Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates still growing
In the past year alone, the number of people who have left their home country to join terrorist groups in the Middle East has shot up 71 percent, according to a new United Nations report.
Nearly 25,000 foreign fighters have fled to join al-Qaida and the Islamic State, with the vast majority of them heading to Iraq and Syria, according to the Associated Press, who obtained the U.N. panel of experts report April 1, 2015.
The rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups casts a new light on President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign promise to "crush al-Qaida." Last time we looked at this promise in 2012, we rated it a Compromise. The administration had stripped al-Qaida of many leaders, but its global reach was still growing. The trend continues today.
Back before 9/11 and when Obama became president, al-Qaida was generally understood to mean the several hundred people who swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, said Larry Johnson, a consultant specializing in counterterrorism and a former CIA employee, in a previous interview with PolitiFact.
Now when people think of al-Qaida, they usually think of a much broader category consisting of that core group, plus affiliates and other Sunni Islamic extremists, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, located throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
Anne Stenersen, a research fellow in terrorism at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, said the narrowly defined al-Qaida -- that is, its core members -- has stayed relatively stable at fewer than 300 members since 2010.
The last time we updated this promise, we gave the Obama administration credit for killing several high-ranking al-Qaida members, not to mention killing bin Laden and raiding his compound in 2011. However, bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qaida leaders are still at large.
Other than membership, al-Qaida's diminished power since 2008 is evidenced by the group's minimal media presence and the lack of large-scale attacks involving core members, said J.M. Berger, a Brookings Institution fellow and an expert in extremism.
Much of this progress has to do with the Obama administration's continued presence in Afghanistan, as well as the drone war in Pakistan -- which Obama ramped after taking office in 2009, Stenersen said. But al-Qaida leadership has started to move elsewhere, to countries like Yemen and Syria, posing challenges for the United States.
Core al-Qaida "is at its weakest point since before 2001," said Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, at a Senate hearing in February 2015.
Regardless, Rasmussen expressed concern about the continuing threat of al-Qaida. He said it's possible that as the United States pulls troops out of Afghanistan, a "power vacuum" could arise, and al-Qaida could take advantage of that opportunity.
Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, told PolitiFact that his research has shown that the number of al-Qaida affiliates has more than doubled from eight to 17 since 2008. Adding the Islamic State, once an affiliate, to that count would dramatically increase the number of fighters.
In September 2014, al-Qaida launched its newest affiliate in South Asia. There's also Yemen's al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- which took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack in France -- Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa, and others. And the Islamic State was born out of al-Qaida in Iraq but split off due to ideological differences.
Between 2010 and 2013, the number of Islamic jihadist fighters doubled, and the number of attacks tripled, according to a 2014 report from RAND, a think tank.
"Militant Islam is definitely not crushed," Stenersen said.
This map shows various al-Qaida affiliates and other Islamic extremist groups throughout the region as of January:
But the growing number of affiliates hasn't been entirely beneficial to al-Qaida -- in some ways it's helped to diminish the core group by creating factions within the group, Berger said. For instance, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula released a public statement saying the Islamic State was dividing their internal ranks.
Aside from sprouting al-Qaida affiliates and other extremist groups, the west faces an increasing threat of lone actor terrorists, Rasmussen said in his testimony.
"The perceived success of previous lone offender attacks combined with al-Qaida's, AQAP's and ISIL's incendiary propaganda promoting individual acts of terrorism has raised the profile of this tactic," he said.
So while one could make a case that there has been decent progress in battling a narrow definition of al-Qaida, the threat of jihadist terrorism is still a major concern for the United States.
"Overall, I think it's very difficult to imagine anyone who voted for the president on the basis of his promise to crush al-Qaida would be satisfied with the current state of affairs," Berger said. "While U.S. counterterrorism actions have had a detrimental effect on al-Qaida, especially al-Qaida Central, our overall policy and security concerns in the Middle East and North Africa are now more focused on jihadist activity than ever before."
Because there hasn't been much progress since we last checked in, we'll leave this promise at a Compromise.
PolitiFact, "Retired general says al-Qaida has grown 'fourfold' in last 5 years," Feb. 1, 2015
RAND, "Increase in Jihadist Threat Calls for New U.S. Strategy to Combat Terrorism," June 4, 2014
Washington Post, "As U.S. takes on the Islamic State, al-Qaeda remains degraded but not defeated," Sept. 26, 2014
Associated Press, "UN Report: More Than 25,000 Foreigners Fight With Terrorists," April 1, 2015
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Current Terrorist Threat to the United States hearing transcript, Feb. 12, 2015
Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing on Worldwide Threats transcript, Feb. 26, 2015
Email interview, Brookings fellow J.M. Berger, April 1, 2015
Email interview, Paul Stares, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, March 31, 2015
Email interview, Anne Stenersen, terrorism expert at FFI in Norway, March 31, 2015
Email interview, National Counterterrorism Center spokesman Gene Barlow, March 31, 2015
Al-Qaida's core is weakened, but some affiliates are growing
In analyzing how well Barack Obama has fulfilled his promise to "crush al-Qaida,” the rating depends heavily on how you define "al-Qaida.”
