Abstract: For several years after the emergence of the Islamic State, al-Qa`ida was overshadowed as the premier jihadi movement, seemingly giving way to a flashier, more adaptive, and more media savvy organization. However, al-Qa`ida appears to be attempting to revamp its public image—possibly signaling a revitalization. Since 2017, the group has significantly increased its media outreach and incorporated statements from al-Qa`ida heir apparent Hamza bin Ladin. This effort is likely to help al-Qa`ida roll back previous criticisms regarding limited communication from senior leaders and a lack of a coherent strategic vision. The outreach may also bolster al-Qa`ida’s appeal to a new generation of fighters. In addition, the media statements help to illuminate al-Qa`ida’s strategic intent and serve as a reminder to the United States and the West that al-Qa`ida has not abandoned its ambitions to target its far enemies.

According to the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, the United States has not been effective at targeting the means by which groups such as al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State inspire, radicalize, and recruit. As a result, the strategy directed that the United States must bolster efforts to “undermine the ability of terrorist ideologies to create a common identity and sense of purpose among potential recruits.”1 Central to any group’s ability to draw support and project its ideology are media campaigns, which help to not only inspire action but direct overall strategy.

The Islamic State was particularly effective in the media domain. At one time, the group disseminated regularly-published magazines (Dabiq and then later Rumiyah), along with video productions (to include beheadings), and its “Cubs of the Caliphate” series.2 The group mastered the use of imagery and historical narratives to inspire support for its movement. Conversely, media outreach has been a shortfall for al-Qa`ida—particularly following the 2011 death of its leader, Usama bin Ladin. The group has faced challenges from limited communication from senior leaders, a failure to vocalize a clear and focused strategy, and an inability to adapt to changing conditions in the Middle East (to include the emergence of its rival, the Islamic State).3

However, al-Qa`ida appears to be attempting to reverse these shortfalls. For instance, the group has significantly increased the pace of its statements from its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, gradually increased the pace of statements from Hamza bin Ladin (offering him up as a voice for the next generation), created greater cohesion amongst media efforts of its affiliates, and established a new website that provides a repository of speeches and reference materials.4 a These efforts suggest al-Qa`ida is attempting to reintroduce its movement to the world, and possibly rebrand its long-term strategy.

In addition, on several occasions in 2018, al-Zawahiri vocalized al-Qa`ida’s intent to target the United States. This includes the labeling of the United States as the “first enemy” of Muslims worldwide.5 Although criticisms of the United States are not new for al-Qa`ida, the pace at which al-Zawahiri is disseminating the messages has changed, providing the opportunity for greater saliency. In addition, these messages serve as a reminder that the group, for whom perceptions of its threat have been overshadowed by the Islamic State, has not abandoned targeting far enemies and its long-term ambition of establishing a caliphate.

Leadership Expands its Media Outreach
Ayman al-Zawahiri has served as the emir of al-Qa`ida since 2011. Al-Zawahiri, who was born and raised in a Cairo suburb, is a trained surgeon and the son of an aristocratic family.6 As a young man, he was actively involved in efforts to protest the use of heavy-handed tactics against Islamists by the Egyptian government and founded a cell dedicated to replacing the secular Egyptian government with one he perceived to be Islamic when he was only 15 years old.7 He later participated in the Afghan jihad, forged close ties with bin Ladin, and played an integral role in the development of al-Qa`ida and its overall strategy.8

Although al-Zawahiri technically possesses the credentials to lead the movement, he has been criticized for being a “black hole of charisma,” and described as “pedantic” and “overbearing.”9 He has also been criticized for going long periods without issuing any public guidance or direction (almost certainly due to concerns such communication could compromise his personal security). For instance, between 2014 and 2015, he went nearly an entire year without making any type of public statement at all.10

Since January 2018, al-Qa`ida has released 15 statements attributed to al-Zawahiri, with the most recent released on December 24, 2018.11 While this may not seem like a significant amount of statements to Western audiences, it reflects a 67-percent increase over the pace of al-Zawahiri’s media outreach in 2017. Although al-Zawahiri still lacks the charismatic persona of his predecessor, the increased outreach may help to diminish perceptions of his reclusiveness and to reintroduce him to al-Qa`ida followers and supporters. In addition, al-Zawahiri’s unyielding position that the development of a potential Islamic caliphate must be slow and deliberate was likely validated by the apparent contraction of the Islamic State inside Iraq and Syria, helping to position him as the ‘wise jihadi’s statesman.’12

