Among the contentious debates that have surrounded al-Qaeda for years is the current state of al-Qaeda’s core leadership. Even during the Bush administration in 2005 and 2006, U.S. intelligence said that Al Qaeda’s core leadership was “cut off from their foot soldiers,” only to reverse that analysis one year later.
The outbreak of mass protests across the Arab world in January 2011, seemingly spontaneous, peaceful and devoid of Islamist underpinnings, caused many analysts to judge that the “Arab Spring” would mark the downfall of al-Qaeda. On May 2, 2011, the Guardian’s Ian Black wrote that “None of the uprisings…has involved significant Islamist activity – let alone the violent, extremist jihadi ideas promoted by Bin Laden…Al-Qaida had already looked marginal and on the back foot for several years. But the dawn of largely peaceful change in the Middle East and North Africa this year rendered it irrelevant.”
Fawaz Gerges, writing in the Daily Beast, asserted that, “Only a miracle will resuscitate a transnational jihad of the al-Qaeda variety…the Arab Spring represents a fundamental challenge to the very conditions that fuel extremist ideologies. Time will tell if the Arab revolts will manage to fill the gap of legitimate political authority. If this happens, Arab opinion will deliver the final blow to al Qaeda and its local branches.
Perhaps the staunchest advocate of this view has been Peter Bergen, an expert on al-Qaeda and terrorism analyst for CNN who was part of the crew that interviewed Bin Laden in 1997. In 2006, he took issue with Bush administration officials who used the terms “on the run” and “decimated” to refer to the state of al-Qaeda at the time, preferring to say that, “Yes, al-Qaeda as an organization is severely impaired, but it has been replaced by a broader ideological movement…motivated by a doctrine that can be called “Binladenism.”
But by June 2012, Bergen wrote, “Time to declare victory: al Qaeda is defeated.” Bergen pointed to the assassination of 28 al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Yemen during the Obama administration, and to the fact that al-Qaeda had failed to successfully attack the West since the London Underground bombing in July 2005. In Bergen’s estimation, Ayman al-Zawahiri “inherited the Blockbuster Video of global jihad and has done nothing to resuscitate it.”
On the other side of the debate are those who say that, despite the assassination of Bin Laden and many other high-level al-Qaeda operative, the organization’s expansive affiliate network might make it even more potent. According to Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst for the Long War Journal, “al Qaeda’s expansion in recent years has led to more threats against the U.S. Homeland, not less.” Joscelyn pointed to numerous plots against the U.S. and Canada since 2009 that nearly succeeded, including the attempted December 25, 2009, bombing of a commercial airline traveling to Detroit, and the May 2010 attempted Times Square car-bombing which proved failed when the explosives failed to detonate.
In Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch argued in August 2013 that the Arab Spring actually benefitted al-Qaeda. Lynch noted that, “Had the revolutions led to successful democratic transitions, the blow to al Qaeda could well have been fatal,” but transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia proved disastrous, and al-Qaeda has been a major player in the Syrian civil war. Rather than marking the end of al-Qaeda, Lynch pointed out that, “The failure of most of the Arab uprisings has therefore been an extraordinary gift to al Qaeda.”
One month later, after al-Shabab’s attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nariobi, Kenya, the Economist published a scathing critique of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy that focused on limiting terrorist attacks to local, soft targets away from the homeland. “Mr Obama might argue that the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi by al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, the Shabab, was just the kind of thing he was talking about…Yet the inconvenient truth is that, in the past 18 months…al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies have staged an extraordinary comeback. The terrorist network now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history. Mr Obama must reconsider.”
On June 13, 2016, convicted terrorist Larossi Abballa stabbed to death two married police officers in their home in Magnanville, France, in an attack claimed by ISIS. Abballa livestreamed the murder on Facebook and held the couple’s three-year-old son hostage before police stormed the home.