In interviews with terrorism experts, we found broad agreement that the "core” al-Qaida once headed by Osama bin Laden has been severely weakened -- not just from the killing of bin Laden but also from repeated drone strikes that have taken out high-ranking officials.
However, the picture is mixed once you consider other groups that model themselves on al-Qaida. In many cases, these regional affiliates remain a threat.
"Any assessment about the status of al-Qaida being ‘crushed' must be tempered” by the resilience of its regional affiliates, said Paul Stares, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations..
First, let's look at the "core” group, which has been based in Pakistan since it was ousted from Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While possible that al-Qaida's core could someday regain its strength, it has been dealt some crippling blows during the Obama years. The U.S. has managed to kill Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was second in command to al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri; Sayeed al-Masri, the third-ranking leader; another high-ranking official, Abu Yahya al-Libi; and Abu Ayyub al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
"The intelligence picture shows that al-Qaida core is a shadow of its former self, and the overall threat from al-Qaida in Pakistan is diminished,” Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, a federal office, testified before a Senate committee on Sept. 19, 2012.
Independent experts back up this claim.
"That they no longer have much of an organization is a sign of success,” said Jacob N. Shapiro, assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. Al-Qaida "needed that central organization to pull off anything approaching 9/11 in scale. The group wasn't much by the time Obama took office, and it's even less now.”
However, the battle against affiliates -- groups that follow al-Qaida's methods without necessarily having direct cooperation with core leaders -- has been more mixed.
The U.S. has had some success in Somalia.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia, known as al-Shabaab, had been the nation's dominant military force as recently as the beginning of 2012. But since then, it has "melted away” in the face of advances by a military coalition led by the African Union. Al-Shabaab has also been hampered by incursions by its neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as by Somali national forces and local militias.
In Yemen, there has been progress as well, but with less clarity.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been linked to several thwarted attacks, including the one by the "underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. For a while, the group essentially controlled some territory in Yemen, but those gains have been reversed. What's unclear, Gartenstein-Ross said, is whether the setbacks to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula are permanent.
Meanwhile, some groups sympathetic to al-Qaida have seen gains. In northern Nigeria, an Islamic insurgent group known as Boko Haram has carried out attacks against churches, a development that could lead to a spiral of religious violence. And in countries that have recently experienced political upheavals such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the sudden disappearance of authoritarian regimes has created greater freedom for Islamic radicals to operate and spread their message, Gartenstein-Ross said.
In some cases, regime changes have allowed figures linked to terrorism to be freed from prison. Officials have speculated about the role that Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, a former prisoner in Egypt, played in the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
One of the most important locations today for al-Qaida affiliates is northern Mali, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has carved out "a great deal of operating capacity” by becoming the de facto government, Gartenstein-Ross said.
In a speech to the Center for a New American Security on Nov. 21, 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged differences between the operational capabilities of core al-Qaida on the one hand and its affiliates on the other.
"Over the last few years, al-Qaida's leadership ranks have been decimated,” he said, adding, "We have slowed the primary cancer — but we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body.”
To Gartenstein-Ross, this means that "even the official rhetoric doesn't sound like the U.S. is close to the goal of defeating al-Qaida.”
We rate this promise a Compromise.
Politico, "Leon Panetta: Al Qaeda"s leadership ‘decimated,'" Nov. 21, 2012
CNN, "Is al Qaeda's core decimated or is group growing?" Oct 23, 2012
Wall Street Journal,"Militant Link to Libya Attack," Oct. 1, 2012
Matthew G. Olsen (director of the National Counterterrorism Center), testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sept. 19, 2012
Interview with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dec. 6, 2012
E-mail interview with John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, Dec. 6, 2012
E-mail interview with Jacob Shapiro, a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Dec. 6, 2012
E-mail interview with Paul Stares, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, Dec. 6, 2012
Al-Qaida down but not out
In announcing Osama bin Laden"s death Sunday night, President Barack Obama said U.S. military and counterterrorism professionals have "made great strides” in the effort to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaida.
But terrorism experts, U.S. officials and Obama himself say that despite progress in capturing or killing key al-Qaida leaders, the group is still a force in international terrorism.
"There's no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will— remain vigilant at home and abroad,” Obama said. "...The cause of securing our country is not complete."
At a homeland security conference in June 2010, Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, estimated there were somewhat "more than 300" al-Qaida fighters hiding in Pakistan. That same month, CIA Director Leon Panetta said there were "at most” 50 to 100 al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan.
