According to the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, the United States has not been effective at targeting the means by which groups such as al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State inspire, radicalize, and recruit. As a result, the strategy directed that the United States must bolster efforts to “undermine the ability of terrorist ideologies to create a common identity and sense of purpose among potential recruits.”1 Central to any group’s ability to draw support and project its ideology are media campaigns, which help to not only inspire action but direct overall strategy.
The Islamic State was particularly effective in the media domain. At one time, the group disseminated regularly-published magazines (Dabiq and then later Rumiyah), along with video productions (to include beheadings), and its “Cubs of the Caliphate” series.2 The group mastered the use of imagery and historical narratives to inspire support for its movement. Conversely, media outreach has been a shortfall for al-Qa`ida—particularly following the 2011 death of its leader, Usama bin Ladin. The group has faced challenges from limited communication from senior leaders, a failure to vocalize a clear and focused strategy, and an inability to adapt to changing conditions in the Middle East (to include the emergence of its rival, the Islamic State).3
However, al-Qa`ida appears to be attempting to reverse these shortfalls. For instance, the group has significantly increased the pace of its statements from its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, gradually increased the pace of statements from Hamza bin Ladin (offering him up as a voice for the next generation), created greater cohesion amongst media efforts of its affiliates, and established a new website that provides a repository of speeches and reference materials.4 a These efforts suggest al-Qa`ida is attempting to reintroduce its movement to the world, and possibly rebrand its long-term strategy.
In addition, on several occasions in 2018, al-Zawahiri vocalized al-Qa`ida’s intent to target the United States. This includes the labeling of the United States as the “first enemy” of Muslims worldwide.5 Although criticisms of the United States are not new for al-Qa`ida, the pace at which al-Zawahiri is disseminating the messages has changed, providing the opportunity for greater saliency. In addition, these messages serve as a reminder that the group, for whom perceptions of its threat have been overshadowed by the Islamic State, has not abandoned targeting far enemies and its long-term ambition of establishing a caliphate.
Leadership Expands its Media Outreach
Ayman al-Zawahiri has served as the emir of al-Qa`ida since 2011. Al-Zawahiri, who was born and raised in a Cairo suburb, is a trained surgeon and the son of an aristocratic family.6 As a young man, he was actively involved in efforts to protest the use of heavy-handed tactics against Islamists by the Egyptian government and founded a cell dedicated to replacing the secular Egyptian government with one he perceived to be Islamic when he was only 15 years old.7 He later participated in the Afghan jihad, forged close ties with bin Ladin, and played an integral role in the development of al-Qa`ida and its overall strategy.8
Although al-Zawahiri technically possesses the credentials to lead the movement, he has been criticized for being a “black hole of charisma,” and described as “pedantic” and “overbearing.”9 He has also been criticized for going long periods without issuing any public guidance or direction (almost certainly due to concerns such communication could compromise his personal security). For instance, between 2014 and 2015, he went nearly an entire year without making any type of public statement at all.10
Since January 2018, al-Qa`ida has released 15 statements attributed to al-Zawahiri, with the most recent released on December 24, 2018.11 While this may not seem like a significant amount of statements to Western audiences, it reflects a 67-percent increase over the pace of al-Zawahiri’s media outreach in 2017. Although al-Zawahiri still lacks the charismatic persona of his predecessor, the increased outreach may help to diminish perceptions of his reclusiveness and to reintroduce him to al-Qa`ida followers and supporters. In addition, al-Zawahiri’s unyielding position that the development of a potential Islamic caliphate must be slow and deliberate was likely validated by the apparent contraction of the Islamic State inside Iraq and Syria, helping to position him as the ‘wise jihadi’s statesman.’12
Starting in late 2017, al-Qa`ida also increased the pace at which it disseminated statements from Hamza bin Ladin, the third son of the former al-Qa`ida leader. For example, in 2016, al-Qa`ida released only two statements attributed to Hamza bin Ladin, while since mid-2017, it has released six, with the most recent released in the spring of 2018.13 Hamza was reportedly one of bin Ladin’s favorite sons, and was groomed to one day help lead al-Qa`ida—appearing in propaganda footage alongside his father, undergoing assault training with al-Qa`ida fighters, and preaching sermons to al-Qa`ida rank-and-file.14
Al-Qa`ida is likely attempting to draw on Hamza’s lineage as the son of Usama bin Ladin to inspire a new generation of fighters, while also providing a “next gen” alternative to al-Zawahiri as the face of al-Qa`ida. Al-Qa`ida appears to be relying in part on Hamza to maintain the symbolic underpinnings of the group. Al-Qa`ida will likely be careful not to overpromote Hamza in order to suppress possible questions of succession or challenges to the current senior leadership cadre, and it may curb his outreach in order to avoid compromising his personal security. However, the group appears to be comfortable in giving Hamza bin Ladin a role in spearheading efforts against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (no doubt seen by the group as a valid fit, owing to his familial and historical ties to the region). More than half of Hamza’s statements have focused on criticizing the Saudi regime, whom he has claimed “betrayed Islam and the Muslims with unprecedented treachery.”15
Reintroducing the Strategic Vision
Perhaps more notable than the pace at which al-Qa`ida has increased its media outreach is the content of al-Qa`ida’s messages. An examination of the statements disseminated in 2018 indicates al-Qa`ida is not only attempting to reintroduce its leaders to the world, but it may also be reintroducing its strategic vision as well. Al-Zawahiri has repeatedly outlined a broad strategy, which appears to be grounded by three pillars—the establishment of an expansionist Islamic Emirate (the cornerstone of which is Afghanistan), the adoption of al-Qa`ida’s brand of sharia in Muslim countries, and targeting “far” enemies such as the United States. In addition to these broad strategic goals, al-Zawahiri has repeatedly called for unity of effort amongst Muslims and has offered an olive branch to former Islamic State members, stating they are welcome to join al-Qa`ida ranks.
