The US drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in Kabul last weekend shook Americans, reminding them that Islamist extremists are still active. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, climate change and the COVID pandemic are among the many pressing issues that have relegated foreign terrorism to the rearview mirror.
And yet, as President Biden has pointed out, America’s national security apparatus never forgets. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide,” he said Monday night, “if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and eliminate you.”
But just how much of a threat did Zawahiri pose? Will his death protect Americans?
As much as the success of the manhunt demonstrates the resolve needed against terrorists attacking the United States, as much of Al-Qaeda as Zawahiri left behind was already diminished by internal and external forces. Since the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the United States in 2011, and since 9/11 itself, it is the organization’s shadow that has once captured the world’s attention. A new leader might revive its fortunes somewhat, but al-Qaeda’s threat to the American homeland will remain limited.
Drone strikes, a global intelligence campaign and better homeland defenses all weighed heavily on the group, as it did infighting within the radical Islamist movement and the atrocities inflicted by his followers where Muslim civilians in Iraq and other countries. Key planners, fundraisers, trainers and other lieutenants have been killed, arrested or forced to keep a low profile, making it difficult to plan spectacular attacks or even maintain a cohesive movement.
Close al-Qaeda has not successfully attacked the United States or Europe since 2005, an eternity for a terror group seeking global attention. Rival but related organizations such as the Islamic State, commonly referred to as ISIS, have also been undermined by concerted counter-terrorism efforts and infighting. ISIS’s loss of territorial control in Iraq and Syria was a crippling blow to a group whose brand was centered on creating a true caliphate ruled by Islamic law.
Under the uncharismatic Zawahiri, al-Qaeda survived but did not thrive. He was unable to prevent ISIS from violently rejecting his leadership and proved uninspiring to many potential recruits. Bin Laden’s number. 2 could claim gain during his tenure, the expansion of the group, often by converting terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia in al-Qaeda affiliates.
Some of these offshoots – notably the Yemeni branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – have inspired and perhaps even orchestrated attacks on the West, including the most recent attack on the United States, in Florida in December 2019. The attacker, a Saudi military trainee, killed three people and injured eight others at a naval base before being killed. According to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, the intern was “more than inspired” by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he “shared plans and tactics” with it.
Most other affiliated groups, however, focus on civil wars and other local concerns. They threaten regional stability but represent less of a danger to the American AQAP, whose leader was killed in an American drone strike a few months after the Florida attack, which is said to be fragmenting.
Lone wolf attacks as the Boston Marathon attackwhere self-radicalized individuals act without direction from an organization, remains a concern, but the perpetrators tend to be less trained and therefore less lethal.
Afghanistan under the Taliban is a different concern, highlighted by the fact that Zawahiri has taken refuge in Kabul, and the terrorist presence there should remain an intelligence priority. Yet it does not follow that a more pragmatic Taliban, which seeks aid and funding from the West, will allow Afghanistan to become a base for training camps and recruits, as it was the case in the 1990s. Moreover, the Zawahiri strike shows that American counterterrorism efforts, despite the American exodus in 2021, can still be devastatingly effective.
It all depends on the next generation of Islamic radicals. A new al-Qaeda or Islamic State leader seeking to reinvigorate his movement might attempt to attract donors and recruits by carrying out large-scale operations in the West.
However, continued counterterrorism efforts make another 9/11 or an attack like the one in Paris in 2015 difficult – one of the reasons al-Qaeda turned to local affiliate campaigns first. venue. It’s not easy to command a movement when your organization is under siege. ISIS is a good example. It sank under a string of unimpressive leaders, all of whom spent more time hiding than leading their followers.
Finally, the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its ilk will depend on whether a new cause makes them relevant again. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 electrified the Muslim world and substantiated al-Qaeda’s argument that the United States was determined to dominate the region. After 2011, the Syrian Civil War and the ISIS Caliphate declared in 2014 led to Huge Global Increases in Recruitment and Support for Islamic militants.
Today, the civil wars in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb engage local combatants, but have limited motivational appeal on a global scale. Without further galvanization from Iraq or Syria, al-Qaeda and like-minded groups could fade even further into yesterday’s news.
Daniel Byman is a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. @dbyman