In 1988, Osama bin Laden established Al Qaeda from a network of Arab and other foreign veterans of the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union, with the aim of supporting Islamist causes in conflicts around the world. After the 1991 Gulf War, citing opposition to the decision by Saudi Arabia to host U.S.troops,the group set on the United States as its primary target. Bin Laden left his native Saudi Arabia that year and relocated to Sudan, until the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996 and offered refuge to AQ members and other armed Islamists.
Al Qaeda conducted a series of terrorist attacks against U.S. and allied targets, including the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania(after which the United States launched airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan) and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The United States designated Al Qaeda as a Foreign Terrorist Organization(FTO) in 1999. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States launched military operations to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan and redoubled its CT efforts worldwide. AQ leadership fled to Pakistan, where U.S. forces killed Bin Laden in 2011. AQ attacks against U.S. and Western targets worldwide continued in the years after 9/11, but the group has not successfully carried out a major attack inside the United States since then.
AQ’s leader, or emir, is Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian who succeeded Bin Laden. Some attribute purported AQ struggles (including its failure to strike inside the United States ) to what they describe as al Zawahiri’s understated leadership, as compared to Bin Laden’s charisma. Others argue that Zawahiri’s more restrained approach is an asset that has created space for AQ affiliates to pursue regionally tailored strategies and make in roads into local communities and conflicts.
Al Qaeda once had a hierarchical organization, a relatively small and geographically contained membership, and claimed to be the vanguard and global leader of Islamist terrorism.The attenuation of AQ core leadership, the growth of regional affiliates, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS/ISIL) have changed Al Qaeda. Some contend that AlQaeda remains essentially a centrally governed organization, with the group’s leaders providing marching orders to its various affiliates; others describe a“hub and spoke”model in which leaders provide inspiration, strategic vision, and some financial support but little in the way of direct tactical supervision. Still others see the growth of affiliates as having undermined the status and importance of the core, with the affiliates’ respective local interests driving their actions more than any kind of centrally directed ideology or program.Al Qaeda may persist as a group that inspires ideologically motivated terrorism against U.S.interests around the world and opportunistically enters(or secures the allegiance of participants in)local conflicts.
Status in Afghanistan
U.S. officials assess that many AQ core leaders are based in Afghanistan, where the group has been weakened but not eliminated. According to a December 2020 Department of Defense (DOD) report, “AQ’s remaining core leaders pose a limited threat to U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan because they are focused primarily on survival.“
Regional developments, notably the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the post-2011 instability that engulfed some states after Arab Spring-inspired protests, created opportunities for AQ affiliates throughout the Middle East and Africa:
In 2004, the Iraq-based Jordanian national Abu Musab al Zarqawi formed the first AQ affiliate, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI was the first AQ affiliate to be designated as an FTO(in2004). In 2006, AQI renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which in 2011 expanded to Syria and later declared a global caliphate as the Islamic State.
U.S.-backed Saudi efforts to dismantle an ascent AQ branch in the country by 2005, leaving only scattered cells remaining.In 2009, these cells united with Yemeni (AQAP),designated as an FTO that year. AQAP grew rapidly in the context of Yemen’s post- 2011 instability and civil war. AQAP has attempted, perhaps more than any other AQ affiliate, to carry out and inspire attacks in the United States and Europe.
As its international reach grew with affiliates like AQI and AQAP,Al Qaeda also attracted interest from other like-minded groups. Al Shabaab, a Somali-origin group designated as an FTO in 2008 whose founders had ties to Al Qaeda, formally pledged allegiance in 2012. Al Shabaab, which took over territory in central and southern Somalia as an offshoot of a militant wing of Somalia’s Council of Islamic Courts in the mid-2000s, has carried out attacks against domestic and international targets in Somalia, as well as in Uganda, Djibouti, and Kenya. In April 2021, DOD officials described Al Shabaabas “the largest, wealthiest, and most violent Al Qaeda-associated group in the world.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—Al Qaeda’s oldest continually operating affiliate in Africa—first emerged as a faction in Algeria’s 1990s civil conflict. It pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and rebranded itself as AQIM in 2006-2007.AQIM’s center of gravity moved southward and eastward after 2011, spawning a number of splinter factions and local affiliates. Even as its activity in North Africa has waned, some of those affiliates have strengthened.The most prominent is the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (or JNIM, in Arabic), which was formed in early 2017 as a merger of AQIM’s Sahel branch and several AQIM-linked and off shoot groups.Designated as an FTO in 2018, JNIM is primarily active in Mali and Burkina in Syria deteriorated in 2011, AQI/ISI began operations there as the Nusra Front.The Nusra Front did not initially acknowledge ties to ISI/AQI but was designated by the State Department as an alias of ISI/AQI in December 2012.
Relation to the Islamic State
Al Qaeda, through the diverse global network of affiliates outlined above, often interacts with other groups, most notably the Islamic State. While there are some ideological and tactical similarities between IS and AQ, their relationship is mostly adversarial and their affiliates have clashed.According to a February 2021 U.N.terrorism sanctions investigation report,“The fragile consensus between Al-Qaida and ISIL to fight a common enemy is over, as both groups are now involved in violent confrontations” against each other in numerous conflict zones.
U.S. Policy Responses
The U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda, now in its third decade, spans a wide array of policy areas. The United States has conducted airstrikes on AQ targets in at least seven countries since 2012, and U.S. forces have engaged in ground combat against AQ in Afghanistan,Somalia,and Yemen in recent years. Beyond direct military action, the UnitedStates seeks to combat Al Qaeda and other terrorist threats “by, with, and through” local partners. AQ-linked groups are a leading threat to, and target of, countries to which the United States has provided millions of dollars in security assistance.