Warning Update: al Qaeda's Global Attack Campaign

Al Qaeda may be planning attacks in the United States for Monday, November 7, according to a senior FBI official. The FBI continues to assess the intelligence and whether the threat is credible. If true, the plot could signal al Qaeda’s refocus on targeting the US homeland after building significant safe havens in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda never stopped planning attacks against the US even when it was prioritizing the local fights and working within local dynamics. The group seeks to lead a global insurgency, rooted in these local fights, that it will take to the West. Al Qaeda’s increasing involvement in local conflicts, especially the Syrian Civil War, accelerates rather than contains the threat of the group globally.

Al Qaeda has active attack planning cells based in its safe havens in Syria and Afghanistan. Safe havens provide al Qaeda bases from which to launch attacks against the US. US officials have been warning of al Qaeda’s re-emergence in Afghanistan and also its sanctuary in Syria. Two recent American strikes targeted high-level al Qaeda operatives involved in external operations in both countries.

  • A US airstrike killed a senior al Qaeda operative, Haydar Kirkan, on October 17 near Idlib City in northern Syria. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook confirmed the strike on November 2, describing Kirkan as connected to al Qaeda senior leadership, as facilitating al Qaeda’s efforts in Turkey and Europe, and as al Qaeda’s “senior external terror attack planner in Syria.”
  • The US also targeted two high-level operatives in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province on October 23: a senior planner for attacks against the US and al Qaeda’s commander in northeastern Afghanistan, Faruq al Qatani, confirmed killed, and Bilal al Utabi, who was re-establishing al Qaeda’s Afghanistan safe haven “to threaten the West.”  

The US strikes in Syria and Afghanistan last month demonstrate that al Qaeda remains a threat in both theaters.

Al Qaeda has had planning cells developing external attacks from Syria since at least 2014. The US initially launched airstrikes in September 2014 against the “Khorasan group,” an al Qaeda cell in Syria that had entered the “execution phase” of an attack against US interests in Europe. In response to these targeted strikes, Al Qaeda altered its operational methods in Syria but never abandoned its efforts to develop an external attack capability and deploy it.

  • In July 2016 al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, rebranded itself with a new name, Jabhat Fatah al Sham. At the same time, the group publicly split from al Qaeda’s leadership abroad in order to create a new image within Syria and internationally. Al Qaeda’s Syrian group aimed thereby to strengthen its relationships with Syrian populations and opposition groups which might otherwise find partnering with the group an impediment to outside support. The rebranding also reduces barriers for Jabhat Fatah al Sham, the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate’s successor, to unite the Syrian opposition under its leadership and build a durable safe haven that it can use for attacks in the future.
  • Al Qaeda launched an aggressive disinformation operation to signal that it had discontinued active plotting against the West. A senior al Qaeda figure named Mostafa Mahamed, rebranded as a “foreign media relations director” for Jabhat Fatah al Sham, conducted interviews with numerous Western news outlets such as the BBC and CNN in order to highlight the group’s focus on the war against the Assad regime. Jabhat Fatah al Sham sought to rally support against American airstrikes and cultivate allies within the Syrian opposition by demonstrating its commitment to the war against the Assad regime (see publications list below).
  • Jabhat Fatah al Sham continues to develop a robust global foreign fighter network in ways that set conditions for al Qaeda to turn those recruits back into a global attack network, as ISIS has done.
    • Jabhat Fatah al Sham has forward deployed recruiters abroad who funnel foreign fighters to Syria and likely cultivate al Qaeda attack cells abroad. The U.S. State Department designated one recruiter, French national Omar Diaby, in September 2016. Diaby is now leading a French foreign fighter group in Syria allied to al Qaeda after recruiting numerous French nationals to join the fight there.
    • Jabhat Fatah al Sham has cultivated numerous subunits of French, Libyan, Crimean, Uzbek, Chechen, and other foreign fighters.
    • Jabhat Fatah al Sham and allied groups publish foreign fighter recruitment propaganda via a media outlet titled “al Muhajirun,” which publishes videos subtitled in multiple languages including English, Russian, German, Dutch, and Turkish.  
    • Individuals who fought with Jabhat al Nusra in Syria have been arrested in numerous countries including the US and Germany, indicating that al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters are returning to Europe from Syria, like their counterparts fighting with ISIS, in a way that can set conditions for future attacks in the West.

The timing of the recent strikes against senior al Qaeda operators in Syria and Afghanistan could simply indicate that the US acquired actionable intelligence on these operatives’ locations. It could also be a response to the external attacks cells crossing an assessed threshold toward taking imminent action on a planned attack. If the latter, there is the possibility that al Qaeda may have decided to surge external attacks globally.

There are other possible indicators of a resumption of al Qaeda attempts to execute attacks abroad.

  • The US embassy in Kyrgyzstan issued a terrorist attack warning on October 8 after an SVBIED detonated outside Chinese Embassy in Bishkek on August 30. Kyrgyz intelligence stated that the attack was “ordered by Uighur terrorist groups active in Syria.” A Uighur foreign fighter group that has a branch in Syria and operates closely with al Qaeda, the Turkistan Islamic Party, most likely executed the attack. The subsequent US attack warning could indicate that the Turkistan Islamic Party intended to target US personnel in Kyrgyzstan next.
  • The US State Department ordered the evacuation of the families of US diplomats in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 29 due to “aggressive efforts” by “extremist groups” to target US citizens. The State Department did not specify whether ISIS or al Qaeda posed an imminent threat. ISIS is most likely, but the now deceased Hayder Kilkan’s role as a planner for attacks in Turkey as well as the US and Europe indicates the possibility that the US faces an immediate al Qaeda threat in Turkey.

The US does not have a global strategy to eliminate the safe havens that al Qaeda uses to design and execute attacks abroad. American airstrikes to disrupt imminent al Qaeda attacks from Syria and Afghanistan are necessary but insufficient. The US needs a plan to deprive al Qaeda of the terrain it holds in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in order to deprive the group of continued ability to regenerate its attack capability. The US must also recognize that the foreign fighter problem transcends ISIS and take immediate steps to address al Qaeda recruitment abroad, including in US allies in the Middle East as well as Europe.

 

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Featured image: Jabhat Fatah al Sham fighters cheer after a Russian helicopter was shot down in Idlib province, Syria, August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah