Al-Qaeda’s leadership is a shattered remnant, reduced to begging funds and munitions from local allies and with its most capable members heading to Syria, according to recent briefings from Pakistan’s intelligence services.
But western analysts say the group retains the ability to regenerate quickly and dangerously and its ideology remains a potent threat around the world, as the closure of US embassies across the West Asia this week shows.
With fewer than 100 leaders, fighters and trainers and few experienced operators, the ability of the group’s Pakistan-based “general command” under Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born militant who replaced Osama bin Laden after he was killed in 2011, to launch overseas attacks is limited, Pakistani officials have said.
As demands mount elsewhere in the Islamic world, policymakers and specialists have to decide the focus of counter-terrorist efforts. But there is still little consensus on which elements of the al-Qaeda phenomenon pose the greatest threat. In July, it was reported that the CIA would be shifting resources from Afghanistan and Pakistan to West Asia and Africa.
The current capabilities of the core leadership element of al-Qaeda, founded in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar 25 years ago on August 11 and still based in the country, is a particularly controversial topic.
US intelligence services broadly concur with the Pakistani view that the al-Qaeda “senior leadership” or “general command” in the troubled south Asian state has been significantly damaged by the elimination of the majority of its senior operatives and by lower levels of support in the Muslim world. However, some argue that it remains a significant threat, particularly with most US and international forces due to leave Afghanistan within 18 months.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington thinktank, said: “Al-Qaeda central has been degraded, but what does that mean? Their ability to regenerate is probably greater than most analysts believe.” A recent report published by Canadian intelligence services referred to al-Qaeda’s “hardcore” having “a deeper bench” of leaders and operatives. This, among other factors, suggested that “al-Qaeda Core is extremely likely to exist in 2017 much as it existed – despite predictions and assessments to the contrary – in 2007.”
The approaching withdrawal from Afghanistan has intensified the debate. The departure of most international troops could, some fear, provide a propaganda victory which would reinvigorate extremists both internationally and locally. Another concern is heightened lawlessness in Afghanistan which would help militant groups there and in Pakistan.
“The withdrawal of US forces and Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) troops from Afghanistan by 2014 further suggests that core al-Qaeda may well regain the breathing space and cross-border physical sanctuary needed to ensure its continued existence,” the Canadian report says. Some analysts point out that together these factors partially replicate the circumstances -- the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan -- in which al-Qaeda emerged.
In the town of Sopore, a hotbed of insurgent violence in Indian Kashmir, young men, between bouts of throwing rocks at local police during a morning’s rioting last month, said that events in Afghanistan had inspired them.
But it is less clear that events in Afghanistan will have the same effect further afield. Internet forums and propaganda websites are dominated by news from Syria or other Middle Eastern countries. Al-Qaeda “general command” has also lost its most effective propagandists: Bin Laden himself and Abu Yahya al-Libi, a younger militant who was killed last year. Al-Zawahiri, the current leader, lacks the charisma of either.
A key factor determining the evolution of the remnant of al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan in coming years will be its local allies, analysts agree. If either the Afghan Taliban or the Pakistani Taliban are definitively defeated, significantly degraded or conclude an agreement to lay down their weapons, al-Qaeda could find itself without the haven that has given a modicum of precarious security over the last decade.
“We see (al-Qaeda) more and more dependent on local networks who have funds and weapons and recruits, but with less and less to offer them. The overall picture is very fragmented,” said one senior officer based in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
One indication is the flow of recruits. Intelligence services are picking up signs that the Pakistan Taliban or even other “international” groups with a presence on the frontier are being preferred by volunteers. In one recent case, a young Pakistani who was studying in the UK returned to his homeland and sought out the Pakistan Taliban despite attempts by al-Qaeda to recruit him.
One key development is what analysts call the “Pakistanisation” of al-Qaeda in the country. Senior al-Qaeda leaders established a local branch to develop operations and links in Pakistan several years ago and have recently ramped up propaganda directed at south Asian Muslims.