Al Qaeda has survived over two decades of increasingly 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 the organization suffered. The recruiting became more difficult in 2014 when its rogue Iraq branch declared it was, as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) the successor to al Qaeda and seemed to prove it by taking control of eastern Syria and western Iraq to form the core of its new caliphate. Many of the more fanatical al Qaeda members worldwide defected to form local “provinces” (franchises) of ISIL. Unlike al Qaeda, which always sought to make alliances (sometimes secret ones, like the still existing deal with Shia Iran) while ISIL considered any other Islamic terror group, by definition one that would not recognize ISIL as supreme, as an enemy and go after them. ISIL also failed to learn what al Qaeda already knew; too much violence, especially against civilians, backfires badly. Soon, with most everyone (Moslem and non-Moslem) fighting back ISIL was reduced to the status of an outlier.
Within three years ISIL became the place where the most violent Islamic terrorists go to show off and get killed more quickly. The more prudent and businesslike al Qaeda remained the largest Islamic terrorist network in the world. Actually al Qaeda was and is the largest terrorist network in the world thanks to attention paid to strategy and finances. That was the original idea behind al Qaeda, whose name literally means “the base”, and always sought to provide reliable support to Islamic terrorist activities worldwide.
Al Qaeda continues to cultivate older, more affluent, and less desperate supporters, who are willing 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. Those cash resources have come under increasing attack within the Islamic world as these nations (especially the Arabian oil states) realize that accommodation is not a viable strategy. Al Qaeda has adapted by increasing its cooperation with Iran (which seeks, so far unsuccessfully, to make itself the ”Al Qaeda of Shia Islam”) and the Afghan Taliban who, via two decades of cooperation with the drug gangs of Afghanistan, seek to revive the short lived (1996-2001) Taliban rule as a caliphate (actually emirate) in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban began as an effort by Pakistan to end the civil war in Afghanistan and put in place rulers who were dependent on (and answerable to) Pakistan. That backfired in a spectacular fashion when the emirate gave sanctuary to al Qaeda (which swore loyalty to the Afghan Taliban, a vow that is still technically in force). Al Qaeda was trying to carry out major attacks in the West and in 2001 that led to some spectacular results and the prompt demise of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Iran quietly gave shelter to the survivors and helped the Taliban plan a comeback. That is not turning out as planned. But al Qaeda still knows how to take advantage of all those frustrated (mainly at their own governments) young Moslems and wealthy Moslems willing to help out with cash. Since ISIL came and went there is a lot less of this cash and al Qaeda has now devoted a lot more of its energy to remaining active by remaining solvent.
The core leadership of al Qaeda 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 the Internet and especially social media sites and encrypted messaging 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, since 2003 the senior leadership has been pushing (with mixed success) the idea of using violence infrequently but with more precision 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 ISIL caliphate and the Taliban emirate made that clear. 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, Mali and so on, 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 in the 1980s, in the tribal territories of Pakistan with branch locations in Afghanistan and Iran. Here, several 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. Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon and Islamic radicals since the 1970s embraced Islamic terrorism in the 1980s and also met Osama bin Laden, who was heavily involved with supporting Afghan Islamic terrorist rebels in Afghanistan. Soon Zawahiri had organized his own support operation in Pakistan and frequently worked with bin Laden. Zawahiri merged his smaller Egyptian Islamic terrorist organization with al Qaeda in 1998 and became the deputy leader of al Qaeda. Zawahiri brought a number of his Egyptian colleagues into the al Qaeda leadership and even before 2001 was referred to as the brains behind al Qaeda. Zawahiri was less interested in publicizing himself and backed the use of bin Laden as the public face of al Qaeda, By 2011, when bin Laden was killed in his Pakistan hideout Zawahiri had no trouble assuming the role as al Qaeda leader because after 2001 he had already quietly taken over that job.
