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Al Qaeda: past, present and future since the 1998 attacks in West Africa

The fall of the Caliphate has given al Qaeda chances to evolve. How is the terrorist group now after the bombings in West Africa? What are its capabilities?

Afghan men load bags of wheat distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP).

Al-Qaeda 20 years after the US Embassy bombings in East Africa

When and how: on August 7, 1998 the American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania were struck by 2 coordinated terrorist attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda, the network led by Usama bin Laden. Both bombings killed 258 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands, most of them Kenyans and Tanzanians. This was the first major attack since al-Qaeda was founded in Afghanistan in 1988. Followed the attack against the USS-Cole in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. In Europe, Madrid and London were hit, in 2004 and 2005 respectively, by deadly attacks against their transport systems. In 1998, the reactions from the Clinton administration were limited to cruise missile strikes on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan on August 20, 1998. Usama bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan, at that time under Taliban control, while Sudan had been his previous host country between the early 1990’s and 1996. At the United Nations, the Security Council adopted in October 1999 resolution 1267 designating Usama bin Laden and associates as terrorists and establishing a sanctions regime to cover individuals and entities associated with al-Qaeda, Usama bin Laden and/or the Taliban. With the rise of the so-called Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda has been less present in the debates and in the fight against terrorism as such.

What is al-Qaeda’s strength nowadays? How has the network evolved since the key 1998 attacks in West Africa?

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, bin Laden’s objective was to create a movement of fighters that could lead the global jihad against their own repressive regimes in the Muslim world (“near enemy”) and against the United States (“far enemy”). The 1998 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks were aiming at bringing the “far enemy” closer and hence weakening it economically and attracting more supporters in the whole region. The focus of the international community, in particular in the framework of the so-called “war on terror” since 9/11, has weakened al-Qaeda central in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The killing of Usama bin Laden in May 2011 gave a big blow to the network but al-Qaeda still constitutes a major security threat. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (but also the troop withdrawal in 2011), the Arab spring and the fight against ISIS have all given opportunities to al-Qaeda to establish more presence in the Arab world, as well as to attract new followers and fighters. In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004 to become a franchise known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, getting support from Usama in Laden and being endorsed as its leader until he was killed in 2006. Al-Qaeda’s number 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri was quick to criticize al-Zarqawi for alienating Iraqi Sunnis through ruthless attacks and beheadings. In his view, al Qaeda had to work instead with the other Sunni insurgent groups to push the Americans out. The Arab spring and the instability that followed in several Arab countries after 2011 have allowed al-Qaeda to develop its presence in the Middle-East and Africa. In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra was al-Qaeda’s local ally, staying closer to Al-Zawahiri’s vision and learning from the mistakes in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq since 2010 changed the name into the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in April 2013 and declared that Jabhat al-Nusra was subordinated to him, what was rejected by its leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani who instead pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri. The rise of ISIS and the establishment of the so-called Islamic State in June 2014 created another environment, ISIS having the upper hand in Iraq and Syria but also beyond. The approach was different from al-Qaeda. The priority target was the “near enemy” (i.e. the Arab corrupt regimes) and not the United States. ISIS started by establishing a caliphate, betting on a territory that would expand, while al-Qaeda was seeing it as the ultimate goal at the end of the road. Shias and other religious minorities were also attacked, what al-Qaeda did not approve, preferring to cooperate with other groups fighting against the regime in Syria and elsewhere. The level of violence and brutality against civilians has also been (even) more extreme with ISIS fighters than what al-Qaeda operatives were doing.

The rise and fall of the caliphate: consequences for al-Qaeda The collapse of the physical Caliphate in 2018 has giving a new opportunity for al-Qaeda to regroup and to attract former ISIS fighters. It is still too early to know exactly how al-Qaeda’s revival will turn out. The rise of Usama bin Laden’s son Hamza last year could be a game changer if he takes over the leadership, superseding the ideologist al-Zawahiri who has led the movement since 2011. Nowadays, al-Qaeda is present, together with its affiliates in Africa, the Middle-East and Asia: al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. In Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – rebranding of the al-Nusrah Front – is the current al-Qaeda’s local affiliate and by far the most numerous terrorist group (10 to 20 000 fighters). Experts seem to disagree on the real strength of al-Qaeda. It is true that few attacks have been carried out against the West over the last 10 years. The counter-terrorism measures have clearly had an impact on its ability to operate. But this is also probably due to al-Zawahiri’s leadership that has strengthened the decentralization of the network, has called to avoid extreme violence and casualties among the population and has been hiding behind ISIS while rebuilding its military capabilities.

The future: capability to evolve What is clear is that, 20 years after the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam bombings, al-Qaeda will remain, together with all the other jihadist and terrorist groups, an important threat – although evolving – to international peace and security for still some time to come. The defeat of the physical ISIS caliphate is definitely not the end of the story. Its ideology is still there and groups like al-Qaeda won’t miss any opportunity to bring their vision and agenda forward by attracting and recruiting former members of ISIS, as well as disenfranchised populations previously under its control.

August 2018


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