Abstract: Al-Qa`ida “Central” in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is not yet dead, although its reclusiveness in the face of losses since late 2014 complicates assessment of its remaining strength and capabilities, particularly the leadership structure under Ayman al-Zawahiri. The group still benefits from local protectors, but its ability to recruit is unclear and its media operations pale before those of the Islamic State. Affiliates still acknowledge al-Zawahiri as their emir, and the group could regain some ground by exploiting security gaps in Afghanistan, expanding the operations of its Indian Subcontinent affiliate, or relying on the remaining operational capabilities of its Middle East and Africa affiliates.

Claims of al-Qa`ida “Central’s” demise have grown louder over the past year. So many of its senior officials have been killed that it is more difficult than ever to keep track of who is left. The emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made no public “appearances,” even in audio recordings, from the fall of 2014 until his audio pledge of allegiance to the Taliban’s Mullah Akhtar Mansour in August. [1] His statements have appeared increasingly out of touch with current developments, and al-Qa`ida’s media arm al-Sahab in the past year has mainly been releasing words of wisdom from dead leaders. On the world front, the group still commands affiliates, but their leaders too have suffered losses and, at the very least, they appear to compete poorly for adherents with the self-styled Islamic State, which holds territory and has a much more prominent media presence. Within South Asia, tribal and militant groups that assisted al-Qa`ida also have faced at least some setbacks that call into question the longevity of its safe haven.

Nonetheless, there is a danger in writing off the group too soon just because they lack the large footprint and momentum of the Islamic State. Al-Qa`ida leaders in South Asia understandably have been especially reclusive given the number of personnel losses attributed to strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) since 2009 and Usama bin Ladin’s 2011 demise despite his extensive security measures. This makes assessing the organization’s current strength and capabilities very difficult.

Just five years ago the author’s assessment of al-Qa`ida Central looked as follows.

Leadership and organization: With Bin Ladin still a recognized decision-maker at the top of the structure, albeit somewhat remote, strong subordinates managed the day-to-day operations: not only al-Zawahiri, but general managers such as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid or, later, `Atiyah `abd-al-Rahman, as the documents later acquired from Bin Ladin’s safe house demonstrate.[2]

Safe haven: Despite counterterrorism operations, al-Qa`ida leaders found a home in Pakistan within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and had developed links, including family ties, with local militant groups and tribal leaders based there and in other parts of Pakistan, as well as with the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan. Al-Qa`ida also retained fighters in Afghanistan.

Recruitment and training: At least into late 2009, al-Qa`ida was drawing Western and other recruits and could offer some training in the FATA, even without large facilities. Precise numbers were unclear, however.

Media presence: Al-Sahab produced more than 50 media items during both 2008 and 2009, including videos of al-Zawahiri and audio recordings from Bin Ladin and disseminated them widely via jihadi sites on the internet.

Strategic focus: While Bin Ladin was alive, the United States remained a key target,[3] including the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but local issues, such as thwarting Pakistani government actions against the militants, were still important.

Global operational reach: Al-Qa`ida developed and strengthened relations with its affiliate groups such as al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and it laid the groundwork for bringing in al-Shabab. Relations with the Islamic State of Iraq were thorny. Al-Qa`ida attempted terrorist operations targeting Americans at home, such as the underwear bomber and Najibullah Zazi cases.[4]

Senior Leadership
Today, al-Qa`ida Central is weaker on most of these points. Leadership losses are the most striking. Al-Zawahiri has survived so far, but he has rapidly been losing key lieutenants, not only to reported kinetic strikes, but also to action by the Pakistan Army. Among the major casualties in South Asia since late 2014 are: experienced operative Adnan el-Shukrijumah; Pakistan media specialist and head of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) Ahmed Farouq; American propagandist Adam Gadahn; and, in July, Khalil al-Sudani, described by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter as the chief of al-Qa`ida’s suicide bombing and explosives operations.[5] Al-Qa`ida Central’s fallback outside the region, al-Zawahiri’s designated deputy Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the AQAP leader, was killed in June. It is difficult to judge the size and abilities of a leadership circle that must maintain a low profile, however, and lower-ranking experienced personnel could step up. Former senior CIA officials Michael Morell and Bill Harlow expressed concern in their recent book The Great War of Our Time about Farouq al-Qahtani (aka al-Qatari), a competent al-Qa`ida military commander in Afghanistan with the added role, as they assess it, of finding a new sanctuary for the group.[6] [See also “Fourteen Years and Counting” by Michael Morell in this issue, p. 1]

