Danger from Al Qaeda is not over yet
Al Qaeda has embraced a public policy of only supporting peaceful protests in Algeria.
According to several anonymous American intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden's favourite son, Hamza, has been killed. Information on when (sometime in the past two years), how (possibly an airstrike), where (likely in Afghanistan) and by whom (involving America) remains unclear. According to some Afghan sources, Hamza had allegedly been spending time in January 2019 in the Shultan Valley of Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar province, where he was residing with a Lashkar-e-Tayyiba commander known as Mawyaa. According to Hamza himself, one of his sons was killed in a possible airstrike in Afghanistan in 2017, so Hamza was clearly being tracked, presumably by those who finally killed him.
Ever since his emergence in August 2015, Hamza bin Laden was perceived by many as being positioned to take over from Ayman Al Zawahiri as Al Qaeda's global leader. Al Qaeda itself declared that Hamza was 'a young lion' who would 'carry forward the cause'. But beyond assumptions made primarily in the West, it was never clear whether Hamza truly was the inevitable successor of Zawahiri. In fact, his messages rarely attracted the level of attention or excitement that Al Qaeda might have wished.
When Al Qaeda introduced Hamza's voice to the world in the summer of 2015, Al Qaeda was in the midst of one of its most challenging periods of its existence. The explosive rise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, its proclamation of a 'caliphate' and rapid expansion across the world challenged - and arguably defeated - Al Qaeda's position of primacy as the global leader of militancy.
Meanwhile, Zawahiri appeared to be increasingly disconnected from global events and distant from his affiliates in Syria, Yemen, North Africa and beyond, most of which were pursuing strategies that further distanced them from Al Qaeda's central brand. Therefore, the timing of Hamza's emergence was no coincidence. As a bin Laden, Hamza was undoubtedly meant to re-unite and re-energise Al Qaeda's global movement at a time of unprecedented challenge.
For now, the trajectory of Al Qaeda is one of decentralisation. This is not an encouraging development either. Violent extremist organisations that are less restrained by distant and disconnected leaders have a history of embedding more deeply and sustainably within localised conflict dynamics. That strategy of 'localism' has encouraged Al Qaeda affiliates to adapt and evolve in ways that challenge the traditional assumptions of Al Qaeda's identity and more importantly, pose serious and unprecedented challenges to Al Qaeda's enemies.
In Syria, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham devolves considerable power to a technocratic government; runs periodic elections for local councils; engages - albeit delicately - with international diplomatic initiatives; and seeks to establish political dialogue with foreign governments, including in the West. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb meanwhile, has embraced a public policy of only supporting peaceful protests in Algeria, while fighting wars in some of Algeria's neighbours. This does not reflect a moderation of Al Qaeda - these movements remain as extreme as ever - but it does illustrate greater political maturity.
How does the West confront an Al Qaeda affiliate whose fighters work with mainstream elements of society and whose energies are dedicated to some of the very same fights that Western governments unofficially support? How do regional governments combat an Al Qaeda affiliate which to at least some people within its midst, appears to be doing more to protect civilians from repression and brutality than the regional governments themselves - like in Syria? And how does any government challenge an Al Qaeda affiliate whose public position is to support peaceful protests - like in Algeria? These are the dilemmas that our governments look likely to face in the years to come. The threats posed by Al Qaeda's fighters are just as significant as they have ever been and they must be countered with determination. But our responses to those threats will need to be far more intelligent and grounded in local truths than ever before.
- Asharq Al Awsat
Charles Lister is Director of the Countering Terrorism at the Middle East Institute