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Al Qaeda’s Strengthening in the Shadows

East Africa

Al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab serves as a key link between the Middle East and Africa for the al Qaeda network and is gaining ground in Somalia.[24] Al Shabaab still administers parts of south-central Somalia and generates funding through taxation and control over certain trade.[25] It has increasingly projected force back into Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and into northern Kenya.  RECOMMENDED READMap Update: Al Shabaab’s Humanitarian ResponseAl Shabaab has also conducted multiple high-profile raids on military bases in Somalia that decimated military units and restocked al Shabaab’s military equipment. Its attraction is not its attacks against the government or African Union peacekeeping forces, but rather its competitive shadow government that appeals to disenfranchised clans,[26] which is how al Shabaab expanded in Somalia originally. Al Shabaab could broaden its support base through its limited provision of humanitarian aid as famine looms in Somalia.[27] It seeks to influence the Kenyan electorate and stoke tensions ahead of the August 2017 elections, which may result in political unrest in the country.

Looking Forward: Al Qaeda’s Future Threat

The United States risks strategic surprise with al Qaeda. Nothing indicates that al Qaeda as a global organization has altered its long-term objectives nor changed its position on how to achieve these objectives. Al Qaeda’s entrenchment into local conflicts is dangerous for the United States because al Qaeda seeks to alter Muslim communities and unify them under it in its violent struggle for Islam. Global trends are also moving in al Qaeda’s favor such that it will likely benefit from increasing sectarianism and polarization in the Muslim world and even in the West. Al Qaeda could reassume its position as the vanguard force of a much-empowered Salafi-jihadi movement as pressure increases on ISIS.

Al Qaeda is almost certainly refining and improving its external attack capabilities to be prepared to deploy them at a future date. Ibrahim al Asiri, al Qaeda’s innovative bombmaker, remains at large and has already trained others in his tradecraft. Al Qaeda’s external attack capabilities are degraded because of US and partnered counterterrorism actions, but they have not been destroyed. The 2017 Worldwide Threats Assessments from Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats assesses that al Qaeda still intends to conduct attacks against the United States and the West, although the group’s capability to do so from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has been degraded.[33] However, al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria and Yemen “have preserved the resources, manpower, safe haven, local influence, and operational capabilities to continue to pose a threat,” and al Shabaab in Somalia has the “operational capabilities to pose a real threat to the region.” Al Qaeda may continue to attack Russian targets for Russia’s role in Syria, may begin attacks against Emirati targets for the United Arab Emirates’ role in Yemen, and may also focus on Egypt.

Synergy among global trends will increase support for the Salafi-jihadi movement overall, which al Qaeda seeks to capture. Rising sectarianism, not just between Sunni and Shi’a, but between Muslims and non-Muslims, will polarize populations. Of concern are the reflections today in places such as India, where far-right Hindu groups are attacking Muslims for eating cow. Intercommunal sectarian violence serves to bolster support for Salafi-jihadi groups. Closing political space to Islamists and persecution of Salafis in the Muslim world will also drive some of these individuals and factions toward violence to achieve their aims or defend themselves. Al Qaeda seeks to capture those disenchanted with the nonviolent route, especially in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies pushed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed will almost certainly feed extremism rather than eliminate it.

Al Qaeda is prepared for the weakening of ISIS. It has the position inside Syria to expand into terrain liberated from ISIS, some of which al Qaeda had occupied before ISIS. Populations that had lived under ISIS will be less likely to reject al Qaeda’s ideology, although both are a far cry from mainstream Islam. The mass mobilization of Muslims in the West will continue beyond the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Hamza bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders seek to recruit these mobilized individuals under al Qaeda’s leadership.

Al Qaeda’s evolution and adaptation to conditions ensures that it will threaten the United States long term and emerge stronger from the chaos that has enveloped the Muslim world. It is poised to take over the reins of the Salafi-jihadi movement. Yet, it is not sufficient just to defeat al Qaeda and ISIS. The Salafi-jihadi movement predates both groups and will generate another transnational organization if they are defeated. Instead, the US must move beyond focusing on the groups and instead seek to weaken and defeat the global Salafi-jihadi movement.

 Source: CT