Obama was articulating an oft-repeated White House mantra: Al-Qaeda Central—based in Afghanistan and Pakistan—has been weakened dramatically, but affiliates are proliferating elsewhere in the world.
This is a view supported by numerous commentators and media reports. Writing in Politico last month, terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank argued: “While there is no doubt the United States has severely degraded al-Qaeda’s capabilities in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, its affiliates and allies have grown in strength in many parts of the Arab world.” Similarly, a CNN report in December noted that while al-Qaeda “suffered significant setbacks” after Osama Bin Laden’s death, and drone strikes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have eliminated top leaders, “the terror group and its close allies have rebounded in Yemen, the Sinai region of Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and parts of east and west Africa, among other places.”
There’s certainly truth to this perspective, but it’s also misleading: it understates the continued clout of core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ignores the presence of al-Qaeda-linked organizations throughout the AfPak region. Indeed, if there’s one thing many if not most extremist organizations in these two countries share in common, it’s their ties to al-Qaeda. You needn’t go to Syria or Iraq to find evidence of the evolutionary diffusion of the al-Qaeda threat; there’s plenty to see across Afghanistan and Pakistan.
To be sure, AfPak-based al-Qaeda Central has been hit hard. Since 2001, most of its top leaders have been captured or killed. Osama Bin Laden, Mohammad Atef, and Ilyas Kashmiri are dead, while Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abu Zubayda, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed languish at Guantanamo Bay. Ayman al-Zawahiri is one of the very few pre-9/11 leaders who remain alive and free.
Yet, al-Qaeda has successfully overcome the elimination of its top leadership. In the fall of 2012, while Obama was on the presidential campaign trail trumpeting the “decimation” of al-Qaeda, General John Allen—then the supreme commander of international forces in Afghanistan—was warning that the organization had “reemerged” in that country. An Associated Press report at the time found that al-Qaeda “remains active inside Afghanistan, fighting U.S. troops, spreading extremist messages, raising money, recruiting young Afghans,” and helping other radical groups.
Al-Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan, where the bulk of the group’s core leadership and many of its fighters fled from Afghanistan in 2001, is even stronger. According to Zahid Hussain, one of Pakistan’s most noted security specialists, drone strikes have killed many of its leaders, but have had “little effect on the group’s operations.” Analysts have speculated(though never proven conclusively) that al-Qaeda was behind three attacks on Pakistani nuclear facilities in 2007 and 2008, and that the group helped orchestrate a massive jail break last summer in northwestern Pakistan that freed Taliban militants. Hussain also believes that the group has gained a steady stream of new recruits from Pakistan’s urban middle class. This makes sense, given two troubling discoveries allegedly made by Pakistani police last year: one, an al-Qaeda cell at Punjab University in Lahore, and the other, an al-Qaeda safe house in Islamabad (admittedly, this latter discovery was not widely reported, suggesting it may be a fabrication).
Additionally, even as al-Qaeda’s centers of gravity have shifted to the Middle East and Africa, it has maintained—if not intensified—a strikingly Pakistani identity. As Stephen Tankel pointed out in a War on the Rockspiece last year, Urdu (a major language in Pakistan) has become the “predominant” language of al-Qaeda propaganda material, and Pakistan is the subject of many al-Qaeda videos.
Given this “Pakistanization” of al-Qaeda (the term is Tankel’s), it’s wholly unsurprising that so many Pakistani and Afghan militant groups have connections to the group. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization responsible for the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, offers a case in point. Documents found in Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound reveal that Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed enjoyed long-standing ties to Bin Laden—and that the latter even helped plan the Mumbai attacks. When high-ranking al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubayda was discovered in Pakistan in 2002, he was staying at a Lashkar-e-Taiba safehouse.
President Obama’s own government has explicitly laid out the links between al-Qaeda and another well-known Pakistani extremist group, the Pakistani Taliban. The State Department describes a “symbiotic relationship” between the two outfits—one in which the Pakistani Taliban (whose leaders often appear in al-Qaeda propaganda videos) benefits from al-Qaeda ideology while providing safe havens to its fighters. In the wordsof one analyst, the Pakistani Taliban has “become the foundation within which al-Qaeda’s original leadership has been able to survive and adapt.” The Pakistani Taliban (like many other area militant groups) has also partnered operationally with al-Qaeda; in 2009, they collaborated on the suicide attack that killed seven CIA personnel at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province.
Pakistan’s most feared sectarian militant group—Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has staged attacks in all four Pakistani provinces (a feat few other Pakistani terrorist groups can boast of)—has provided supplies to al-Qaeda, and overseen its fighters’ movements through safehouses.
Meanwhile, since being overthrown in 2001, the Afghan Taliban’s leadership has continued to confer with al-Qaeda officials (including about joint operations against NATO troops in Afghanistan). And an influential 2011 West Point study asserts that the Haqqani network—which regularly carries out high profile attacks in Afghanistan—functions with al-Qaeda “as an interdependent system.”
Then there’s the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a foreign outfit operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the UN, al-Qaeda leaders encouraged its formation and provided much of its start-up funding—and its top leaders have held jobs with al-Qaeda.
These groups represent a mere sample; consult a complete list of the region’s terror organizations, and you’ll find many more (from Jaish-e-Mohammed to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and many in between) with al-Qaeda ties.
To be sure, none of these entities are formal al-Qaeda affiliates; al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has only recognized groups in the Middle East and Africa as such. But an overemphasis on the semantics with which we define jihadists’ intergroup relationships obscures the practical significance of those that involve groups to which the “formal affiliate” designation doesn’t apply. Despite the informal nature of their ties to al-Qaeda leaders, the threat that these groups pose is equally, if not more, serious than that of the affiliates. In Congressional testimony last year, Thomas Joscelyn of the Long War Journal pointed out that in 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the AfPak-based groups as part of a terrorist “syndicate” developed by al-Qaeda. “The success of any one of these groups leads to new capabilities and a new reputation for all,” according to Gates.
Consider as well that some of these organizations nurture global ambitions. The Pakistani Taliban has threatened to attack American cities, and provided training to a man intent on doing so: Faisal Shahzad spent weeks in Waziristan with the group before his attempt to blow up Times Square in 2010 (more recently, the Pakistani Taliban has claimed to have dispatched fighters to Syria). Meanwhile, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba have fought in the Middle East and Balkans, and the group has cells in Spain and Australia. This is why it’s wrong to argue, as President Obama did in a recent New Yorker interview, that the new generation of al-Qaeda-aligned and inspired organizations is focused exclusively on local affairs. Perhaps this is the case in the Middle East and North Africa, but it’s certainly not true in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These two nations’ extremist groups have already scored a major victory for al-Qaeda. “Bin Laden’s original vision,” Michael Nelson recently wrotefor War on the Rocks, “was of a loose confederation of like-minded regional jihadist groups.” Today, evidence of the success of this objective is visible on both sides of the Durand Line.
Now is the time to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s continued presence and clout in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With Afghan President Hamid Karzai so far refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington, some prominent American commentators are issuing misguided warnings that al-Qaeda will make a “comeback” in the region if no U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan next year.
In reality, there won’t be an al-Qaeda comeback in the AfPak region because al-Qaeda never really left. A more valid fear is that a residual force (which would be modest in number and capacity) does remain after next year, yet is helpless to prevent a fearsome terrorist syndicate from extending its tentacles across some of the world’s most militancy-ravaged real estate.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @michaelkugelman or email him firstname.lastname@example.org.