Al-Zawahri’s death brings focus back to Al Qaeda

WASHINGTON — No terrorist group, not even the Islamic State, is as infamous and immediately recognized as al Qaeda.

But the killing of the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a CIA drone strike earlier Sunday marked a key turning point for the global group. Eight of its top leaders have been killed in the past three years, and it is unclear who will succeed al-Zawahri.

However, al-Qaeda has more fighters in more countries than when it attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Since then, some of its franchises have mushroomed, especially in Somalia and the Sahel region of West Africa, which are on the rise, taking swathes of territory from weak governments and spending hundreds on new weapons. million dollars despite a decade-long effort to undercut and curb them.

None of these affiliates poses the same threat to the continental United States that al Qaeda did on September 11. But they are deadly and resilient. In 2020, Al Qaeda’s East African affiliate killed three Americans at a U.S. base in Kenya. In 2019, a Saudi officer trained in Florida killed three sailors and wounded eight others. The officer acted alone, but completed his offensive plan in Yemen.

As al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul shows, al-Qaeda and its leaders feel confident moving around Afghanistan as the Taliban regain control of the country, counterterrorism officials said.

“The question is not what effect does this have on al Qaeda, but what effect does this have on witchcraft terrorists in Afghanistan?” said Brian Katulis, vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute.

Al Qaeda is not the only global terrorist network in transition. In early February, U.S. special operations forces conducted a dangerous pre-dawn raid in northwest Syria that killed ISIS general leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi. ISIS fighters have reverted to guerrilla warfare since the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds seized their last caliphate or remnant of the religious state in Syria in 2019.

But al-Zawahri’s death has refocused attention on al-Qaeda, which was largely taken over by its upstart rival ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. ISIL).Many terrorism analysts say Saif AdelZawahiri is likely to be replaced by a senior al Qaeda leader wanted by the FBI in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. He is believed to live in Iran.

“The international environment is favorable for al-Qaeda, which intends to once again be recognized as a leader in global jihad,” UN report completed in July“Al Qaeda’s propaganda is now better developed and can compete with ISIL as a key player in fueling an international threat environment that could ultimately become a larger source of direct threat.”

For al Qaeda’s comeback, no country has come under greater scrutiny from the United States than Afghanistan. In announcing Zawahiri’s death on Monday, President Biden said the attack would help ensure Afghanistan no longer “becomes a haven for terrorists” or a “launch pad” for attacks on the United States.

But the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country last August put pressure on the military and spy agencies to pay attention to the resurgence of al-Qaeda, with only a limited network of informants on the ground and drones flying from the Persian Gulf to carry out “beyond the horizon” Monitoring tasks.

this spring, another UN report Al Qaeda has found “greater freedom of movement” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power, the warning warned. Some al-Qaeda leaders may live in Kabul, and the increase in public statements and videos by al-Zawahiri suggests he was able to lead more effectively and publicly after the Taliban took control, the report said.

But intelligence shared by UN member states in a July report suggested that al Qaeda did not pose a direct threat like the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan.

“Al Qaeda is not viewed as posing a direct international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and currently does not wish to cause international difficulty or embarrassment to the Taliban,” the UN report concluded.

Outside Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s scattered branches enjoy local autonomy while adhering to Zawahiri’s overall strategy. As a result, counterterrorism experts say his death is likely to have little impact on the franchise’s day-to-day operations.

“Today, the Al Qaeda Center is largely a spiritual authority that guides — but not directly monitors,” said Rita Katz, co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist groups online. “The global jihadist movement has proven to be resilient.”

Military and counterterrorism officials say the richest and deadliest al Qaeda affiliate today is al-Shabaab, its franchise in Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa.

Al-Shabaab now has 7,000 to 12,000 fighters, according to a recent UN report, and spends about $24 million a year on weapons and explosives (a quarter of its budget) and is increasingly used on drones .

And the threat is getting worse. “My judgment is that, in the absence of effective governance and counterterrorism pressure, al-Shabaab has grown stronger and bolder over the past year,” said Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of Pentagon Africa Command. told the Senate in March.

In the latest sign of trouble, nearly 500 al-Shabaab fighters entered eastern Ethiopia last month and clashed with Ethiopian troops at the border, General Townsend said.

In May, Mr. Biden signed an order authorizing the Pentagon to redeploy hundreds of special operations forces inside Somalia — largely overturning President Donald J. Trump’s call to withdraw nearly all 700. The decision of the ground forces stationed there.

In addition, Mr. Biden approved a Pentagon request to grant permanent powers to crack down on a dozen suspected al-Shabaab leaders. Since Mr Biden took office, airstrikes on Somalia have been largely limited to those aimed at defending partner forces facing immediate threats.

Taken together, Mr. Biden’s decision restarts an open-ended American counterterrorism effort that amounts to a low-level war between three administrations.

Military officials said the total number of U.S. troops in Somalia would be limited to about 450 “permanently”. This would replace a system of training and advising Somali and African Union troops during short-term visits by the US military.

The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to try to reduce the threat from al-Shabaab by suppressing its ability to plan and execute complex operations, such as the January 2020 attack on a U.S. air base in Manda Bay, Kenya, that killed three Americans.

In the Sahel, a vast arid region south of the Sahara, fighters from 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 UN peacekeepers, the militants spread throughout Mali and then to neighbouring countries. In Burkina Faso in the south, nearly 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict.

Countries in the Gulf of Guinea, such as Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, have also suffered sporadic attacks as violence has spread south. A United Nations report in July said al-Qaeda affiliates, known as JNIM, train recruits in Burkina Faso and then redeploy them to their “country of origin.”

Syria’s worst terrorism problem centers on thousands of Islamic State fighters in the country’s northeast.

In recent years, U.S. counterterrorism officials have warned Hurras al-Din, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, that it is plotting attacks on Western Syrian government forces, taking advantage of the chaotic security situation in the northwest of the country and the unintentional protection provided by Russian air defenses.

But recent U.S. airstrikes, such as one in Idlib province in June, which the military said killed Abu Hamzah al Yemeni, one of the group’s senior leaders, have eased some concerns.

For more than a decade, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has been one of the most dangerous terrorist groups on the planet. The group has spent years inventing explosives that are difficult to detect, including trying to disguise bombs in devices such as cell phones. It has attempted at least three unsuccessful attempts to blow up American airliners.

But U.S. and European counterterrorism experts say several of the group’s leaders have been killed in recent years, compromising its ability to plan or conduct operations against the West.

Clashes in Yemen with rival Islamic State and Houthi rebels have also weakened the group, whose full name is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Although the group has dwindled, intelligence and counterterrorism officials have warned that the group remains dangerous.

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