Under siege by drones in Pakistan and Yemen, al Qaeda 3.0 has exploited the Arab Awakening to create its largest safe havens and operational bases in more than a decade across the Arab world. This may prove to be the most deadly al Qaeda yet.
The first generation was the original band in Afghanistan created by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. The second emerged after 9/11 when the group resurfaced in Pakistan and then across the Muslim world. Now a third iteration can be discerned in the wake of bin Laden’s death and the Arab Awakening.
The fastest-growing new al Qaeda is in Syria. Using the cover name Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda has become perhaps the most lethal element of the opposition to Bashar al Assad’s brutal dictatorship. Al Qaeda’s amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for jihadists across the world to flock to Syria this spring to join the uprising against the Assad regime and the Alawite minority that supports it. For al Qaeda, Assad and the Alawis are a perfect target; many Sunnis believe Alawis to be a deviationist sect of Islam that should be suppressed. While al Qaeda is a small part of the opposition in Syria, it nonetheless brings unique skills in bomb-making and suicide operations.
Now jihadist websites are reporting every day that new al Qaeda “martyrs” have died in the fighting in Damascus and Aleppo from Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Egypt. Reliable reports speak of bands of jihadists operating in the country with a loose affiliation to al Qaeda and composed of Muslim fanatics from as far away as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The Syrian al Qaeda franchise has sought to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. It avoids open association with the brand name and seeks to work with other Sunni groups. It is well armed, uses bases in Iraq for support and supply, and benefits from the arms supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the opposition. Its leader uses the nom de guerre of Abu Mohammad al Golani, a reference to the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights and a signal that the top leader is a Syrian, not a foreign fighter.
The longer the civil war in Syria goes on, the more al Qaeda will benefit from the chaos and the sectarian polarization. It will also benefit from the spill over of violence from Syria into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan that is now inevitable.
Like the rest of the world, al Qaeda was surprised by the revolutions that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Its ideology of violence and jihad was initially challenged by the largely nonviolent revolutionary movements that swept across North Africa and the Middle East. But al Qaeda is an adaptive organization, and it has exploited the chaos and turmoil of revolutionary change to create operational bases and new strongholds.
In North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, originally an Algerian franchise of the al Qaeda global terror organization, has successfully aligned itself with a local extremist group in Mali named Ansar al Dine, or Defenders of the Faith; together, they have effectively taken control of the northern two thirds of Mali. Now AQIM controls the fabled city of Timbuktu.
For most of its existence, AQIM had been confined to kidnapping Westerners traveling in the remote deserts of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger and other criminal enterprises. Sources in the U.K. say it raised 50 million euros this way. This spring, after a military coup in Mali, AQIM found a partner in Ansar al Dine; together, they swept out government forces from the north of Mali, and now they control a vast Saharan stronghold the size of Texas. AQIM is also at work in Libya, especially around Benghazi. Spanish and French leaders are now labeling the new AQIM strongholds in Mali and Libya the gravest threats to regional stability in more than a decade.
Another third-generation al Qaeda jihadist stronghold is in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, long a depressed and angry backwater in Egypt. After the revolution, disaffected Bedouin tribes in the Sinai cooperated with released jihadist prisoners from Mubarak’s jails to begin attacks on security installations and the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline. The jihadists in the Sinai have pledged their allegiance to al-Zawahiri, who has repeatedly endorsed their attacks on Israeli targets.
In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exploited the fall of Ali Abdallah Saleh’s dictatorship to take over remote parts of the south and east of the country. It lost control of several towns to government counter-attacks this summer, but struck back with deadly attacks on security targets in Sana, Aden, and other major cities. Increasingly, drones are attacking AQAP in the deserts of Yemen; one such strike killed its American-born operative Anwar al Awlaki. But the group is resilient.
Iraq’s al Qaeda franchise is the essence of resilience. The surge was supposed to destroy al Qaeda’s franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq, but it didn’t. Despite enormous pressure and the repeated decapitation of its senior leadership, the group has survived and recovered. It appeals to the Sunni Arab minority which feels oppressed by the Shia-dominated government. Al Qaeda in Iraq has rebuilt its sanctuaries in some Sunni regions and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has promised more attacks in Iraq and in the United States.
The third generation of Al Qaeda’s success in capitalizing on revolutionary change in the Arab world comes despite a lack of broad popular support. Al Qaeda 3.0 remains an extreme movement that appeals only to a small minority. But terrorism is not a popularity contest. Al Qaeda today is stronger at the operational level in the Arab world than it has been in years.
Back in Pakistan, the old al Qaeda leadership, what jihadists call al Qaeda al Um or “mother al Qaeda” is rebuilding. Since President Obama came to office in 2009, there have been almost 300 lethal drone strikes in Pakistan flown from bases in Afghanistan, most of which targeted al Qaeda operatives. Along with the raid on Abbottabad, the offensive has put it on the defensive.
But it is not dead, nor alone. Al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that attacked Mumbai in 2008 or the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, are under little or no pressure in Pakistan. Three of the five most wanted on America’s terrorist list—al-Zawahiri, Lashkar’s founder Hafeez Saeed, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar—are in Pakistan. Only Zawahiri is hiding, the other two enjoy the backing of Pakistani intelligence. It is likely Zawahiri too has powerful protectors.