With its gruesome beheadings, control of broad swaths of territory, inspiration of attacks on the West, and ability to recruit thousands of foreign fighters, it is no wonder that ISIS has been the terrorist group getting all the attention in the media. But there is a cold, hard reality that we must recognize: al-Qaeda is back.
After 9/11, the target fell squarely on al-Qaeda’s back. The US and its allies brought the full force of their military power down on bin Laden and his henchman, immediately putting them on the run in the mountains of Afghanistan. Knowing he could no longer run al Qaeda like he had in the past, bin Laden flattened the organization out, giving more sovereignty to its affiliates in places like Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. But in 2011, bin Laden’s luck ran out when US Special Forces eliminated him in his hideout in Pakistan. Without its founder and leader, many speculated the organization would no longer pose a threat to the United States. In fact, President Obama himself said as much in a May 2013 address to the nation, arguing that America was at a “crossroads” and the time for “continual warfare” had come to an end.
Soon thereafter, the world’s gaze shifted off of al Qaeda an on to ISIS, an old al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq that broke off because it did not believe al Qaeda was aggressive enough. ISIS was set on establishing the Islamic caliphate now, while al Qaeda thought that doing so was premature. When ISIS gained more and more land in Iraq and Syria and began bringing in millions of dollars of revenue from oil and extortion, recruits flocked to it, believing the caliphate was here to stay. For radical Islamic terrorists, ISIS was the new, cool kid on the block. Al Qaeda, it seemed, was destined to irrelevance if not strategic defeat.
This played right into al Qaeda’s hands. With the spotlight no longer on it, al Qaeda took advantage of being able to operate much more openly than before. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda worked with its longtime ally the Taliban to take advantage of the complete withdrawal of foreign combat troops. Today, it controls more territory than at any time since 2001. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, known as AQAP, successfully seized and held territory for the first time in years. Al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabaab decimated its ISIS rivals in the country and continued to wage war against the government. Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is completely entrenched in the Syrian civil war, where it holds territory and is one of the most lethal fighting forces in the country, ensuring its presence and relevance for the foreseeable future. In Libya, the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia is quietly building durable alliances with various tribes and extremist groups while enjoying safe haven thanks to a lack of government control of the country.
Al Qaeda also used ISIS’ rise as an opportunity to rebrand itself as the ‘reasonable’ organization compared to the more ‘extremist’ ISIS. It has started focusing more on winning over local populations and even engaging governmental authorities about how they could work together to counter ISIS. Al Qaeda was successfully becoming more mainstream.
Today, the trend lines have shifted. ISIS is losing territory in Iraq and Syria. With less people under its rule to extort, its revenue stream is falling, as is the rate of foreign fighters coming into ISIS’ ranks. It turns out, ISIS may be the flash in the pan compared to the slow boil of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is playing the long game.
Whatever may be the future fate of ISIS or al Qaeda, what is clear is that al Qaeda is not decimated or even on the run, as the President has claimed. The events over the last five years have exposed the President’s tactic of “decapitation” of al Qaeda’s leaders to be a woefully insufficient strategy to defeat al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is back. We better get ready.