Bottom Line Up Front
Over the weekend, the French military claimed, and United States Africa Command confirmed, that its forces had killed the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal, in northern Mali. Even with the death of Droukdal, one of al-Qaeda’s longest serving regional commanders and a prominent jihadist leader in the Sahel, al-Qaeda’s global network remains highly resilient. Despite a worldwide campaign to destroy the organization, today al-Qaeda boasts as many as 40,000 members worldwide and retains the ability to inspire recruits and followers to act in its name. As always, al-Qaeda remains tactically innovative, operationally capable, and strategically-focused.
Over the weekend, the French military claimed that its forces had killed the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal, in northern Mali. United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) later confirmed Droukdal’s death, and the U.S. military played a supporting role in the operation, providing critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support. Droukdal was a longtime jihadist veteran, having fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan before returning to Algeria in the 1990s to join the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, or GSPC). Droukdal then went on to join the al-Qaeda network in 2006, helping to lead AQIM and expand al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities throughout northwestern Africa. As AQIM altered its purview from local to regional, its organization expanded beyond Algeria and spread across Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia, and Niger. AQIM mastered the technique of kidnapping for ransom, netting tens of millions of dollars by kidnapping foreigners and negotiating their release to their home governments. Droukdal is symbolic of the types of leaders that have allowed al-Qaeda to consistently regenerate its global network.
In the span of less than a year, al-Qaeda has experienced significant setbacks with the loss of a string of successive high profile members, including most recently AQIM’s Droukdal, but also al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Qassem al-Rimi in January 2020, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s (AQIS) Asim Umar in September 2019 and Hamza bin Laden, also in September 2019. Its leadership has been targeted relentlessly and beginning in 2014 it suffered from the rise of the Islamic State, a group which grew out of al-Qaeda’s Iraq franchise AQI. Moreover, few find its current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to be an inspiring figure and only a handful of the group’s core leadership remains, with well-known figures like Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Saif al-Adel believed to be living in Iran, under a murky arrangement with the Iranian government.
Even with the death of Droukdal, one of al-Qaeda’s longest serving regional commanders and a prominent jihadist leader in the Sahel, al-Qaeda’s global network remains highly resilient, nearly two decades after the start of the so-called Global War on Terrorism. Al-Qaeda retains a network of regional branches, offshoots, and franchise groups, including in Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere. A recent United Nations report suggests that al-Qaeda has been actively plotting with the Taliban to prepare for what both groups believe to be an imminent U.S. military withdrawal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, has continued to demonstrate a proclivity to launch spectacular terrorist attacks with impunity, while in Syria, al-Qaeda has been ‘quietly and patiently rebuilding,’ in the words of terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, to include a robust presence in Idlib Province spearheaded by Hurras al-Din.
Despite a worldwide campaign to destroy the organization, today al-Qaeda boasts as many as 40,000 members worldwide and retains the ability to inspire recruits and followers to act in its name. In December 2019, an attack by Saudi Royal Air Force Second Lieutenant Mohammed Alshamrani at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida, killed three U.S. Navy sailors and injured eight others. Last month, after finally gaining access to Alshamrani’s Apple iPhone, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was able to determine that Alshamrani had indeed been in touch with AQAP members for years, suggesting that the Pensacola attack could be the first attack directed by al-Qaeda, or in this case one of its affiliates, on U.S. soil since 9/11. In May 2020, an attack at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas was conducted by an individual who expressed support for AQAP in his social media postings. As always, al-Qaeda remains tactically innovative, operationally capable, and strategically focused. As the United States pivots from a focus on global counterterrorism to great power competition and looming challenges from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, many long-time al-Qaeda watchers acknowledge that the group remains dangerous and could be poised for a potential comeback.