Al-Qa`ida’s Comeback in Afghanistan and its Implications
September 7, 2016
Abstract: Fifteen years after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, al-Qa`ida appears to be rebuilding its presence in Afghanistan. Al-Qa`ida’s comeback in Afghanistan can be understood in light of three main factors: its enduring relationship with the Taliban, its drive to embed its struggle with local and regional insurgents and broaden its support, and its ability to adapt its strategies and methods to respond to current events. While al-Qa`ida is focused on establishing a presence in the Middle East, al-Qa`ida’s Pakistani-led branch on the Indian Subcontinent appears more of a regional than global threat. However, this could easily change, and therefore containing the al-Qa`ida threat in Afghanistan is still a matter of urgent concern for the Western counterterrorism community.
In July 2015, U.S. forces discovered a large “al-Qa`ida camp” in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. The most surprising feature of the camp was its sheer size. A joint attack on the site in October 2015 lasted several days and involved 63 airstrikes and a 200-strong ground assault team. More than 160 “suspected terrorists” were reportedly killed in the attack. The number of dead fighters far surpassed official estimates of the number of al-Qa`ida fighters in Afghanistan, which for years was said to be between 50 and 100.[a]
The discovery shook two assumptions about al-Qa`ida—first, that al-Qa`ida was “decimated” in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of U.S. counterterrorism efforts and second, that al-Qa`ida operates only in southeastern and eastern provinces of the country. The discovery has led to renewed debate about the size and nature of future U.S. military engagements in Afghanistan. There are fears that if the United States continues the planned drawdown of military troops, al-Qa`ida might return to use the country as sanctuary as it did before 2001.
The argument about al-Qa`ida’s purported comeback in Afghanistan has potentially serious policy implications. However, the driving causes behind this development have not yet been closely scrutinized. Existing views tend to interpret al-Qa`ida’s comeback as a result of “increased linkages” between al-Qa`ida and the Taliban. While this is certainly true, al-Qa`ida’s improving fortunes in Afghanistan are the result of multi-faceted developments, including the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) drawdown in 2014, Pakistani counterterrorism policies, and al-Qa`ida’s own strategic priorities for the region.
To inform the ongoing policy debate, this article explores how al-Qa`ida has managed to maintain and restore a presence in Afghanistan while, at the same time, shifting many senior operatives to the Arab world. It argues that al-Qa`ida’s comeback in Afghanistan is the result of three main factors: its enduring relationship with the Taliban; its ability to embed its struggle within local and regional insurgencies; and finally, its opportunistic nature, which allows al-Qa`ida to adapt its strategies and methods in response to current events. While al-Qa`ida on the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) seems to remain a regional threat for now, this could easily change in the mid- to long-term.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001, al-Qa`ida built a new safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, in particular in the South and North Waziristan agencies. From here, al-Qa`ida started supporting the nascent Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan through its historical allies from the Afghan-Soviet war such as Jalaluddin Haqqani’s group (later known as the “Haqqani network”). Until about 2010, al-Qa`ida enjoyed relative safe haven in Waziristan and was capable of staging international terrorist attacks in addition to running training camps and supporting local insurgencies. Al-Qa`ida was gradually increasing its presence in Afghanistan, with activities concentrated in eastern and southeastern provinces. Internal documents claim that in 2010 al-Qa`ida had a presence in at least eight Afghan provinces, including a “battalion” in Kunar and Nuristan led by the Qatari al-Qa`ida member Farouq al-Qahtani.
From around 2010, al-Qa`ida leaders in Waziristan were coming under increasing pressure from U.S. drone attacks. High-ranking leaders in Waziristan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, were killed in 2010 and 2011, respectively. In this period al-Qa`ida contemplated moving part of its organization to eastern Afghanistan, in particular to the safe haven in Nuristan established by al-Qahtani. It indicates that al-Qa`ida leaders believed eastern Afghanistan to be a viable safe haven, even several years before ISAF wound down operations in Afghanistan in December 2014.
Al-Qahtani apparently continues to enjoy sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan. In February 2016, he was designated a global terrorist by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and has been described as “one of the most important remaining [al-Qa`ida] figures in the region.” He is said to be involved in fundraising and international terrorist planning, in addition to being al-Qa`ida’s overall leader for eastern Afghanistan. If this information is correct, he may indeed be viewed as one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s top deputies in the region.
