5 Reasons Al Qaeda May Be Stronger Than Ever

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The daring mission by Navy SEALs that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 has been hailed as America’s crowning achievement in the war against al-Qaeda. Yet al-Qaeda’s leadership has continued executing attacks and planning more mayhem, including the recent plot that forced a worldwide travel alert and the temporary shutdown of almost two-dozen U.S. embassies and consulates. Since 9/11, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have had considerable success pounding the terrorist group with raids, counterintelligence operations and drone strikes. Unfortunately, resilience has been one of al-Qaeda’s hallmarks since the 9/11 attacks. Here are several ways the terrorist group continues to threaten U.S. and Western interests worldwide, and why the group may be stronger than even before 9/11.


5. Al-Qaeda Affiliates Are Spreading in the Middle East and Africa

Al-Qaeda affiliates are spreading in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mauritanian soldiers conduct a counter-terror operation in Mali; Magharebia

For years, al-Qaeda focused most of its resources and recruiting efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the terrorist group sought to expel American forces from those countries. The U.S. made great progress fighting terrorists on those two fronts. In the last few years, however, al-Qaeda has become a major player in other areas of the Middle East and Africa — sometimes with the unwitting aid of the United States. The U.S. supported the rebels who overthrew and killed Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, despite warnings they were heavily affiliated with al-Qaeda. That same scenario has repeated itself in the two-year-old civil war in Syria, as evidence suggests U.S. support for rebel forces is being funneled to al-Qaeda. But the group is spreading elsewhere, with deadly results. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been particularly active, carrying out the deadly attack on a natural-gas facility in January 2013 that killed dozens of people, including several Americans. AQIM has also spread to countries such as Algeria and Mali, where the French are engaged in an ongoing battle to oust the terrorist group.

Of course, Yemen remains a stronghold for the al-Qaeda affiliate known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; the U.S. and several European nations temporarily closed their embassies in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a as a result of threats in early August 2013. Some conservative critics, and even Yemeni officials, criticized President Barack Obama for overreacting to the potential threats picked up through intelligence. But Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a frequent critic of the administration, supported President Obama’s decision, given al-Qaeda’s growing strength. King, the chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on Counterintelligence and Terrorism, told ABC News, “This is a wake-up call. Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11 because it’s mutated and it’s spread and it can come at us from different directions.”


4. Al-Qaeda is Employing Smaller Attacks that are Harder to Detect

Al-Qaeda's strategy of inflicting a thousand cuts is difficult for Western forces to track.

Al-Qaeda has embraced arson in setting forest fires as a low-cost way to spread destruction.

Al-Qaeda made its reputation with spectacular attacks, beginning with the two U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and culminating in the devastating 9/11 attacks. The blistering U.S. military and intelligence response after 9/11 put al-Qaeda on the run and made complex operations much harder to plan and execute. But the group has adapted. A 2010 issue of al-Qaeda’s online magazine, Inspire, announced a new “Strategy of a thousand cuts,” using low-cost, low-risk operations to inflict damage on the West. In 2010, bombs were discovered overseas in packages containing computer printers being shipped to the U.S. Al-Qaeda boasted that the plot cost only a few thousand dollars, yet caused a worldwide alert. In 2012, a leading Russian security official accused the group of waging “forest jihad” by setting forest fires in Europe that killed dozens and forced thousands of people to evacuate. These low-profile attacks represent a new twist on al-Qaeda’s decentralized organization and underscore the difficulties that military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have fighting the group’s evolving tactics.


3. The Group is Developing Ingenious and Deadly New Tactics

Al-Qaeda has developed a couple of new weapons delivery systems that are reportedly undetectable to security.

Security officials worry that new al-Qaeda bomb-making techniques might be undetectable to TSA agents; Dan Paluska

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have many educated members with advanced knowledge in fields such as engineering and medicine. This technical expertise has produced new explosives and ways to deliver them. And just because one delivery method fails — as with the Christmas Day 2009 “underwear bomber” who was thwarted on a flight bound for Detroit — doesn’t mean authorities will be able to deter the next terrorist attempt. Ibrahim al-Asiri, one of Al-Qaeda’s most skilled bomb makers, has raised the bar with a new liquid explosive. This advanced liquid compound can be used to saturate clothing, which then becomes explosive when it dries. And it is apparently undetectable to current airport security measures, according to an ABC News story in August 2013. Another relatively recent al-Qaeda innovation is equally as troubling; the prospect of “body cavity” bombers, who could insert difficult-to-detect bombs into their bodies on suicide missions. Al-Asiri sent his own brother on a 2009 body-cavity bomb attack in Saudi Arabia; the bomb exploded prematurely, killing his brother, but sparing the Saudi prince he had targeted.


2. Violence in Iraq is on the Rise Since the U.S. Withdrawal

Al-Qaeda activity in Iraq has soared since the U.S. departure in 2011.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing in Iraq; Al Jazeera English

The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011. While the long-term consequences still remain to be seen, in the short term at least, increasing violence has racked Iraq. Al-Qaeda was largely destroyed during the surge of 2007-08, but with no support from U.S. forces, Iraqi forces have been hard-pressed to counter the surge of al-Qaeda fighters crossing over from Syria. In addition to the Sunni-on-Shiite violence committed by al-Qaeda, Shiite fighters with support from Iran have also contributed to the bloodshed. According to a U.N. report, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence in July 2013, the highest monthly total since 2008. The U.S. paid a heavy price in blood and treasure to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime and cripple al-Qaeda and other terrorists, which is why many observers are troubled that in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, al-Qaeda has rebounded there to send the country back into chaos.


1. Al-Qaeda is Recruiting New Followers Through Web Sites, Social Media

Social media and the Internet have made it easier for terrorist groups to recruit new members.

The accused Boston Marathon bombers used information from an al-Qaeda-linked website to build the bombs; Aaron Tang

The Tsarnaev brothers, accused of detonating the bombs that killed three and injured dozens more at the Boston Marathon, were active on social media. Their case illustrates the dark side of the Internet and social networking in modern terrorism. Both brothers regularly accessed militant Islamist content, such as videos of radical Muslim preachers. They went beyond watching these radical videos and used information on al-Qaeda’s Inspire website to construct the bombs. The U.S. killed the founding editor of that website in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, but another jihadist stepped forward to continue the site. The growth of such terror sites on the Internet illustrates how al-Qaeda has changed in the years since 9/11, from a singular group to a worldwide network of terrorists bent on global jihad. And nothing facilitates communication around the globe like the Internet and social media.


Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.