The Future of Al Qaeda

As ISIS declines in its homelands of Iraq, Jordan and Syria, there is a feeling amongst Western intelligence units that the end of international Islamist terrorism is by no means on the horizon, because Al Qaeda will simply return to win the hearts and minds of jihadists over the world.

Since the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, Al Qaeda has been in the headlines infrequently, and many Westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the group had largely given up. It was taken over by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a rather uninspiring surgeon who has proved unable to attract young jihadists to Al Qaeda, and lacks the ready finances of the bin Ladens. At the same time, the Arab Spring thrust ISIS (originally an offshoot of Al Qaeda) into the spotlight in Syria and Iraq, and they began to attract headlines instead.

Six years later, ISIS has been defeated in Mosul, and its self-declared caliphate is crumbling, with Syrian militias moving on Raqqa, their Syrian capital. With multinational coalitions focussing specifically on the destruction of this group, it is likely that it will not survive for long. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has not only survived the death of its inspirational leader, but has managed to keep the flame of jihadism alive. It is now poised to re-emerge as the global brand leader of international jihad. The reason for this difference in fortunes is that ISIS and Al Qaeda have been following very different strategies.

ISIS has spent its years in the limelight concentrating on short-term goals. This is focussed on the media, with the intention of dominating all forms of social media with messages, videos and (effectively) advertisements for their horrific, brutal approach to conducting jihad. Their barbarism caught the eye of Western governments, giving them more publicity than they could have hoped for. They were therefore able to attract and recruit disaffected young Muslims from across the world, who were excited by violence and destruction, and were willing to travel to the Levant to pursue a violent war that reaffirmed their self-identity. But this very strategy, whilst good for recruiting disturbed and violent fighters, also gave a focus to the international coalition, which has more resources and greater firepower than anything ISIS could hope for. Hence the impending collapse of the “caliphate”. 

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, have survived with a very different approach. They have not sought bloodthirsty youths who are willing to decapitate defenceless civilians for the sake of a YouTube advertisement. In fact, many jihadists have been appalled by the barbarism of ISIS, and have transferred their allegiance to Al Qaeda as a result. Uninterested in social media, they have pursued a more diplomatic route, creating affiliations with a network of jihadist groups across the Muslim world. For example, Al Shabaab, a key militia in Somalia, are affiliated to Al Qaeda not only through their shared Islamist vision, but through their involvement in the Yemen civil war. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has committed terrorist atrocities in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Mali and Niger.  Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group in Northern Nigeria has been affiliated to Al Qaeda since at least the 2001 attacks in the USA. The most brutal affiliate of all is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is perpetuating its Islamist agenda in the horrific and prolonged civil war in Yemen. There are many other groups who have (or are seeking) an alliance with Al Qaeda, and their numbers may be swelled by ISIS veterans once it collapses. Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi has even raised the prospect of ISIS making a treaty with Al Qaeda and joining forces. On top of this, Al Qaeda is believed to have senior figures based in north-west Syria, ready to take up arms against the government as soon as ISIS is defeated. With this entrenched network of terrorist groups who are not made up of disaffected youngsters seeking a war to fight, but of locals pursuing a local Islamist agenda, Al Qaeda has not gone away, and is merely seeking a figure with charisma and resources who can unite these affiliated groups behind a clear manifesto.

Western governments must not make the mistake of believing that Islamism will be defeated with the destruction of ISIS. Al Qaeda could emerge as a more significant force than ever before if it can co-ordinate its affiliates. In order to prevent more meaningless attacks in Western democratic nations, the United States should refocus from the posturing of North Korea to the outlying nation states of the Islamic world, and lead the West in providing hard support to the democratic governments that are trying to defeat Islamist insurgents. Most importantly, the West must seek an end to the destructive civil wars in Yemen and Syria.

Jamie Thomson

OAG Analysis


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