Fifteen years after the United States declared war on al Qaeda (AQ) for launching the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland, the jihadist group remains active and growing in its various forms, capitalizing on the chaos in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and some African countries.
AQ and its branches have been linked to the death and injury of thousands of people in various countries since 9/11, including some in the United States. Authorities have also foiled several AQ inspired attacks in the U.S. after September 11, 2001.
“The United States remains in an armed conflict against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces [in Afghanistan],” reported the Pentagon in June. “The United States continues to rely on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and the President’s constitutional authority as the Commander in Chief as its domestic legal basis for the use of force when required.”
Besides terrorist acts, some AQ affiliates have expanded to other criminal activities, including drug trafficking affiliated with Mexican drug cartels, kidnapping for ransom, smuggling of arms, wildlife, coal, oil, gas, timber, precious metals, and people.
“This has enabled them not only to become independent but also richer and more powerful,” points out the latest Global Terrorism Index (GTI).
“Al-Qa’ida’s affiliates have proven resilient and are positioned to make gains in 2016, despite counterterrorism pressure that has largely degraded the network’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” concluded the most recent Worldwide Threat Assessment compiled by the U.S. intelligence community.
Core Al Qaeda
Earlier this year, U.S. military and Afghan officials determined that a resurgent core al Qaeda and its most recently established offshoot, the Pakistan-based al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), remained a very active threat to Afghanistan.
Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States launched a war on the Afghanistan-based core al Qaeda jihadists, including its former and now deceased leader Osama bin Laden, and the Afghan Taliban for assisting and protecting them.
Fast forward about 14 years, and you have the Afghan minister of defense as well as two top U.S. military officials expressing concern in April of this year about the renewed relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban, saying that it is growing stronger.
“If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intel estimates that said within Afghanistan al Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but in this one camp we found more than 150,” declared Maj. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, deputy chief of staff for U.S. forces in Afghanistan earlier this year, adding, “There’s not thousands of them, but clearly in remote parts of Afghanistan there are al Qaeda leaders we’re concerned about and what they’re capable of doing.”
“U.S. officials said the number of core al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan could be as high as 300, but that number does include other facilitators and sympathizers in their network,” reported CNN in April.
Core al Qaeda jihadists are believed to be primarily based along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a known safe haven for various terrorist groups, including the Taliban, and other al Qaeda-linked groups.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) determined that AQIS, which was established in 2014, will pose “significant security concerns for Islamabad” in 2016, adding “Islamabad continues to take steps to improve its nuclear security, and is aware of the threat presented by extremists to its program.”
AQIS has already been linked to deadly attacks, including that of an American citizen.
The Pentagon pointed out in June:
Although [core] al Qaeda is degraded, it provides limited support to insurgent groups targeting Afghan and coalition forces… Al Qaeda remains focused on survival, regeneration, and planning and facilitating future attacks, and it remains a threat to the United States and its interests.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
AQAP, the al Qaeda affiliate considered by the United States to be the most dangerous and capable of attacking the U.S., has benefited greatly from the chaos in Yemen.
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) reported in June that the Yemen-based AQAP has expanded its reach in the country to unprecedented levels and quadrupled its manpower from “approximately 1,000 members” in 2014 to “4,000” last year.
AQAP killed an estimated 402 people in Yemen in 2014 alone, according to the latest GTI.
Former Syrian al Qaeda Affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra
In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which declared that it was no longer linked to al Qaeda after renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS, in July may soon establish its own caliphate in the country, a move that analysts believe will benefit al Qaeda.
JFS has benefited from the recent territory losses in Syria by its rival the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). It has also capitalized on the U.S.-led coalition primarily focusing on attacking ISIS.
In 2014 alone, Jabhat al-Nusra killed 461 people, according to the GTI.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
The North African-based AQIM has been estimated to have “several hundred fighters” by the U.S. government since it was designated a foreign terrorist organization in February 2008.
According to the State Department, the group took “advantage of the deteriorating security situation across Tunisia, Libya, and Mali, to plan and conduct expanded operations” in 2015.
“Militants with ties to AQIM were involved in the September 11, 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Embassy staff members,” it noted.
The AQ branch has been linked to attacks against regional security forces, local government officials, and westerners in Mali, Algeria, and Tunisia.
AQIM – which primarily operates in Northeastern Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, northern Mali, and Niger – continues to be engaged in kidnapping for ransom operations, targeting Western citizens in particular including Americans.
AQ Somali Wing Al Shabaab
Al Shabaab, which has pledged loyalty to AQ, was listed as one of five deadliest groups of 2014 in the latest Global Terrorism Index, responsible for 1,021 deaths and 850 injuries that year across Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.
The group has urged its followers to attack the U.S. and its allies, noted the GTI.
“In Somalia, al-Shabaab attacks and control of some rural areas will persist as African Union troops, supported by the nascent Somali National Army, attempt to sustain control of southern region population centers,” predicted the Defense Intelligence Agency earlier this year.
Since 2010, the State Department has estimated Al Shabaab to have “several thousand” fighters.”