Both terrorist groups have powerful affiliates, especially in Africa.
MADRID, 7 Jan. (.) –
The last twelve months in the fight against international terrorism have been particularly successful, with the death of the leader of Al Qaeda and two successive leaders of the Islamic State, but at a time when the ‘war’ launched by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 If it seems to be relegated to the background in the face of threats such as Russia or China, experts warn that the problem is far from having disappeared.
“Despite the continued losses of leaders by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, terrorism in general has become more prevalent and has spread more geographically, affecting the lives of millions of people around the world,” he warned a few weeks ago before the Security Council the head of the United Nations Anti-Terrorism Office, Vladimir Voronkov.
In recent years, these terrorist groups and their affiliates “have continued to exploit instability, fragility and conflict to advance their agendas,” he denounced, drawing attention in particular to the deterioration in this regard in West Africa and the Sahel, where they threaten to continue expanding their area of operations.
The ‘beheading’ experienced by both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, a term used in anti-terrorist slang when the leader is eliminated, has opened a new stage in both organizations, which, however, they have managed in very different ways.
AL QAEDA, STILL WITHOUT A NEW LEADER
Al Qaeda has yet to officially confirm the death of its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a US drone strike on July 31 in Kabul. After the death of its founder, Usama bin Laden, in a US operation in Abotabad (Pakistan) on May 2, 2011, the terrorist group took barely a month to confirm that its ‘number two’, the Egyptian Al Zawahiri, was taking the reins.
However, the official confirmation of the death of the leader of Al Qaeda, announced without any doubt by the US president, Joe Biden, has still not arrived and even the terrorist group has seemed to want to play the mistake with some of its latest messages.
Experts agree that Al Zawahiri’s ‘natural’ heir would be Saif al Adel, also an Egyptian, until now considered ‘number two’ and who has lived in Iran for years, under circumstances that are not entirely clear.
Precisely this last question could be decisive in terms of his rise as leader of Al Qaeda, since it would not be easy to understand that the Sunni terrorist group is led by someone who lives in the Shiite country par excellence. However, Al Adel could try to leave Iran for neighboring Afghanistan, where the new Taliban authorities are al Qaeda’s best ally and where the organization’s leadership has traditionally been.
In a recent article in Lawfareblog, the experts Raffaello Pantucci and Kabir Kabir Kabir point to several possibilities, from the fact that Al Adel is also dead but has not come out until now, to his inability to communicate with the leadership of Al Qaeda or at his will. to keep a low profile to be able to reorganize the group and avoid putting a target on his head from now on.
For their part, Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware warn in another article in the ‘CTC Sentinel’ of the West Point Center for the Fight against Terrorism that if it is finally Al Adel who takes over the baton from Al Qaeda “it will bring credibility to the role of leader given his long and varied experience” for decades in the terrorist organization.
Likewise, they predict that it will bring “a more practical and blocking approach” when it comes to continuing its campaigns at the local, regional and international level and that “it will probably avoid spectacular operations such as 9/11 and instead put Al Qaeda’s focus on attacking embassies and consulates, tourist destinations and commercial aviation”.
DOUBLE RELAY IN ISLAMIC STATE
In the case of the Islamic State, they are already more used to the replacement of their leaders and the process is carried out smoothly. This happened first when in October 2019 the one who was its first ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, blew himself up when he was besieged in a US operation in northern Syria.
His successor, Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Quraishi, was announced just four days later. On February 3, the United States reported his death in an operation also in northern Syria and in circumstances similar to those of Al Baghdadi, without Abu Ibrahim having made any public message in the more than three years at the helm. of the group.
Also this time the replacement was quick and the Islamic State announced on March 10 the new leader, Abu Hasan al Hashimi al Quraishi. His tenure has been much more ephemeral than that of his predecessor, without in fact his true identity being entirely clear. In his case, it was the Islamic State who announced his death in combat on November 30 and directly to his successor, Abu al-Husein al-Huseini al Quraishi.
As in previous successions, the various affiliates around the world rushed to swear allegiance to their new ‘caliph’. “The loyalty oaths of the various affiliates despite frequent leadership transitions indicate that it remains cohesive as a global movement and continues to have the ability to inspire support and loyalty among the affiliates,” Hoffman and Ware note.
THE SUBSIDIARIES, THE BIG ASSETS
However, in recent times the concern surrounding both terrorist organizations has been less focused on their central core than on the capacity of their subsidiaries, given the decentralization process that they have carried out and that has allowed their different branches to act with great autonomy, although the ultimate enemy is always the United States and the West.
For this reason, although the situation in Iraq and Syria, the original stronghold of the Islamic State, and in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda has a safe haven with the connivance of the Taliban authorities, all eyes are increasingly on Africa. , which has become the main ‘hot spot’ of world terrorism.
Thus, senior US officials point to the risk posed by both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the latest affiliate that has managed to help coordinate an attack in the United States since 9/11 –the one in Pensacola in which a military Saudi Arabia killed three US sailors at the US Navy base in December 2019–as did Al Shabaab, its affiliate in Somalia and East Africa.
“The probability that an al Qaeda group will carry out an international terrorist attack continues to increase as regional branches strengthen and anti-terrorist pressure rises,” expert Katherine Zimmerman warned in statements to VOA.
The Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the branch in the Sahel, is a good example of this since it began its activity in the north of Mali and has been expanding to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger and is progressing now. towards the countries of the Gulf of Guinea.
As for the Islamic State, Hoffman and Ware argue that, like al Qaeda, its threat “remains primarily local and regional and not international.” “However, the movement continues its long-standing efforts to inspire violent attacks in the West, through small cells and individuals radicalized online and inspired to attack in their home countries,” they stress.
Thus, they warn that “the danger now is that in its prioritization of other national security issues, the United States becomes complacent in its fight against terrorism.” “Our longtime extremist adversaries are ready to strike and eternal vigilance is essential,” they conclude.