The US drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last weekend shook Americans, reminding them that Islamic extremists are still active. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, climate change, and the COVID pandemic are among the many pressing issues that have made foreign terrorism in the rearview mirror.
Yet, as President Biden has pointed out, the US national security apparatus never forgets. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you represent a threat to our people, the United States will find you and get you out,” he said Monday night.
But how much threat was al-Zawahiri? Will his death protect Americans?
To the extent that the success of the hunt demonstrates the necessary resolve against the terrorists attacking the United States, the al-Qaeda network that al-Zawahiri left behind has already been diminished by both internal and external forces. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States in 2011, and since 9/11 itself, it has been the shadow of the organization that once caught the world’s attention. A new leader may revive his fortunes somewhat, but al-Qaeda’s threat to the American homeland will remain limited.
Drone strikes, a global intelligence campaign, and better national defenses have affected the group, as have infighting within the radical Islamist movement and atrocities committed by its followers against Muslim civilians in Iraq and other countries. Master planners, fundraisers, trainers, and other assistants have been killed, captured, or forced to lie flat, making it difficult to plan spectacular attacks or even maintain a coherent movement.
Al Qaeda itself has not succeeded in attacking the United States or Europe since 2005, immortality for a terrorist group seeking world attention. Competing but related organizations such as the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, have also been undermined by concerted counterterrorism efforts and infighting. ISIS’s loss of control of territory in Iraq and Syria was a severe blow to a group whose brand was centered on establishing a true caliphate governed by Islamic law.
Under the uncharismatic al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda survived but did not thrive. He was unable to prevent ISIS from violently rejecting his leadership and proved uninspiring to many potential recruits. Bin Laden’s second-in-command can claim one gain during his tenure, which is the expansion of the group, often by transforming terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia into al-Qaeda affiliates.
Some of these branches — notably the Yemen branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — have inspired and may have orchestrated attacks on the West, including the most recent attack in the United States, in Florida in December 2019. The attacker, a Saudi military trainee, killed three and wounded eight others. at a naval base before his death. According to FBI Director Christopher A. And Ray, the intern was “more than inspired” by AQAP, and he “shared plans and tactics” with it.
However, most other affiliated groups focus on civil wars and other local concerns. It threatens regional stability but is less dangerous to the US base in the Arabian Peninsula, whose leader was killed in a US drone strike within months of the Florida attack, and is said to be splitting.
Solo wolf attacks such as the Boston Marathon bombing, where extremist individuals act without direction from an organization, remain a concern, but the perpetrators tend to be less trained and therefore less lethal.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule is a different concern, most notably al-Zawahiri’s refuge in Kabul, and the terrorist presence there must remain an intelligence priority. However, this does not mean that the more pragmatic Taliban, seeking Western assistance and funding, will allow Afghanistan to become a base for training camps and recruits, as it was in the 1990s. In addition, Al-Zawahiri’s strike shows that US counterterrorism efforts, despite US immigration in 2021, remain devastatingly effective.
Much depends on the next generation of Islamic radicals. A new al-Qaeda or ISIS leader seeking to revitalize his movement may try to attract donors and recruits by conducting high-profile operations in the West.
However, continued counterterrorism efforts make another 9/11 or an attack like Paris in 2015 difficult—one reason why al-Qaeda turned to the local campaigns of its affiliates in the first place. It is not easy to lead a movement when your organization is under siege. ISIS is an example of this. He collapsed under a succession of humble leaders, who all spent more time in hiding than they did in guiding their followers.
Finally, the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its ilk will depend on whether the new issue makes them urgently relevant again. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq soured the Muslim world and proved al-Qaeda’s argument that the United States is bent on regional hegemony. After 2011, the Syrian civil war and the ISIS caliphate declared in 2014 led to massive surges globally in the recruitment and support of Islamist militants.
Today, the civil wars in Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb engage local fighters but have limited motivational appeal globally. Without another mobilization for Iraq or Syria, al-Qaeda and like-minded groups may fade further into yesterday’s news.
Daniel Byman is Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Tweet embed