By Cat Cronin, Researcher at Talking About Terrorism.
Al-Qaeda is active through its network of affiliate and branch organizations in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. As a whole, the terrorist group tries to embed itself into local communities. It is focused on “homing in on local concerns, like corruption or marginalization, and slotting them into its agenda of global jihad.” In total, al-Qaeda has relationships with at least 20 groups around the world and consists of 32,000 – 44,000 militants. Figure 1 shows the number of attacks by several major al-Qaeda affiliates from January 2017 – April 2019. Figure 2 illustrates the estimated number of fighters in various al-Qaeda affiliated groups as of August 2018.
Figure 1: This graph shows the number of attacks from January 2017 to April 2019 conducted by major al-Qaeda affiliates, including al-Shabab, Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48056433
Figure 2: This graph shows the number of fighters in major al-Qaeda affiliates as of August 2018. The affiliate groups include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, al-Qaeda in Egypt, and Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin. Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48056433.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): AQIM is the Algerian-based group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and it dates back to the Algerian Civil War in 1998. At its height, AQIM had approximately 30,000 members, mostly from Algeria. The group historically has operated in the northern coastal areas and southern desert regions of Algeria. The organization later moved into the Sahel and West Africa. Today, the group primarily operates in Morocco and Algeria, but it is also present in Tunisia. AQIM uses small arms attacks, assassinations, suicide bombings, and kidnappings to accomplish its goals. AQIM has raised funds through “protection rackets, robbery, arms trafficking, money laundering” and drug trafficking.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): AQAP formed in 2009 through a merging of two offshoots of the international Islamic Militant Network in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Today, AQAP is headquartered in Yemen because al-Qaeda saw a political opportunity for itself in the country's civil war. AQAP has been successful in enhancing the religious divisions of the war. The group has appealed to the local Sunni tribal leaders and population through videos, poetry, and popular songs. As of mid-2019, AQAP has 7,000 fighters just in Yemen. The organization primarily uses landmines and bombs in its attacks. Not only did AQAP execute the 2015 massacre of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, but the U.S. government also considers this particular affiliate to be the "most sophisticated and threatening branch of al-Qaeda.”
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS): AQIS is active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The group is relatively new as it formed in September 2014. It is suspected that the group formed to compete with ISIS’s presence around India. AQIS is financed through kidnappings for ransom, individual donations, and proceeds from counterfeit currency. The group has benefited from its connections to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which has provided additional funds. AQIS has been mostly unsuccessful in launching attacks outside of Pakistan.
Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM): JNIM is an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization that was formed in the merger of several militant groups residing in Mali and West Africa in early 2017. JNIM is particularly opposed to France, which has continued to deploy a military presence in Mali since 2012. Although the group is primarily active in Mali, it also conducts operations in Niger and Burkina Faso. The organization's attack often consists of mortars, rockets, small arms, and suicide devices.
Al-Shabab: Al-Shabab is located in East Africa, and in particular, Somalia. Al-Shabab is also active in launching attacks on neighboring countries, including Uganda, Kenya, and Djibouti. The previously independent organization began positive relations with al-Qaeda in 2007. It uses bombings, suicide attacks, and armed assaults in its attacks and receives its financing from foreign jihadists and Somali diaspora communities. The U.S. has increased its drone campaign against Al-Shabab under President Trump.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS): HTS is a result of a 2017 merger of several militant groups that are located in northern Syria. Although the group claims its independent, the U.S. believes it is associated with al-Qaeda. HTS’s predecessor is the Nusra Front, a former al-Qaeda affiliate group that used to be very popular. The Nusra Front first rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and later as HTS in order to reject al-Qaeda’s international aspirations and focus instead on local operations in Syria. Until August 2017, HTS operated in Lebanon. Almost all members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are Syrian, and as such, the focus of the group has shifted to efforts within Syria. The group’s activities are financed primarily through taxation, tariffs, and fines, as well as ransoms, oil sales, looting, smuggling, and private donations from individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait. Al-Qaeda in Egypt: Al-Qaeda of Egypt is an aligned group that operates in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. It was formed as a merger between numerous small al-Qaeda factions and influenced groups in the Sinai Peninsula. The group operates almost entirely within Egypt and receives some local support and financing.