as a whole on 9/11. Like many of its sister franchises, AQAP has proven remarkably resilient in the face of sustained military pressure. Seven years after the group’s Yemeni American ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike, and three years after its founder and leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, died in similar circumstances, AQAP remains powerful across south-central Yemen. It has periodically controlled large areas of territory, including important cities and highway networks — only to melt back into the hinterland when seriously threatened, preserving its fighting strength and promising to return as soon as the Yemeni or foreign troops move on.
Across the Gulf of Aden, al-Qaeda’s Somali franchise, al-Shabaab, maintains close ties with AQAP. Travel between the two groups is apparently common, and commanders from al-Shabaab have reportedly advised the Yemeni group on running its intelligence function, while their colleagues from AQAP advise al-Shabaab on the use of heavy weapons. In April and May, al-Shabaab reaffirmed its loyalty to al-Qaeda with a series of typically well-produced videos featuring clips of bin Laden and others. Despite years of heavy fighting with peacekeeping forces from the surrounding countries, al-Shabaab remains the dominant militant group in Somalia, especially in rural areas in the south of the country. In those regions, al-Shabaab considers itself, in effect, the state; in June, the group followed many governments around the world by issuing a ban on plastic bags, calling them a threat to the environment.
Over the border in Kenya, al-Shabaab has carried out a series of attacks, including the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013. The group’s October 2017 truck bombing in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, killed well over 500 people in what may be the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. Earlier this year, al-Shabaab fighters opened fire on a group of US Green Berets, killing one and wounding several more, necessitating an emergency medevac flight by a Black Hawk helicopter. Today, al-Shabaab is reportedly seeking to establish a permanent presence in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti — the last of which is home to overseas military bases of the US, China, France, and Japan.
On the other side of the African continent, in Mali and the surrounding Sahel zone, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) recently concluded a merger with several other factions, creating a multiethnic jihadi conglomerate with allegiance to al-Qaeda.
In Syria, the picture is more nuanced, but it provides a window on al-Qaeda’s possible future evolution. Al-Nusra Front, the organization’s Syrian branch and bête noire of the Islamic State, has gone through a series of rebranding exercises in recent years, in an attempt to distance itself from al-Qaeda central — and thus make itself more palatable to foreign governments looking for insurgent groups to patronize. One faction, under the group’s founder, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, now appears to have made a genuine break with al-Qaeda in order to refocus locally. In the past few months, Julani’s group has reportedly sought to align itself with the more secular Free Syrian Army, in order to stem the tide of losses to pro-Assad forces. But another faction, still sizeable, remains loyal to al-Qaeda central.
For more than 20 years, al-Qaeda and its offspring have successfully peddled the view that the West is engaged in a “war against Islam” with the active connivance of client rulers across the Muslim world. This opinion is by no means confined to a handful of extremists. On the contrary, millions of Muslims have come to believe that the United States is deliberately suppressing their religion and stifling political change in order to keep their repressive secular governments in power.
All too often, America’s actions have fueled this false narrative. We invaded Iraq, thus appearing to fulfill the jihadi prophecy of an apocalyptic battle for Mesopotamia. We imprisoned hundreds without charge at Guantánamo Bay, at prison camps in Iraq, and at “black sites” around the world. We systematically tortured people. We restricted travel to the United States from Muslim countries. We allowed Islamophobia to infect American society, with no more than lukewarm disapproval from our political leaders — a step toward fulfillment of Anwar al-Awlaki’s prediction that “the West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.”
Yet still, the unforced errors continue. President Trump’s 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia presented a perfect opportunity to extend an olive branch to the Muslim world at a time when millions of Muslim children are growing up as refugees — disaffected, poorly educated, and acutely vulnerable to extremist propaganda. Instead, the president gave a speech thanking King Salman for his “massive investment in America, its industry, and its jobs” and trumpeting a new arms deal that will transfer a further $110 billion from Saudi Arabia to US defense companies — playing directly into the lie that the United States is stealing from Muslims.
Since 9/11, Western military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies have done a very effective job of eliminating terrorists and foiling their plots, and they continue to do so. Yet despite the fact that their leaders are constantly being killed or captured, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have in recent years managed to muster forces numbering in the tens of thousands — a fact made painfully apparent by the steady stream of foreign fighters now returning home from Syria and Iraq. What has made this possible, more than anything else, is the strength of the ideology that binds these groups together. The lesson here is that no amount of special forces raids, arrests, or drone strikes will ever be enough to defeat the extremists’ most potent weapon — the message they use to recruit fresh members.
We can start tackling that message by exposing the basic hypocrisy of a movement that lays claim to true Islamic piety even as it routinely bombs mosques. While we are laying bare these lies, we must craft a true story to drown out the false one terrorists tell. It is not a question of trying to match jihadi claims tit for tat with bare denials, but of creating an entirely new narrative — ideally one with even greater appeal, because it is based not on lies and despair but on truth and hope.
Mere boilerplate messages about how “killing is un-Islamic” or “the West is not at war with Islam” are too vague and too easily dismissed. The new narrative will only take hold if it is tailored, not just from country to country, but down to the level of individual communities. The reasons people join groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State vary widely from place to place. Security officials in Singapore found users of extremist websites in that country were especially drawn to the idea of taking up arms to “protect” fellow Muslims. In some African nations, there is evidence that economic reasons factor highly, alongside ethnic and familial motives. Elsewhere, the touchstone might be sectarianism, ethnic chauvinism, or tribal rivalries. Terrorists have understood this for years, and have adjusted their messages accordingly. Our counterstrategies need to be similarly focused.
The identity of the messenger is equally critical. People are likely to dismiss messages they see as coming from the West or from a local government with a reputation for mendacity. Where terrorists recruit using religious ideology, for example, clerics or Islamic scholars may be the ones best placed to deliver a counternarrative. By contrast, when extremists target would-be recruits through local or tribal grievances, community elders should head up the moderate response.
Fighting an ideology is a long process — one in which progress may not always be immediately apparent. Putting the right policies in place will take courage, patience, and leadership. Unfortunately, American political life is sorely lacking in all three. Indeed, our politicians cannot even agree on what to call our principal enemy — witness the endless grandstanding over the use of terms like “radical” and “Islamic.” Congress is fearful even to debate a new authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, more than 16 years after the current one came into effect. It is equally distressing to see the White House denigrating diplomacy and proposing to slash funding for foreign aid — two resources critical in the fight against extremism.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that the 9/11 attacks came about in part because of a catastrophic “failure of imagination” on the part of Western intelligence. After the fact, it was common to hear analysts testify that they simply couldn’t imagine someone flying a plane into a building. In a similar vein, a month before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz told a Senate panel that it’s “hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army.” In reality, it took less than two months to conquer the country; whereas eight years, five thousand coalition deaths, and $1.7 trillion turned out to be nowhere near enough to “provide stability” — a commodity that Iraq still lacks.
Today, the threat is different, but it has by no means gone away. It would be a tragedy of historic proportions if we allowed ourselves to become complacent once again, the way we were in the run-up to 9/11. Sooner or later, al-Qaeda will morph again and turn back to global terrorism, with all the expanded resources now available to it. That is why we must dedicate ourselves to undermining the resource that underpins each of its branches: its store of ideas.
This article is an edited extract from Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State by Ali Soufan, out now in paperback from W.W. Norton.
Ali Soufan is the chief executive officer of the Soufan Group. As an FBI Supervisory Special Agent, he investigated international terrorism cases including the East Africa Embassy bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, and the events surrounding 9/11.