If al Qaeda were a corporation today, it would be roughly equivalent to Microsoft: A big name but an aging brand, one now strikingly out of touch with the 18–35-year-old-demographic. The group made its way back into the headlines this past January, after its affiliate—al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP—took credit for a deadly attack on the Paris offices of the French magazineCharlie Hebdo. But the claim of responsibility came a week after the fact, and lacked the sort of insider accounts or video footage that typically accompany such announcements, leading some to conclude that al Qaeda may not have known about the attackers’ intentions.
Put simply, al Qaeda’s traditionally preeminent position in the jihadi hierarchy, long on the wane, is slipping still further. U.S. officials, for their part, are increasingly focused on the Islamic State, or ISIS, which continues to deliver a steady flow of battlefield victories and brutal beheadings. Yet al Qaeda has a clear path back to contention: a dramatic follow-up to the Hebdo attack. And with the group’s need for a win so great, Washington would be mistaken to count it out.
Al Qaeda’s latest chapter began with the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Shortly thereafter, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as al Qaeda’s global leader, found himself facing numerous constraints. Aggressive U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts, buoyed by a deadly drone campaign, forced top al Qaeda commanders into hiding, limiting Zawahiri’s ability to communicate with al Qaeda’s affiliates. Based in Pakistan rather than in Iraq, Zawahiri and his senior commanders lost touch with many fighters in Iraq. And with bin Laden dead, resources became tighter. Al Qaeda’s affiliates, which were now receiving less guidance and fewer resources from al Qaeda central, took on a new level of independence. Some four years later, al Qaeda is essentially a collection of relatively small, though still capable, affiliates.
AQAP, under the leadership of Nasir Wuhayshi, remained loyal to Zawahiri after bin Laden’s death. But with Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s senior leadership under siege from the drones in Pakistan, AQAP effectively became al Qaeda central. AQAP came close to executing three plots against Western targets, in 2009, 2010, and 2011. And it became the first affiliate to build its own insurgent force, Ansar al Sharia, which aimed to establish an Islamist emirate in Yemen.
In Zawahiri’s absence, other affiliates began to look to AQAP for guidance. Among them was al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, which was making a separate push for an Islamic emirate in northern Africa. By the spring of 2012, AQAP had sent the group’s leaders two instructional letters, one in May and another in August, covering both tactics and strategy.
AQAP further cemented its role by essentially creating its own…