17 years after Sept. 11, al-Qaida may be stronger than ever
BEIRUT — In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States set out to destroy al-Qaida. President George W. Bush vowed to “starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest.”
Seventeen years later, al-Qaida may be stronger than ever. Far from vanquishing the extremist group and its associated “franchises,” critics say, U.S. policies in the Mideast appear to have encouraged its spread.
What U.S. officials didn’t grasp, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, in a recent phone interview, is that al-Qaida is more than a group of individuals. “It’s an idea, and an idea cannot be destroyed using sophisticated weapons and killing leaders and bombing training camps,” she said.
The group has amassed the largest fighting force in its existence. Estimates say it may have more than 20,000 militants in Syria and Yemen alone. It boasts affiliates across North Africa, the Levant and parts of Asia, and it remains strong around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
It has also changed tactics. Instead of the headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, brutal public executions and slick propaganda used by Islamic State (al-Qaida’s onetime affiliate and now rival), al-Qaida now practices a softer approach, embedding itself and gaining the support of Sunni Muslims inside war-torn countries.
Here’s a look at how al-Qaida has grown in some key Middle Eastern countries:
The United States went to war against Iraq in 2003, based in part on the assertion — later debunked — that al-Qaida had ties to dictator Saddam Hussein.
That claim turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In victory, the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army, putting hundreds of thousands of disgruntled men with military training on the street. Many rose up against what was perceived as a foreign invasion, feeding an insurgency that has never stopped. The insurgency gave birth to al-Qaida in Iraq, a local affiliate that pioneered the use of terrorist attacks on Shiite Muslims, regarded as apostates by Sunni extremists.
In its 2007 “surge,” the U.S., in concert with pro-government Sunni militias, largely defeated al-Qaida in Iraq. But by 2010, the group was “fundamentally the same” as it had been before the boost in troops, according to Gen. Ray T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq at the time.
The 2011 uprisings in neighboring Syria gave the group the breathing space it needed. Two years later it emerged as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, and split from al-Qaida’s central leadership.
It also launched an audacious offensive that saw large swaths of Iraq fall into the hands of the jihadists. Although Islamic State has since lost most of its territory, it remains a threat.
Al-Qaida was active in Yemen even before Sept. 11: It orchestrated the October 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in the port of Aden. After the World Trade Center twin tower attacks, Bush hailed Yemen’s then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, as a vital partner in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
Saleh received what he called “limitless” U.S. support to fight the jihadists. He in turn gave the U.S. a free hand to conduct attacks against the group’s operatives, including controversial drone strikes, which began in 2002.
But by January 2009, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (known as AQAP) had emerged and was soon considered the group’s most dangerous branch.
President Obama unleashed special forces teams to hunt down AQAP operatives. He also ramped up drone strikes, launching roughly 200 from 2009 to 2016, according to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. President Trump has launched 160.
But the strikes and raids often killed more civilians than militants.
In late 2014, Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim rebels known as Houthis swept in from the country’s northwest to seize the capital, Sanaa. Amid the resulting chaos, AQAP netted a prize: the city of Mukalla, with Yemen’s third-largest port. It became the centerpiece of an al-Qaida fiefdom.
As early as 2012, Nasser Wuhayshi, AQAP’s self-styled “emir” and founder, had said the group needed to win people over by “taking care of their daily needs.”
The group rebranded itself as Ansar al Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law, and slowly introduced al-Qaida’s harsh form of Islamic law and governance.
Under Trump, the United States has largely continued Obama’s policies in Yemen. It has given full support to an air campaign led by Saudi Arabia against the Houthis, despite criticism that the strikes have caused most of the 16,000 civilian casualties in Yemen since the war began.
But even as the U.S. has continued to carry out airstrikes and raids against AQAP, the group has positioned itself as a virtual ally, battling the Houthis alongside tribal fighters supported by Saudi Arabia.
The fall of Somalia’s government in 1991 led to the rise of the Islamic Courts Union, a collection of clerical organizations that formed a sharia-based judiciary. It gained legitimacy by offering services such as education and health care.
Washington, suspecting links to al-Qaida, supported the group’s enemies, and enlisted the Ethiopian army to crush it, which it did in 2006. In the de-facto occupation that followed, the Islamic Courts Union’s radical youth wing, al-Shabab, grew as an independent resistance movement that took over most of Somalia’s central and southern regions.
Despite its unpopular application of fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, residents tolerated al-Shabab because it fought the Ethiopians, who are mostly Christian and have a long-standing enmity with Somalis.
In 2012, it was declared as the new al-Qaida affiliate. The change of status attracted a significant number of foreign fighters, including some from the United States.
The Obama administration’s policy of drone strikes along with support for African Union peacekeeping forces, flushed al-Shabab out of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011. It lost control of most of Somalia’s towns and cities.
And in September 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr.
But the group held sway in rural areas, where its estimated 4,000 to 6,000 militants make it one of al-Qaida’s largest franchises. They carry out guerrilla attacks on African Union forces and civilian targets and have launched attacks in others parts of East Africa, including the 2013 attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
On Dec. 23, 2011, a car bomb struck a residential neighborhood of Damascus that was home to the State Security Directorate.
The building was all but destroyed. Drivers unfortunate enough to be near the explosion were burned alive. A second car bomb detonated soon after. All told, 44 people were killed.
That attack marked the debut of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria.
The Syrian government had once given the jihadis passage to Iraq to fight coalition forces there. With the civil war, many had now come to return the favor. Nusra’s battle-hardened fighters delivered dazzling successes to the rebel coalition seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
It was so effective that U.S. officials, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, suggested arming and deploying the al-Qaida jihadis to fight their former comrades in Islamic State.
And despite its adherence to a strict Islamist code of behavior and its imposition of Shariah in areas it controlled, the group enjoyed popular support from civilians tired of dealing with rapacious opposition factions more interested in looting than fighting.
Yet here again, the affiliate did not declare a caliphate. Instead, it rebranded itself, publicly cutting ties with al-Qaida even while retaining some of the group’s top operatives.
The group, now known as the Organization for the Liberation of Syria, is estimated to have 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, including foreigners from as far as Albania and China.
Officially, there is no al-Qaida group in Libya. Its affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was disbanded in 2011; its members renounced violence but distinguished themselves as relatively disciplined rebels once the revolution against Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi kicked off.
Since then, some, such as former group leader Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, who fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and was renditioned by the U.S. after 2001, have become powerful Islamist leaders, with a significant role in Libya’s chaotic politics.
Others have gone over to Islamic State’s Libyan branch or joined other Islamist groups, including a number that took over the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
But while the U.S., other Western nations and the United Arab Emirates have focused almost exclusively on dislodging Islamic State from its bastions in the north and northeast, al-Qaida has enjoyed a resurgence, according to an August report from the United Nations.
The group’s threat in Libya registered with the U.S. only this year. In March, the Pentagon’s Africa Command said it had killed two al-Qaida militants in a drone strike, including what was said to be a high-ranking official, Musa Abu Dawud.
It was the first such attack against the group in Libya. More followed, including another in June, in what is thought to be an expanded counterterrorism campaign in the country.