With al-Qaeda’s core leadership ravaged and its remaining commanders struggling to survive, militants in Africa, Yemen and elsewhere are taking over the anti-Western fight, U.S. experts and officials say.
Out of the network’s 10 main leaders listed after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, only one is still alive: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s one-time deputy who took over after his boss was killed in May.
In the past year, eight of al-Qaeda top 20 leaders were eliminated, most by missiles fired from U.S. drones operating under an expanded covert warfare effort launched by President Barack Obama after taking office in January 2009.
“The top leadership of the organization has been hit hard in 2011,” State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin said at a forum in Washington on Thursday.
“We believe that the loss of bin Laden,” who was killed by U.S. commandos in Pakistan, “will put al-Qaeda on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse,” Benjamin said.
“If the lessons of history are right, al-Qaeda should be finished.”
But Benjamin cautioned that the fight is far from over, as al-Qaeda affiliates based in some of the most unstable parts of the world “have continued to show resilience, to threaten our national security.”
Whether in Yemen, with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Somalia’s al-Shabab militants, groups in Iraq and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), violent extremists are continuing the fight of the Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader they revere – and, in some cases, are gaining strength.
“Al-Qaeda today is stronger at the periphery than it is at the center,” said Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, noting that there are now 11 al-Qaeda affiliates spread across the globe, up from eight in 2004-2005.
“This is a movement that depends on sanctuaries and safe havens. And the number of ungoverned places in the world is increasing rather than decreasing,” Hoffman added.
In Yemen, where entire regions have historically escaped the grasp of the central government, AQAP – which was led by U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi until his death in September – is likely to seize on pro-democracy unrest shaking the country and the state of anarchy that could follow.
The group tried to gain global reach when it tasked a Nigerian with trying to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, but passengers and flight crew ultimately subdued Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as he tried to set off explosives he had concealed in his underwear.
Although AQAP has been more successful with operations in the Gulf, does it “have the capacity to be the global arm, the strategic arm of al-Qaeda?” asked a doubtful Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009.
Al-Qaeda is “surviving,” said Hayden, who at the CIA “felt that if they were put under sufficient pressure, they would have to move ... Organizations like that when they are moving are more vulnerable. But they didn’t move,” he added.
In North Africa, AQIM, which holds seven European hostages captured in 2010, could take advantage of the fall of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya to seize heavy weapons and enlist the late leader’s African fighters to the group.
The strength of affiliate groups could help even a very weakened Zawahiri to keep the al-Qaeda brand alive and well with just a few Internet and video appearances.