Terrorists usually try to stay in the news, but Ayman al-Zawahiri has seemed an exception. Al Qaeda’s leader has gone almost a year between public statements before breaking his silence last Thursday. The archterrorist’s remarks, however, were as underwhelming as they were overdue. Zawahiri declared his loyalty to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the new Taliban leader, but otherwise his communiqué contained little of interest.
Much has occurred in the world of jihad since Zawahiri’s last public statement in September 2014: the death of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was widely considered to be al Qaeda’s second in command and had close personal ties to Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden; the deaths of two other al Qaeda heavyweights, likely in U.S. airstrikes; the continued rise of the Islamic State as a direct threat to al Qaeda’s leadership of the global jihadi movement; the decision by Saudi Arabia to intervene in the Yemeni civil war; and, of course, the revelation that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has apparently been dead for the past two years.
Yet Zawahiri addressed none of these issues in his message. Although he recited a long list of fallen comrades whom he praised as martyrs, he strangely didn’t include Wuhayshi or any of the others who have died this past year. He did, however, make sure to explicitly include Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that is now known as the Islamic State, and Zarqawi’s successor Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, on his list of glorious martyrs (right after bin Laden himself, in fact) in what analyst Thomas Joscelyn correctly notes was a pointed dig at the Islamic State, which has split from al Qaeda and rejected Zawahiri’s authority. By including Zarqawi and his successor on the list of vaunted al Qaeda martyrs right after bin Laden, Zawahiri is claiming the AQI leaders as his own, making it clear that despite their differences, Zarqawi and Muhajir were members of al Qaeda who died for al Qaeda’s — and thus Zawahiri’s — cause. The message to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers in the Islamic State is clear: You have betrayed the cause for which your founders gave their lives.
Zawahiri also did not address the rather prickly issue of whether he has known all along that Mullah Omar died two years ago. Either way, it’s bad for Zawahiri. If he knew, it means he has been deceiving his followers for years and publicly pledging his and his organization’s loyalty to a corpse. If he didn’t know, that raises the equally problematic issue of why no one in the Taliban thought to tell Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, that the man to whom he’d pledged his loyalty was dead and that he should probably not pledge his loyalty to him anymore, because that’s just creepy (not to mention illegitimate, as a dead guy isn’t exactly qualified to be the “Commander of the Faithful” anymore). It’s perhaps understandable that Zawahiri opted not to address the issue of who knew what when about Mullah Omar’s death at all — and instead merely acknowledged it and pledged his allegiance to the new Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour. Even so, Zawahiri’s silence on the matter is deafening.
Nor did Zawahiri emerge from his long period of silence with a rip-roaring call to arms to challenge the Islamic State and reassert his and al Qaeda’s leadership of the global jihadi movement. Instead, he put out a mind-numbingly dull video that featured an old clip of bin Laden that everyone has seen about a thousand times at this point, followed by almost 10 minutes of Zawahiri’s voice droning on and on over a static image of his weirdly beatific face. No fiery explosions, no rousing footage of “brave” jihadis charging into the fight against the infidel. Just a tedious old man lecturing about how al Qaeda will continue to fight alongside the Taliban to establish the caliphate that “achieves security, removes injustice, restores rights, and raises the banner of jihad.” Neither thrilling nor original.
Compare this to Baghdadi’s speech from November 2014. This, too, was just an audio message without any dramatic visuals — no flames, no AK-47s, and no exploding Humvees. And yet the difference in tone is striking:
O’ soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest the soldiers. Erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere. Light the earth with fire upon all those who rebel against God, their soldiers, and supporters. Carry on in your path, as you are the strong by Allah’s permission. Carry on, as you are the honorable. Carry on, as you are the superior. Carry on, as you are the victorious — God willing.
Baghdadi exhorts angsty young men to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere.” Zawahiri offers lessons on political theory.
Zawahiri’s video is not how you beat the Islamic State.
None of this is terribly surprising. When bin Laden died, numerous expertsnoted that Zawahiri lacked his predecessor’s charisma and leadership skills and was prone to infighting and pedantry. What he had instead was deep expertise in survival: Zawahiri formed his first terrorism cell as a teenager, and in the decades since has survived the hammer of Egypt’s counterterrorism, infighting within the jihadi movement, and an aggressive U.S. drone campaign. Running an effective organization today is hard, as he and his senior lieutenants can’t communicate or meet in large numbers without being on the receiving end of a Hellfire missile. (Which makes the fact that Zawahiri recorded his most recent statement pledging support for the new Taliban emir on the exact same day the Taliban issued their statement formally announcing Mullah Mansour’s coronation particularly interesting, as it suggests the lines of communication between the Taliban leadership and Zawahiri are not being disrupted at all. Perhaps it’s not all that hard to communicate with someone when you live in the cave next door.)
