Al Qaeda is returning to the shadows. The experiment by al-Shabab, al Qaeda's Somali affiliate, of attempting to govern a broad area in Somalia's south officially came to a close this weekend when its fighters fled from their final stronghold, the port city of Kismayo. Its fate in this regard mirrors that of the jihadi group's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which also saw its more limited experiment in governance draw to a close in the middle of the year. In contrast, the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens suggests the group's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to hone its capabilities.
This isn't just a tale of three different organizations moving in different directions. Rather, al-Shabab and AQAP's failures, along with AQIM's apparent success, are related to the unique weaknesses and strengths of global jihadi efforts: Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been able to control territory at times but have not found much success in doing so. Their rigidity makes them ineffective governors, unable to truly win the sympathies of populations forced to endure their harsh, dystopian brand of Islamic law. Al Qaeda's retreat from governance, however, does not render it irrelevant. The jihadi organization remains comfortable as an insurgent actor, adept at moving in the shadows and carrying out occasional, devastating strikes.
AQIM currently represents the success story in this jihadi triumvirate. After some embarrassing vacillations on the part of President Barack Obama's administration, U.S. government analysts seem to be converging on the idea that al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa was involved in the Benghazi attack. Although it is unclear whether AQIM was the primary perpetrator, U.S. officials have homed in on the group in recent days, exploring ways to counter its growth, most likely through stepped-up training efforts for local partners in counterterrorism efforts, but perhaps including a direct U.S. military response.
A recent Wall Street Journal article provided the most extensive account of why analysts are coming to associate al Qaeda with the attack. Importantly, the article highlights how various al Qaeda franchises and local actors were able to come together and play varied roles in an attack.
The Wall Street Journal article centers on Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad -- who, according to a defense analyst I interviewed, is known by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmad al-Masri -- a militant who had been incarcerated in Egypt prior to the Arab Spring uprisings, which saw many prisons emptied. Ahmad is a locally based militant, and fighters under his command, who may have trained at his camps in the Libyan desert, took part in the Benghazi attack, according to U.S. officials. Ahmad has tried to officially connect with the global jihadi network, even petitioning al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the subject.
Such permission has not been forthcoming, so Western officials refer to his militant organization as the "Jamal Network." Yet though he is not an official part of al Qaeda, the Wall Street Journal reported that officials think that Ahmad received funding through AQAP and "tapped into its system for smuggling fighters," and that AQIM fighters were also present during the Benghazi attack.
Many counterterrorism specialists have argued that we are seeing the "relocalization of jihad," in which regional interests dominate over global agendas. This may be true, especially because revolutionary events in the region provide jihadists with local opportunities they simply did not enjoy previously. Some analysts, however, appear far too eager to declare networks like al Qaeda irrelevant to the counterterrorism picture.