As al-Qaeda marks its 25th anniversary this month, analysts say the recent security threat in Yemen shows the organization’s center of gravity is shifting away from its historic base in Pakistan.
US President Barack Obama has cautioned that affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a unit of the extremist group that effectively controls parts of Yemen, still pose a threat despite successful efforts to disrupt the organization’s core leadership.
His warning came after the US closed 19 diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa last week after reported intelligence intercepts from al-Qaeda suggested an attack was imminent.
Reports indicated the intercepts involved some kind of group communication between al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi.
Zawahiri assumed al-Qaeda leadership when Osama bin Laden was killed in a US special forces raid in Pakistan in 2011 and the 62-year-old Egyptian is believed to be hiding in the border region with Afghanistan.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on Islamist groups in Pakistan, said that while the traditional core leadership of al-Qaeda — which was was founded in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988 — still retains symbolic importance, its operational center of gravity has moved.
“In terms of strength, of power, of effectiveness, we can say it has shifted,” he said. “It is no longer Pakistan or Afganistan, so most of the fighters, most of the affiliates, are not in Pakistan and Afghanistan. By and large, the plans are not coming from Zawahiri.”
Zawahiri, who has a US$25 million US government bounty on him, lacks the charisma of bin Laden, but has long been seen as the brains of al-Qaeda.
Pakistani author and security analyst Imtiaz Gul said that while al-Qaeda’s operational leadership had spread into regional franchises, Zawahiri remained an “inspirational force.”
“They don’t need someone as charismatic as Osama bin Laden was and they have, I think, ideological ammunition, ideological fuel, which is helping them stay afloat,” he said.
The recent revelation of an ambitious plot in Yemen to seize control of two cities, as well as an oil export terminal, showed AQAP to be highly motivated, and Wuhayshi is believed to have been promoted to second in command of the global organization behind Zawahiri.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in Washington, said Wuhayshi’s promotion indicated al-Qaeda was broadening the “core” leadership as AQAP grew in expertise.
“When we talk about al-Qaeda core, there’s no reason it can only exist in Afghanistan-Pakistan — Wuhayshi being made the general manager, that very clearly makes him part of the core,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
“We see a geographic shift towards Yemen, but that’s not necessarily a shift to AQAP and away from the core — the way I see it, the core is expanding,” he said.