In 2015, it appeared that the rise of the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan had the potential to challenge al-Qa`ida groups like al-Qahtani’s. However, the Islamic State in 2016 no longer appears to be a threat as it has been severely weakened in its main stronghold in Nangarhar. It is thus likely that al-Qa`ida will continue to uphold a presence in remote areas of eastern Afghanistan by exploiting the security gaps left by the ISAF drawdown.
The other entity that has marked its presence in Afghanistan over the past two years is AQIS. The “al-Qa`ida camp” discovered in Shorabak district in Kandahar in June 2015 was, in fact, an AQIS-affiliated camp. It is unlikely that all of the 160 suspects killed in the assault on the camp in October were AQIS members, however. The camp was reportedly shared by militants from multiple groups and provided a wide range of courses including “basic training.” Thus, it seems likely that those killed included members from other groups and perhaps also individuals who had not yet joined a group, as this typically happens only after completing a certain amount of basic training. Judging from how al-Qa`ida operated elsewhere in the region, it seems plausible that the camp was a joint venture where AQIS provided training and other types of support to local and regional militants.
The presence of AQIS militants in Kandahar is a significant development. Al-Qa`ida militants have traditionally operated in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, but the AQIS camp discovered in 2015 was right in the Taliban’s heartland. Shorabak is situated close to Quetta, Pakistan, and has traditionally functioned as a smuggling and transit corridor between the two countries. Taliban influence in Shorabak district has increased over time, in part due to destabilization resulting from government corruption and election fraud. Especially after the 2009 elections, the dominant Bareetz tribe was robbed of its votes and suppressed by the provincial government. Many of its members subsequently joined the Taliban.The neighboring district of Registan, which is inhabited by Baluch tribes and made up mostly of desert, has been under de facto under control by the Taliban since at least 2009. On October 2, 2014, the Taliban officially claimed to have captured the district via its Baluch affiliate, Junood al-Fida.
After the ISAF drawdown in December 2014, the Taliban increased its influence in several districts in Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan. Al-Qa`ida, for its part, appears to be riding the Taliban’s coattails.[b] To explain the enduring relationship between al-Qa`ida and Taliban and the apparent deepening of these ties in southern Afghanistan, it is important to look at changes within the Taliban leadership over the past few years.
Riding the Taliban’s Coattails
The relationship between al-Qa`ida and the Taliban started in 1996, when the Taliban allowed Usama bin Ladin and a group of his Arab followers to stay under the Taliban’s protection in Afghanistan. Ever since then, the two entities have been allies, although the relationship has had its ups and downs. After 2001, when part of the Taliban continued as an insurgent movement, the group allowed foreign fighters, including Arabs from al-Qa`ida, to fight in its ranks. The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, never openly disavowed bin Ladin or al-Qa`ida nor blamed him for bringing about the Taliban regime’s demise in 2001. When bin Ladin was killed in 2011, the Taliban leadership issued a public eulogy, which is customary among militant Islamists. Bin Ladin’s successor, al-Zawahiri, subsequently renewed his oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar.
Mullah Omar died in 2013, but his death was not made public until two years later. Meanwhile, Mullah Omar’s deputy, Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, was running the Taliban’s affairs and even issued statements in Mullah Omar’s name. Al-Zawahiri also continued to praise Mullah Omar in his speeches after 2013, indicating that he either did not know that Mullah Omar had died or that he was part of the scheme to cover up his death.
When Mullah Omar’s demise became public in 2015, it sparked a leadership crisis within the Taliban. Part of the organization, including Mullah Omar’s sons, refused to accept Mansour as the new leader. In the end, the various Taliban factions reached a compromise in which Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani and current leader of the “Haqqani Network,” was elevated to the position of deputy leader, a position he continues to hold under Mansour’s successor, Mullah Haibatullah. This, in turn, may have strengthened the al-Qa`ida-Taliban nexus, as the Haqqanis have traditionally been close allies of al-Qa`ida and accepting of Arab and other foreign fighters in their ranks.
The leadership changes within the Taliban may be part of the reason why al-Qa`ida managed to build a considerable presence in southern Kandahar—the heartland of the Taliban—in 2015. On the other hand, Sirajuddin Haqqani remains an “eastern” Pashtun who would normally hold little traditional influence among the southern Pashtun tribes to which the Kandahari Taliban belong.