The organizational diagram for al-Qa`ida Central is virtually impossible to fill in given the sudden personnel changes. Al-Qa`ida affiliates still recognize al-Zawahiri as the overall leader, so far rejecting the overtures of the Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani in May told an Al Jazeera interviewer that his group still received orders from al-Zawahiri, including orders to focus on anti-regime operations and not to use Syria “as a launching pad,” to attack the West.[7] Qasim al-Raymi, the new chief of AQAP, in early July publicly announced his allegiance on behalf of both himself and his group.[8] His predecessor al-Wuhayshi had been the general deputy of al-Qa`ida, and had been considered the heir apparent if al-Zawahiri were to die. It is by no means clear whether the deputy’s job was the same as the general manager’s position—essentially chief operating officer—and whether al-Raymi would assume that position now or someone else, perhaps someone still in South Asia. Al-Zawahiri has been silent on this matter. Press reports in the past couple of years on the possible return to Pakistan from Iranian custody of former senior al-Qa`ida leaders, notably Sayf al-`Adl, once the group’s security chief, are unconfirmed and appear unlikely, based on a court statement by his associate Sulayman Abu Ghayth.[9] In any case, they have been out of the loop for more than a decade.

In August, al-Sahab released an audio statement by Bin Ladin’s son Hamza.[10] Al-Zawahiri introduces the young man, who is about 26,[11] as following in his father’s footsteps, suggesting that al-Zawahiri is grooming Hamza for a prominent position. Hamza, in turn, acknowledges al-Zawahiri as the emir of al-Qa`ida and renews his allegiance to Mullah Omar. The latter point and a reference to al-Wuhayshi as leader of AQAP suggest the recording was made before mid-June 2015. The recording does not say where Hamza is located, but documents taken from Bin Ladin’s safe house in Abbottabad show that as of late 2010 he expected Hamza to come to Pakistan[12] or, in any case, to become a key spokesman for the cause.[13] Consistent with his father’s positions, Hamza stresses the imperative of attacking the United States. While praising jihadi fighters generally, notably those in the Middle East, he urges all Muslims to take any opportunity to bring the battle to “America, the Jews, and the West,” but does not say whether al-Qa`ida itself is planning attacks.

Safe Haven
Notwithstanding these possible candidates for leadership succession, al-Qa`ida’s standard safe havens seem riskier now given the recent attrition. Nonetheless, media reports regarding the locations of UAV strikes and counterterrorist operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region suggest that al-Qa`ida leaders believe they can count on local protectors, trust in the rugged terrain, or lack alternatives. They are always prepared to move from site to site but have resided in essentially the same area for more than a decade—North and South Waziristan and parts of eastern Afghanistan—although counterterrorism operations appear to be increasingly encroaching on this territory.

In June 2014, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an offensive to root out militants in North Waziristan with both ground and air operations, which overran towns such as Mir Ali that had long harbored al-Qa`ida and its sympathizers. In the Mir Ali area alone, the army targeted the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Haqqani network and told media outlets that it had killed 1,200 militants and captured 200 tons of improvised explosive devices [IEDs] and ordnance.[14] The operation included parts of South Waziristan, where an army raid killed Shukrijumah.[15] Whereas some earlier Pakistani operations had fizzled out in peace deals, a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in mid-December 2014 spurred continued operations well into 2015. The military operations have been paralleled by other counterterrorism operations in the Shawal Valley that joins North and South Waziristan. A spokesman for AQIS claimed that counterterrorism operations in the region into mid-2015 killed approximately 50 members of its organization and a similar number of their local supporters, including the TTP, although the claim has not been independently verified.[16]

If Pakistan becomes untenable as a safe haven for al-Qa`ida, and if Farouq al-Qahtani or his Afghan allies have indeed been paving the way in Afghanistan, it is not out of the question that al-Qa`ida could find a new sanctuary in the eastern part of the country, although they would not be free from aerial attacks, moving might be risky, and they may face competition from the Islamic State’s Wilayat Khorasan. The withdrawal of U.S. forces has created major gaps that Afghan forces have been unable to fill, and which they are unlikely to cover sufficiently in the future given their numbers, the terrain, and the constant presence of the Taliban and its associates.

