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Al-Zawahri’s Death Puts the Focus Back on Al Qaeda

WASHINGTON – No terrorist group, not even the Islamic State, has had the prominence and immediate name recognition of Al Qaeda.

But the assassination of the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a CIA drone attack early Sunday marks a crucial turning point for the global organization. Eight of his top leaders have been assassinated in the past three years and it is unclear who will succeed al-Zawahri.

Yet Al Qaeda is in more countries and has more total combatants than on September 11, 2001, when it attacked the United States. Some of its franchises that have sprung up since then, notably in Somalia and the Sahel region of West Africa, are on the rise, taking swathes of territory from weak governments and spending millions of dollars on new weapons, despite a decade of efforts. to weaken and contain them.

None of these affiliates pose the same kind of threat to the American homeland that Al Qaeda did on September 11, but they are deadly and resilient. The Qaeda branch in East Africa killed three Americans at a US base in Kenya in 2020. A Saudi officer training facility in Florida killed three sailors in 2019 and injured eight other people. The officer acted alone but was in contact with the Qaeda branch in Yemen as he completed his attack plans.

And as al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul suggests, al-Qaida and its leaders are confident to move across Afghanistan as the Taliban regain control of the country, counterterrorism officials said.

“The question is not what this is doing to Al Qaeda, but what this is doing to terrorists’ witchcraft in Afghanistan?” said Brian Katulis, the vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute.

Al Qaeda is not the only global terrorist network in transition. A risky raid in northwestern Syria by US Special Operations forces in early February resulted in the death of Islamic State’s general leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. ISIS fighters have relapsed into guerrilla warfare since the last remnant of its caliphate, or religious state, in Syria was taken by US-backed Syrian Kurds in 2019.

But al-Zawahri’s death puts the focus back on Al Qaeda, which was largely overshadowed by its fledgling rival Islamic State, also known as ISIL, after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Saif al-Adel, a senior Qaeda leader wanted by the FBI in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, was likely to succeed al-Zawahri. He would live in Iran.

“The international context is favorable for Al Qaeda, which plans to be re-recognized as the leader of global jihad,” a UN report concluded in July. “Al Qaeda propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL as the key player in inspiring the international threat environment, and it could eventually become a greater source of targeted threat.”

No country stands under more American control for a comeback of Al Qaeda than Afghanistan. Announcing the death of al-Zawahri on Monday, President Biden said the strike would help ensure that Afghanistan can no longer become “a safe haven for terrorists” or a “launching pad” for attacks on the United States.

But the withdrawal of US troops from the country last August put pressure on the military and spy services to look for a resurgence of Qaeda with only limited networks of informers on the ground and drones flying from the Persian Gulf to ‘over the horizon’ surveillance missions.

this spring, another UN report warned that al-Qaeda had found “more freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. The report noted that a number of Qaeda leaders may have lived in Kabul and that an increase in public statements and videos by al-Zawahri suggested he was able to lead more effectively and openly after the Taliban took control.

But intelligence shared by UN member states in the July report indicated that al-Qaeda did not pose the same imminent threat as the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan.

“Al Qaeda is not seen as a direct international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it has no external operational capability and currently does not want to cause any international problems or embarrassment to the Taliban,” the UN report concluded.

Outside of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s widespread affiliates enjoyed local autonomy while adhering to al-Zawahri’s overall strategy. As a result, his death will most likely have little impact on the day-to-day operations of the franchises, counter-terrorism specialists said.

“Today, Al Qaeda Central is largely a spiritual authority to lead — but not to monitor directly,” said Rita Katz, co-founder of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist groups online. “The global jihadist movement has proved resilient.”

The richest and deadliest Qaeda affiliate today is Al Shabab, the franchise in Somalia and the rest of East Africa, military and counter-terrorism officials said.

According to the latest UN report, Al Shabab currently has 7,000 to 12,000 fighters and spends about $24 million a year – a quarter of its budget – on weapons and explosives, and increasingly on drones.

And the threat is growing. “I believe that a lack of effective governance and pressure on counter-terrorism has only made Al Shabab stronger and more brutal over the past year,” General Stephen J. Townsend, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told the Senate in March.

In the latest sign of trouble, nearly 500 Shabab fighters marched into eastern Ethiopia last month and clashed with Ethiopian troops along the border, General Townsend said.

In May, Mr. Biden signed an order authorizing the Pentagon to redeploy hundreds of Special Operations troops in Somalia — largely a retraction of a decision by President Donald J. Trump to withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops stationed there.

In addition, Mr Biden approved a Pentagon request for permanent authority to attack a dozen suspected Al Shabab leaders. Since Biden took office, airstrikes in Somalia have been largely limited to those intended to defend partner forces facing an imminent threat.

Together, Mr Biden’s decisions revived an open-ended US counter-terrorism operation that amounted to low-level war by three governments.

Military officials said the total number of US troops with a “sustained presence” in Somalia would be limited to about 450. That will replace a system in which US troops trained and advised Somali and African Union troops on short visits.

The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to seek to mitigate the threat posed by Al Shabab through its ability to plan and conduct complicated operations, such as the January 2020 attack on a US air base in Manda Bay, Kenya, in which three Americans perished, to suppress .

In the Sahel, the vast arid region south of the Sahara, militants from both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been battling local governments in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso for years.

Despite the arrival of French troops and a UN peacekeeping force, militants spread across Mali and then to neighboring countries. In Burkina Faso, in the south, nearly two million people have been displaced by the conflict.

Countries on the Gulf of Guinea, such as Benin and Ivory Coast, have also suffered sporadic attacks as violence seeps south. The Qaeda affiliate, known as JNIM, trains recruits in Burkina Faso before they are relocated “to their countries of origin,” according to the July UN report.

The most serious concerns about terrorism in Syria center on the thousands of Islamic State fighters in the northeast of the country.

US counter-terror officials have been sounding the alarm in recent years about a Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Din, which they say is plotting attacks against the West by taking advantage of the chaotic security situation in the country’s northwest and the protections it is inadvertently afforded. by the shielding of the Russian air defense Syrian government forces.

But recent US airstrikes, such as the one in June in Idlib province, where the military said Abu Hamzah al Yemeni, one of the group’s top leaders, was killed, have allayed some of the concerns.

For more than a decade, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has been one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world. The group spent years inventing hard-to-detect explosives, including attempts to hide bombs in devices such as cell phones. It has tried to blow up American planes at least three times, without success.

But several leaders of the group have been assassinated in recent years, affecting its ability to orchestrate or conduct operations against the West, US and European counterterrorism specialists say.

Clashes with rival Islamic State and Houthi rebels in Yemen have also weakened the group, whose full name is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Although the group has been reduced, intelligence and counter-terrorism officials are warning that the organization remains dangerous.

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