Al Qaida stands at a crossroads

Mueren tres personas en un ataque a un vehículo de la ONU en la Rep. Democrática del Congo
Actividad yihadista en el Magreb y el Sahel, febrero 2021

Apunte 1/2021

Ana Aguilera


Piece of the logo of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Source: The Times of Israel.

Spanish version (PDF)

Media and experts from several countries and ideologies are putting the focus on the recent history of Al Qaida and the projection set by this group, which was once the only reference in the establishment of a radical-Salafist architecture with cells and tentacles worldwide. Since its birth at the late 1980s in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda has been considered the first organization achieving an unprecedented wave of international mobilization in support of jihadist terrorism, with attacks and strategies which have shaken the foundations of many world societies.

Today, the group is standing at a crossroads. The year 2020 was a heavy blow to the entire world with the Covid-19 pandemic but it also marked a major setback for the leaders of the organization, who witnessed a huge part of their most public faces falling in counterterrorist operations and attacks[1]. Important losses at the regional level such as Qassim al-Rimi in the branch of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or Abelmalek Droukdel in the franchise of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), or deaths of members of Al Qaeda central leadership like Abu Mohammed al-Masri do not respond to a problem of number but leadership; commanders and above all veteran leaders of an Al Qaeda whose leverage and sphere of influence had been transferred in the early 2010s to a local dimension out of its traditional field of operations in the enclave of Afghanistan.



Given such an uncertain outlook that awaits Al Qaeda Core, whose leader is even believed to be dead due to health problems, the organisation’s dilemma is twofold. On the one hand, the Core is assessing its own limitations in terms of central command leadership and transnational scope. It has reached to a point where the dimension of its authority appears to be more of a symbolic role than actually executant, whereas they seek to ensure that their decision-making capability is as strong as it was a few years ago, unchallenged in the private sphere to the extent possible. In fact, in the process of decentralisation to which al-Qaeda was subjected, the group needed leaders whose image was charismatic and who, together with their firm spirit, would inspire the rest of the combatants to continue the fight for jihad. This is why al-Qaida Core will need to find a balance between charisma and subordination among the new regional leaders. Moreover, the fact that so many long-standing and visible faces in the ranks have needed to be replaced put the current leaders of the regional franchises on the spot, as in the case of Khalid Batarfi, who is inevitably compared to his predecessor Qassim al-Rimi and his far-reaching tactical skills that consolidated Al Qaida’s stronghold in Yemen. Also to Droukdel, who faithfully preserved Al Qaida’s long-lived North African branch until his death and who will be very difficult to keep up with. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the triumph or failure of the organisation as a whole will be determined by the mistakes or victories of its regional branches or whether, on the contrary, the lack of expansion in some territories will lead to a consolidation of Al Qaida Core’s strength. This will be determined, among other aspects specific to the current situation, by the success in the places where they have the greatest presence, such as the Sahel strip in the case of the JNIM coalition (with the interesting projection to the southwest of Katiba Macina) or the growing presence of Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.

On the other hand, following the death of several of its most important leaders, the organisation finds itself in the need to redefine its priorities when seeking the desired expansion of the caliphate at the global level as the ultimate goal of its rhetorical logic. The group is faced with the task of deciding whether its strategy will continue to consist of localising its force of influence to sub-regional levels and delegating the group’s success to the rest of its local franchises scattered between Africa and Asia or, on the contrary, they will focus on the long-term strategy of targeting the West in general and the United States in particular. Enhancing the delocalisation strategy would help them gain supporters loyal to their cause, but these could be motivated not so much by the global Salafist narrative but also by interests and identity values that lie on certain geographical areas. In other words, Al Qaida’s strengthening of supporters in the Sahel will be primarily a victory for its branch in the area, which could present a long-term problem for Al Qaida Core and its role as commander and chief of the rest of its franchises. In the long run, this decentralisation of power without hierarchical directives from the Core could eventually morph the regional franchises into a more autonomous organism, shifting the global logic of the organisation towards a more geographically narrowed focus and interests.

It could be said that the group is awaiting the opportunity for its imminent return and that it will not diminish the power of the Core in Afghanistan. However, it could also be argued that its core strength lies precisely in the victory and expansion resulting from the decentralisation and localisation of its franchises, as in the case of Al Shabaab in Somalia or the JNIM coalition in the Sahel strip in general and in the “triple frontier” (between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger) in particular. The truth is, however, that since the reorganisation of Al Qaida’s leadership over the last decade, the group has many open fronts: loss of veterans and leaders from the organisation’s main enclaves, US, French and international coalition offensives followed by relentless and prolonged encirclements, the rise of rivals and adversaries that threaten to reduce its sphere of influence, and a problem of communication and/or understanding at an internal level between the ruling elite and the basis.

Even with all these vulnerabilities, the very name of Al Qaida still proves to provoke a dramatic effect among its enemies, adversaries, and sympathisers. It also stands out as a strong opponent in the fight for control of territories on the African continent between its affiliate (JNIM coalition) and Daesh in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) and in the Lake Chad Basin region (where ISWAP has the strongest presence). In short, the fate of the organisation will lie in a strategy that has not yet been disseminated outside the group’s governing board, but which will be necessary if they are to combat all the challenges that lie ahead. In the meantime, counter-terrorism efforts in the fight against Al Qaida will remain diversified and addressed on a case-by-case basis wherever the organisation’s presence is now more latent than ever.

[1] During the year 2019, other relevant members of the organization were similarly neutralised, like the son of Bin Laden, Hazma Bin Laden, or Djamel Okacha, a senior leader of AQIM.