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. Although Zawahiri has organized attacks in Pakistan before and after he joined al Qaeda he has convinced the Pakistani military that he can be trusted to work with them rather than against them. Meanwhile, Zawahiri was unable to persuade the Iraqi al Qaeda faction to back off from forming ISIL and going to war with al Qaeda. Zawahiri has had an easier time dealing with governments than with fellow Islamic terrorists and there is a lesson in that.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan Zawahiri was also unable to halt the violence between al Qaeda members (mainly Arabs and Central Asians) and Pakistani Pushtun tribes that led to the formation of the Pakistani Taliban in 2007. This version of the Taliban was not controlled by Pakistan but was actually at war with Pakistan. In 2014 the Pakistani army waged a major campaign against the Pakistani Taliban and sharply reduced the power and presence of this group in Pakistan. Remnants survive in eastern Afghanistan and more remote areas of the Pakistani tribal territories. Al Qaeda suffered heavy losses during that 2014 campaign (which is still ongoing) and was forced to shift more of its facilities to Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is still loyal to Pakistan (via the control Pakistan exercise over the Afghan Taliban) and always willing to adapt, especially with Zawahiri in charge.
AQIM, AQAP, AQIS, JNIM, HTS and al Shabaab
Another form of adaptation has been the development of several al Qaeda affiliates. This began with the creation of two major al Qaeda branches in Yemen and North Africa. This was largely a result of the 2008 defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq and the continuing defeats suffered by Algerian Islamic terror groups. Actually, there were similar Islamic terror groups in Egypt during the 1990s that were defeated (as were the Algerian ones) by the late 1990s. Many of the Egyptian Islamic terror group leaders found sanctuary, and jobs, with al Qaeda in the 1990s and now dominate the senior al Qaeda leadership. Many of the defeated Algerian Islamic terrorists joined al Qaeda as well, but via African affiliates not by moving to Afghanistan or Pakistan.
By late 2012 Africa was the home of three major Islamic radical groups, as well as some smaller ones. The largest of these was AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which formed in 2006 and had members from all over North Africa but mostly from Algeria. AQIM had the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other major radical groups. After a 2013 French led effort defeated a major Islamic terror group uprising in northern Mali AQIM not only survived intact but helped the smaller Islamic terror groups to survive as well and by 2017 form another Al Qaeda affiliate; JNIM (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin) which included largely sub-Saharan Islamic terrorists. While the Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in northern Nigeria sided with ISIL (or remained independent) many others in central Africa were more comfortable with al Qaeda, which tended to provide jobs and pay its bills on time. ISIL did neither very well but got its member killed quickly, often in spectacular fashion. That was more of a niche market when it came to Islamic terrorism.
AQIM survived and thrived because they had lots of cash from drug smuggling and kidnapping. That gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. Many 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. But al Qaeda was best prepared to pick up the pieces and keep going. In the wake of the Mali disaster, AQIM relocated to southern Libya for a while. The third African al Qaeda franchise was another form of adaptation; al Shabaab in Somalia. Al Shabaab secretly joined al Qaeda in 2010 but its’ power peaked in 2012 and has been on the defensive ever since. The al Qaeda membership was revealed in 2012. One reason for that is the organization was split over aligning with al Qaeda, ISIL or remaining independent. The al Qaeda faction won, although there is still a smaller ISIL faction active.
AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) arose after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq and Saudi Arabia (where a lesser insurrection was quickly crushed). Many al Qaeda survivors fled to Yemen and formed AQAP 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. That triggered more widespread violence which is still going on.
Through it all, AQAP has survived if not exactly thrived. 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).
Al Qaeda is trying to survive the defeat of Islamic terrorist groups (mainly ISIL) in Syria. The main reason the rebels lost in Syria was the appearance of ISIL, which led to more fighting between rebel groups than with the Syrian government. That is another reason why ISIL is so unpopular throughout the Islamic world. Meanwhile, al Qaeda survived in Syria, first as al Nusra in 2012. In 2015 and 2016 al Nusra joined coalitions with other Islamic terrorists to deal with ISIL. Finally, in 2017 al Nusra declared itself to be the lead member of the HTS coalition, an organization that is still loyal to al Qaeda but insists it isn’t. HTS is trying to cut a deal with the Turks to get most of its members out of Syria alive (if disarmed). Adaptation.
AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) was formed in 2014 and never really got going because its first major operation was to attack a Pakistani naval base, hijack a frigate and use it to attack American and Indian ships. This appears to have made al Qaeda unwelcome in Pakistan for several years. AQIS operations were moved to Afghanistan where they have been under constant attack. So far AQIS has been an expensive failure.
Where al Qaeda survives is where it establishes reliable ways of making money. This enables it to recruit, arm and train new members as well as organize and carry out attacks. Having reserves of cash allows al Qaeda factions to survive or even send personnel and money to help out other factions. What the money does not do is provide a way to break the cycle of failure and self-destruction Islamic terrorists have endured for over a thousand years.