Al Qaeda Global Tracker

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Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) supported an attack on a US naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, in late 2019 that inspired a copycat attack at a naval air station in Corpus Christi, Texas, in May. The Corpus Christi attack occurred three days after the FBI confirmed AQAP’s connection to the Florida attack and was far less sophisticated. On May 21, Adam al Sahli, a Syrian-born US citizen, attacked Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. He crashed his truck into an entrance and shot and wounded a security officer before security forces killed him. Sahli had voiced support for Salafi-jihadi figures on social media, including late AQAP religious official Ibrahim al Rubaish.[1] The FBI is treating the attack as “terrorism-related.”

The attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola in December 2019 preceded Sahli’s attack. Mohammad al Shamrani, a Saudi national participating in a US Navy flight training program, opened fire in a classroom building. He killed three American sailors and injured eight other people. AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack in early February 2020.[2] Shamrani had communicated with AQAP about planning an attack since 2015. He joined the Saudi military and sought to participate in the US training program to create an opportunity for such an operation.

More al Qaeda–inspired, and possibly al Qaeda–directed, attacks on domestic military positions may follow. The Islamic State and its supporters have not claimed credit for the Corpus Christi attack. AQAP has previously encouraged attacks targeting US military bases, including the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting in Texas.[3] Continued attacks, particularly others involving foreign military personnel, could erode relations between the US military and Middle Eastern partners.

 

More from AEI and CTP:

Al Qaeda’s role in the Pensacola shooting and what it means” by Katherine Zimmerman

Yemen File: AQAP did more than just inspire the Pensacola attack” by Jessica Kocan

 


[1] “NAS Corpus Christi Shooter Demonstrates Deep Religiosity, Suggests Support for AQ on Social Media,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 21, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “AQAP Claims Credit for Naval Air Station Pensacola, Leader Calls Lone Wolves to Act,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 2, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “Fort Hood, Individual Jihad – ‘Echoes of the Epics,’ Twelfth Issue,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 22, 2010, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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Salafi-jihadi groups, particularly al Qaeda, have grown resilient in the past decade by entrenching themselves in local conflicts throughout the Muslim world. Al Qaeda affiliates execute the leadership’s guidance through  "deliberate localization” that has allowed them to develop and expand popular support bases in conflict zones. Al Qaeda affiliates demonstrated their continued alignment with al Qaeda’s strategic objectives, including attacking the United States, in a recent media campaign lauding an attempted al Shabaab attack on an American base in Somalia.

Horn of Africa. Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s East African affiliate, is waging an insurgency across southern and central Somalia and regularly targets Kenya. Al Shabaab conducted its first direct attack on Baledogle airbase, a US and Somali position located 60 miles outside of the capital, Mogadishu, in southern Somalia, on September 30. Al Shabaab militants attempted to breach the perimeter of the airbase using suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. A US airstrike and small arms fire disrupted the attack. The attack failed to inflict any casualties, though al Shabaab claimed to kill nearly 200 US and Israeli personnel.

Al Shabaab heavily promoted the Baledogle attack to place its struggle in a global framework. The attack may indicate that al Shabaab will increase prioritization of US targets in East Africa. The group released statements on October 2 and October 16 claiming the attack as part of ongoing and intensifying operations against Western powers interfering in Muslim lands. Al Shabaab’s emir, Ahmad Umar AKA  Abu Ubaidah, made his first video appearance, with his face obscured, on November 5. He appeared alongside the perpetrators of the Baledogle attack in the video, denounced “American atrocities” in the Muslim world, and called for attacks on American personnel globally.

Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) participated in the coordinated media response to the Baledogle attack despite its relatively limited media production in the past two years. Senior AQAP official Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi released an audio speech on October 16, the same day as one of the al Shabaab statements, lauding the Baledogle attack and urging al Shabaab to continue its struggle. AQAP last indirectly referenced al Shabaab in another audio speech from Qosi nearly four years ago. AQAP’s emir, Qasim al Raymi, also released his first audio speech in over a year on November 4 in which he discussed the conflict in Syria, potentially indicating a revitalization of the group’s media wing.

