A year after the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the core of the terrorist organization has been greatly diminished, but the organization retains lethal influence as the “node” in a vast network of deadly Islamic terrorist organizations.
Since the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qaeda has suffered a number of setbacks, including the loss of other senior leaders. “Today, it is increasingly clear that, compared to 9/11, the core al-Qaeda leadership is a shadow of its former self,” White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said at a conference in Washington on Monday.
But despite the decline of the main branch of al-Qaeda, “many of its affiliate groups and adherents continue to carry on the cause with extreme violence,” said Brennan.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), based at the University of Maryland, identifies 33 terrorist groups with direct links and alliances to al-Qaeda.
“Al-Qaeda has also become a crucial ‘node’ in a network of deadly terrorist organizations—some created in the hopes of replicating al-Qaeda, others aligning with al-Qaeda for ideological or practical reasons,” says the report published May 1.
Groups formally affiliate themselves with al-Qaeda by taking an oath of allegiance. Some of the most notorious include al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.
Other groups share a common ideology with al-Qaeda but are not formally allied such as the Jemaah Islamiyah network in Southeast Asia.
“This is not a static situation. Groups may move closer to or move away from al-Qaeda, depending on the circumstances and the utility (or disutility) of the relationship with al-Qaeda,” Angel Rabasa, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation, wrote emailed comments.
Furthermore, there are a number of so-called “lone-wolf” aspiring terrorists who are inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology but do not have a formal association with the group. “Many Western jihadists fall into this category,” said Rabasa.
Based in Yemen, AQAP is viewed as a group that can inspire Muslims in the West, including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas day in 2009; Nidal Malik Hasan, the soldier who killed 13 at the Fort Hood base in 2009; and Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the 2010 Times Square bombing attempt.
“The threat of Islamist terrorism has not disappeared; it has become even more decentralized and shifted to these affiliated, associated, and inspired regional terrorist groups,” writes Rabasa.
The lack of control over these affiliates was already the case before bin Laden was killed. Excerpts of documents seized from bin Laden’s house published by CNN, show the bin Laden telling Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair, leader of al-Shabab, on Aug. 7, 2010, “If asked, it would be better to say there is a relationship with al-Qaeda, which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection, and nothing more.”