Countering Al Qaeda: Strategies and Implications for U.S. Policy

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Al Qaeda is a transnational terrorist organisation and network of companions that the U.S. intelligence community represented as of early 2022 as one of the entities that “pose the greatest threat to U.S. persons and interests abroad” and a possible source of inspiration to domestic violent extremists

Sustained counterterrorism pressure has weakened the group since it committed the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks. In its March 2022 annual public threat assessment, the U.S. intelligence community said that Al Qaeda “is constrained in its efforts to lead a unified global movement”. Still, it will attempt to “capitalise on permissive operating environments.” U.S. officials characterise the AQ threat as arising mainly from its affiliates, which have typically focused on local issues in their respective areas of operation, where they threaten local U.S. personnel, interests, and partners.

Al Qaeda executed a series of terrorist attacks against U.S. and allied targets before 9/11, including the 1998 bombardment of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, after which the U.S. undertook airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan and the 2000 invasion of the USS Cole in Yemen. The US designated Al Qaeda as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1999. After the 9/11 episodes, the US launched military operations to overturn the Taliban government in Afghanistan and expanded its Counterterrorism efforts worldwide. Some outfit leaders fled to Pakistan, where U.S. forces killed Bin Laden in 2011. Al Qaeda attacks against U.S. and Western targets worldwide persisted in the years after 9/11. Still, the group has not successfully carried out a major incursion inside the United States since then.

For years, pundits have discussed how to characterise the shifting ties between AQ leaders and groups that have professed allegiance to Al Qaeda and among these self-described companions. Some argue that Al Qaeda remains essentially a centrally governed organisation, with the group’s leaders delivering marching orders to its various affiliates; others represent a “hub and spoke” model in which authorities encourage strategic vision and some monetary support but little in the way of direct tactical surveillance. In 2022, the analytical agreement appears to view AQ as having “devolved operational responsibility to regional affiliates as it has moved away from centrally directed plotting,” per the 2022 annual threat assessment. 

The group may persist as a gathering that inspires ideologically inspired terrorism against U.S. interests around the world and opportunistically enters (or guarantees the allegiance of participants in) local conflicts. Shifts in the relative balance of these elements of the group’s identity and structure may produce changes in the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts over time. 

The Taliban’s August 2021 retrieval to power in Afghanistan provided Al Qaeda with a “significant boost,” per UN sanctions monitors, and traditional AQ allies (such as figures related to the Haqqani Network) have significant roles in the Taliban government. Since hailing the Taliban in August 2021, AQ “has maintained a strategic silence, likely an action not to compromise Taliban efforts to achieve international recognition and legitimacy,” in light of counterterrorism pledges made by the Taliban to secure the withdrawal of U.S. forces. While AQ presently lacks an operational capability in Afghanistan, U.S. officials estimate that AQ has the intention to reconstitute the ability to conduct external attacks and could do so in one to two years in the lack of Counter-terrorism pressure. The U.S. intelligence community reckons that AQ “will gauge its ability to perform in Afghanistan under Taliban restrictions” as the two groups recalibrate their association and activities.

On the other hand, In 2004, the Iraq-based Jordanian citizen Abu Musab al Zarqawi created the first AQ affiliate, Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, U.S.-backed Saudi measures dismantled an AQ branch in the nation by 2005, leaving only scattered cells remaining.

The U.S. action against Al Qaeda, now in its third decade, traverses a wide array of policy areas. The US has conducted airstrikes on AQ targets in at least seven countries since 2012. However, the United States 2021 withdrew military forces from Afghanistan and repositioned military forces from Somalia, where they were keeping counterterrorism operations, to neighbouring countries. Beyond direct military action, the US aims to fight Al Qaeda and other terrorist threats “by, with, and through” local partners, including through the condition of security assistance and, in some cases, logistical and advisory help. U.S. policymakers also seek to fight Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups by managing the drivers of extremist recruitment, blocking the funding of Al Qaeda and its companions through sanctions and other tools, and charging individuals in the United States for delivering support to the group and its affiliates. 

Moreover, Congress has addressed the ongoing presence of AQ affiliates by heading executive-branch counterterrorism policies and procedures and the authorisation and appropriation of U.S. funds for counterterrorism actions. Constant deliberations in Congress about the annulment or revision of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF, P.L. 107-40) may also have implications for U.S. actions against Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

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