On May 2, 2011, a Twitter user by the name Sohaib Athar, an IT professional, awake late at night in Abbottabad, Pakistan, unknowingly tweeted at 01:28 AM local time: “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 AM (is a rare event)”. What Sohaib at that time had not realised that he was unknowingly going to be live tweeting a raid by US SEAL Team 6 on a compound in his town, which eventually would lead to the killing of the then world’s most wanted man, Al Qaeda (AQ) chief Osama Bin Laden. Later, on the same day, then US President Barack Obama would officially announce to the world that the chief of AQ was no more.
The killing of Bin Laden brought to an end a decade-long chase by the US to bring to account the main culprits behind the 9/11 terror attacks. However, while a lot of the discourse to this day revolves around the fact that Bin Laden’s killing was a milestone in counterterrorism, and it was, AQ as a group itself has not fizzled away. After Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri took over, and is still considered to be leading the group despite recent rumours that he may have passed away some time ago. Even as, over the past decade, AQ has arguably lost significant ground, the group is not finished, and continues to find political crevasses around the world to place itself in for growth, financial gains and to continue its traditional aims, that of pushing the US out of the Islamic world.
Al Qaeda’s capacities may be diminished, but the intent remains. And while the group currently may not have the means to conduct large scale attacks in the West anymore, mostly due to large-scale counterterror efforts specially designed and directed against AQ by the US since 2001, smaller scale attacks are still not off the table. Which in turn means AQ still has operational relevance despite recently losing ground to the likes of ISIS. As the group lost its influence over Salafist jihadists till a large extent to ISIS in early 2010s, Al Qaeda remains a much more rooted and organised theatre, giving it more chances of long-lasting prevalence.
For example, in December 2019, A Saudi Air Force officer went on a shooting rampage at a US military base in Pensacola, Florida. The attack resulted in the deaths of three US Navy personnel. In February 2020, Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility of the strike via an audio message released by the emir of AQAP, Qasim al-Raymi. Later, Al-Raymi was declared killed by the US the same month. The Florida attack showcased that even though the scale was comparatively small, Al Qaeda and its arms were still capable of attacking the US on its soil, nearly 20-years after 9/11.
Since the 1990s, Afghanistan has been an Al Qaeda safe haven, under the auspice of the Taliban. The withdrawal agreement between the US and Taliban signed in February 2020 had clear mandate from the American side, that if exiting Afghanistan, the Taliban must comply with the arrangement that they will not give shelter to AQ or others similar jihadist groups to it. However, expecting the Taliban to keep their word on this point is naïve. As President Joe Biden confirmed that all US forces will leave by September 11, 2021, AQ in a rare interview to CNN promised ‘war on all fronts’ against the US unless a full exit from all of the Islamic world is achieved. This clarion call comes from the group when it sees the Taliban in a strong position against the US, and the fact that US armed forces have already started their withdrawal process. Such a public statement by AQ reaffirming its founding mandates would not have come through if the US was still in active conflict instead of defensive, and had not thrown its arms up in the air and agreed to leave.
So far, the US war against Al Qaeda has been, expectedly, led by the idea of largely protecting US interests at home. And while many Western analysts believe AQ is today not strong enough to conduct major terror attacks on US soil, these assessments do not factor in AQ’s abilities to co-opt other conflicts, and the fact that its other arms such as AQAP, Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the various jihadist groups such as Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) increasingly operating under the AQ brand in Africa can be capable for equitable damage similar to those christened under Bin Laden. In fact, history of AQ shows that operationally Bin Laden gave significant democracy to AQ operatives who wanted to conduct terror strikes against the US, Israel and others.
Terror groups such as AQ are survivalists by nature, despite the US-led two decade long ‘war on terror’. A new report by the US Defence Intelligence Agency has highlighted that today a “handful of Iran based AQ leaders oversee AQ’s networks”. Iran, the Shia seat of power and AQ, a Sunni Salafist group, theologically and ideologically poles apart, have found their common enmity against the US to precariously manage to work with each other. And if Afghanistan spirals into another civil war in coming months, AQ would once again find a familiar stomping ground to build upon, similar to Bin Laden’s move to the war-ravaged country in the mid-1990s.
Finally, perhaps scholar Colin P. Clarke places Al Qaeda’s fate in the clearest form: “Killing bin Laden 10 years ago was an important milestone. But it was more symbolic than impactful, more tactical than strategic. The US might be leaving Afghanistan, but AQ remains, long after bin Laden is gone.”