Al Qaeda has survived over a decade of heavy attack, and losses, by adopting a number of successful strategies. The most important of these is the continued use of international media to keep people (largely disaffected Moslems and Western leftists looking for a new lost cause) informed about how the terrorist group is still around. Maintaining such visibility is essential for recruiting. Al Qaeda has always recruited from the least educated and most desperate Moslem men out there. Religious fervor was not crucial but the willingness to suffer and die was. These recruits are attracted to the image of al Qaeda as being constantly active, no matter what damage they suffer.
Also important, for older, more affluent, and less desperate supporters, was a willingness to help out with cash or access to needed resources. The new recruits and other contributions were only forthcoming if al Qaeda could demonstrate that it was active. Thus there is a constant need for new “actions” (assassinations, bombings, prison breaks, and other media-worthy events) to remind wealthy fans of Islamic radicalism that cash keeps it all going.
The core leadership has always contained some technically adept people who recognized how the media worked and appreciated how new technology was changing that. So it should not be surprising that al Qaeda is now a heavy user of Twitter and other social media sites. Even though many of these sites do not welcome al Qaeda, the Islamic terrorists keep at it and maintain a presence in high-traffic areas. Much of this is made possible by Internet-savvy volunteers who don’t want to blow themselves up but are willing to risk (and it is not a big risk) arrest by working from home to serve the cause and keep al Qaeda visible on the Internet and thus in the mass media.
Al Qaeda leadership has also been responsive to what works and what doesn’t, even if many of their subordinates are content to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Thus, for the last decade the senior leadership has been pushing (with mixed success) the idea of using violence infrequently but with more recision and concentrate on addressing the needs of the people. Al Qaeda still wants to conquer the world but has noticed that creating a religious dictatorship too soon does not work. The support of most of the people is more important, and that’s a concept that young recruits have a hard time appreciating. But after the defeats in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, even the young guys are coming to accept that the road to victory is not littered with the bodies of innocent Moslem women and children. These things take time if you want to make a lasting impression.
Another survival technique was franchising, becoming regional, rather than international. Thus the original al Qaeda is back where it was founded three decades ago, in the tribal territories of northwest Pakistan. Here, about a thousand members (many of them married into local tribes and semi-retired) manage to protect supreme leader Ayman al Zawahiri, along with a shrinking network of training camps and safe houses. About ten percent of these al Qaeda men are actually in eastern Afghanistan but are even less active. Al Qaeda is tolerated by the Pakistani government, as long as it does no (or very little) violence inside Pakistan. Thus the relatively large number of al Qaeda operatives “retiring” to the tribal territories. Many did this to survive growing hostility from local tribes against the largely foreign al Qaeda members. In the last decade over a thousand foreign al Qaeda men (mainly Arabs and Central Asians) have been killed by local tribesmen for, well, not getting along with the locals. Many al Qaeda members fled, and this played a part in the development of the two major al Qaeda branches that emerged over the last decade in Yemen and North Africa.
AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has suffered heavy losses in the last year. AQAP was formed in 2009, after the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part time members) fled to Yemen and merged with the Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Growing unrest in Yemen (against the long-standing Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and take over several towns in the south by 2011. Then the new post-Saleh government launched a counteroffensive in 2012 and AQAP got hurt very badly. That offensive continues, along with the growing use of American UAVs in Yemen. At the same time there are few other places for defeated al Qaeda men to flee to. The sanctuary in Mali was destroyed in early 2013, by a French led offensive. The sanctuary in Pakistan (North Waziristan) is hostile to active al Qaeda and mainly for local Islamic terrorists. Surviving al Qaeda men are increasingly operating in isolation and under heavy attack. Sometimes, as is happening now in Syria, they attack each other. While the al Qaeda situation is desperate in Yemen, AQAP is still al Qaeda’s most capable branch and the only one that has shown any ability to support attacks (few successful so far) in the West.
In North Africa there were three major Islamic radical groups, as well as some smaller ones at the end of 2012. Ansar Dine was originally from Mali and led by Tuareg Islamic radicals. MOJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) is from neighboring Mauritania. It is largely composed of black African Islamic radicals and led by Mauritanians. The largest of the three is AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which has members from all over North Africa but mostly from Algeria. MOJAO is basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM and there was always some ethnic and racial tension between the two groups. AQIM has the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other two major radical groups (who outnumbered AQIM in Mali).
AQIM and MOJAO were sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge in Mali because it is Malian. Until late 2012, all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of northern Mali. Then the alliance began to weaken under the pressure of an imminent counter offensive. AQIM brought in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened the other Islamic terrorist groups if they did not do as they were told. AQIM wanted to run everything, and all the cash they got from drug dealing and kidnapping gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French in January 2013. The French led invasion was a crushing blow to AQIM, just like the Yemen offensive in 2012 was to AQAP. None of the Islamic terrorists in Mali were the same after the French offensive in early 2013.
In the wake of the Mali disaster Islamic terrorists in North Africa reorganized. AQIM relocated to southern Libya while Ansar Dine, especially the Tuareg leadership, faded back into the many Tuareg living in the Sahel (the semi-desert region between the Sahara Desert and the tropical forests to the south). In mid-2013, two North African Islamic terrorist factions merged to create a new group: Al Mourabitoun. This new group has been operating mainly in Niger. One of the merger partners is an al Qaeda splinter group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (the planner of the January, 2013 natural gas facility attack in southern Algeria that got 37 workers and 32 terrorists killed). Belmokhtar has a reputation for always escaping the many efforts to kill or capture him. Belmokhtar was number two or three in AQIM but formed his own splinter group in late 2012. Belmokhtar’s faction survived the French invasion. The other component of Al Mourabitoun comes from MOJWA. This merger was another aftereffect of the French led invasion.
Within months of the French attack hundreds of experienced Islamic terrorists scattered and slowly reorganized via email, cell phones, and hand-carried documents. Recruiting took a big hit as the Islamic “government” in northern Mali showed once more that Islamic radicals cannot stand up to professional soldiers and their governing methods tend to turn the population against them. This caused over a thousand AQIM members to desert, while nearly 500 were killed in the Mali fighting. Hundreds of local Islamic terrorists (Tuaregs, MOJWA, and other black Africans from countries in the region) stayed in northern Mali and continue to try carrying out a terrorist attacks.
There are a few larger groups of these Islamic terrorists still wandering around the far north but they were hunted by French aircraft and hit with smart bombs until most fled to neighboring countries. Some of these Islamic terrorists have renounced their alliance with al Qaeda and sought to evade attack by just being another group of Tuareg separatists. Most of the still functional Islamic terrorists have reformed in Niger, Tunisia, and Libya. Many individual terrorists made their way to Syria, which is the next-big-thing for murderous religious radicals.
Despite the senior leadership remaining in Pakistan, the most active, and dangerous, international terrorism operations are coming out of AQAP. AQIM survives by becoming a drug gang that smuggles various narcotics to North Africa and Europe. As a result of this, al Qaeda is urging Islamic radicals everywhere to try and organize and carry out terrorism operations wherever they are. Thus even some large al Qaeda organizations (like the ones in Iraq and Syria) are devoting all their energies to killing people (mostly fellow Moslems) where they are and not in the West (which al Qaeda Central would prefer).
More importantly, al Qaeda leaders have recognized that the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, and the subsequent hostility towards Islamic radicals, represented a fundamental change in the Moslem world, a change al Qaeda would have to adapt to or be crushed by. So al Qaeda is adapting while still maintaining its essential nastiness.