Fabrizio Foschini recently assessed the area for the Afghan Analysts Network and found that pro-government militias and Afghan Local Police (ALP) in Nuristan, for example, could switch sides, particularly with the ALP there containing a heavy concentration of Salafis.[17] The Waygal district of the Pech Valley still hosts foreign militants associated with al-Qa`ida—al-Qahtani may have been there until earlier this year. In Paktia Province, specifically the Zurmat district, which was an al-Qa`ida fallback position after the 2001 attacks, there is still a strong Taliban presence, and a village on the road to Paktika has been hosting unspecified foreign fighters and their families who relocated from North Waziristan.[18] Khalil al-Sudani reportedly was killed in Paktia near Bermal, a traditional crossing point into Pakistan for al-Qa`ida.[19] Nangarhar, the site of Bin Ladin’s Tora Bora complex, might be less hospitable for al-Qa`ida now, however, given increased support there for the Islamic State in recent months.[20]

Recruitment and Training
Information on al-Qa`ida recruitment and training in South Asia is currently sparse. Counterterrorism operations are likely to have proved discouraging for recruits other than those associated with AQIS. In the past decade, the group was able to simplify the types of facilities it required for training compared to the period before 2001. In addition, al-Qa`ida recruits now may be able to take advantage of training in the FATA with TTP or with Afghan groups such as the Haqqani network, although relations with the TTP have been strained since al-Qa`ida started to oppose attacks on Muslim civilians by TTP in Bin Ladin’s last years. [21] According to a Pakistani police official, an AQIS militant injured in a raid in Punjab in June 2015 trained at an al-Qa`ida “camp in Afghanistan for five months,” suggesting the training occurred more recently than 2001.[22]

Al-Sahab, al-Qa`ida’s media network, is still functioning, or at least appears to be in 2015, but lacks the frequency and splash of the Islamic State’s apparatus and may be suffering from the loss of Adam Gadahn. Resurgence, an English-language magazine focused on AQIS, appeared for the first time in October 2014 with articles of concern to South Asians in addition to the usual jihadi ideology.[23] Its production values are similar to those of the Islamic State magazine Dabiq. The June 2015 issue, however, was almost entirely given over to an interview with Gadahn, by then publicly acknowledged as dead. Other al-Sahab releases also have been commentary from the grave—including from `Atiyah, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and Bin Ladin. New thinking from al-Zawahiri has been lacking. Affiliates may be trying to take up some of the slack. Jabhat al-Nusra in July released a publication called Al Risalah (billed as a “Magazine by the Mujahideen of Shaam”). Another well-produced effort, it focuses on the illegitimacy of the Islamic State.

Strategic Focus 
A major problem for al-Qa`ida’s messaging and its ability to compete for recruits with the Islamic State is that it was late to develop a new strategy responding to changes in the Middle East, and appears to lack focus generally. Its confusion may have affected its plans for operations against U.S. interests. Bin Ladin’s position on some issues began to shift in the year or so before his death in 2011, even more so as the Arab Spring exploded. But his group, perhaps because of his death, failed to develop an operational plan for the region, and al-Zawahiri appeared to have been blindsided by the emerging independence of the Islamic State in Iraq.

Both Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri were excited about the developments in the Middle East and anxious to play a major role, but succeeded mainly in getting the Islamic State in Iraq to act first. Bin Ladin’s emphasis on striking the United States, while still a goal, has become muddled, at least from the perspective of al-Qa`ida Central. This raises questions about al-Qa`ida’s current priorities for both the Middle East and the United States and the role of its Middle East affiliates in anti-U.S. operations. Was the Khorasan Group sent to Syria to operate more freely in planning attacks against the United States or is it working as part of Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leader says it has been ordered not to launch anti-U.S. operations from Syria? To what extent has al-Qa`ida in Pakistan lost personnel to the Middle East fight, perhaps weakening it for future terrorist operations?

