It has been 16 years since the September 11 terror attack in 2001 rocked the Word Trade Centre's Twin Towers, the symbol of America’s economic might and left the world in a state of shock and awe. The aftershocks of the brutal attack still sends down a chill in the spine of many recalling the catastrophic incident which led to such mass scale devastation to humanity.
While the Navy SEALs post a massive manhunt eventually managed to kill Osama Bin laden, the mastermind behind the deadliest terror attack that unfolded on US Soil, the Americans haven’t really been able to eliminate the Bin Laden founded terror organisation Al Qaeda from its roots. A decade of unending drone strikes and precision carpet bombing at key installations has weakened the outfit and reduced its once significant presence in West Asia but not completely eradicated the evil intentions and ideology of the outfit.
The million dollar question remains is how strong or weak is the Al Qaeda at present? Ever since ISIS captured a significant territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 before declaring itself a 'caliphate', the Islamic State has replaced al-Qaeda as the new face of international terrorism. ISIS which started off as a former affiliate of Al-Qaeda rapidly surpassed its parent organization in terms of the ground it controls and its reputation for wreaking havoc through barbaric brutality.
But by no means has Al-Qaeda gone into a shell. It silently remained active all these years and as a matter of fact expanded its wings through its lesser known but operationally effective regional affiliates in Jabhat al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al Qaeda has brought about a tactical change in its operational strategy to execute attacks. Unlike ISIS which takes great deal of credence to pronounce its gruesome attacks, members of the local affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have been avoiding the sort of brutality that has brought the Islamic State much criticism from all quarters. This tactic has reaped dividends for Al Qaeda, making them win local support and avoid the kind of international military action that the Islamic State is facing.
In Yemen, where the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been steadily acquiring territory amounting to what Reuters recently described as “a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.” AQAP has been hailed as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate. It is known for its facility with explosives and has planned out plots to bring down U.S. airliners. AQAP also took credit for the January 2015 attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 11 people died.
As per estimates, in Somalia, its affiliate al Shabaab has more than 7,000 fighters. In Syria, al Nusra boasts more than 20,000. Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has made millions of dollars from ransom payments.
Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War wrote recently, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate “has been quietly playing the long game.” The group, she wrote, “intentionally does not control terrain; this makes it difficult to target, as it cannot be attacked directly without destroying the more moderate Syrian opposition groups with whom it is embedded. And it has safe-guarded itself against tribal uprisings by prioritizing local support.”
ISIS’s carries out it acts with a greater degree of openness as compared to its parent which was more discrete in plotting attacks. ISIS hence becomes an easy target owing to its clear presence as a terror organisation on global map. Another area of contention which clearly demarcates the two entities is that ISIS strives for governing a territory as part of expanding their self-proclaimed Caliphate which is a far more expensive proposition than plotting attacks abroad, which has historically been al-Qaeda’s focus.
Al-Qaeda’s decentralized “franchise” model has gaping holes which have been exploited. In a late-2014 brief on targeting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, The Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy, pointed out that al-Qaeda’s “reliance on the need to project terror from tenuous positions has long forced into a hub-spoke structure, in which energetic operatives seek to turn guidance from AQ’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, into plots that tend to involve many moving parts over a stretched logistical tail.”
A major triumph for military and intelligence services of the nations has been the fact that neither Al-Qaeda nor ISIS has managed to pull off an attack of the same magnitude on U.S. soil since 9/11. The two deadliest attacks in America since the 9/11 have been the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the 2015 San Bernardino shooting respectively. Both these attacks appear to have been executed by independent shooters or better termed as Lone Wolf attacks which were inspired from the groups in whose names they acted.
In 2016, CIA Director John Brennan acknowledged that while the United States had “destroyed a large part of al-Qaeda,” the group was “not completely eliminated.” As for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he said: “If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization.” As the death of bin Laden, and other terrorist kingpins before him, demonstrates, the exact nature of that impact won’t be known for years.
So in a nutshell one can clearly conclude that while Islamic State remains at the forefront of major terror operations, Al Qaeda which is a pale shadow of its past still remains a force to reckon with via its regional affiliates spread across more than 20 countries.It would be unwise for intelligence agencies of the world to deride al Qaeda's as a spent force. At all times and at all cost, a strong vigilance would auger well for preventing the terror outfit from perpetrating another major attack, detrimental to human life.