Small Wars Journal

Al-Qaeda in the Age of ISIS

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 4:32am

Al-Qaeda in the Age of ISIS

Andrew Byers and Tara Mooney                                            

Despite targeting Al-Qaeda for the past sixteen years and killing Usama bin Laden (UBL) in 2011, the United States and its allies have been unable to destroy what was once considered the most dangerous terrorist group in the world. Sanctuaries for the core leaders and members of Al-Qaeda remain in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its franchises, while geographically dispersed, remain potent forces in places like Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Since the death of UBL, Al-Qaeda has adopted a much more decentralized organizational model, mostly relying on franchises and affiliated groups to continue its operations in places with collapsed states and weak governance. Because Al-Qaeda has survived the death of UBL, and even expanded its operations in the last six years, Al-Qaeda’s resiliency may call into question reliance on a strategy of leadership decapitation for defeating terrorist groups, particularly when they are willing and able to adopt a more decentralized organizational structure. While decentralization poses its own challenges for a terrorist organization, embracing such a structure likely means that such a group can never truly be eradicated.

Though Al-Qaeda has had something of a leadership vacuum since the death of UBL, the organization may be on the cusp of developing a new charismatic leader in the person of Hamza bin Laden, the most radical of Usama bin Laden’s surviving sons, who could help the group increase its influence among would-be jihadists, particularly in the wake of the eventual, anticipated collapse of the Islamic State. If Hamza bin Laden comes to have broad appeal for would-be jihadists, especially in a post-ISIS world, Al-Qaeda could easily begin a resurgence, building on its strong, decentralized foundation of the past few years. Since 2014, the West’s attention has mostly been absorbed by the rise of the Islamic State; that relative inattention has given Al-Qaeda the time it needed to regroup after UBL’s death and even expand its operations. This highlights the problems arising from the lack of a truly comprehensive, global counterterrorism strategy that delivers steady pressure against all significant terror groups and works to address the problems of weak governance in failed and failing states that provide groups like Al-Qaeda the environment they need to survive and prosper.

Targeting Terrorist Leaders: Prospects and Limitations

High-value targeting has been a major component of U.S. counterterrorism strategy since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. Now, as rumors surface that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike, it is worth looking back on the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Eliminating the man behind 9/11 was the most prominent success in eliminating a high-value terrorist, but his death did not lead to the end of Al-Qaeda or the threat it poses. Indeed, the death of Usama bin Laden raises questions about the ultimate value of killing terrorist leaders and what role such an approach should play in counterterrorism strategies more broadly.

It is no surprise that counterterrorism officials and politicians alike tend to favor counterterror strategies that emphasize killing terrorist leaders. As Brian Jenkins has pointed out, a strategy of high-value targeting "does not simply eliminate terrorist leaders but sends them deeper underground, impedes their ability to communicate, and degrades their ability to function."[i] It is clear that targeting terrorist leaders can be a useful strategy because it tends to make it much more difficult for terrorist groups to communicate and carry out operations. But such an approach is not a panacea, as borne out by the continued existence of Al-Qaeda after the death of UBL. Historically, decapitating terrorist organizations has had varying degrees of success. In some cases--as with Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and Peru’s Shining Path--the death of the charismatic leader of a highly centralized organization has led to the unraveling of the entire group. In others, it has had little immediate effect, or has even increased a group's propensity for violence as survivors carry out revenge attacks and new leaders emerge. This may be especially true for organizations that—like Al-Qaeda—have sought to survive by adopting a decentralized organizational structure.

In the case of Al-Qaeda, UBL was replaced by Ayman al-Zawahiri who, while not enjoying nearly the same degree of authority or gravitas as his predecessor, has still been able to maintain the organization as an active force throughout the greater Middle East. Zawahiri has issued far fewer public statements than he and bin Laden did prior to 2011, and there have been no new Al-Qaeda-directed attacks against the United States since then. These developments do not necessarily reflect the success of a decapitation strategy, but rather a new strategy and operational approach for the group: one that focuses on expanding its presence throughout the greater Middle East via franchising, and then empowering those affiliates to operate independently rather than micromanaging them.

Al-Qaeda may in fact be on the cusp of further change, which could result in increased recruiting, operational activities, and threats to the West. As ISIS loses territory and its flow of recruits slows to a trickle, Al-Qaeda will have an opportunity to reclaim its role as a leader among terrorist organizations. In recent years Zawahiri has enlisted the help of Hamza bin Laden. In his first public address in August 2015, Hamza seemed to try to lend some “star power” to Zawahiri by publicly announcing his allegiance to Zawahiri. It is unknown what role Hamza—now in his late twenties—will play as he matures, but his current role as recruiter in various propaganda videos suggests that he is in a position of leadership within the organization. He is likely seen as a way to reach young recruits who are currently captivated by ISIS.