 AQAP has historically posed a significant threat to the West due to its prioritization of external attacks. Counterterrorism efforts have degraded AQAP, including its media capabilities, in recent years. Conditions in Yemen, including local conflicts and governance gaps, favor AQAP’s strengthening in the future, however.

Al Qaeda leadership. Al Qaeda General Command also released a statement praising the Baledogle attack on October 16, demonstrating a high degree of coordination between al Qaeda leadership, AQAP, and al Shabaab.

West Africa. The al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliate in Mali, Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), may be increasing its coordination with al Qaeda affiliates. The group’s emir, Iyad Ag Ghali, released an audio speech on November 8 lauding al Shabaab’s attack on the Baledogle airbase. This is Ag Ghali’s first public statement to al Qaeda affiliates as JNIM’s emir. This statement builds on a history of AQIM coordination with other al Qaeda affiliates

 AQIM and other Salafi-jihadi groups have expanded rapidly in the western Sahel region by stoking ethnic conflict and taking advantage of weak states. JNIM formed from the merger of four Salafi-jihadi groups in 2017 and is currently waging an insurgency across northern and central Mali and northern Burkina Faso.

This analysis is co-published by the Institute for the Study of War.

Al Qaeda has expanded its presence in Afghanistan since 2014 in collaboration with the Taliban. The Taliban and al Qaeda maintain, and will sustain, an enduring and intimate relationship that invalidates the premise of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban-al Qaeda partnership will allow al Qaeda militants to exploit any potential U.S. military withdrawal to expand further their access to safe havens in Afghanistan.

 

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reaffirmed the Trump Administration’s intent to reach a political agreement and continue the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan during a visit to the country on October 21.[1] U.S. President Donald Trump halted negotiations with the Taliban in September in the wake of a bombing in the country’s capital that killed a U.S. soldier.[2] It is unclear whether the U.S. and the Taliban will resume talks in the near term. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continues to expand its presence in Afghanistan in a close relationship with the Taliban that undermines a central premise of talks: that the Taliban will break with al Qaeda as part of a peace deal. Al Qaeda has already exploited previous U.S. drawdowns and is prepared to surge in collaboration with the Taliban if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda has prioritized its re-entry into Afghanistan since 2014, when the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) drew down forces.[3] Al Qaeda Emir Ayman al Zawahiri announced the formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in 2014, a move intended to counter the Islamic State’s declaration of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria as well as exploit the ISAF drawdown.[4] Al Qaeda’s re-entry into Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan forced the U.S. to resume counter-terrorism operations there in 2015.

Senior AQIS leaders and Taliban commanders are co-located in Afghanistan today, signaling an enduring and high-level partnership. American and Afghan forces targeted a joint Taliban-al Qaeda compound in Musah Qal’ah District, a Taliban stronghold considered the group’s de facto capital, in Helmand Province on September 22.[5] Multiple Afghan security organizations reported that the operation killed senior AQIS leader Asim Umar and a courier who connected AQIS leaders to Zawahiri. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency and a U.S. official have since confirmed Umar’s death in the raid.[6] The operation also targeted several Taliban commanders from districts in Helmand Province.[7] It is a sign of the extent of al Qaeda’s return to the area.

The joint compound in Musah Qal’ah is only one example of the depth and breadth of the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship. Al Qaeda members are embedded with the Taliban at positions throughout Afghanistan. The U.S. military assessed in February 2019 that approximately 200 al Qaeda militants are active in Kabul, Badakhshan, Kunar, Paktia, Helmand, and Nimroz Provinces.[8] The UN Security Council (UNSC) assessed that al Qaeda “considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership” and that al Qaeda continues to rely “on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban leadership” in July 2019.[9] The UNSC also assessed that al Qaeda is actively attempting to grow its presence in Shighnan District in Badakhshan Province and Bermal District in Paktika Province.[10] A senior Taliban official said in December 2018 that several thousand foreign fighters operate in Taliban territory.[11] Many of these fighters are likely affiliated with al Qaeda. Durable alliances between al Qaeda militants and Taliban members indicate an entrenched al Qaeda network embedded within the Taliban.[12] Al Qaeda members also provide military and religious instruction to the Taliban.[13]

