But where is the organization now? Ever since ISIS swept through territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 before declaring itself a “caliphate” and demanding the allegiance of Muslims worldwide, the Islamic State has eclipsed al-Qaeda in coverage of and policy pronouncements about international terrorism. (This publication is no exception.) A former affiliate of al-Qaeda gone rogue, ISIS rapidly surpassed its parent organization in terms of the territory it controlled and its reputation for brutality. But amid urgent debate about what to do about ISIS, al-Qaeda has remained active. In some cases, it has expanded.
The group’s resilience in the past five years, and indeed its break with ISIS, shows how terrorist organizations can outlast their leaders. In some cases, for example with Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and Peru’s Shining Path, the removal of a leader has precipitated the demise of a militant group. On the other hand, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have survived Israel’s repeated targeting of their leaders. And the death of a leader may increase a group’s violence, as it did in the case of Somalia’s al-Shabab, as fighters compete to succeed their former commander or discipline breaks down among foot soldiers. (Al-Qaeda under bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly split with its then-affiliate ISIS in part over the latter group’s lack of discipline in its application of violence.) One 2011 study of 300 instances of “leadership decapitation” of terrorist groups, conducted by Robert Pape and Jenna Jordan of the University of Chicago, found that for religious groups like al-Qaeda, the death or imprisonment of a leader doesn’t hasten the group's demise, and indeed may have the opposite effect. “What appears to matter most for the long-run trajectory of decapitated terrorist groups is popular support,” they wrote in The Atlantic following bin Laden’s death.
Al-Qaeda, in its current incarnation, has sought to consolidate such support as it competes with ISIS on local battlefields—in a pattern that may ultimately have global ramifications. In The Washington Post last June, Hugh Naylor detailed al-Qaeda’s quiet expansion in Syria and Yemen, where the group was “using the chaos of civil wars to ... increase their influence.” In those countries, Naylor reported, members of the local affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were “avoiding the sort of brutality that has distinguished the Islamic State. ... The shift appears to be an attempt to win local support and avoid the kind of international military action that the Islamic State is facing, analysts say.”
ISIS’s success in seizing territory may prove a long-term liability, both because its clear presence on a map makes it easier to target, and because governing a population is far more expensive than plotting attacks abroad, which has historically been al-Qaeda’s focus. An international coalition led by the United States had, as of late April, conducted nearly 12,000 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since the fall of 2014. It has at times targeted leaders of al-Nusra, though ISIS has been the overwhelming focus of the bombing campaign. Meanwhile, Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War wrote recently, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate “has been quietly playing the long game.” The group, she wrote, “intentionally does not control terrain; this makes it difficult to target, as it cannot be attacked directly without destroying the more moderate Syrian opposition groups with whom it is embedded. And it has safe-guarded itself against tribal uprisings by prioritizing local support.”