Much still remains unknown, especially in open sources, about the inner dynamics of the Taliban leadership and their relationship to al-Qa`ida. However, it seems that al-Qa`ida’s presence in southern Afghanistan cannot be explained simply by its historical ties to certain Taliban members. The identity of the “al-Qa`ida camp” in Kandahar must be taken into account. As mentioned, the camp was not affiliated with al-Qa`ida’s central leadership but with al-Qa`ida’s Pakistani-led branch, AQIS.
The AQIS Factor
AQIS was officially established by al-Zawahiri in September 2014.[c] AQIS may be described as a “regional branch” of al-Qa`ida, similar to al-Qa`ida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa. Given the geographic proximity of AQIS and al-Qa`ida Central, the difference between the two may not be as evident.[d] However, there are important distinctions between the two organizations, which become clear when looking at developments leading to AQIS’ formation.
AQIS was established a few months after the Islamic State declared it had established a “caliphate” on the soil of Iraq and Syria. This led observers to believe that AQIS was established to boost al-Qa`ida’s image as part of its ongoing propaganda war with the Islamic State. The announcement of the Islamic State caliphate may indeed have influenced the timing and manner of AQIS’ announcement. At the same time, it should be pointed out that AQIS is the outcome of a long series of events, starting in 2007 when there was a gradual shift in al-Qa`ida’s strategies for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The shift was a response to significant events within Pakistan, above all the highly controversial siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007. The siege and subsequent assault on the Red Mosque by Pakistani special forces led to an escalation in the conflict between the Pakistani state and Islamist militias in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The militias formed an umbrella organization, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to conduct what they termed “defensive jihad” against the Pakistani state. In practice, it meant defending tribal territories against Pakistani Army incursions, combined with an escalation in terrorist violence in Pakistani cities.
As a consequence, al-Qa`ida decided to expand its area of operations to Pakistan. Part of the new, “regional” strategy was outlined in a document found in bin Ladin’s compound in Abbottabad in 2011. Based on events mentioned in the document, it was likely written in the first half of 2008.[e] The author of the document believed that al-Qa`ida’s enemies were “establishing a program that will destroy the jihad center in Waziristan for good” and that al-Qa`ida therefore must “make the control of tribal areas and their defense among the first priorities.” Although al-Zawahiri in 2007 started calling on the Pakistani people to “revolt” against their government, it seems clear that al-Qa`ida’s strategy in Pakistan at this point was purely defensive. As outlined in the strategy document, al-Qa`ida wanted to protect its sanctuary in Waziristan, which it viewed, at the time, as a “center for the Global Jihad Movement” and above all, they wanted to avoid a civil war with the Pakistani state, which the document makes clear they knew would be futile. Other documents from Abbottabad reveal that bin Ladin was positive to the idea of truce agreements with the Waziristan militias and the Pakistani state in order for the militants to concentrate on fighting in Afghanistan.
Al-Qa`ida’s primary effort in this period was to work as mediator between the various jihadist groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These groups diverged in their priorities, however. Some wanted to carry out attacks on Pakistani security forces or Shi’ite Muslims in Pakistan, while others wanted to use Pakistan as sanctuary and to fight solely inside Afghanistan. The mediation efforts were led by an Egyptian veteran of al-Qa`ida, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, who in May 2007 had been appointed to head “Al-Qa`ida in the Lands of Khurasan [Afghanistan].”[f] Al-Qa`ida in the Lands of Khurasan may be viewed as a precursor to AQIS insofar as both entities were responsible for coordinating al-Qa`ida’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, Al-Qa`ida in the Lands of Khurasan was led by Arab al-Qa`ida members who also had high positions in al-Qa`ida Central. In contrast, AQIS is led by the Pakistani cleric Asim Umar, who has long experience from Pakistani militant groups but whose formal affiliation with al-Qa`ida appears to be quite recent.[g]
Mustafa Abu al-Yazid was killed in a drone strike in May 2010 and internal al-Qa`ida documents reveal that al-Qa`ida struggled to find a suitable successor. After bin Ladin was killed in May 2011, al-Zawahiri reached out to jihadist circles in Pakistan and managed to recruit Asim Umar, a leading Pakistani jihad ideologue, into al-Qa`ida. Umar was subsequently named head of al-Qa`ida’s new regional branch, AQIS, in 2014, while the Pakistani al-Qa`ida member Umar Farooq was appointed his deputy. Given al-Qa`ida’s limited organizational resources at the time and its considerable “brain drain” of al-Qa`ida operatives to the Middle East (discussed later), it is no surprise that al-Qa`ida decided to “Pakistanize” its branch on the Indian Subcontinent. Another obvious reason to elect a Pakistani cleric was to give the group a more distinct Pakistani identity to boost local recruitment.
