“We delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, and we degraded the terrorist threat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” Joe Biden declared in his speech to Congress on Wednesday. And that, he explained, was why we can now withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as he announced earlier this month.
Yes, bin Laden is dead — thanks to a daring raid by U.S. Special Operations forces 10 years ago. But the president’s statement misses the mark. Its founder might have left the scene, but al-Qaeda hasn’t gone away — and that has clear implications for our strategy in Afghanistan and across the world.
Transnational terrorist groups, especially those maintaining affiliates worldwide, are often greater than the sum of their parts. One decade after bin Laden’s death, his organization — including affiliates such as Somalia’s al-Shabab and Syria’s Hurras al-Din — now boasts between 30,000 to 40,000 fighters globally and maintains a presence in more countries than it did on 9/11. A celebrated martyr to his followers, bin Laden remains an enduring symbol for jihadist sympathizers from the Maghreb to Mindanao. His legacy suggests that his goal of spreading al-Qaeda’s ideology worldwide has been achieved.
Twenty five years after bin Laden’s fatwa declaring war against the United States, al-Qaeda survives, even as Washington and its allies yearn to move on from two decades of the so-called global war on terrorism. But al-Qaeda’s persistence raises legitimate concerns that a calendar-based withdrawal in Afghanistan will lead to a replay of what happened in Iraq in 2011. Just three years after pulling out its troops, the United States was forced to return to deal with the rise of the Islamic State and a state-building project that had attracted more than 40,000 foreign fighters from more than 110 countries.
Proponents of withdrawal suggest that al-Qaeda has only several hundred fighters in Afghanistan, despite its more robust franchise groups in the Middle East and Africa. But once the United States is out of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda will have an opportunity to regenerate its networks, particularly if the Taliban comes to militarily dominate large swaths of Afghanistan, as many expect. The Taliban has never broken with al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda fighters even embed in Taliban fighting units. Taliban sponsorship of al-Qaeda and its affiliates creates the potential for an al-Qaeda revival in the region.
In addition to what remains of its core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda has branches in India and Kashmir — al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, respectively. If jihadists in Afghanistan can generate momentum, it could lead to an influx of foreign fighters, resuscitating a group looking for a lifeline.
By the time Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in May 2011, some analysts had written him off as a marginalized figure who spent his time in hiding with little impact on the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda’s global network. But we now know that bin Laden actually remained an active leader, providing important input on tactics, operations and strategy. A review of the documents found in his Abbottabad compound demonstrates that functioned as a hands-on leader until his last days. Yet even though he was still involved in group decision-making, his actual degree of command-and-control was limited by al-Qaeda’s decentralized structure and the challenge of communicating with affiliate leaders quickly and efficiently.
Removing bin Laden had little impact on al-Qaeda’s affiliates in the Sahel. Both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin remain highly active and continue to recruit new members to conduct terrorist attacks with impunity in countries such as Mali and Niger.
In its earliest days, al-Qaeda proved it could operate as a hybrid entity, with its leadership spread among different countries. Both before and after bin Laden’s removal, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership remained involved in planning operations. Mid-level commanders were empowered to execute the organization’s strategic vision as they saw fit. The group has overcome significant challenges related to the Arab Spring protests and internecine conflict with the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda has adapted, shifting its focus to establishing political legitimacy in West Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, adopting the parochial grievances of local tribes and clans.
In reviewing lessons learned from the past two decades of counterterrorism operations, the preponderance of evidence suggests that targeting individual leaders has its limits. We’ve learned that it’s more effective to focus on disrupting terrorist networks by focusing on dismantling supply lines, attacking logistical capabilities and denying militants the ability to enjoy external support, including financing and sanctuary. This doesn’t mean that killing high-value targets is ineffective, but rather that “leadership decapitation” is merely one of many tactics that should be used as part of a wider strategy.
Killing bin Laden 10 years ago was an important milestone. But it was more symbolic than impactful, more tactical than strategic. The United States might be leaving Afghanistan, but al-Qaeda remains, long after bin Laden is gone.
Colin P. Clarke is the director of research and policy at The Soufan Group.