It would not be an overstatement to argue that 9/11 is one of the worst terrorist attacks in living memory, enhanced by the presence of 24/7 news that beamed horrifying images of the attack onto the TV screens of people throughout the globe. It catapulted the perpetrators, al-Qaeda, into the spotlight. Images of the group’s leader, Osama Bin Laden, could be seen on every newspaper and the group itself was widely discussed on television or heard in the utterances of politicians throughout the world. Compare that period with today, and the difference is stark. There is virtually nothing reported by the media on the group, which seems to have retreated into the shadows and disappeared.
How can this be? The short answer is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), otherwise known as Daesh. What is little remembered is that al-Qaeda is not a homogenous group, it is comprised of different national divisions: the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and so on. ISIS emerged from al- Qaeda in Iraq, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zaqarwi. A student of radical cleric Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, he often defied the orders of the central leadership, demonstrating the extraordinary autonomy granted to the regional groups and he carried out the type of brutal executions we are all too familiar with in 2016.
An interview in The Guardian with al Maqdisi and Abu Qatada reveals the deep fraction between al- Qaeda and ISIS. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, officially broke with al-Qaeda after demonstrating the same hungry desire for more complete power like his predecessor, Zaqarwi. As early as April 2013, he had declared online that the Nusra Front of Syria and ISIS would become one organisation under one flag. This was an incredible snub to the central leadership of al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor. Joulani, the head of Nusra, refused to join and it was left to al-Zawahiri to deal with the conflict. Baghdadi was ordered to stay out of Syria and to keep his operations within Iraq and Joulani, once his junior, was elevated to the position of the head of al-Qaeda in Syria. Baghdadi dismissed al-Zawahiris envoy and declared al-Qaeda was dead: ‘It has burnt out.’ By the middle of 2013, any leading figures deemed loyal to al-Zawahiri were deliberately side-lined or killed on the battlefield so that there was no member of central leadership who had once belonged to al- Qaeda.
The fraction was deep even before this point. In 2006, al-Baghdadi had been chosen as head of al- Qaeda in Iraq without the approval of the central command after Zaqarwi’s death in an air strike. Usually al-Qaeda’s leader was heavily vetted, chosen for his military capability, and deemed to have good knowledge of Islam. After a leader’s selection he swore allegiance and a blood oath to bin Laden. But, Baghdadi was plucked from virtual obscurity.
ISIS brutality also almost led to al-Qaeda’s extinction. US forces and Sunni tribes rebelled against the group’s (ISIS’s) violence in Iraq. ISIS had taken advantage of the flood of foreign fighters into the country to swell its ranks, which disposed of al-Qaeda’s need to have a deep knowledge of the Koran. ISIS was officially expelled from al-Qaeda in 2014, culminating in the killing of Zawahiri’s envoy and right hand man Abu Khalid-al Suri, who had tweeted that ISIS was corrupting the jihad as they had done in Iraq. The tie between the two groups was severed.
This may simply appear to be an interesting back-story, but even major politicians rarely understand it. John Kerry has declared that the division is ‘cosmetic’ and Obama’s special advisor on Iraq declared ‘ISIS is al-Qaeda.’ This confusion and misperception fails to really understand the position of al-Qaeda. It is incredibly weak, bitterly blaming ISIS for superseding it and stealing fighters, weapons, and money. The diffuse and networked nature of al-Qaeda worked against them as this poisonous inter-faction war has illustrated. This created the need for al-Zawahiri to hide out in the remote Pakistan-Afghanistan command, miles and miles from the deteriorating situation and cut off from his commanders. It is in fact al-Zawahiri’s leadership that is one of the main reasons the prestige and power of al- Qaeda is so diminished. Bin Laden was the founder of al-Qaeda, and was arguably a capable, charismatic leader with the ability to unite disparate jihadi groups. Zawahiri is widely acknowledged to be less important and does not command the authority or respect bin Laden did.
There are reasons, however, that al-Qaeda has not completely disappeared. The group is actually more durable than the movement in Syria, al-Nusra, has shown. By turning its focus to the social sphere and winning popularity and support of the people, al-Qaeda may simply be biding its time and will be ready to return more powerful in the long term. For example, al-Nusra has taken over bakeries, delivering gas, bread, and water for a far cheaper price.
Even more important, al-Qaeda has made significant gains in Yemen. AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) had been, until recently, making real and considerable territorial gains there. Reuters described it 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 also claimed responsibility for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. Furthermore, on 14 March 2016, al- Qaeda launched a deadly attack on a beach on the Ivory Coast, killing fourteen. Clearly, the organisation is still alive and well.
Perhaps this perception of al-Qaeda as a diminished and dead organisation simply reflects the flaws of our media and its western-oriented perception. The attack on the Ivory Coast barely made news in the west. In fact, a Google search on the attack reveals only brief reports by the likes of CNN and Reuters. The top hit came from the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news. The overt focus on ISIS demonstrates the one-track and fickle nature of the media. The current al-Qaeda may be different from 2001, but this is simply a reflection of the adaptation and changes a terror group goes through in order to survive. Al- Qaeda is not dead, it is simply a complex organisation that is rebooting. It is far more durable than is often considered.