There are few available details about Asim Umar’s background, but he is apparently in his mid-forties and has a higher religious education having studied at two of the most famous Deobandi institutions in Pakistan, Jamiat-e-Ulum in Karachi and Dar al-Ulum Haqqaniyya at Akhora Khattak.[h] These institutions constitute networks of Islamists and religious scholars who offer ideological support to the Afghan Taliban, and they have also fostered militant leaders such as Qari Saifullah Akhtar, leader of the Pakistani jihadist group and long-time al-Qa`ida ally Harakat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI). Several of AQIS’ members are said to be from the networks of HUJI and other Pakistani jihadist organizations that derive their historical roots from the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s and the Kashmir conflict in the 1990s.
This is not to say that AQIS is merely a new name for Pakistan’s old jihadist networks. AQIS represents the most visible effort so far to merge al-Qa`ida’s methods and strategies with Pakistan’s long traditions of Islamist militancy. There are obviously many challenges: the fragmented nature of Pakistan’s militant landscape, the many competing ideological narratives, and Pakistan’s omnipresent police and intelligence services. But if al-Qa`ida succeeds, the result could be dangerous.
The potential of AQIS is illustrated by its first terrorist attack—the failed attack on the Pakistani frigate PNS Zulfiqar in Karachi on September 6, 2014. According to AQIS, the plan was to hijack two Pakistani naval vessels and use them to attack U.S. and Indian warships in the Arabian Sea. While the attack ultimately failed, the plans were extremely ambitious and reminiscent of al-Qa`ida’s naval operations off the coast of Yemen in 1999-2002.[i] A more worrying detail was the fact that the attackers had succeeded in infiltrating the Pakistani Navy. This was to a large extent confirmed in May 2016 when a Pakistani court sentenced five naval officers to death for their involvement in the plan.
AQIS is not only about spectacular military attacks, however. A large part of AQIS’ efforts are a continuation of the work started by Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, which is to unite the efforts of the various militants in the region and to provide training and support to increase the capabilities of local groups. The discovery of an AQIS-led training camp in Kandahar is so far the most visible manifestation of these ambitions. It is likely that after the failed attack on PNS Zulfikar in September 2014, AQIS returned to its core activity, namely local and regional capacity-building.[j]
It is not clear how or why AQIS established a presence in Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban. Until early 2015, AQIS had a considerable presence in the Shawal valley between North and South Waziristan as evidenced by the January 2015 U.S. drone strike there that killed the Pakistani Umar Farooq, the deputy leader of AQIS, along with two Western hostages held by AQIS—American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. In April 2015, an AQIS spokesman claimed that U.S. drone strikes in Waziristan up until then had killed around 50 AQIS members, including two senior leaders.
The counterterrorism operations in Shawal were part of a larger campaign by the Pakistani Army that had been ongoing in North Waziristan since June 2014. The operation marked a new departure in the counterterrorism policy of the Pakistan state, which had previously avoided entering North Waziristan with ground troops. Prior to the long anticipated operation, around 600,000 civilians were forced to leave North Waziristan and settle in nearby districts. During this period, a large number of local and foreign militants likely left the province as well. Press reports indicate many of them settled in the neighboring provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Baluchistan, in addition to Afghanistan.
In this context, the discovery of AQIS elements in southern Kandahar in June 2015 appears to be part of a larger exodus of local and foreign fighters from North Waziristan. It is likely that AQIS’ move to southern Afghanistan was motivated by the direct Pakistani military action in Waziristan, which subsequently pushed several militants into Baluchistan and, by extension, Baluch-dominated regions of southern Kandahar. The fact that AQIS went to Kandahar, rather than to more traditional al-Qa`ida sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan, reinforces the impression that AQIS is a “Pakistani” al-Qa`ida entity, which is distinct from al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership and which has closer and more personal ties to Kandahari Taliban leaders in Quetta. Thus, by establishing AQIS as a distinct Pakistani-led branch, al-Qa`ida has managed to widen its support base and activities to become more deeply entrenched in local insurgent movements. This is reflective of a more general strategic shift within al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership, which impacts its regional as well as global activities.