In September, British troops in Iraq killed the suspected chief of al-Qaida in Southeast; and a U.S.-Iraqi raid in June claimed the life of the head of the Iraqi section of al-Qaida. During the Bush presidency, more than a dozen al-Qaida leaders were killed or captured, including suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Still at large is al-Qaida"s most senior remaining leader — Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon and Bin Laden"s second-in-command.
As Obama promised during the campaign, the U.S. military has been pulling out of Iraq and has beefed up forces in Afghanistan, including a surge of 30,000 additional soldiers to smother the al-Qaida network and the Taliban insurgency which has supported it.
In recent reports to Congress, administration officials have said those efforts are paying dividends. Army Secretary John McHugh told a Senate committee on March 31, 2011, that the surge "enabled our soldiers and our Afghan partners to seize multiple sanctuaries in the traditional insurgent heartland in southern Afghanistan."
Garry Reid, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, added in an April 12 Congressional hearing that "we believe we've constrained al-Qaida significantly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area."
However, Reid warned that the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have forced al-Qaida to "diversify into other regions," linking up with affiliates in the Middle East, South Asia, East Africa and elsewhere. "These are of great concern to us," Reid said.
Administration officials have also warned of another worrisome development. "We have seen a pattern of increasing terrorist recruitment of American citizens," said Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the bipartisan 9/11 commission in a March 30, 2011, presentation to Congress. Often, Hamilton said, they are influenced by violent Islamic extremist material on the Internet. In 2009, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, resulting in the death of 13 people. In a separate incident, a U.S. military recruiter was killed in Arkansas.
"Many counterterrorism experts consider 2010 the 'year of the homegrown terrorist,'" Hamilton said. "Last year, 10 Muslim-Americans plotted against domestic targets, and five actually carried out their plots. Today, we know that Muslim-American youth are being recruited."
Asked about the impact of bin Laden's death on al-Qaida's future, terrorism experts said al-Qaida had already been operationally weakened before but added that the group's structure makes it difficult to eradicate completely.
The relentless drone attacks and raids by Special Forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan have forced al-Qaida's leadership into hiding and choked their ability to organize new attacks.
"When people can't talk, it's hard to organize," said Jacob Shapiro, a public policy professor at Princeton University. "In addition to removing a rallying symbol, the circumstances of bin Laden's death will likely drive the existing leadership further underground, making them even less effective at managing their organization."
John Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org, added that "about the only thing that central al-Qaida has done recently is to send out video tapes and audio tapes. About the only thing they have inspired others to do is to set their underwear on fire," he said, referring to a failed attack on a U.S. airliner. "As an organization, it was crushed years ago, and as a brand it is not much to write home about."
Still, al-Qaida has survived by becoming increasingly decentralized, relying on a loosely connected network of supporters around the globe.
"It has metastisized into a loose global network with cells in dozens of countries, making it much less dependent on a single 'base,'" said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "In this regard, the killing of bin Laden is a symbolic event but does not 'decapitate' the organization as much as it would have a decade ago. Al-Qaida has since 9/11 opened franchises and made alliances with numerous organizations," including links with active Kashmir-focused extremists in Pakistan, a solid presence in Yemen, ties to the al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Another worry for the U.S.: "lone wolf" attacks launched by unaffiliated terrorists that al-Qaida may claim as their own, said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
A big question mark is the long-term impact of the recent wave of anti-government protests in the Middle East. Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the U.S. National War College and author of a book in 2010 called How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, said the upheavals paradoxically create both new instabilities in Middle Eastern nations that Islamic radicals could take advantage of -- and a safety valve for discontent among ordinary citizens that's distinct from al-Qaida.
Ultimately, officials and independent experts agree that al-Qaida is neither out of business nor as strong as it once was. In judging Obama's promise to "crush al-Qaida," his administration has made progress but -- despite the killing of Bin Laden -- not yet fully achieved its goal. We rate his promise In the Works.
White House website, Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden, May 2, 2011
New York Times, "New Estimate of Strength of Al Qaeda Is Offered," by David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, June 30, 2010
CQ Transcripts, Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities Holds Hearing on the Defense Department's Counterterrorism and Counternarcotics Plans, April 12, 2011
CQ Transcripts, Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on the Defense Authorization Proposed Budget Request for Fiscal 2012 and Future Years for the U.S. Army, March 31, 2011
CQ Transcripts, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Hearing: Ten Years After 9/11, March 30, 2011
CQ Transcripts, Hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: Worldwide Threats, Feb. 10, 2011
Andrew L. Stigler (Naval War College), review of Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2010), in the Naval War College Review, Winter 2011
Agence France Presse, "Zawahiri: bin Laden's successor as most-wanted man," May 2, 2011
Agence France-Presse, "Al-Qaeda leaders who have been killed or captured," May 2, 2011
E-mail interview with John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, May 2, 2011
E-mail interview with Jacob Shapiro, a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, May 2, 2011
E-mail interview with Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, May 2, 2011
E-mail interview with Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, May 2, 2011
E-mail interview with Paul Stares, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, May 2, 2011