Al Qaeda in the age of ISIS
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Despite targeting al Qaeda for the past 16 years and killing Osama bin Laden, 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 remain potent forces in places like Yemen, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere.

With the West’s current fixation on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), no one is paying sufficient attention to al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the terrorist group is playing the long game, focusing on survival and expansion. 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 bases of support in countries including Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Mali, as it did in Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to construct durable sanctuaries from which it can eventually launch attacks against the West.


Since 2014, the West’s attention has mostly been absorbed by the rise of the Islamic State, a former al Qaeda franchise itself. That relative inattention has given al Qaeda the time it needed to regroup after Osama bin Laden’s death and even expand its operations.

One of the keys to al Qaeda’s survival after bin Laden’s death has been the group’s willingness to adopt 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.

With such a decentralized organizational structure, al Qaeda may never be truly eradicated, even though it has sometimes had to compromise on its ideological purity and concern itself with local issues and enemies rather than single-mindedly focus on attacking the “far enemy,” the West.

al Qaeda as an entity and as a brand is simply too powerful and iconic to be discarded.

Ayman al-Zawahiri has not enjoyed the same broad appeal as his predecessor. But the group may be on the cusp of developing a new charismatic leader in the person of Hamza bin Laden, the most radical of Osama bin Laden’s surviving sons. Hamza’s ascension, if it occurs, could bring a new stage of evolution to al Qaeda.

The array of al Qaeda’s current and former franchises illuminates the variety of approaches the group has taken in its expansion. ISIS originally began as an al Qaeda franchise known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that was much more violent than al Qaeda wanted its affiliates to be.

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. Had it not split away from the al Qaeda name, AQI/ISIS could have caused significant damage to the branding and recruiting of every other al Qaeda arm. These differences in methods and goals illustrate one of the limitations of decentralization for al Qaeda.

Conversely, al-Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) demonstrate the strength of decentralization. Al-Shabaab remains an active, robust group with broad support in Somalia, and AQIM has carried out a sustained series of attacks throughout western North Africa, particularly in Mali.

AQAP — the group responsible for the underwear bomber and the failed printer cartridge bomb plot, and linked to the Charlie Hebdo attack in France — controls significant territory in Yemen and continues to seek opportunities to attack Western targets.

al Qaeda and its franchises take advantage of 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 would do well to build relationships with the weak states that al Qaeda has a history of preying upon. None of this can be achieved, however, if the world focuses all of its counter-terrorism programs and activities on ISIS.

The United States and its allies need 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.

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.

It is time to look beyond the threats that ISIS poses and focus once again on al Qaeda before it is too late.

Andrew Byers is a visiting assistant professor of history at Duke University who has served as an intelligence and counterterrorism analyst. Tara Mooney is a counter-violent-extremism analyst and co-founder of Talon Intelligence. Byers and Mooney are the co-founders of the Counter Extremism Network.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.