So Zawahiri survives and al Qaeda survives. But surviving is not the same as prospering.
Al Qaeda still exists, and its operatives still plot against the West. But during Zawahiri’s tenure the results have been pathetic. Since he took over the group in 2011, the core al Qaeda has conducted not one successful attack in the United States or Europe. Those few terrorist attacks that did succeed were conducted by al Qaeda affiliates acting independently, or Islamic State adherents, not Zawahiri and his chief lieutenants.
Yet Zawahiri remains vital to al Qaeda. He is the last senior figure of the al Qaeda old guard that came of age fighting in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan alongside bin Laden. Most of the group’s original leaders are dead, and a few, like the Egyptian theologian Dr. Fadl, have rejected violence and condemned al Qaeda. A new generation might take up the torch upon Zawahiri’s death, but none have his name recognition or credibility.
The Islamic State leadership, in contrast, is more dynamic. Baghdadi electrified the jihadi world when he proclaimed a caliphate last year. His group’s campaign against Shiite “apostates” and military victories on the ground are a demonstration of the group’s prowess and emotionally appealing to jihadi sympathizers and would-be radicals. Zawahiri talks the talk; Baghdadi walks the walk.
The Islamic State is also wooing groups in the Muslim world and creating fissures in existing ones. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, though what it means to be a “province” of the group remains unclear. Islamic State fighters are also active in Libya. In Sinai, local jihadis are pledging loyalty and beheading foreigners in imitation. In Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, cells claiming to act in the name of the Islamic State are active, posing a challenge to the al Qaeda-linked old guard leadership.
Al Qaeda is strongest when we factor in its affiliate organizations: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Nusra Front in Syria. AQAP in particular has done the most to carry on al Qaeda’s anti-Western agenda, training one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers and attempting to bomb U.S. airliners. Others have expanded their targeting of Western and international targets within their own local theaters of war but have not endeavored to launch attacks inside the United States or Europe.
Yet even here al Qaeda seems on the decline, particularly when we consider the terrorism threat to the West. All the affiliates are focused first and foremost on the bloody civil wars in their regions. They hope to gain territory and expand their local control, but the wars are all-consuming, and terrorism overseas is at best a sideshow. The leader of al-Nusra Front even claimed the group does not want to attack Western targets and is exclusively focused on the civil war in Syria.
The lone-wolf wannabe types offer a rough barometer of who is up and who is down in the terrorism universe. In Europe, Australia, and the United States, dozens of individuals have plotted or attempted attacks (and a few have succeeded) in the past year. Many of these have a long record of support for jihadi causes. However, the vast majority today claim to be acting in the name of the Islamic State, not Zawahiri’s al Qaeda.
But while the rise in the number of Islamic State-inspired lone-wolf attacks might suggest that the Islamic State is a serious threat to everyday Americans, the fact remains that the Islamic State is engaged in a state-building project in a part of the world far away from the U.S. homeland. Its resources are focused on conquering new territory and establishing a functioning state in the territory it currently controls.
The main thrust of its propaganda efforts is to entice young men (and women) to travel to its territory. It calls on supporters to launch lone-wolf attacks in the West, but only if they can’t make their way to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the Islamic State. Not surprisingly, many attacks inspired by the Islamic State are amateurish. This is not to say that a more catastrophic attack is impossible — and of course the loss of even one innocent life is one too many — but from the larger strategic perspective, the Islamic State threat to the U.S. homeland is limited.
Al Qaeda, on the other hand, was that rare group that cared as much (if not more) about international terrorism as it did about winning locally. Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the rest of the al Qaeda core leadership long emphasized attacks on the “far enemy” — the West and especially the United States — over attacks on the “near enemy” — the “apostate” regimes in places like Egypt that they wanted to overthrow. The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were the pinnacle of this effort, but they have been unable to pull off another attack on the United States anywhere close to that scale since.
So the Islamic State is growing stronger but focused on the Middle East. The al Qaeda core remains focused on the United States but is a mere shadow of the group it once was. The threat to the U.S. homeland, and the threat to U.S. interests abroad, must reflect today’s terrorism dynamics — not those of 9/11.