On the tenth anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s assassination on May 2, 2011 at the hands of American forces, U.S. President Joe Biden said the death of the terror mastermind reaffirmed his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan.
But where does the terrorist mastermind’s organization, al Qaeda, find itself these days? And is the U.S. military withdrawal going to allow for a resurgence of the group’s activities?
The Daily Star, in Lebanon, writes that al Qaeda still remains a threat even though it bears “little resemblance to the terror network that struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.”
The Egyptian jihadist, Ayman al-Zawahiri, succeeded bin Laden and has taken a very different approach than his predecessor.
“Under Zawahiri’s stewardship, al Qaeda has become increasingly decentralized, with authority resting primarily in the hands of al Qaeda’s affiliate leaders,” said a report from the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) think tank.
Zawahiri has in some ways “diversified” al Qaeda operations and reorganized into various jihadist groups that are under its umbrella. The organization is involved in conflicts in Maghreb, Somalia, Syria and Iraq as well as Afghanistan.
But in 2020, five key al Qaeda leaders have been killed.
“In the past, al Qaeda has adjusted to the loss of leaders, with new figures emerging to take up the banner. But the turnover at the top also threatened instability, partly since communication among senior leaders has long been less efficient due to the danger of communications intercepts,” Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote.
“The question whenever there is a transition to new leaders is whether they will focus more on regional or local conflicts, or will they redirect resources toward global operations? So far, al Qaeda has given priority to widening its regional reach. As of early 2021, it has six core branches stretching from the Sahel to the Indian Subcontinent.”
Biden – who was vice president under then-President Barack Obama who ordered the hit on bin Laden – was present in the Situation Room watching remotely when the special forces team entered bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and took him down.
“We followed bin Laden to the gates of hell – and we got him,” he said. “We kept the promise to all those who lost loved ones on 9/11: that we would never forget those we had lost, and that the United States will never waver in our commitment to prevent another attack on our homeland.”
But now the president is shifting focus as well. He announced last month that U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be complete by Sept. 11 of this year – the 20th anniversary of the attacks against the United States which began American intervention in the region.
“Al Qaeda is greatly degraded there. But the United States will remain vigilant about the threat from terrorist groups that have metastasized around the world,” he said. “We will continue to monitor and disrupt any threat to us that emerges from Afghanistan. And we will work to counter terrorist threats to our homeland and our interests in cooperation with allies and partners around the world.”
In his address to Congress last week, Biden explained that the U.S. should turn its focus to domestic terrorism and white nationalist terrorism rather than external sources such as al Qaeda.
“After 20 years of American valor and sacrifice, it’s time to bring our troops home.”