9/11 attacks: What’s happened to al-Qaeda?

On the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US, the perpetrator – the then-Afghan based jihadist group al-Qaeda – is in a state of disarray.

Its branch in Syria was silenced in June by a rival force; in Yemen it suffered a defeat at the hands of rebels shortly after losing its leader in a US drone strike; and the leader of its North Africa branch was killed in a French raid in Mali in June and is yet to name a successor.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been uncharacteristically absent for months, prompting speculation that he might be dead or incapacitated.

Ideologically, al-Qaeda faces a familiar dilemma for the jihadist movement: to modernise and show flexibility in order to win over ordinary Muslims, and basically survive; or stick to strict jihadist principles and risk alienating Muslims.

Each path has its risks.

The first could jeopardise the group’s jihadist credentials and lead to splits and defections by hardliners, while the second could significantly limit operational capacity, even to the point of the group’s demise.

Recent setbacks

In Syria, al-Qaeda – represented by its unannounced branch Hurras al-Din – has failed to make inroads. This is partly the result of jihadist rivalries on the one hand, and the eagle-eyed surveillance of al-Qaeda officials by the US-led coalition on the other.

The group is also not popular on the ground as Syrians see the al-Qaeda brand as a threat and a magnet for government and international action.

Hurras al-Din has been inactive for over two months now following a crackdown by a more powerful jihadist group and the targeting of some of its top officials in suspected US air strikes.

The group’s branch in Yemen – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – was once the most feared of all al-Qaeda chapters, but it has suffered a number of blows this year and is currently one of the organisation’s least active branches.

AQAP lost its leader in a US drone strike in late January, and recently lost its stronghold in the central Bayda province at the hands of the Houthi rebels.

For years spies appear to have infiltrated the group and facilitated the accurate targeting of its leadership figures.

It is also beset by internal divisions.

But one event this year showed that AQAP was still playing the role for which it was previously most feared: orchestrating “lone wolf” attacks in the West.

In February, the group said it was behind the deadly shooting last December at the Pensacola naval base in Florida that was carried out by Saudi military trainee Mohammed Alshamrani – a link the US later confirmed.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the franchise’s least active branches, lost its Algerian leader in a French raid in Mali in early June.