Starting in late 2017, al-Qa`ida also increased the pace at which it disseminated statements from Hamza bin Ladin, the third son of the former al-Qa`ida leader. For example, in 2016, al-Qa`ida released only two statements attributed to Hamza bin Ladin, while since mid-2017, it has released six, with the most recent released in the spring of 2018.13 Hamza was reportedly one of bin Ladin’s favorite sons, and was groomed to one day help lead al-Qa`ida—appearing in propaganda footage alongside his father, undergoing assault training with al-Qa`ida fighters, and preaching sermons to al-Qa`ida rank-and-file.14

Al-Qa`ida is likely attempting to draw on Hamza’s lineage as the son of Usama bin Ladin to inspire a new generation of fighters, while also providing a “next gen” alternative to al-Zawahiri as the face of al-Qa`ida. Al-Qa`ida appears to be relying in part on Hamza to maintain the symbolic underpinnings of the group. Al-Qa`ida will likely be careful not to overpromote Hamza in order to suppress possible questions of succession or challenges to the current senior leadership cadre, and it may curb his outreach in order to avoid compromising his personal security. However, the group appears to be comfortable in giving Hamza bin Ladin a role in spearheading efforts against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (no doubt seen by the group as a valid fit, owing to his familial and historical ties to the region). More than half of Hamza’s statements have focused on criticizing the Saudi regime, whom he has claimed “betrayed Islam and the Muslims with unprecedented treachery.”15

Al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (taken from a March 2018 al-Qa`ida media release)

Reintroducing the Strategic Vision
Perhaps more notable than the pace at which al-Qa`ida has increased its media outreach is the content of al-Qa`ida’s messages. An examination of the statements disseminated in 2018 indicates al-Qa`ida is not only attempting to reintroduce its leaders to the world, but it may also be reintroducing its strategic vision as well. Al-Zawahiri has repeatedly outlined a broad strategy, which appears to be grounded by three pillars—the establishment of an expansionist Islamic Emirate (the cornerstone of which is Afghanistan), the adoption of al-Qa`ida’s brand of sharia in Muslim countries, and targeting “far” enemies such as the United States. In addition to these broad strategic goals, al-Zawahiri has repeatedly called for unity of effort amongst Muslims and has offered an olive branch to former Islamic State members, stating they are welcome to join al-Qa`ida ranks.

The symbolic importance of Afghanistan was emphasized in at least five of al-Zawahiri’s statements in 2018. This includes an August 23, 2018, statement in which al-Zawahiri claimed al-Qa`ida had planted the “seed” for its future state around the “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan.16 He also stated that Muslims needed to join the Taliban and al-Qa`ida in the establishment of a state that would eventually serve an “Islamic jihadi gathering from Turkistan to the Atlantic Coasts.”17 b This suggests that al-Qa`ida likely attributes the viability of its aspirational caliphate to that of the Taliban and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and helps to explain al-Qa`ida’s continued subordination to the Taliban leader as the Emir Ul Momineen (leader of the faithful).18

Similarly, the implementation of sharia law also remains central to al-Qa`ida’s narrative. For example, al-Zawahiri mentioned sharia law in each statement he released in 2018, underscoring its significance to al-Qa`ida. On October 11, 2018, al-Zawahiri devoted an entire statement to sharia.19 In it, he criticized Muslim nations that incorporated secular law and have held democratic elections, calling them “failed experiments” that were representative of the “swamp of the corrupt.” Al-Zawahiri further emphasized that in the “call of jihad,” there is nothing higher than defending sharia law, and emphasized that sharia—what he referred to as al-Qa`ida’s “doctrine of governance”—should never be abandoned. Al-Zawahiri also issued repeated critiques of governments in Muslim-majority countries that al-Qa`ida believed were corrupted by secular law, particularly Egypt, which was mentioned in seven of the 13 statements, and other North African nations such as Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and Algeria. In January 2018, al-Zawahiri claimed that the “tyrannical regimes” in North Africa had been corrupted and that sharia-based governance was “sacrificed” in these areas in order to please the West.

Finally, al-Zawahiri discussed al-Qa`ida’s grievances with the United States in all but two statements in 2018, demonstrating that the group has not abandoned its efforts to target its “far enemy.” This includes a March 20, 2018, statement titled “America is the First Enemy of Muslims,” in which al-Zawahiri not only advocated for attacks on the United States and its interests but calls for the worldwide Muslim community to unite in the effort.20 He stated, “Let us fight America everywhere the same way it attacks us everywhere. Let us unite in confronting it, and never divide. Let us unify and never disperse. Let us gather and never become shattered.” Furthermore, on September 11, 2018, al-Zawahiri laid out a 14-point missive outlining al-Qa`ida’s positions against the United States. In that statement, al-Zawahiri ominously warned that “the battle against America has become inevitable.”21 Should al-Qa`ida attempt to translate the increased rhetoric into operational activity against Western interests, it would signal a shift from its apparent strategy from around 2015 of holding off attacks targeting Western interests to avoid additional counterterrorism pressure.c As former head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Nicholas Rasmussen said in January 2018, al-Qa`ida may be in the process of a pivoting back to an international focus, and there was “never any sense of comfort” that al-Qa`ida’s external planning had abated. It appears as if there is growing concern that this shift may become a reality. For instance, in December 2018, U.K. security minister Ben Wallace warned that “al-Qaeda are resurgent. They have reorganised. They are pushing more and more plots towards Europe” and that intelligence had revealed that the group was developing technology to bring down passenger jets.22