Al-Qa`ida’s Shift in Strategy
Several drastic events took place during 2011-2014 that directly affected al-Qa`ida’s strategic priorities. Bin Ladin was killed; civil wars erupted in the Middle East; and the Islamic State challenged al-Qa`ida’s position as leader for the global jihadist movement. In this context, a number of al-Qa`ida operatives relocated to the Middle East to take advantage of opportunities offered by the chaos erupting in the wake of the failed Arab Spring. Some of them were sent from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region; others went to Syria after being released from prison in Iran. Al-Qa`ida not only moved personnel but also organizational functions. Around 2013, al-Qa`ida relocated part of its external operations branch, the so-called “Khorasan Group,” to Syria and also named the leader of AQAP in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuyaishi, as al-Qa`ida’s number two. After al-Wuyaishi was killed in 2015, it appears that the Egyptian veteran al-Qa`ida member Abu Khayr al-Masri has replaced him as al-Zawahiri’s deputy. Al-Masri is believed to be based in Syria along with several other core al-Qa`ida members.
The “brain drain” of senior al-Qa`ida operatives to Syria led to a shift in the center of gravity for al-Qa`ida’s strategic leadership, away from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and toward the Arab world. This development is not surprising as al-Zawahiri has always been Arab-centric in his approach. For example, in mid-2001, he wrote in a draft version of his autobiography, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, that al-Qa`ida should “… move the battlefront to the heart of the Islamic world,” which would help protect the nascent Islamic States in Afghanistan and Chechnya from being exposed to “pressure and strikes.” After 2001, al-Qa`ida repeatedly sought to establish a presence in the Middle East, most famously by recruiting the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to lead al-Qa`ida’s branch in Iraq (AQI) in 2004.
After the severe weakening of AQI from 2008 onward, the eruption of civil war in Syria created new opportunities for al-Qa`ida. Al-Zawahiri’s appointment of the Pakistani scholar Asim Umar to lead AQIS in 2014 seems to confirm that al-Qa`ida had indeed decided to prioritize its now-limited resources on conflicts in the Arab world, while preferring to let local and regional actors like the Taliban and Pakistani jihadis carry on the struggle in Afghanistan.
In recent years, al-Qa`ida has also changed its working methods. Instead of overtly flagging al-Qa`ida’s global and anti-American agenda in the context of local insurgencies, al-Qa`ida is now working more covertly, through local proxies. It suits al-Qa`ida’s current approach in the Indian Subcontinent, North Africa, and Yemen. The most recent example is al-Qa`ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which announced in July 2016 that it had cut off all “external relations” and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It is not known if the statement indicates a real separation from al-Qa`ida, however. Several observers believed it to be a tactical move to gain support with local allies. As already noted, the creation of AQIS was also a move by al-Qa`ida to broaden its local support base. This has been a longstanding priority for al-Zawahiri, who stated in his memoir “the jihad movement must become closer to the masses,” a strategic course he has had the opportunity to plot since taking over from bin Ladin. Given all this, it would seem premature to conclude that al-Qa`ida has become irrelevant or that it is losing ground to localized insurgencies. Instead, al-Qa`ida appears to be more like a chameleon that is constantly adapting to its surroundings and thereby securing its survival.
What does the future look like for al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan? As argued in this article, AQIS appears for now to be more of a regional than a global threat. This means that in the short- to mid-term, AQIS’ priority will likely be to support local insurgencies rather than using the region as a base for international terrorist attacks, which could provoke an intensified international response and more pressure on the Taliban to cut off support. If the Afghan Taliban cuts off all ties to al-Qa`ida, AQIS will be reduced to a marginal actor and this is contrary to its aim of being a unifying force for all jihadist groups in the region. AQIS knows that the Taliban’s effort to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan—rather than al-Qa`ida’s “global jihad” against the United States—has greater potential to unite the disparate jihadist groups on the Indian Subcontinent and to rally new recruits to the cause. In the long-term, however, the overall ambition of al-Qa`ida is probably still the same as before, namely to use Afghanistan as a launch pad for militant jihad elsewhere. In other words, al-Qa`ida has not abandoned the idea of “global jihad” from Afghanistan, but it has temporarily chosen to focus on local, territorial struggles.
Al-Qa`ida still very much values its relationship with the Taliban, both for ideological and tactical reasons. Al-Qa`ida sees its alliance with the Taliban as a means to counter the narrative presented by the Islamic State, which claims that it represents the only legitimate ‘Islamic State’ in the world. Al-Zawahiri has sought to strengthen the legitimacy of the Taliban over the past few years by reiterating his pledge of allegiance to its leadership—Mullah Mansour in 2015 and Mullah Haibatullah in 2016. Al-Zawahiri has further sought to delegitimize Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who in 2014 laid claim to the title of Caliph of all Muslims. Al-Zawahiri has repeatedly argued that Mullah Omar and his successors have been the only Muslims worthy of holding the title of “Leader of the Faithful,” although he falls short of declaring any of them Caliph. Moreover, in an August 2016 speech, al-Zawahiri explicitly urged all Muslims to rally around the Taliban in Afghanistan rather than the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The Taliban’s relationship with al-Qa`ida is, on the other hand, harder to gauge. What does the Taliban gain from keeping al-Qa`ida in the fold, except perhaps funding and limited battlefield support? What would it take for the Taliban to abandon al-Qa`ida? At present, their relationship seems as strong as ever, but this could change if the Taliban were given the right mixture of carrots and sticks. Obviously, there are no quick fixes to the problem, as illustrated by years of failed peace negotiation efforts. However, it is also important to keep in mind that an agreement with Taliban’s Kandahari leadership would have little effect on the al-Qa`ida presence in remote valleys in places like Kunar or Nuristan hundreds of miles away. Al-Qa`ida would be able to find some sanctuary in Afghanistan, regardless of whether the Taliban abandoned it or not. It seems that a mixture of political solutions and a targeted counterterrorism campaign are still the best way to keep Afghanistan from again becoming a major al-Qa`ida safe haven.
While a large part of al-Qa`ida is now focused on taking advantage of opportunities created by the failed Arab Spring, it does not mean that al-Qa`ida has abandoned international terrorism as a tactic. Al-Qa`ida’s international terrorist campaigns were always run by a small, secretive branch within the overall organization. These “external operations” cells comprised no more than a handful of people, and they were not necessarily the most senior or most well-known members of the organization. International terrorist planning may thus happen independently and geographically separate from other traditional al-Qa`ida activities such as training and frontline participation. Both al-Zawahiri and bin Ladin’s son Hamza have continued to call for terrorist attacks against the United States and its Western allies. Whether these terrorist attacks will be staged from Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan, or carried out by individual al-Qa`ida sympathizers living in the West is not at all clear. And this is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the counterterrorism community today.
Anne Stenersen, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) and currently head of FFI’s Terrorism Research Project. Follow @annestenersen
The author would like to thank Paul Cruickshank for his considerable editorial input on this article and Henrik Gråtrud for useful discussions and tips on sources.
[a] The Long War Journal, an online American publication focusing on counterterrorism, has long claimed that official U.S. estimates of “50 to 100” al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan have been too low. In April 2016, U.S. officials adjusted the number to 300, seemingly acknowledging that al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan was stronger than previously thought. Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “US Military Admits Al Qaeda Is Stronger In Afghanistan Than Previously Estimated,” Long War Journal, April 13, 2016; Nick Paton Walsh, “Al Qaeda ‘very active’ in Afghanistan: U.S. Commander,” CNN, April 13, 2016.
[b] Registan and Shorabak were subject to certain disruptive ISAF operations, but for the large part, ISAF left it to the Afghan Border Police and other local security forces to maintain control in the southern districts. ISAF concentrated its operations, such as the large Hamkari operation in 2010, on more urgent Taliban threats in districts closer to Kandahar city. Carl Forsberg, “Counterinsurgency in Kandahar: Evaluating the 2010 Hamkari campaign,” Institute for the Study of War, December 2010. For a discussion of how al-Qa`ida is riding the Taliban’s coattails, see Olivier Roy and Tore Hamming, “Al-Zawahiri’s Bay’a to Mullah Mansoor: A Bitter Pill but a Bountiful Harvest,” CTC Sentinel 9:5 (2016): pp. 16-21.