The symbolic importance of Afghanistan was emphasized in at least five of al-Zawahiri’s statements in 2018. This includes an August 23, 2018, statement in which al-Zawahiri claimed al-Qa`ida had planted the “seed” for its future state around the “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan.16 He also stated that Muslims needed to join the Taliban and al-Qa`ida in the establishment of a state that would eventually serve an “Islamic jihadi gathering from Turkistan to the Atlantic Coasts.”17 b This suggests that al-Qa`ida likely attributes the viability of its aspirational caliphate to that of the Taliban and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and helps to explain al-Qa`ida’s continued subordination to the Taliban leader as the Emir Ul Momineen (leader of the faithful).18
Similarly, the implementation of sharia law also remains central to al-Qa`ida’s narrative. For example, al-Zawahiri mentioned sharia law in each statement he released in 2018, underscoring its significance to al-Qa`ida. On October 11, 2018, al-Zawahiri devoted an entire statement to sharia.19 In it, he criticized Muslim nations that incorporated secular law and have held democratic elections, calling them “failed experiments” that were representative of the “swamp of the corrupt.” Al-Zawahiri further emphasized that in the “call of jihad,” there is nothing higher than defending sharia law, and emphasized that sharia—what he referred to as al-Qa`ida’s “doctrine of governance”—should never be abandoned. Al-Zawahiri also issued repeated critiques of governments in Muslim-majority countries that al-Qa`ida believed were corrupted by secular law, particularly Egypt, which was mentioned in seven of the 13 statements, and other North African nations such as Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and Algeria. In January 2018, al-Zawahiri claimed that the “tyrannical regimes” in North Africa had been corrupted and that sharia-based governance was “sacrificed” in these areas in order to please the West.
Finally, al-Zawahiri discussed al-Qa`ida’s grievances with the United States in all but two statements in 2018, demonstrating that the group has not abandoned its efforts to target its “far enemy.” This includes a March 20, 2018, statement titled “America is the First Enemy of Muslims,” in which al-Zawahiri not only advocated for attacks on the United States and its interests but calls for the worldwide Muslim community to unite in the effort.20 He stated, “Let us fight America everywhere the same way it attacks us everywhere. Let us unite in confronting it, and never divide. Let us unify and never disperse. Let us gather and never become shattered.” Furthermore, on September 11, 2018, al-Zawahiri laid out a 14-point missive outlining al-Qa`ida’s positions against the United States. In that statement, al-Zawahiri ominously warned that “the battle against America has become inevitable.”21 Should al-Qa`ida attempt to translate the increased rhetoric into operational activity against Western interests, it would signal a shift from its apparent strategy from around 2015 of holding off attacks targeting Western interests to avoid additional counterterrorism pressure.c As former head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Nicholas Rasmussen said in January 2018, al-Qa`ida may be in the process of a pivoting back to an international focus, and there was “never any sense of comfort” that al-Qa`ida’s external planning had abated. It appears as if there is growing concern that this shift may become a reality. For instance, in December 2018, U.K. security minister Ben Wallace warned that “al-Qaeda are resurgent. They have reorganised. They are pushing more and more plots towards Europe” and that intelligence had revealed that the group was developing technology to bring down passenger jets.22
Al-Qa`ida Affiliates Increasing Cohesion, Share A Global Vision
Al-Qa`ida also appears to be increasing cohesion amongst its global affiliates. The synchronization of media between al-Qa`ida leaders and its affiliates almost certainly helps the group to promote perceptions of upward momentum and unity of effort on a more global scale. On several occasions since early 2017, affiliates have issued joint statements regarding external issues. For example, in February 2017, al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a joint statement eulogizing Omar Abdul Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh,” who died while in U.S. federal custody.23 The statement called for fighters to conduct attacks against U.S. interests to avenge his death. Meanwhile, in September 2017, al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, and AQAP issued nearly identical statements calling for support of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.24 When AQIM announced the merger of several armed groups in Mali in March 2017, the groups pledged loyalty to both al-Qa`ida and the Taliban, underscoring that even in a remote area such as Timbuktu, al-Qa`ida affiliates are in line with the movement’s strategic messaging.25 Furthermore, in May 2017, al-Shabaab issued a 55-minute video featuring statements from several senior al-Qa`ida leaders. The narration called the United States the “Satan of our time” and stated that al-Shabaab’s jihad is a global one that is not restricted to geographical boundaries.26
Al-Qa`ida’s enhanced media campaign suggests the group is willing to evolve and is likely endeavoring to emerge from behind the shadows of the Islamic State with a renewed vision and a sense of vindication for its more patient strategy. Al-Qa`ida has seen its appeal ebb and flow over time, and it is unclear if its efforts to publicly reinvigorate its movement will translate into any operational successes.27 However, the rebranding, coupled with the measured roll-out of Hamza bin Ladin as a “next gen” leader, may help the group to connect with and inspire a new generation of fighters. It may also enable al-Qa`ida to increase its appeal to former members of the Islamic State, which is currently stymied by the decline of its own media campaigns.28
Through al-Zawahiri’s statements, al-Qa`ida has clearly enumerated its strategy and has provided insight into its potential operational priorities. Al-Qa`ida remains intent on developing an Islamic caliphate, steadfastly resolves to implement sharia law and undermine governments and regimes in the Muslim world that incorporate secular law and democratic elections, and remains intent on targeting the United States and its “far enemies.” This all suggests it is possibly positioning its movement for a resurgence.