Al-Qaida attacked the U.S. homeland on 9/11, unprepared for what would follow. There was a strong disconnect between al-Qaida’s meager capabilities and its strategic objectives of crippling the United States and of bringing about change in the Middle East. To bridge that gap, Osama bin Laden conveniently and unrealistically assumed that the attack on the United States would lead the Muslim masses and all other armed Islamist forces to join his cause. The collapse of the Taliban regime and the decimation of al-Qaida’s ranks quickly proved him wrong.
Yet over fourteen years later al-Qaida is still around. Despite its unrealistic political vision and considerable setbacks—above all the rise of the Islamic State that upstaged al-Qaida and threatened its survival—it has branches in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa.
Down, but not out
Two factors explain al-Qaida’s resilience: changes in the environment due to the Arab revolutions and the group’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities by learning from past mistakes. The Arab awakening initially undercut al-Qaida’s original claims that change in Muslim countries cannot come peacefully or without first weakening the United States. Yet, the violence of regimes against their people in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere created new opportunities for al-Qaida to demonstrate its relevance. Furthermore, involved citizens determined to shape their own future presented al-Qaida with a new opportunity to recruit.
But favorable conditions would be insufficient to explain al-Qaida’s resilience without changes in the way al-Qaida operates. Learning from its bitter experience in Iraq, al-Qaida opted to act with some moderation. It embedded itself among rebel movements in Syria and Yemen, thus showing it could be a constructive actor, attentive to the needs of the people and willing to cooperate with a wide array of groups. As part of a broader movement, al-Qaida’s affiliates in these countries also gained a measure of protection from external enemies reluctant to alienate the group’s new allies.
At present, the greatest threat to al-Qaida is not the United States or the Arab regimes; it’s the group’s former…