Op-Ed: Al Qaeda lost its leader, but are Americans any safer?

The US drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in Kabul last weekend shook Americans and reminded them that Islamic extremists are still at work. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, climate change and the COVID pandemic are among the many pressing issues that have pushed foreign terrorism into the rearview mirror.

And yet, as President Biden pointed out, America’s national security apparatus never forgets. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you’re hiding,” he said Monday night, “if you pose a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”

But how dangerous was Zawahiri? Will his death protect Americans?

As much as the success of the manhunt demonstrates the necessary determination against terrorists attacking the US, the al Qaeda that Zawahiri left behind has already been diminished by internal and external forces. Ever since the US’s death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and since 9/11 itself, it has remained a shadow of the organization that once captured the world’s attention. A new leader might revive his fortunes somewhat, but al Qaeda’s threat to the US homeland will remain limited.

Drone strikes, a global intelligence campaign, and better home defenses have all taken a significant toll on the group, as have struggles within the radical Islamist movement and the atrocities its supporters have inflicted on Muslim civilians in Iraq and elsewhere. Key planners, fundraisers, trainers, and other lieutenants were killed, arrested, or forced into hiding, making it difficult to plan spectacular attacks or even maintain coherent movement.

Al Qaeda proper has not successfully attacked the United States or Europe since 2005, an eternity for a terrorist group trying to capture the world’s attention. Rival but related organizations such as the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, have also been undermined by concerted counter-terrorism efforts and power struggles. ISIS’s loss of territorial control in Iraq and Syria was a crippling blow to a group whose trademark has focused on creating a genuine caliphate ruled by Islamic law.

Under the uncharismatic Zawahiri, al Qaeda survived but did not thrive. He failed to stop ISIS from violently rejecting his leadership and proved uninspiring to many potential recruits. Bin Laden’s No. 2 had one win during his tenure, the group’s expansion, often by turning terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia into Al Qaeda offshoots.

Some of these offshoots – notably the Yemeni branch known in the Arabian Peninsula as al-Qaeda – have inspired and perhaps even orchestrated attacks on the West, including the most recent attack in the United States in Florida in December 2019. The attacker, a Saudi military trainee, killed three and wounded eight others at a naval base before being killed. According to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, the al Qaeda trainee in the Arabian Peninsula was “more than inspired” to have shared “plans and tactics” with her.

However, most other constituents focus on civil wars and other local concerns. They threaten regional stability but pose less of a threat to US AQAP, whose leader was killed in a US drone strike a few months after the attack in Florida and is said to be fragmented.

Lone wolf attacks, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, in which self-radicalized individuals act without direction from an organization, remain a concern, but the perpetrators tend to be less trained and therefore less deadly.

Afghanistan under the Taliban is another problem, highlighted by Zawahiri’s refuge in Kabul, and the terrorist presence there should remain an intelligence priority. It does not follow, however, that a more pragmatic Taliban seeking Western aid and funding will allow Afghanistan to become a base for training camps and recruits, as it did in the 1990s. Furthermore, the attack on Zawahiri shows that US counterterrorism efforts can still be devastatingly effective despite the American exodus in 2021.

Much depends on the next generation of Islamic radicals. A new al-Qaeda or ISIS leader looking to revive their movement might seek to attract donors and recruits by conducting high-profile operations in the West.

Continued counterterrorism efforts, however, make another 9/11 or Paris-style attack more difficult — one reason al-Qaeda turned primarily to the local campaigns of its offshoots. Commanding a movement when your organization is under siege is not easy. ISIS is a case in point. She has failed under a series of nondescript leaders, all of whom have spent more time hiding than directing their followers.

Ultimately, the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its ilk will depend on whether a new cause makes it urgently relevant again. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 electrified the Muslim world and confirmed al Qaeda’s argument that the United States was after regional hegemony. After 2011, the Syrian civil war and the ISIS-proclaimed caliphate in 2014 led to a global surge in the recruitment and support of Islamist militants.

Civil wars in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb today employ local fighters, but have only a limited motivating effect worldwide. Without another electrifying Iraq or Syria, al Qaeda and like-minded groups could disappear even further into yesterday’s news.

Daniel Byman is a Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. @dbymann Op-Ed: Al Qaeda lost its leader, but are Americans any safer?

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