Operational Reach
Al-Qa`ida, at least nominally, has a wide reach and some operational capabilities through affiliates, and is a continuing, albeit diminished threat for now. Although it lost Iraq, it gained a Syrian affiliate and has retained Yemen, and North and East Africa. AQAP claimed responsibility for attacks earlier this year in France, but it too is distracted by both the Islamic State (which claims a presence in Yemen) and the local fight against the Huthis in Yemen. The creation of AQIS, which tried unsuccessfully to capture a Pakistani naval vessel in September 2014, may represent an attempt to build up whatever strengths al-Qa`ida retains as a South Asia-based organization, increasingly tied to the region through family and operational relationships. The group has proved a thorn in the side of security forces in several locations in Pakistan, and may be expanding its territory—Bangladeshi security forces arrested operatives in July for possibly planning an attack on Id al-Fitr, an important Muslim holiday.[24] In East Africa, a new group called al-Muhajiroun—perhaps a propaganda arm of al-Shabab—recently emerged. Its media output appears sympathetic to al-Qa`ida, and it has focused on recruiting in Uganda and Tanzania.[25]

Fourteen years after its attacks in the United States, al-Qa`ida Central is seriously weakened, but not yet dead. It has become enough a part of the fabric of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that it is able to maintain fighters in Afghanistan and has spawned a South Asian affiliate. More importantly, al-Zawahiri still is recognized as the head of the larger organization that remains engaged in battles in the Middle East and Africa. That may not be enough to draw scores of foreign fighters as the Islamic State does, but it is sufficient to conduct lethal terrorist operations against the West.

Barbara Sude, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, is a former al-Qa`ida analyst at the CIA. She holds a doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.


[1] “Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri pledges loyalty to new Taliban chief,” BBC, August 13, 2015.

[2] Documents captured during the Abbottabad raid. Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000010, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[3] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000017, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[4] Barbara Sude, “Al-Qaeda Central: An Assessment of the Threat Posed by the Terrorist Group Headquartered on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border,” Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper, New America Foundation, February 2010.

[5] Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “US airstrike kills one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted commanders in Afghanistan,” Long War Journal, July 24, 2015.

[6] Michael Morell and Bill Harlow, The Great War of Our Time (New York: Twelve, 2015), Chapter 13.

[7] Michael Pizzi (interview by Ahmed Mansour), “Syria Al-Qaeda leader: Our mission is to defeat regime, not attack West,” Al Jazeera, May 28, 2015.

[8] Thomas Joscelyn, “New AQAP leader renews allegiance to the ‘beloved father,’ Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Long War Journal, July 9, 2015.

[9] Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, “Egyptian comrades remember reported leader of al Qaeda,” CNN, May 20, 2011.

[10] Aaron Zelin, “As-Sahab Media presents a new video message from al-Qa`idah’s Hamzah Bin Usamah Bin Laden: ‘Greetings of Peace to the People of Islam,’” August 14, 2015.

[11] Najwa bin laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson, Growing up bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2009), p. 298.

[12] “Letter from UBL to `Atiyatullah al-Libi 3,” Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000015-HT, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[13] “Letter from UBL to `Atiyatullah al-Libi 4,” Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000019, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[14] Wajahat S. Khan, “A Rare Glimpse Inside Pakistan’s Anti-Taliban Operation in North Waziristan,” NBC News, December 16, 2014.

[15] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Top Al Qaeda Commander Adnan el Shukrijumah Killed: Pakistan Army,” NBC News, December 6, 2014.

[16] Tahir Khan, “US drones killed 50 militants over past few months: al Qaeda’s Subcontinent faction,” Express Tribune, April 12, 2015.

[17] Fabrizio Foschini, “Classics of Conflict (1): Reviewing some of Afghanistan’s most notorious hotspots,” Afghan Analysts Network, July 3, 2015; Fabrizio Foschini, “Classics of Conflict (2): Reviewing some of Afghanistan’s most notorious hotspots,” Afghan Analysts Network, July 9, 2015.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Roggio and Joscelyn, “US airstrike kills one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted commanders in Afghanistan.”

[20] Mujib Mashal, “U.S. Strike Is Said to Kill Senior ISIS Militant in Afghanistan,” New York Times, July 11, 2015.

[21] Anwar Iqbal, “Al Qaeda’s relations with Pakistan were fraught with difficulties,” Dawn, May 3, 2012.

[22] “Pakistan Al-Qaeda Leader Reportedly Killed In Raid,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 1, 2015.

[23] Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Al Qaeda’s ‘Resurgence’ focuses on Indian Subcontinent,” Long War Journal, October 23, 2014.

[24] Julfikar Ali Maik and Nida Najar, “Bangladesh Police Arrest 12 Men Suspected of al Qaeda ties,” New York Times, July 6, 2015.

[25] Aaron Zelin, “New statement from al-Muhajirun in East Africa: “We Are Coming,” Jihadology, May 4, 2015.

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