Five years ago, the United States completed a nearly decade-long manhunt for the architect of 9/11. Early in the morning on May 2, local time, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and shot dead the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, the group that had perpetrated the deadliest foreign attack on the United States in the country’s history.
Bin Laden was only one terrorist and there were, at the time of his death, many more intent on doing harm to the United States. In announcing a killing he called “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda,” U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned that bin Laden’s death would not by itself end his organization, and that “there’s no doubt al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.” Still, by 2011 the U.S. had removed al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan, from which the group had plotted the September 11 attacks, and targeted numerous other mid- to high-level al-Qaeda operatives. The idea was to “[cut] off the head of the snake,” and degrade the organization’s ability to coordinate complex attacks requiring centralized leadership. And the approach did have an effect—so much so that by his reelection campaign in 2012, Obama was declaring al-Qaeda “on the run,” its “core leadership … decimated.”
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.”
The situation is different in Yemen, where until recently AQAP had been steadily acquiring territory amounting to what Reuters recently described as “a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.” (AQAP was forced to abandon this port, at the city of Mukalla, late last month, in a significant reversal of its gains.) An unnamed diplomat told Reuters that in Yemen, “We may be facing a more complicated al-Qaeda … not just a terrorist organisation but a movement controlling territory with happy people inside it.” And AQAP continues to be described as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, known for its facility with explosives and its repeated plots, so far all thwarted, to bring down U.S. airliners. AQAP also claimed credit for the January 2015 attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 11 people died.
Al-Qaeda’s decentralized “franchise” model also has its weaknesses. In a late-2014 brief on targeting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, The Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy, pointed out that al-Qaeda’s “reliance on the need to project terror from tenuous positions has long forced [it] into a hub-spoke structure, in which energetic operatives seek to turn guidance from AQ’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, into plots that tend to involve many moving parts over a stretched logistical tail.” The result has been that such plots have been relatively easy for counterterrorism services to disrupt. “The relentless targeting of AQ’s external operations has been arguably the most successful component in the U.S. and international [counterterrorism] efforts against AQ, keeping the group off-balance.” Neither al-Qaeda nor ISIS has managed to pull off a complex attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The two deadliest attacks attributed to those groups in America since then, the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the 2015 San Bernardino shooting respectively, appear to have been the work of independent shooters who took inspiration, but apparently not overt direction, from the groups in whose names they acted.
On Sunday, CIA Director John Brennan acknowledged that while the United States had “destroyed a large part of al-Qaeda,” the group was “not completely eliminated.” As for ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization.” As the death of bin Laden, and other terrorist kingpins before him, demonstrates, the exact nature of that impact won’t be known for years.