Yemeni security forces inspect unexploded ordnance confiscated from Al-Qaeda militants in the Lahj province.
Reflections this week on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks have reminded the world of the nature of the threat of Islamist violence. Thousands lost their lives, while tens of thousands were left to pick up the pieces. Al-Qaeda, which had carried out a number of attacks against US targets around the world before 9/11, demonstrated its ability to hit the 'far enemy' at its heart.
Sixteen years on, the preeminent jihadi threat the world faces is not al-Qaeda, but an offshoot of the group that has grown exponentially, outgrowing and outmanoeuvring its forerunner: ISIS. But the important question remains: what is the state of the al-Qaeda threat?
For a plethora of reasons, the 9/11 attacks were a watershed moment. Not only did a foreign terrorist organisation reveal its ability to strike with deadly force at the heart of the world's leading superpower, but it was also in the aftermath of the attacks that al-Qaeda's jihadi caravan went truly global.
In the years following the attacks, al-Qaeda mushroomed from being a core group based largely in the mountainous border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan to having outposts in East Africa, the Sahel, the Indian subcontinent, and the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Qaeda–linked attacks were not limited to American targets, as bombings in Madrid, Bali, and London showed the group's capacity to carry out attacks around the world. The last major al-Qaeda attack in the West was on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Later that year, Parisians were once again targeted, this time by ISIS, in a coordinated attack across the French capital.
Government policy, military strategy, and media obsession have since been largely geared towards defeating ISIS, both in its territorial heartlands in the Levant and in its provinces elsewhere, with little to no attention on the group's predecessor. The seemingly abrupt shift in attention towards ISIS is partly responsible for questions today about whether or not al-Qaeda remains a threat.
While ISIS and al-Qaeda are separate entities, their shared ideological worldviews and theological positions suggest there is far more that unites the two groups than divides them. Research looking at the propaganda output of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda–aligned outfit in Syria, has shown that ideologically, there is little to distinguish the groups. All are adherents of Salafi-jihadi ideology and seek to return to the perceived utopia of Islam as practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, employing all means necessary to achieve this goal.
Ultimately, al-Qaeda and ISIS seek the same end goal: a global, territorial caliphate in which their strict, narrow articulation of Islamic law can be applied as state law.
There may be subtle differences in viewpoints on specific matters, such as leadership, authority, and immediate priorities, but ultimately, al-Qaeda and ISIS seek the same end goal: a global, territorial caliphate in which their strict, narrow articulation of Islamic law can be applied as state law. Tactical differences abound, but their fundamentals are aligned.
But just as the declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria led to a split in jihadi ranks, so the emergence of a new (or old) personality may become a source of unity. Baghdadi may claim to have trained in the foothills of the Afghan mountains that Osama bin Laden had made his and al-Qaeda's home, but the former al-Qaeda chief's son, Hamza, has been steadily growing in stature.
In his thorough portrayal of Hamza bin Laden, Ali Soufan described him as a rising star of the global movement. If his star is on the rise, then the current chief of al-Qaeda and successor to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, must be waning in significance. Zawahiri has not been seen in years, his messaging is sporadic, and his monumental failure in pledging allegiance to former Taliban leader Mullah Omar months after he had died are evidence that the former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and early architect of al-Qaeda may no longer be the group's focal point. Younger and certainly hungrier, Hamza bin Laden has an edge over Zawahiri in the current climate.
On the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, orchestrated by his father, images of the burning towers in Manhattan were subtly superimposed with images of Hamza bin Laden. He has previously issued recorded statements calling for continued attacks against the US and its allies, including a message in which Hamza he called on individual jihadis to "avenge" the "children of Syria," the "widows of Palestine," the "free honorable women of Iraq," and "the orphans of Afghanistan."
In some respects, Hamza bin Laden is both part of the old guard of al-Qaeda, imbued with the group's ideology and activities since birth, and a relative newcomer in operational terms on the global jihadi scene. By jihadi standards, his credentials are impeccable. What he lacks in operational battlefield experience he more than makes up for through his lineage and zeal for the cause that was championed by his father.
Hamza bin Laden may be young, but al-Qaeda is not. Its series of networks, which cover the globe, are a reminder that al-Qaeda remains a global threat. The ideology of the group has not wavered, though a combination of pragmatism and opportunism has seen the group focus on consolidation in the wake of ISIS' rapid rise to prominence. The 'hearts and minds' approach of al-Qaeda that has been imposed by Zawahiri has been mocked as a sign of weakness by ISIS, yet the group's relatively low profile has helped forge stronger relations in and around the territories under its control.
ISIS is on the back foot, Zawahiri's importance has diminished, and regional al-Qaeda outfits have largely succeeded in their strategy of consolidation. Add to these realities a charismatic, passionate, fresh personality who is a direct descendant of the world's most recognised jihadi personality, and the conditions for an al-Qaeda resurgence are beginning to take root. Al-Qaeda affiliates have cemented relationships with local leaders and tribes in Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel, while the group's presence in Syria has grown. New and fresh direction from a charismatic, passionate figure connected to the 'glory days' of jihad might just be the impetus that al-Qaeda has been waiting for.
The preeminent jihadi threat the world faces is not al-Qaeda, but an offshoot of the group that has grown exponentially, outgrowing and outmanoeuvring its forerunner: ISIS. But the important question remains: what is the state of the al-Qaeda threat?
Mubaraz Ahmed Analyst, Co-existence