Pushed to the brink of collapse in its traditional strongholds, al-Qaeda has staged an unlikely but limited recovery over the past year through affiliates that have taken root in chaotic environments awash in weapons and beyond the reach of the U.S. military and CIA drones.
The groups have taken advantage of political tumult in North Africa and the Middle East, carving out enclaves in Mali, Syria and other locations that have given a previously gasping organization new breathing room.
The emerging offshoots have altered the composition of the terrorist network, scrambling its structure and complicating U.S. assessments of the threat that al-Qaeda represents.
U.S. officials said the terrorist network’s core in Pakistan and its ability to carry out large-scale attacks in the United States have been all but demolished, leading to a shift in focus to emerging threats elsewhere.
Recent attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya and a natural gas complex in Algeria, combined with the growing strength of an affiliate in Syria, have drawn attention to the lethal potential of an increasingly atomized al-Qaeda network, officials said. And though the targets of the groups have largely been regional, their multinational memberships and adherence to al-Qaeda’s ideology have heightened concern that the violence could spread.
“One of the most concerning things we’re seeing is a cross-fertilization and cross-pollinization of affiliates,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. The newer groups have more diverse memberships, abundant access to weapons and a willingness to collaborate that “serves as a multiplier effect,” the official said.
The official, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about ongoing counterterrorism policy.
The shifting complexion of al-Qaeda has created new counterterrorism challenges for President Obama, who relied heavily on CIA drone strikes and clandestine missions by U.S. special operations forces to destroy large pieces of al-Qaeda’s network and kill its founder, Osama bin Laden, and other leaders in Pakistan.
U.S. officials said Obama’s options are more constrained in North Africa and the Middle East, regions where the United States has fewer intelligence resources and has seen staunch counter-terrorism allies, such as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, driven from power.
In the short term, the affiliates provide new justification for the Obama administration’s efforts to turn elements of its counter-
terrorism policies, including kill lists and drone bases, into fixtures for a fight expected to last another decade or more.
The U.S. military recently disclosed plans to build a drone base in the west African country of Niger to conduct surveillance flights over neighboring Mali, where al-Qaeda offshoots seized control of parts of the country. U.S. officials have not ruled out using the base for armed drones, but for now they plan to rely on regional allies and France to contain the militants.
But as the war on al-Qaeda moves into its second decade, the evolving nature of the threat raises more fundamental issues for the United States. Among them is whether the scale of the counterterrorism campaign is still warranted when its initial objective — the destruction of the core leadership organization that killed nearly 3,000 Americans in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — has largely been accomplished.
U.S. officials said al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula remains capable of — and committed to — carrying out attacks in the United States. Beyond Yemen, U.S. efforts are aimed largely at countering potential threats from groups that have not attempted transnational attacks, as well as a post-Sept. 11 determination to deny any node of al-Qaeda a haven like the one its founders exploited in Afghanistan.
After bin Laden was killed in May 2011, senior U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta described the group as being on the verge of strategic defeat. Since then, a series of unexpected developments have extended the network’s life span.
In particular, al-Qaeda franchises have gained strength in regions touched by the Arab Spring. The popular uprisings that toppled autocratic governments across the Middle East also weakened the grip of security services that had kept extremist forces in check. Civil wars in Syria and Libya provided local militants with weapons, experience and popular legitimacy.
“What we’re seeing in North Africa and Syria is an unfortunate result of Arab Spring,” said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. analyst and former consultant to the Pentagon on counterterrorism.
Islamists in those countries are only nominally tied to al-Qaeda, and most are focused on local causes. But their resurgence threatens Western interests in the region and perhaps beyond, Jones said.
Western governments already are warning of increased threats to embassies, businesses and tourists in the region. In France, where 10 percent of the population is of North African descent, security officials are bracing for the possibility of retaliatory strikes in response to its military action in Mali against militants linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the affiliate in North Africa’s Sahara and Sahel regions.
The Arab Spring “freed up people, resources and energy” while attracting foreign jihadists who gave local organizations a more international character, said Mike Shurkin, a former CIA analyst.
“We’re seeing evidence of internationalization of these local groups, particularly AQIM,” Shurkin said. “They are evolving rapidly and perhaps finally becoming the thing that people were fearing: a group with an international agenda.”
Among U.S. counterterrorism officials, a surging al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria is a source of particular concern. The group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is backed by al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq and has become one of the most potent groups in a broader insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-
Al-Nusra, as it is known, was linked to suicide attacks on Syrian security installations last year that also killed dozens of civilians. Unlike rival groups, it has called attention to its al-Qaeda ties and is thought to have attracted as many as 10,000 fighters.
Its short-term objective — the ouster of Assad — puts it in uncomfortable alignment with U.S. interests. But U.S. intelligence officials said they are gravely concerned that al-Nusra militants, including some who hold Western passports, might move elsewhere in the Middle East or into Europe when the rebellion in Syria ends.
They are a “highly effective opposition force,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said of the group, which seeks to impose Islamic rule. “If they don’t have a role to play [in a future Syrian government], where does that capability disperse?”
Syria and North Africa have drawn militants from dozens of countries, as well as fighters who have fled regions where al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks, including Pakistan and Yemen, U.S. officials said.
The flow of militants and weapons has strengthened and transformed AQIM, which officials had long regarded as little more than a regional kidnapping and criminal enterprise.
In its broader incarnation, the group is one of the most diverse affiliates, drawing militants from Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. The organization’s amorphous membership also illustrates what U.S. officials described as an increasingly fluid militant network.
The attack last month on the natural gas plant in Algeria was orchestrated by a longtime AQIM commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke away from the network to form a splinter group but continues to collaborate with other offshoots. The attack led to the deaths of 37 workers at the plant, including three Americans.
“We call him a former al-Qaeda leader,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said. But many of the fighters who followed him have not formally broken with AQIM, the official said.
AQIM was also linked loosely to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in September, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Despite the group’s Internet bragging, however, U.S. officials said there is no evidence so far that the terrorist affiliate directed the strike.
Still, AQIM is at the center of a hub of militant groups in North Africa with varying levels of allegiance to the al-Qaeda ideology. Among them are Ansar al-Din, which seized control of cities in northern Mali last year before a recent intervention by the French military, and Boko Haram, a Nigerian organization that officials said has contemplated attacks on U.S. interests but has focused on targets with weaker defenses.
The blurring organizational boundaries fit into a broader breakdown of the hierarchical structure that enabled al-Qaeda to spend years plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
U.S. officials said al-Qaeda’s core leadership group in Pakistan, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, continues to communicate with affiliates and other followers. But those messages are sporadic and rarely translate into any direct support.
Regional affiliates are “not getting a flow of funds, personnel and resources from al-Qaeda’s core by any means,” one senior U.S. intelligence official said. Nevertheless, the official said, the affiliates still look to al-Qaeda “for affirmation, for validation and, to varying degrees, for guidance.”
Unable to rely on al-Qaeda for help, regional affiliates such as AQIM have been forced to raise their own funds, mostly through criminal enterprises, said David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
“Their money is self-generated, predominantly through kidnapping ventures and other criminal enterprises,” Cohen said.
For example, U.S. officials said last month’s attack on the Algerian gas facility was almost certainly financed by ransom payments, which have netted the group millions of dollars in the past five years.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.