[c] According to Adam Gadahn, AQIS was actually established in mid-2013, but for unspecified reasons the announcement of the group did not happen until 2014. “An Exclusive Interview with Adam Yahiye Gadahn,” Resurgence 2 (Summer 2015): p. 67; Ayman al-Zawahiri, “I’lan insha far’ jadid li-jama’at qa’idat al-jihad fi shibh al-qara al-hindiyya,” al-Sahab, September 2014, accessed on Internet Archive.
[d] “Al-Qa`ida Central” in this context refers to al-Qa`ida’s top leadership—al-Zawahiri and his deputies, al-Qaida’s Shura (advisory) Council, and members of al-Qa`ida’s various committees.
[e] The document mentions the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007; the Pakistani General Elections on February 18, 2008; and “the current war between Pakistani forces and the tribes of Mahsud,” which may refer to “Operation Zalzala,” an event that started on January 24, 2008, and continued throughout the spring. The author of the document is unknown. “Jihad in Pakistan,” undated, released March 1, 2016, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
[f] “Al-Qa`ida in the Lands of Khurasan” should not be confused with the so-called “Khorasan Group,” a group of al-Qa`ida operatives based in Syria. On the appointment of al-Yazid to head of al-Qa`ida in the Lands of Khurasan, see “Interview with Shaykh Mustafa Abu al-Yazid aka ‘Shaykh Saeed,’” al-Sahab, May 2007. Accessed via FFI’s Jihadi Video Database, video no. 504.
[g] According to a biography of Asim Umar provided by Al Jazeera, Umar was recruited into al-Qa`ida by al-Zawahiri in 2011, ostensibly to strengthen al-Qa`ida after the death of Osama bin Ladin. “Asim umar… min al-tandhir lil-jihad ila qiyatadahu,” Al Jazeera, September 10, 2014.
[h] Furthermore, Asim Umar is described as an “academic” and “among the most prominent thinkers and theorists in the jihadi current.” He wrote four books including The Army of Antichrist, which denounces American security company Blackwater. “Asim umar… min al-tandhir lil-jihad ila qiyatadahu.”
[i] Al-Qa`ida’s maritime campaign outside Yemen included the failed attack on USS The Sullivans in January 2000, the attack on USS Cole in October 2000, and the attack on the oil tanker MV Limburg in October 2002.
[j] This also included strengthening AQIS’ presence in Bangladesh. See Animesh Roul, “How Bangladesh became fertile ground for al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 9:5 (2016): pp. 27-34.
 Barbara Starr, “Major Al Qaeda Camp Was Unknown to U.S. for Months,” CNN, October 21, 2015.
 Fred Lucas, “Obama Has Touted Al Qaeda’s Demise 32 Times since Benghazi Attack,” CNS News, November 1, 2012.
 James Mackenzie and Paul Tait, “Al Qaeda Re-emerges As Challenge for U.S., NATO In Afghanistan,” Reuters, April 15, 2016.
 Tim Craig, “U.S. Troops Are Back In Restive Afghan Province, A Year after Withdrawal,” Washington Post, April 8, 2016.
 For a thorough account of the ties between al-Qa`ida and the Haqqanis, see Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, Fountainhead of Jihad: the Haqqani nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).
 Michael Morell, “Fourteen Years and Counting: The Evolving Terrorist Threat,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015): p. 3.
 United States v. Abid Naseer, Government Exhibit 421 [Letter from Shaykh Mahmud to bin Laden, dated June 19, 2010].
 Thomas Joscelyn, “Treasury designates head of al Qaeda’s eastern zone in Afghanistan,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2016; Declan Walsh, “Drone Strikes on Al Qaeda Are Said to Take Toll on Leadership in Pakistan,” New York Times, April 24, 2015.
 Barbara Sude, “Assessing Al-Qa`ida Central’s Resilience,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015): pp. 9-12.
 Borhan Osman, “The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How it began and where it stands now in Nangarhar,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 27, 2016.
 Dan Lamothe, “‘Probably the largest’ al-Qaeda training camp ever destroyed in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, October 30, 2015.
 Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda operates in southern Helmand province,” Long War Journal, October 24, 2015.
 Anand Gopal, “The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar,” New American Foundation, November 2010, pp. 15, 33.
