Crisis and Expansion: Al-Qaeda Affiliates’ Threat to Global Security

Many believe that Al-Qaeda has been a defeated terrorist organization. However, the group has adapted by changing its strategies and forming regional groups across the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan.

Many believe that Al-Qaeda has been a defeated terrorist organization. However, the group has adapted by changing its strategies and forming regional groups across the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan. One such affiliate, Jamaat Al Nusra Wal Muslimin (JNIM), based in Mali, extends its operations to Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin, perpetrating hundreds of attacks annually. Another significant group, Al-Shabaab, originates in Somalia but operates in Kenya and Ethiopia. The recent Taliban takeover has opened new opportunities for Al-Qaeda, with its Indian Subcontinent branch (AQIS) now established in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Al-Qaeda maintains strongholds in the Middle East through groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. This article, using the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID), examines how Al-Qaeda still poses a global threat.

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), Al-Qaeda formed as a resistance group. Osama Bin Laden founded Al-Qaeda and shifted its focus to targeting U.S. interests, leading to the catastrophic 9/11 attacks. These events marked a turning point, using distorted religious interpretations to justify tactics like suicide bombings and mass casualties. In the realm of religious terrorism, a dominant jihadist ideology underpins the majority of incidents. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliated groups adhere to this ‘Jihadist’ ideology. According to the State Department’s Annex of Statistical Information for 2019, ‘ISIS-affiliated groups killed or wounded 6,652 people in 959 incidents, while al-Qaeda-affiliated groups caused 4,420 casualties in 767 incidents.’ These figures highlight the scale of casualties per incident attributed to these groups within the category of religious terrorism.

According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, “The central argument espoused by jihadist ideologues and leaders is that the Muslim world is plagued by grievances and injustices, many of which are caused by the West” (CTC). They believe that because Western countries, most prominently the United States, are corrupt and oppressive, Muslims should not adapt to Western “deceptive” ideologies. According to these leaders, “ideas such as democracy and human rights are designed to divert the umma (Islamic community) from jihad and ultimately paralyze it; for example, Ayman al-Zawahiri asserts that the United States has only achieved its interests by spreading oppression and terrorism at the hands of its [Islamic] allies”. Thus, these extremist groups believe that jihad is their way to fight the West and change the world which pushes them to create terrorism tactics, weapons, and strategies according to their “struggle” with Western countries. The power of religious extremist ideology can be seen through Al Qaeda’s continued global operation despite the death of Osama Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Although Al-Qaeda may appear smaller and have less immediate impact compared to groups like ISIS today, its enduring goal of attacking the West and protecting its assets sets it apart significantly. These assets include weapons, logistics, finances, training facilities, and its extensive network. The Haqqani Network, a faction within the Taliban, is a crucial ally of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Together, they have formed a joint armed group with strong ties to various terrorist organizations in the region. Maintaining this relationship has become a top priority for both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda due to their shared interests and objectives.

Al Qaeda has adapted its strategies effectively, enabling the group to persist and pose threats to regional and global security. In contrast to ISIS, which maintains a centralized organization and conducts operations primarily in Syria and Iraq, Al Qaeda operates through decentralized regional affiliates. Its strategy focuses on integrating local groups to form affiliates across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. According to the Statistical Information 2022 report, affiliated groups of Al Qaeda include Al Shabaab, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Tehrik-e Taliban, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansaru, Al-Badr Mujahideen, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, Ansar al-Islam, and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad. These groups conducted 792 attacks in 2018 and maintained its operational capacity in 2019 and 2020. However, its attacks declined to the same numbers in 2021 and 2022, as seen in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: The Attacks by Al Qaeda Affiliated Groups (2018-22)

According to GRID, Al Qaeda affiliates use a variety of tactics in their attacks. Their attacks include bombing, shooting, and planting IEDs. The most common weapon types from January 2018 to April 2024 are Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), firearms, explosives, mortars, small arms, and rockets. The Annex of Statistical Information reports that the main victim types that al-Qaeda and its affiliates target are the general population, meaning civilians, military or armed forces of the state, and other perpetrators in the region.

Al Qaeda continues to carry out attacks in regions where it is active. According to Figure 2 below, AQAP and HTS were responsible for 99 attacks in the first quarter 2024. AQAP killed 25 people in Yemen, and HTS killed 47 people in Syria.

Figure 2: People Killed and Wounded by AQAP and HTS in the First Quarter of 2024

Al-Qaeda uses multiple different methods to achieve its recruitment goals. The most concerning method is their influence on public media. Members will exploit channels and use a variety of different media such as radio broadcasts, television, websites, and posters to spread their influence and ideologies. Social media, a new haphazard for terrorist organizations, has provided a shortcut and allows for “direct access” and targets individuals who are vulnerable to this kind of recruitment process. Jihadist content, especially ones containing “martyrdom” or “Anti-West” messages, causes a psychological effect and manipulates radicalized people. This creates an almost natural recruiting method, pushing individuals into extremist motives.

Al-Qaeda’s funding strategies resemble those of other jihadist groups in the Middle East. The majority of its financing comes from ‘donations’ and contributions from supporters, which can include the general public, local Imams, mosques, or other organizations. Before 9/11, the CIA estimated that the group received approximately $30 million annually. Al-Qaeda also generates revenue from various criminal activities such as human and drug trafficking, unlawful taxation, investments, and extortion. Additionally, the group has exploited charitable funds to boost its revenue.

The United States, through its efforts in developing state-of-the-art counterterrorism policies and defense strategies, prioritize three key areas: understanding Al-Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban, its various affiliates, and its conflicts with ISIS. Addressing these issues effectively involves reducing both groups’ influence while managing their internal disputes. Enhanced intelligence gathering on Al-Qaeda’s affiliates and local networks streamlines data collection and reveals vulnerabilities. It is crucial to allocate more resources for researching the Haqqani Network and its support for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, aiming to weaken Al-Qaeda’s presence in the region.

International counter-terrorism strategies aim to align policies with government approaches supported by reliable data. However, effective strategies must also consider each region’s unique historical, social, economic, and cultural contexts. For instance, if there is evidence of jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda exploiting madrasas (religious and educational institutions), counter-terrorism efforts should focus on accurately targeting these groups. It is crucial to develop methodologies that assess madrasas based on proven correlations between their teachings and their potential to influence extremist violence. Misdirected efforts risk undermining peaceful educational and religious institutions and could hinder democratic development in critical regions.

In conclusion, Al-Qaeda affiliates continue to pose threats to global and regional security. After a decrease in attacks in 2022, there was a resurgence in 2023, with affiliates responsible for an increasing number of incidents in the Middle East, Africa, and Pakistan. Specifically, Al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa have expanded their operations beyond their original countries. For instance, JNIM has intensified attacks in Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, and Benin, while Al-Shabaab has carried out terrorist activities in Kenya and Ethiopia. Given the limited resources in these nations, it is likely that the operational capacity of Al-Qaeda will continue to grow in the coming years.

Ayse Selma Yilmaz
Ayse Selma Yilmaz
Ayse Selma Yilmaz is a research analyst at Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC). She is currently pursuing her B.A. in Government and International Politics at George Mason University. She has over two years of experience in tracking international terrorist activities for the U.S. State Department’s congressionally mandated Statistical Annex for the Annual Country Reports on Global Terrorism. As an expert in counterterrorism, she analyzes the recent trends in terrorist tactics and targets in the Middle East. Her research focuses on Iran-backed groups such as the Houthis and Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.