A leading expert on the terror group tells Channel 4 News why al-Qaeda is in decline – and where the next 9/11-style plot could come from.
Dr Maha Azzam is an associate fellow at Chatham House, and helps run the think-tank’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Al-Qaeda has been greatly weakened over the last decade. Its logistical and financial resources have been systematically depleted due to concerted counter-terrorism measures against it worldwide.
“Its organisational and recruiting capacity failed to expand on the level that the 9/11 attacks had indicated. However, its mutation has ultimately allowed it to survive and remain a threat.
“Its prolonged activity on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the existence of al-Qaeda affiliates, most notably, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa, are continuing sources of regional instability and are a potential source of global terrorism.
“As is the case with other terrorist organisations historically, a weakened organization does not mean that it cannot carry out a significant act of terror by a determined group or individual with limited resources.”
A weakened organisation does not mean that it cannot carry out a significant act of terror. Dr Maha Azzam
Q: How significant was the death of Osama bin Laden – in the US, and in the Middle East?
“For the US it was a cathartic moment. A moment that offered a sense of closure. The image of US invincibility and power had been dented by 9/11 and American lives had been lost on American soil.
“The impact on Americans was profound. Therefore the systematic weakening of al-Qaeda was not sufficient. The killing of bin Laden provided for Americans a sense of retribution and at least partial justice.
“In the Middle East and the Muslim world the impact of bin Laden’s death was not as great. It had taken too long and the majority in the Muslim world were preoccupied with the overwhelming political and economic problems that continued to afflict their societies for decades, and the possibility of overturning dictatorships through the peaceful protests that have been ongoing in different parts of the Middle East over the past year.
“However, for many al-Qaeda’s tactics provided an excuse for the war on terror and offered dictators a longer lease of life, as they argued that they stood in the way of violent extremism. It also allowed them to continue persecuting non-violent Islamist opponents in the name of security and stability.
“Al-Qaeda’s demise had been ongoing over the previous five years, so when bin Laden’s death occurred, it was no longer central to the politics of the majority in the region which was clearly evolving in a different direction.
“However, for some, including those who never joined bin Laden’s ranks, he will nevertheless remain a hero who stood up to the enemies of Muslims who occupied Iraq, support Israel and the authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world.”
When bin Laden’s death occurred, it was no longer central to the politics of the majority in the region which was clearly evolving in a different direction. Dr Maha Azzam
Q: In 2001, few had really heard of al-Qaeda. What are the lesser-known terror groups emerging now?
“There are the main al-Qaeda affiliates: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who carried out two attempted attacks on the US homeland within a year; al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI); al Shabaab in Somalia; al-Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM); Lashkar-e-Taiba (operating mainly from Pakistan and was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai bombings).
“Furthermore, cells and individuals that are inspired by al-Qaeda but are not formally affiliated with the larger groups are very difficult to pinpoint because of their diffuse nature and this is a serious challenge in the formulation of counterterrorism strategies.”
“There are a number of factors that contribute to this. Among them is the presence of al-Qaeda cells and leading figures such as US/Yemeni citizen Anwar al-Awalqi (a prominent AQAP leader). Yemen has also been the refuge over the years to al-Qaeda activists from Saudi Arabia, and it is the organisational base for various terrorist plots, for which AQAP has claimed responsibility.
“Furthermore, Yemen’s own domestic problems provide unstable conditions which can be exploited by al-Qaeda. The country has been described as in ‘economic meltdown’. Yemen has rising inflation, food shortages and an acute water scarcity. It is the poorest country in the Middle East, with a 40 per cent unemployment rate.
“The northern insurgency and southern secessionist movement have been a source of instability and a strain on resources. Its porous border facilitates arms-trafficking. All these are factors that can be exploited by al-Qaeda during a period of political transition.”
“As an affiliate of al-Qaeda, AQAP has emerged as one of the most threatening arms of al-Qaeda at present.
“AQAP is the outcome of a merger in 2009 between the Yemeni and Saudi affiliates of al-Qaeda. Nasir al-Wihayshi, who had escaped from a Sana prison in 2007, was chosen to lead the group with a Saudi deputy, Said al-Shihri.
“It is opposed to the Saudi monarchy but is following a strategy, announced in 2010, called Operation Haemorrhage, which targets the US through small-scale attacks aimed at harming the US economy.
“Perhaps the most prominent face of AQAP is Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi (with a blog, Facebook and YouTube videos).
“According to US officials he has influenced and guided some major terrorist activity including Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab’s attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines Flight on Christmas Day 2009 over Detroit.
“On 29 October 2010 two packages with plastic explosives were found on separate cargo planes on flights bound from Yemen to the US. AQAP took responsibility for these plots.”
Q: You have stated that al-Qaeda has been ‘marginalised by the overwhelming appeal of democracy’. What has been the catalyst?
“Al-Qaeda’s failure to win hearts and minds in majority Muslim countries and among Muslim communities worldwide is perhaps its greatest failure, which has marginalised it as a potential political challenge in the Middle East and beyond.
“Its tactics of violence in the name of Islam were rejected by the majority of Muslims, who were not prepared to sanction terrorism, even in the name of what they believe to be just causes. The emphasis on bin Laden and the war on terror throughout the last decade failed to reflect the reality on the ground in the Middle East, which was entering a post-jihadist era.
“Opposition to authoritarian regimes led by a new generation managed to galvanise support around a non-violent political activism. Both secular and Islamist camps have suffered under dictatorship and despite their different visions are opting for the democratic path as the best guarantor of basic rights and political and economic development.
“The jury is still out as to the level of success this new path will accomplish but for now the violent extremism of al-Qaeda continues to be politically marginalised.”