 Bill Roggio, “Taliban commander killed in Kandahar,” Long War Journal, January 21, 2009; Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “Jihadist group loyal to Taliban, al Qaeda claims to have captured Afghan district,” Long War Journal, October 3, 2014.
 For a detailed analysis of the al-Qa`ida-Taliban relationship prior to 9/11, see Anne Stenersen, “Brothers in Jihad: Explaining the Relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban, 1996–2001,” doctoral thesis, University of Oslo, 2012.
 Brian Glyn Williams, “Return of the Arabs: Al-Qa`ida’s Current Military Role in the Afghan Insurgency,” CTC Sentinel 1:3 (2008): pp. 22-25.
 Roy and Hamming, p. 18.
 Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “US military admits al Qaeda is stronger in Afghanistan than previously estimated.”
 See, for example, Will McCants, The ISIS apocalypse: the history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), pp. 141-42.
 Qandeel Siddique, The Red Mosque operation and its impact on the growth of the Pakistani Taliban (Kjeller: FFI, 2008); see also Adam Dolnik and Khuram Iqbal, Negotiating the siege of the Lal Masjid (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 “Centralised Taliban organisation set up,” Dawn, December 15, 2007.
 “Jihad in Pakistan,” pp. 16, 18.
 “Al-Qaeda issues Pakistan threat,” BBC, July 11, 2007.
 Al-Qa`ida’s defensive strategy in Pakistan was underlined by Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2009; see Ahmad Zaydan, “liqa’ al-yawm: mustafa abu al-yazid … tandhim al-qa’ida,” Al Jazeera, June 23, 2009; “Jihad in Pakistan,” p. 18.
 United States v. Abid Naseer, United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, Government Exhibits 423 [Letter from Shaykh Mahmud to bin Laden dated July 17, 2010] and 425 [Letter from bin Laden to Shaykh Mahmud dated August 7, 2010]. Accessed via Downrange.
 United States v. Abid Naseer, Government Exhibit 423.
 “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University.
 Osama Mahmood, “Operation against the American Navy by the Mujahideen: Reasons and Objectives,” Resurgence 1 (Fall 2014): pp. 8-9; As-Sahab Subcontinent, “Press Release Regarding Targeting of American and Indian Navies,” September 27, 2014.
 “PNS Zulfiqar Attack: Five Navy Officers Get Death Penalty,” Express Tribune, May 25, 2016.
 Walsh, “Drone Strikes on Al Qaeda Are Said to Take Toll on Leadership in Pakistan.”
 Tahir Khan, “US drones killed 50 militants over past few months: al Qaeda’s Subcontinent faction,” Express Tribune, April 12, 2015.
 Margherita Stancati and Habib Khan Totakhil, “Militants Driven From Pakistan Flock to Afghan Towns,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2015; “Zarb-e-Azb weakened Balochistan militants, says minister,” Express Tribune, August 10, 2015.
 Ray Sanchez and Paul Cruickshank, “Syria’s al-Nusra rebrands and cuts ties with al Qaeda,” CNN, August 1, 2016; Karen DeYoung and Adam Goldman, “Is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria no longer a ‘sideshow’?” Washington Post, July 20, 2016; Nicholas J. Rasmussen, Hearing Before the House Homeland Security Committee, “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland: ISIS and the New Wave of Terror,” National Counterterrorism Center, July 14, 2016.
 Sanchez and Cruickshank.
 Paul Cruickshank, “Al-Qa`ida’s New Course: Examining Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Strategic Direction,” IHS Janes, May 2012.
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, Fursan taht rayat al-nabi [Knights under the Prophet’s banner], first edition (Place unknown: Minbar al-tawhid wal-jihad, 2001).
 See, for example, Nathaniel Barr and Madeleine Blackman, “A New Threat to Libya’s Stability Emerges,” Terrorism Monitor 14:16 (2016), and Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015): pp. 19-24.
 Sanchez and Cruickshank; Aymenn Al-Tamimi, “Al-Qa`ida Uncoupling: Jabhat al-Nusra’s Rebranding as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,” CTC Sentinel 9:8 (2016): pp. 16-21.
 See Cruickshank, “Al-Qa`ida’s New Course: Examining Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Strategic Direction.”
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, “rasai’l mukhtasira li-umma muntasira – 2,” Al-Sahab, August 13, 2016. Accessed on justpaste.it.