Al Qaeda is not dead yet, but it’s not nearly as strong as it was one year ago. Al Qaeda encountered its worst year ever in 2011 losing countless key leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Meanwhile a host of Arab revolutions unseated dictators long labelled by al Qaeda as apostate tools of the West. Al Qaeda played no part in these 2011 uprisings and gained a host of Islamist group competitors in the aftermath of these revolutions.
Thus, 2012 will constitute al Qaeda’s sink or swim year. Al Qaeda must transform and reinvigorate its base of support or will likely be crowded out by the advances of alternative Islamist groups taking control of Arab governments.
Despite recent setbacks, al Qaeda does have some potential avenues for re-emerging in 2012. Overall, if al Qaeda does regain its footing, I’m guessing it will be in a largely new form, in parallel rather than in coordination with its traditional senior leadership. I’ll focus on this more in two upcoming posts. But for now, here are the al Qaeda hotspots (outside of Pakistan) still warranting concern. I placed them in order based on most concerning to least concerning based on my weighted ranking of each group’s operational freedom, estimated resource support, and relative talent level. (This is a quick swag similar to this method from a few months back)
- al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – The loss of Awlaki and other key propagandists reduced the Yemen AQ affiliate’s global outreach and international operations. However, AQAP’s insurgency against the Yemeni state continues and they’ve been able to hold territory for sometime. Given a relatively stable safe haven, AQAP retains a base of talent which will likely allow them to project attacks outside the region in the future.
- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – AQIM appears to have picked up its attacks regionally in the past year and likely gained some weapons and recruits in the fallout of the Libyan revolution. As seen by their reliance on kidnapping operations, AQIM remains starved for resources. While the Sahel provides them a safe haven, it’s also a long way from targets and difficult to survive in. New partnerships between Sahel countries like Mali and Algeria suggest a renewed CT focus on this node which may inhibit their growth in 2012.
- Re-emerging al Qaeda in Syria/Anbar, Iraq - While its still too early to tell, Syria may be the most concerning opportunity for AQ’s re-emergence – a perfect opportunity really. Syria is a bloody fight against a declared apostate regime combined with a renewed base of support in Western Iraq where Sunnis may be contemplating a civil war with a Shia majority central government. AQ has lessons learned from jihadi participation in the Syrian of 1976-1982 (See “The Vanguard and Muslim Brotherhood Operations in Syria” section from Harmony and Disharmony by Joe Felter, Jacob Shapiro, Brian Fishman and Jeff Bramlett) and a network of support left from shipping foreign fighters into Iraq. Likewise, donations in men and money should be easy to come by for fighting in Syria and/or Iraq.
- al Shabaab in Somalia – I’m not sure what it is, but Shabaab always seems to get derailed by local politics that trump bigger al Qaeda goals. Shabaab will continue to pose a threat in the Horn of Africa but the interventions of Kenya, Ethiopia and the U.S. indirectly, combined with constant resource constraints, appear likely to check Shabaab’s growth. It’ll be interesting to see how the Kenyan incursion into Somalia plays out in 2012.
- al Qaeda in Libya – With the dust settling after the fall of the Qadhafi regime, veteran Libyan AQ fighters may be slipping into eastern Libya and joining old remnants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and the militias of Darnah. I’m still not convinced this will emerge as a serious AQ threat as resources will likely be limited to the group. Likewise, there are competing tribes that may be willing to take on AQ affiliated militants if coaxed a bit. Only time will tell, but there appears some reason to believe AQ will grow here.
- al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula – A new potential group emerging in the vacuum of the Egyptian revolution is al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula. This is a smart bet for AQ as the Palestinian-Israeli issue may be the remaining valid AQ ideological tenet for fighting the West. Many of AQ’s remaining leaders come from Egypt and courting anti-Israel popular support might be a way for AQ to infiltrate an Egyptian revolution they missed. However, Egypt’s newly elected Islamists may frown on a violent group drawing attention from the West.