Al-Qaeda remains a weakened but significant force around the globe
Last week Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the group plans to extend its reach to the Indian subcontinent, including India’s Assam and Gujarat states, Kashmir, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Even before 2001, Al-Qaeda’s reach was global, making headlines for attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and on the USS Cole while it was in port in Yemen in two years later. After 2001, attacks included bombings in London, Madrid and Bali, Indonesia.
Much of Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure was destroyed by the U.S. and its allies in the years after 9/11, and the organization’s founder, Osama bin Laden, was killed by U.S. special forces in 2011. Now it faces stiff competition from the newly emerged Islamic State, a group that Al-Qaeda disowned in February of this year.
During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Thomas Drayton discussed the strength and status of Al-Qaeda in the world today with Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and with Manuel Gomez, a former FBI special agent and New York Police Department sergeant who now heads his own security company.
“Al-Qaeda is the second-most-important global jihadist group right now,” said Watts. “The Islamic State has taken the lead.” He added that personnel and money are the two biggest indicators of what makes such groups strong.
Gomez said that the Islamic State group is a big concern globally and that although Al-Qaeda “has been minimized since 9/11 in terms of resources, funding and the number of people that have been neutralized, arrested and killed in action, it is still the No. 1 domestic threat that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are concerned with.”
Gomez added that splinter groups of Al-Qaeda and U.S. citizens who travel abroad to join such groups are also of concern.
When it comes to Al-Qaeda’s strength, Watts said, it may be losing ground in Pakistan. Many of its fighters are joining the Islamic State, and that could be another reason for Zawahiri’s statement.
Gomez said that since 2001, Al-Qaeda’s ideology has not changed but its mechanisms have. Watts said that Al-Qaeda’s recruiting tactics are still very much the same, using the Internet and the group’s affiliates, but that it is trying now to bring more Westerners into its ranks.
But access to these groups seems to be waning. “Across the world now we see fewer resources and sources of information on the jihadist groups,” said Watts. “That includes everything from journalists to actual intelligence assets, so everything is spread very thin.”
“They are getting stronger in the sense of who they’re recruiting — the quality of the recruitments, as opposed to the quantity,” said Gomez. “Islamic State has the quantity, by far. Al-Qaeda is recruiting more of the-next-big-hit type of individuals, as opposed to trying to gain more territory.”
Watts said that the United States has changed its approach. “We’re attacking networks now. We had looked at this 10 years ago in terms of regime change, building countries that will have democracies and that will thwart terrorism. That approach has been abandoned, large scale. What we see now is a more nimble approach using different sorts of methods in terms of special operations forces, drones and partner nations.”
Gomez said that the U.S. may not be able to eradicate these jihadist groups but has tried to keep them contained and away from U.S. soil and interests.