UBL’s widespread popularity allowed him to centralize the goals and objectives of the various arms of Al-Qaeda, focusing always on attacking the West and especially on striking America. Since his death, his son seems to have become the primary champion of efforts to attack America and the West. In the Summer 2015 issue of Inspire, Al-Qaeda’s official English-language magazine, Hamza is quoted as saying, “I figured that the Zionist-Crusader alliance led by America today is like a bird: America is its head, NATO is one wing and the Jewish state in the occupied Palestine is the other wing, and the legs are the oppressive dictators sitting on the chests of the peoples of the Muslim Ummah. […] By concentrating on the head, with permission from Allah, it guarantees that all will vanish. This is the general plan of the Mujahideen.”[ii] If Hamza becomes more important within the leadership of Al-Qaeda, his influence may generate greater interest and focus on returning to attacks on Western targets.

This focus on the West as the “far enemy” rather than near/local enemies was one of the distinguishing features of the group compared to various Palestinian and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups active prior to 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s focus had a strong link with the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and UBL's connection to and the mythology surrounding his involvement in the anti-Soviet jihad. One of the differences between core Al-Qaeda and some of its newer offshoots, like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), is that they have largely moved away from attacking the far enemy and focused on local issues and disputes. That shift in focus is one of the trade-offs that Al-Qaeda has had to make as it has become more decentralized.

It seems clear that while killing Usama bin Laden was a major morale and propaganda victory for the United States and its allies, it did not end the threat posed by Al-Qaeda. Indeed, the long-term effects of killing bin Laden may prove to be limited if the organization continues to find new ways to evolve and adapt. Al-Qaeda's future will be much less certain after the sixty-five-year-old Zawahiri dies or is captured, but even then, Al-Qaeda, in some decentralized form, will almost certainly survive. Al-Qaeda as an entity and as a brand is simply too powerful and iconic to be discarded.

Al-Qaeda, Inc: Franchising As an Organizational Model for Terrorists

In many ways, Al-Qaeda has only expanded its reach via a host of new affiliate groups following the death of UBL. Its approach to global jihad has also evolved as it has adopted some of the best practices and lessons learned of other groups, like ISIS. While bin Laden sought a tightly centralized organization and was wary of relationships with subordinates he could not closely control, Zawahiri has willingly embraced a much more decentralized organizational structure for Al-Qaeda that permits a broad franchising of the group's operations. This franchise-based approach creates some weaknesses—like communications and logistical seams—that can be exploited by counterterrorism efforts, and may make spectacular and complex operations against Western targets less likely, but it is clearly a viable strategy for the long-term survival of Al-Qaeda.

As Nick Schifrin, the first Western reporter to enter Abbottabad, Pakistan after the death of UBL, put it, “…al-Qaida has kind of like become Microsoft. It’s still got a decent share of the market, but it’s not preeminent. It’s not really seen as cutting edge. And it doesn’t really appeal to the younger generation.”[iii] The leadership of Al-Qaeda has suffered greatly, even before the death of UBL, with the expansion of drone attacks on the group's leadership under the Obama administration beginning in 2009.  Without UBL’s centralizing authority and widespread appeal, Zawahiri’s franchise model has created many local affiliate groups—several of which are now much more capable than the core Al-Qaeda.

ISIS itself originally began as an Al-Qaeda franchise known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Even before AQI split off from core Al-Qaeda it demonstrated one of the main weaknesses of such a decentralized structure. AQI was much more violent than Al-Qaeda wanted its affiliates to be, and repeated warnings and admonitions to reduce the level of violence against local civilians and cease production of beheading videos did nothing to rein in AQI’s behavior. The rise of ISIS and its declaration of a caliphate in 2014 represent a significant blow to Al-Qaeda because ISIS has taken over the leadership of the global jihadist movement in the last three years. In a perverse way, the prominence of ISIS—which quickly became the chief focus of Western counterterror operations—removed some pressure and attention from Al-Qaeda, giving it a respite and allowing it to blossom and grow in places like Yemen. Despite the loss of AQI as an affiliate in 2014, core Al-Qaeda has survived and adapted to its new, post-ISIS environment. The inevitable demise of ISIS will likely provide a boost to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the region, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group that “split” from Al-Qaeda in July 2016 without changing its core religious leaders. HTS has taken over territory for itself in Syria and the U.S. State Department still considers the organization to represent Al-Qaeda in Syria.[iv]

Conversely, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa have both demonstrated the strength of decentralization within the organization. Al-Shabaab has often controlled wide terrain within Somalia and even joined in international trading with various U.S. allies and arms trading with U.N. forces sent to the region to stop the group. AQIM has carried out a sustained series of attacks throughout West Africa. According to the Long War Journal, the group carried out over 100 attacks in the first six months of 2016 alone, with the majority taking place in northern Mali.[v]

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains very prominent in Yemen, though it has also persisted in the original Al-Qaeda goal of attacking the West. AQAP was responsible for the underwear bomber (December 2009) and the failed printer cartridge bomb plot (October 2010). At least one of the terrorists who participated in the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015 received training from AQAP, and the group claimed responsibility for the attack. Just as UBL emphasized the importance of alliances with local political regimes during his time in Sudan and Afghanistan, AQAP has very successfully ingratiated itself with the local population of Yemen; this is a very different approach to that of ISIS, which has sought to supplant local governments with its own caliphate. AQAP has worked hard to ally with a number of Yemeni tribes, which has allowed the group to build, maintain, and even expand its territory and sanctuary in Yemen. This is an approach that can be readily adopted by other Al-Qaeda affiliates throughout the greater Middle East.

