Al-Zawahri's death refocuses Al-Qaeda

WASHINGTON – No terrorist group, not even the Islamic State, had the notoriety and immediate recognition of the name of Al-Qaeda. But t...


WASHINGTON – No terrorist group, not even the Islamic State, had the notoriety and immediate recognition of the name of Al-Qaeda.

But the murder of the leader of the group, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a CIA drone strike early Sunday marks a crucial inflection point for the global organization. Eight of its top leaders have been killed in the past three years, and it is unclear who will succeed al-Zawahri.

Yet al-Qaeda is present in more countries and has more total fighters than it had on September 11, 2001, when it attacked the United States. Some of his franchises that have sprung up since then, particularly in Somalia and the Sahel region of West Africa, are gaining traction, seizing swathes of territory from weak governments and spending millions of dollars to new weapons, despite decade-long efforts to weaken and contain them. .

None of these affiliates pose the same kind of threat to the American homeland as Al-Qaeda did on 9/11. But they are deadly and resilient. Al-Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate killed three Americans at a US base in Kenya in 2020. Saudi officer training in Florida killed three sailors and injured eight others in 2019. The officer acted on his own but was in contact with the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen as he completed his attack plans.

And as al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul suggests, al-Qaeda and its leaders feel confident moving into Afghanistan now that the The Taliban take control of the country, counterterrorism officials said.

“The question is not what does it do to al-Qaeda, but what does it do to the witch-brew of terrorists in Afghanistan?” said Brian Katulis, vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute.

Al-Qaeda is not the only global terrorist network in transition. A risky pre-dawn raid in northwestern Syria in early February by US special operations forces led to the death of the Islamic State leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Islamic State fighters have reverted to guerrilla warfare since the last remnant of its caliphate, or religious state, in Syria was seized by US-backed Syrian Kurds in 2019.

But al-Zawahri’s death puts the spotlight back on al-Qaeda, which had been largely overshadowed by its upstart rival Islamic State, also known as ISIL, following the death of Osama bin Laden. in 2011. Many terrorism analysts have said Saif al-Adel, a senior al-Qaeda figure wanted by the FBI in the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998, was likely to succeed al-Zawahri. It is believed that he lives in Iran.

“The international context is favorable to Al-Qaeda, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of the global jihad”, a UN report concluded in July. “Al-Qaeda’s propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL as a key player in inspiring the international threat environment, and it may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat.”

No country is being watched more by the United States for a return of al-Qaeda than Afghanistan. In announcing the death of al-Zawahri on Monday, President Biden said Strike would help ensure that Afghanistan could no longer “become a haven for terrorists” or a “launching pad” for attacks on the United States.

But the withdrawal of US forces from the country last August has put pressure on the military and spy agencies to monitor a resurgence of al-Qaeda with only limited informant networks on the ground and drones flying from the Persian Gulf for “over the horizon” surveillance missions.

This spring, another UN report warned that al-Qaeda had found “greater freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. The report noted that a number of al-Qaeda leaders may have been living in Kabul and that an increase in al-Zawahri’s public statements and videos suggested he was able to lead more effectively and more openly after the Taliban takeover.

But intelligence shared by UN member countries in the July report indicated that al-Qaeda did not pose the same immediate threat as the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.

“Al-Qaeda is not considered to pose an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it has no external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause any difficulty or embarrassment to the Taliban,” the report concluded. UN report.

Outside of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s outlying affiliates enjoyed local autonomy while adhering to al-Zawahri’s overall strategy. As a result, his death will most likely have little impact on the franchises’ day-to-day operations, counterterrorism experts said.

“Today, Al-Qaeda Central is largely a spiritual authority to guide — but not directly to oversee,” said Rita Katz, co-founder of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist groups online. “The global jihadist movement has proven resilient.”

The richest and deadliest al-Qaeda affiliate today is Al Shabab, the franchise in Somalia and the rest of East Africa, military and counter-terrorism officials have said.

According to the latest UN report, Al Shabab currently has between 7,000 and 12,000 fighters and spends around $24 million a year – a quarter of its budget – on weapons and explosives, and increasingly on drones.

And the threat is growing. “I think that due to a lack of effective governance and counter-terrorism pressure, Al Shabab has only gotten stronger and bolder over the past year,” said General Stephen J. Townsend, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command. told the Senate in March.

In the latest sign of trouble, nearly 500 Shabab fighters crossed into eastern Ethiopia last month and clashed with Ethiopian forces along the border, General Townsend said.

In May, Mr. Biden signed an order allowing the Pentagon to redeploy hundreds of special operations forces inside Somalia – largely reversing a decision by President Donald J. Trump to withdraw nearly all of the 700 ground troops stationed there.

In addition, Mr. Biden approved a request from the Pentagon for permanent authorization to target a dozen suspected leaders of Al Shabab. Since Mr. Biden took office, airstrikes in Somalia have largely been limited to those intended to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.

Together, Mr. Biden’s decisions resurrected an open-ended US counterterrorism operation that amounted to a low-level war across three administrations.

Military officials said the total number of US troops with a “persistent presence” in Somalia would be capped at around 450. This will replace a system in which US troops trained and advised Somali and African Union forces during short visits.

The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to try to reduce the threat of Al Shabab by removing its ability to plan and carry out complicated operations, such as the attack on a US airbase in Manda Bay, Kenyain January 2020 that killed three Americans.

In the Sahel, the vast arid region south of the Sahara, al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants have for years fought local governments in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso.

Despite the arrival of French troops and a UN peacekeeping force, militants spread across Mali and then into neighboring countries. In Burkina Faso, to the south, nearly two million people have been displaced by the conflict.

Gulf of Guinea countries such as Benin and Ivory Coast have also come under sporadic attacks as violence seeps south. The Qaeda affiliate, known as JNIM, trains recruits in Burkina Faso before redeploying them “to their country of origin”, according to the July UN report.

The most serious terrorist concerns in Syria center on the thousands of Islamic State fighters in the northeast of the country.

US counterterrorism officials have expressed concern in recent years about an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Din, who they believe is planning attacks on the West by exploiting the chaotic security situation in the northwest of the country and the inadvertent protection provided by the armor of Russian air defences. Syrian government forces.

But recent US airstrikes, such as the one in June in Idlib province that the military says killed Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni, one of the group’s top leaders, have eased some concerns.

For more than a decade, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has been one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations on the planet. The group has spent years inventing hard-to-detect explosives, including trying to conceal bombs in devices like cell phones. He tried at least three times to blow up American airliners, without success.

But several of the group’s leaders have been killed in recent years, hampering its ability to orchestrate or conduct operations against the West, say US and European counterterrorism experts.

Clashes with rival Islamic State and Houthi rebel fighters in Yemen have also weakened the group, whose full name is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Even though the group has been reduced, intelligence and counterterrorism officials warn that the organization remains dangerous.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Al-Zawahri's death refocuses Al-Qaeda
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