Op-Ed: Al Qaeda misplaced its chief, however are Americans any safer?

The U.S. drone strike that killed Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri in Kabul final weekend jolted Americans, reminding them that Islamic extremists are nonetheless energetic. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, local weather change and the COVID pandemic are among the many many urgent points which have relegated overseas terrorism to the rearview mirror.

And but, as President Biden identified, America’s nationwide safety equipment by no means forgets. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide,” he stated Monday night time, “if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”

However how a lot of a menace was Zawahiri? Will his demise shield Americans?

As a lot because the success of the manhunt demonstrates obligatory resolve in opposition to terrorists who assault the U.S., the Al Qaeda that Zawahiri left behind was already diminished by inside and exterior forces. Since Osama bin Laden’s demise at U.S. fingers in 2011, and since 9/11 itself, it’s been a shadow of the group that when commanded world consideration. A brand new chief may revive its fortunes considerably, however Al Qaeda’s menace to the U.S. homeland will stay restricted.

Drone strikes, a worldwide intelligence marketing campaign and higher homeland defenses all have taken a considerable toll on the group, as did infighting throughout the radical Islamist motion and the atrocities its adherents inflicted on Muslim civilians in Iraq and different nations. Key planners, fundraisers, trainers and different lieutenants have been killed, arrested, or pressured to lie low, making it laborious to plot spectacular assaults and even keep a coherent motion.

Al Qaeda correct has not efficiently attacked the US or Europe since 2005, an eternity for a terrorist group looking for to seize world consideration. Rival however associated organizations resembling Islamic State, generally generally known as ISIS, have additionally been undermined by concerted counterterrorism efforts and infighting. ISIS’ lack of territorial management in Iraq and Syria was a crippling blow for a bunch whose model centered on creating a real caliphate dominated by Islamic regulation.

Underneath the uncharismatic Zawahiri, Al Qaeda survived however it didn’t thrive. He was unable to cease ISIS from violently rejecting his management and proved uninspiring to many potential recruits. Bin Laden’s No. 2 might declare one achieve throughout his tenure, the group’s enlargement, usually via changing terrorist teams within the Center East, Africa and South Asia into Al Qaeda associates.

A few of these offshoots — notably the Yemen department, generally known as Al Qaeda within the Arabian Peninsula — have impressed and even perhaps orchestrated assaults on the West, together with the newest assault in the US, in Florida in December 2019. The attacker, a Saudi navy trainee, killed three and wounded eight others at a naval base earlier than he was killed. In keeping with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, the trainee was “more than inspired” by Al Qaeda within the Arabian Peninsula, he “was sharing plans and tactics” with it.

Many of the different affiliate teams, nonetheless, are centered on civil wars and different native issues. They threaten regional stability however are much less of a hazard to the U.S. AQAP, whose chief was killed in a U.S. drone strike inside months of the Florida assault, is alleged to be splintering.

Lone wolf assaults just like the Boston Marathon bombing, the place self-radicalized people act with out route from a corporation, stay a fear, however the perpetrators are typically much less educated and thus much less deadly.

Afghanistan below the Taliban is a unique concern, highlighted by Zawahiri’s having taken refuge in Kabul, and the terrorist presence there ought to stay an intelligence precedence. Nonetheless, it doesn’t observe {that a} extra pragmatic Taliban, which is looking for Western support and funding, will enable Afghanistan to grow to be a base for coaching camps and recruits, because it was within the Nineteen Nineties. As well as, the Zawahiri strike exhibits that U.S. counterterrorism efforts, regardless of the American exodus in 2021, can nonetheless be devastatingly efficient.

A lot depends upon the following technology of Islamic radicals. A brand new Al Qaeda or ISIS chief looking for to re-energize his motion may attempt to appeal to donors and recruits by conducting high-profile operations within the West.

Continued counterterrorism efforts, nonetheless, make one other 9/11 or an assault resembling Paris in 2015 tough — one cause Al Qaeda turned to the native campaigns of its associates within the first place. It isn’t straightforward to command a motion when your group is below siege. ISIS is a living proof. It has foundered below a collection of unimpressive leaders, all of whom spent extra time hiding than they did directing their followers.

Lastly, the menace posed by Al Qaeda and its ilk will depend upon whether or not a brand new trigger makes them urgently related once more. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 electrified the Muslim world and vindicated Al Qaeda’s argument that the US was bent on regional domination. After 2011, the Syrian civil struggle and the caliphate ISIS declared in 2014 led to very large surges globally in recruitment and help for Islamic militants.

Right this moment, civil wars in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb have interaction native fighters however have restricted motivational enchantment globally. With out one other galvanizing Iraq or Syria, Al Qaeda and like-minded teams could fade even additional into yesterday’s information.

Daniel Byman is a professor within the College of Overseas Service at Georgetown College and a senior fellow on the Middle for Center East Coverage on the Brookings Establishment. @dbyman