The effects of attacks by these various Al-Qaeda franchises have been amplified by widespread propaganda and information warfare, casting doubt on nations’ abilities to stop Al-Qaeda cells and affiliate groups. Al-Qaeda has created a cycle of infiltrating weak states and then broadcasting its attacks as a show of strength and power, working to win over the hearts and minds of local populace. AQAP even released an article titled “The Blacks in America” in the Summer 2015 issue of Inspire magazine, seeking to recruit African-Americans in light of several high-profile police shootings of African-American youth.[vi]

The Long Game: Survival

Al-Qaeda is playing the long game and is adapting its strategies and outlook. Though many jihadist groups have focused on defeating local enemies, Al-Qaeda remains interested in attacking the "far enemy" (the West, especially the United States). It has learned that to survive in an environment in which potential jihadis have multiple, competing organizations to consider supporting, it must adapt its goals to local conditions and build up a base of support in places like Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Mali, as it did in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan during the 1990s. Al-Qaeda has done so by focusing on building alliances with local groups, populations, and tribes throughout the greater Middle East as a means of constructing durable sanctuaries and bases of operations from which it can eventually launch attacks against the West. Jabhat al-Nusra's operations in Syria offer one such example. As Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute has reported, when Jabhat al-Nusra (predecessor to HTS) took over a series of bakeries and began delivering fuel, food, and water supplies to civilians at a far lower price than had been available, the group began to garner a great deal of new support.[vii]

Al-Qaeda's affiliates have also demonstrated a willingness to compromise on its religious ideology, softening its expectations for adherents in order to make its ideology more appealing. A letter from AQIM leader Abou Mossab Abdelwadoud instructed his followers in Mali to lessen their extreme expectations for followers, teaching only the basics now, with the understanding that in several years time it would be possible to introduce more extreme requirements once they had been conditioned to obey AQIM’s basic religious indoctrination.[viii]

Al-Qaeda has never fully recovered from the death of UBL. Though Ayman al-Zawahiri does not have the stature, authority, or charisma that his predecessor had, Al-Qaeda continues to evolve and remains a threat capable of carrying out significant attacks. The group is willing to bide its time while ISIS burns out, unwilling to make the same kinds of compromises that local populations demand. Al-Qaeda's patience and ideological flexibility are two of its most dangerous traits and will serve its many branches well in the post-ISIS world.

Al-Qaeda and its franchises have come to take advantage of both collapsed states and areas where there is weak governance. This dependence on weak states—as targets of attacks and audiences for propaganda—highlights a need for the international community to strengthen local regimes. The United States in particular would do well to build relationships with weak states that Al-Qaeda has a history of preying upon. In countries like Mali, where France has actively helped the state repel Al-Qaeda’s forces, the United States can work with its partner NATO countries to crack down on smuggling and other illicit activities that fund and fuel terrorist cells. None of this can be achieved, however, if the world focuses all of its counter-terrorism programs and activities on ISIS. Nation-states, non-governmental organizations, and the public need to be reminded of the continued threat Al-Qaeda poses, despite the death of Usama bin Laden.

As the fight against ISIS has demonstrated, if Al-Qaeda is to be defeated, we must redouble our efforts to track down and degrade Al-Qaeda’s channels of communication, recruitment, and finance. For example, like ISIS, Al-Qaeda disseminates a steady stream of propaganda on encrypted messenger app Telegram. While Telegram itself focuses on shutting down ISIS groups and channels, Al-Qaeda has been able to maintain Telegram channels for its various affiliates without any repercussions. As of mid-June 2017, Al-Qaeda affiliate HTS has a Telegram channel with over 23,000 followers. No one is paying attention. It is time to look beyond the threats that ISIS poses and focus once again on Al-Qaeda before it is too late.

End Notes

[i] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Five Years After the Death of Osama bin Laden, Is the World Safer?” May 2, 2016 , The RAND Blog,

[iii] “How al-Qaida has changed since bin Laden’s death,” May 2, 2016, PBS NewsHour,

[iv] U.S. Department of State, Rewards for Justice,

[v] Caleb Weiss, “Al Qaeda has launched more than 100 attacks in West Africa in 2016,” June 8, 2016, Long War Journal,

[vi] Inspire, Issue 14 (Summer 2015): 18-23.

[vii] “What Has Happened to Al-Qaeda?” April 6, 2016, BBC News,

[viii] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

Andrew Byers is a visiting assistant professor of history at Duke University who has served as an intelligence and counterterrorism analyst and is a co-founder of the Counter Extremism Network (

Tara Mooney is a counter-violent-extremism analyst and co-founder of Talon Intelligence. She is also a co-founder of the Counter Extremism Network (


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