The U.S. cannot expect the Taliban to fulfill its counter-terrorism requirements against al Qaeda. The Taliban has already demonstrated that it will not act to thwart al Qaeda. The Taliban neither severed ties with al Qaeda nor took action to prevent terrorists from operating in Afghanistan, as it promised in a now-defunct draft agreement with the U.S. in early September.[14] Al Qaeda will continue to exploit its relationship with the Taliban to expand its presence in Afghanistan and will accelerate this expansion if the U.S. withdraws.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

[1] Idrees Ali, “Pentagon chief in Afghanistan as U.S. looks to kickstart Taliban talks,” Reuters, October 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-pentagon/pentagon-chief-in-afghanistan-as-u-s-looks-to-kickstart-taliban-talks-idUSKBN1WZ0C4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anne Stenersen, “Al-Qa’ida’s Comeback in Afghanistan and its Implications,” CTC Sentinel 9, no. 9 (September 2016), https://ctc.usma.edu/al-qaidas-comeback-in-afghanistan-and-its-implications/.

[4] Anurag Chandran, “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: Almost Forgotten,” Critical Threats Projecta t the American Enterprise Institute, September 3, 2015, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/al-qaeda-in-the-indian-subcontinent-almost-forgotten.

[5] Susannah George, “U.S., Afghan forces carry out deadly raid on al-Qaeda in southern Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 23, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-official-acknowledges-possible-civilian-casualties-in-afghanistan-airstrike/2019/09/23/dd789cf2-de0a-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html; and “Taliban territory: Life in Afghanistan under the militants,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40171379

[6] Ayesha Tanzeem, “Al-Qaida South Asia Chief Killed in Afghanistan Raid,” Voice of America, October 8, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/al-qaida-south-asia-chief-killed-afghanistan-raid.

[7] Afghanistan National Directorate of Security, Twitter, September 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/NDSAfghanistan/status/1176450110882009088; and Afghanistan National Security Council, Twitter, September 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/NSCAfghan/status/1176212078069276677?s=20.  

[8] Glenn A. Fine, “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress,” March 1, 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Mar/01/2002094845/-1/-1/1/FY2019_LIG_OCO_REPORT.PDF.

[9] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,” July 15, 2019, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3813209/files/S_2019_570-EN.pdf.

[10] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council.”

[11] F. Brinley Bruton and Mushtaq Yusufzai, “9/11 hangs over Taliban talks and assurances militant group has changed,” NBC News, December 17, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/9-11-hangs-over-taliban-talks-assurances-militant-group-has-n946011.

[12] Phil Stewart, “At Afghan base, al Qaeda memories fresh 18 years after September 11 attacks,” Reuters, September 11, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-sept11-afghanistan/at-afghan-base-al-qaeda-memories-fresh-18-years-after-september-11-attacks-idUSKCN1VW24D; Council on Foreign Relations, “The al-Qaeda-Taliban Nexus,” November 24, 2009, https://www.cfr.org/expert-roundup/al-qaeda-taliban-nexus; Robert Windrem and William M. Arkin, “Why Hasn’t the U.S. Killed Bin Laden’s Wingman Ayman al-Zawahiri,” NBC News, May 17, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-hasn-t-u-s-kill-bin-laden-s-wingman-n574986; and Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland, “In Trump’s team, misgivings emerge over any deal with Taliban in Afghanistan: U.S. officials,” Reuters, August 30, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-concerns/in-trumps-team-misgivings-emerge-over-any-deal-with-taliban-in-afghanistan-u-s-officials-idUSKCN1VK2NW.

[13] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council.”

[14] Siobhan O’Grady and Sharif Hassan, “Bombing rocks Kabul as U.S. envoy announces draft troop pullout deal with Taliban,” Washington Post, September 2, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-envoy-to-taliban-talks-us-would-pull-out-troops-135-days-after-peace-deal-is-signed/2019/09/02/bc8f2b10-cd74-11e9-87fa-8501a456c003_story.html.

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