Hamza bin Ladin (taken from video footage released by the Central Intelligence Agency following the 2011 raid on Usama bin Ladin’s compound)

Al-Qa`ida Affiliates Increasing Cohesion, Share A Global Vision
Al-Qa`ida also appears to be increasing cohesion amongst its global affiliates. The synchronization of media between al-Qa`ida leaders and its affiliates almost certainly helps the group to promote perceptions of upward momentum and unity of effort on a more global scale. On several occasions since early 2017, affiliates have issued joint statements regarding external issues. For example, in February 2017, al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a joint statement eulogizing Omar Abdul Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh,” who died while in U.S. federal custody.23 The statement called for fighters to conduct attacks against U.S. interests to avenge his death. Meanwhile, in September 2017, al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, and AQAP issued nearly identical statements calling for support of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.24 When AQIM announced the merger of several armed groups in Mali in March 2017, the groups pledged loyalty to both al-Qa`ida and the Taliban, underscoring that even in a remote area such as Timbuktu, al-Qa`ida affiliates are in line with the movement’s strategic messaging.25 Furthermore, in May 2017, al-Shabaab issued a 55-minute video featuring statements from several senior al-Qa`ida leaders. The narration called the United States the “Satan of our time” and stated that al-Shabaab’s jihad is a global one that is not restricted to geographical boundaries.26

Al-Qa`ida’s enhanced media campaign suggests the group is willing to evolve and is likely endeavoring to emerge from behind the shadows of the Islamic State with a renewed vision and a sense of vindication for its more patient strategy. Al-Qa`ida has seen its appeal ebb and flow over time, and it is unclear if its efforts to publicly reinvigorate its movement will translate into any operational successes.27 However, the rebranding, coupled with the measured roll-out of Hamza bin Ladin as a “next gen” leader, may help the group to connect with and inspire a new generation of fighters. It may also enable al-Qa`ida to increase its appeal to former members of the Islamic State, which is currently stymied by the decline of its own media campaigns.28

Through al-Zawahiri’s statements, al-Qa`ida has clearly enumerated its strategy and has provided insight into its potential operational priorities. Al-Qa`ida remains intent on developing an Islamic caliphate, steadfastly resolves to implement sharia law and undermine governments and regimes in the Muslim world that incorporate secular law and democratic elections, and remains intent on targeting the United States and its “far enemies.” This all suggests it is possibly positioning its movement for a resurgence.     CTC

Jami Forbes is an analyst with the Department of the Army who specializes in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency studies, with regional focuses on Africa and Afghanistan.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.

Substantive Notes
[a] The al-Qa`ida-aligned As-Sahab Media Foundation announced the launch of a website via Telegram on November 6, 2018. The website contains both documents and videos of speeches from leaders and attack footage.

[b] Turkistan is a reference to a historic region that encompasses wide swaths of Central Asia and stretches from Siberia to Iran and Afghanistan.

[c] In May 2015, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of the then al-Qa`ida affiliate in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra, told Al Jazeera that al-Zawahiri had instructed him to avoid launching attacks in the United States or Europe that might jeopardize the group’s operations in Syria. Authorities have not publicly disclosed any plot by al-Qa`ida or any of its affiliates targeting Western soil since then. “Al-Qaeda ‘orders Syria’s Al-Nusra Front not to attack West,’” BBC, May 28, 2015; James Novogrod, “Al-Qaeda in Syria: Our Focus Is Assad, Not West,” NBC, May 27, 2015.

[1] National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America, October 2018.

[2] Steve Rose, “The Isis Propaganda War: A Hi-Tech Media Jihad,” Guardian, October 7, 2014.

[3] Barbara Sude, “Assessing Al-Qa`ida Central’s Resilience,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015).

[4] “Al-Qaeda’s as-Sahab Media Launches Website,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 6, 2018.

[5] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “America Is the First Enemy of Muslims,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, March 20, 2018.

[6] Michael Smerconish, “Where is Bin Ladin’s Partner in Crime, Ayman al-Zawahiri?” CNN, September 8, 2018.

[7] Jayshree Bajoura and Lee Hudson Teslik, “Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 14, 2011; Lawrence Wright, “The Man Behind Bin Laden,” New Yorker, September 16, 2002.

