Revelations of new high-level losses among al-Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan’s tribal belt have underscored how years of US drone strikes have diminished and dispersed the militant group’s upper ranks and forced them to cede prominence and influence to more aggressive offshoots in Yemen and Somalia.
While the CIA drone strike that killed two Western hostages has led to intense criticism of the drone program and potentially to a reassessment of it, the US successes over the years in targeting and killing senior al-Qaeda operatives in their home base have left the militant group’s leadership facing difficult choices, counterterrorism officials and analysts said.
That process of attrition has been accelerated by the emergence of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose brutality and superior propaganda have sucked up funding and recruits.
In the tribal belt, a Pakistani military drive that started last summer has forced al-Qaeda commanders into ever more remote areas like the Shawal Valley, where two of them were killed alongside a US hostage, Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto, on Jan. 15.
Even the death of Weinstein, a prized hostage whom al-Qaeda had long sought to exchange for prisoners or money, is emblematic of the state of siege. Whereas in Syria, the Islamic State has turned hostage execution into a macabre propaganda spectacle, al-Qaeda has seen any dividend from its captives snatched away, albeit inadvertently, by its US foes.
“Core al-Qaeda is a rump of its former self,” a US counterterrorism official said — an assessment echoed by several European and Pakistani officials.
Pakistani officials estimate that al-Qaeda has lost 40 loyalists, of all ranks, to US drone strikes in the past six months — a higher toll than other sources have tracked but indicative of a broader trend.
Now al-Qaeda commanders are moving back to the relative safety, and isolation, of locations they once fled, like the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and Sudan, the officials said.
However, militancy experts caution that it is too early to sound the death knell for al-Qaeda’s leaders, for whom patience and adaptability are hallmarks, and who, despite the adversity, remain the principal Muslim militant group focused on attacking the West.
“People always want to know when the job will be finished,” Queen’s University militancy expert Michael Semple said in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “I don’t think we can talk about that. They’re on the back foot, rather than being eliminated.”
“The drones have left al-Qaeda in tatters,” said a Pakistani security official in Peshawar, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are in disarray, trying to reorganize but struggling to find people capable of leading the organization.”
The group had put hope for new leadership on al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, a local franchise begun in September last year by the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, ostensibly to counter Islamic State recruitment efforts.
From now on, al-Qaeda’s top leadership would probably be preoccupied with its survival rather than plotting attacks on the West, Semple said.
“They have ways of surviving, and the guys who remain are good,” he said. “But can they get together to brainstorm attacks on the US? I don’t think there are too many meetings.”
More broadly, questions about al-Qaeda’s ability to bounce back are likely to find answers in its rivalry with Islamic State rather than in the valleys of Waziristan. Islamic State has dwarfed al-Qaeda’s media presence over the past year, through aggressive use of Twitter and a constant stream of news releases.
To jihadi recruits, the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a more compelling figure than the elderly, and relatively colorless, al-Zawahri. However, from Yemen to Somalia and Syria, al-Zawahri retains the loyalty of committed jihadi commanders who say they prefer the al-Qaeda brand of militancy.
“Even if [al-]Zawahri has gone silent, the network is not dead,” Washington Institute analyst Aaron Zelin wrote recently. “From the available information, it appears the network may have moved on.”
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