[8] Cathy Scott Clark and Adrian Levy, The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama Bin Ladin and Al Qaeda in Flight (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).

[9] Daniel Byman, “Zawahiri’s Big Challenge,” Brookings Institution, May 12, 2011; Peter Bergen, “Where Will Zawahiri Take Al-Qaeda?” Washington Post, June 17, 2011.

[10] Daniel Byman and Jennifer Williams, “Al-Qaeda is Losing the Battle for Jihadi Hearts and Minds,” Foreign Policy, August 19, 2015.

[11] “After Seven Years, Where is the Salvation,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, January 26, 2018; “Glad Tidings of Victory to Our People in Egypt,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, February 14, 2018; “O Our Brothers In Sham, Reconcile Among Yourselves,” As-Sahab Media Foundation,  February 20, 2018; “France Has Returned, O Grandchildren of the Lions,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, March 6, 2018; “East Africa: The Southern Battlefront of Islam, Part 1,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, March 18, 2018; “America Is the First Enemy of Muslims,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, March 20, 2018; “Tel Aviv is Also a Land of Muslims,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, May 13, 2018; “From the Nakba and the Naksa to Revitalization and Dignity,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, June 6, 2018; “East Africa:  The Southern Battlefront of Islam, Part II,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, August 2, 2018; “Eulogy for Maulvi Fazulullah,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, August 10, 2018; “Brief Messages to a Victorious Ummah – Episode 10: Palestine Will Not Be Turned Over To Traitors,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, August 19, 2018; “The Battle of Awareness and Will:  The Solid Structure,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, August 23, 2018; “How to Confront America,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, September 11, 2018; “The Shari’a Ruling on Governance Without Shari’a,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, October 11, 2018; “The Zionists of the Peninsula,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, December 24, 2018.

[12] Jason Burke, “Rise and Fall of ISIS: The Dream of a Caliphate Is Over, So What Now?” Guardian, October 21, 2017.

[13] “Dominion of the Best of the Ummah in the Uprising of the People of the Sacred House Volume 6,” As Sahab Media Foundation, March 31, 2018; “Dominion of the Best of the Ummah in the Uprising of the People of the Sacred House, Volume 4,” As Sahab Media Foundation, January 18, 2018; “Dominion of the Best of the Ummah in the Uprising of the People of the Sacred House, Volume 3,” As Sahab Media Foundation, December 9, 2017; “Usama: The Fighter Against Invaders and the Inciter of Rebellion Against Tyrants,” As Sahab Media Foundation, November 7, 2017; “The Cause of al-Sham [Syria] is the Cause of Islam,” As Sahab Media Foundation, September 14, 2017; “Dominion of the Best of the Ummah in the Uprising of the People of the Sacred House Volume 2,” As Sahab Media Foundation, March 20, 2017.

[14] Ali Soufan, “Hamza bin Ladin: From Steadfast Son to al-Qa`ida’s Leader in Waiting,” CTC Sentinel 10:8 (2017).

[15] “Dominion of the Best of the Ummah in the Uprising of the People of the Sacred House Volume 3.”

[16] “The Battle of Awareness and Will: The Solid Structure,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, August 23, 2018.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Al-Qaeda’s New Chief Backs New Taliban Chief Akhundzada,” Deutsch Welle, June 11, 2016.

[19] “The Shari’a Ruling on Governance Without Shari’a.”

[20] Al-Zawahiri.

[21] “How to Confront America.”

[22] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Nicholas Rasmussen, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center,” CTC Sentinel 11:1 (2018); Tim Shipman, “Al-Qaeda terror group returns to target airliners and airports,” Times, December 23, 2018.

[23] Katherine Zimmerman, “Testimony: Al Qaeda’s Strengthening in the Shadows,” Statement before the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, July 13, 2017; “AQIM and AQAP Eulogize the Blind Sheikh, Call Fighters to Avenge His Death in American Prison,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 19, 2017.

[24] Jack Moore, “Al-Qaeda Promises Jihad Against Myanmar Over Rohingya Crackdown,” Newsweek, September 13, 2017.

[25] Jami Forbes, “Revisiting the Mali al-Qa`ida Playbook: How the Group is Advancing on its Goals in the Sahel,” CTC Sentinel 11:9 (2018).

[26] Thomas Joscelyn, “Shabaab claims US is ‘Satan of Our Time,’ praises al Qaeda’s leadership,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 30, 2017.

[27] Seth Jones, “Will Al-Qaeda Make A Comeback?” Rand, August 7, 2017.

[28] Daniel Milton, Communication Breakdown: Unraveling the Islamic State’s Media Efforts (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2016).

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