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Al-Qa’ida: A Patient & Resurgent Hydra?

For the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, al-Qa’ida’s leader urges jihadists around the world to unite and carry on the struggle against the U.S.

As the Islamic State terrorist group is on its heels in Syria, where forces under Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad are poised to attack its last remaining stronghold in Idlib province, al-Qa’ida appears to be on the resurgence.

In a speech released on Tuesday, al-Qa’ida head Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden after the latter’s assassination by the U.S. army’s Special Forces in 2011, called on Muslims everywhere to continue the fight against the U.S. and its allies. The 30-minute video of the speech was timed for release on the 17th anniversary of the 2001 September 11 attacks in the U.S.

Al-Qa’ida made its name by orchestrating the attacks in which 19 terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and flew them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington. Terrorists pledging allegiance to al-Qa’ida also downed United Airlines Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field, killing everyone on board. The combined attacks left nearly 3,000 innocents dead and over 6,000 injured.

The main thread of al-Zawahri’s speech, which al-Qa’ida leaders have repeatedly stressed, is that the U.S. represents the biggest threat to Muslims worldwide.

The Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE), a Washington-based website that tracks media material used by terrorist groups, released an English translation of the al-Zawahri’s speech titled “How do we face America?”

“America [is] the number one enemy of Muslims… despite its professed secularism,” al-Zawahiri, a former doctor from Egypt, declared. “Seventeen years have passed since [former U.S. president George W.] Bush launched his crusader war against Muslims, a war linked to the historical enmity directed towards Islam from its dawn to this very day,” he added.

He explained that America uses international alliances to maintain its power while minimizing costly wars; it also disseminates misinformation to fragment and weaken enemies, among other strategies. These tactics, he added, make Americans “weak, humble beings like the rest of mankind.” He called on Muslims to strike “on the enemy’s turf.”

Al-Zawahiri also cited the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as evidence of the hatred that America harbors toward Muslims. In the speech, he listed 14 directives on how to fight the U.S., which include Muslim unity and close cooperation of jihadists everywhere.

When Islamic State became the focus of international counter-terrorism efforts in 2014, al-Qa’ida was seemingly relegated to the shadows. Some experts believe the organization used that time to refashion itself and attract new followers and affiliated groups in the Middle East and beyond.

After its near defeat in the years following the 9/11 attacks, analysts are now pointing to regions where the terrorist group has re-emerged—especially Tunisia, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

If the organization is indeed on the rise, many fear that al-Qa’ida could simply be a patient, many-headed hydra. If you cut off one head, another will eventually crop up. Perhaps the group takes on a different guise in the process, but retains the principles which have always been at the center of its activities, a core one being violent resistance to a perceived Western—especially a U.S.-led alliance—that is conspiring to wipe out Islam.

Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line that the idea of al-Qa’ida’s resurgence is not surprising given that al-Zawahri and other higher-ups in the organization “take advantage of the 9/11 anniversary every year to inflate their power and sow fear among their enemies.”

He explained that many affiliate terrorist groups are attracting jihadists who are considered part of the al-Qa’ida alliance. This has contributed to the general notion that al-Qa’ida has strengthened itself over the years. Many analysts still mention “al-Qa’ida and Jabhat al-Nusra [an affiliate group] as one big happy family.”

But, Schweitzer stressed, “one must take into account the skirmishes between these affiliate groups and al-Qa’ida,” adding that many terrorist fighters are not really part and parcel of this alliance.

Nevertheless, he warned, “al-Qa’ida is still relevant as part of the Salafi-jihadi camp, which has strengthened since 2011, due to the Arab Spring and the emergence of Islamic State. These developments have reinforced and re-energized jihadi supporters.

“Al-Qa’ida still poses a threat to the West and mainly to Arab and other states in South Asia and Africa where they are nesting. The overall aim of these groups, he concluded, “is re-introducing Islam, as they interpret it, as a global power.”

Dr. Seth J. Frantzman, Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Research and Analysis, told The Media Line that al-Qa’ida still has different pieces of itself that exist in Yemen, North Africa, Syria and elsewhere.

“But what we have to understand is that what al-Qa’ida was in the 1990s up until 9/11—that form of it and the way in which it behaved, doesn’t exist anymore. What it was known for was a series of spectacular terrorist attacks, mostly directed at America.”

He explained that al-Qa’ida since then has morphed into different iterations, based more on a “temporal” power, instead of one that holds ground.

“The idea of al-Qa’ida now being back is a bit mistaken,” Frantzman concluded. “Because the kind of Al-Qa’ida that exists in Syria’s Idlib province or in Yemen, doesn’t at the moment threaten Western interests in the same way.”

Katherine Zimmerman, an al-Qa’ida expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that the terrorist organization “has been strengthening in the shadows while the world has been focused on Islamic State.”

She explained that al-Qa’ida is currently making a play to recapture the leadership of the global Salafi-jihadi movement, as evident in al-Zawahri’s speech.

“But the focus on whether Islamic State or al-Qa’ida or some other group is strong or not is the wrong question. It’s just another version of Whac-A-Mole, a children’s game where a little mole pops up in different places and you must hit it,” Zimmerman said.

“The reason why people are now focusing back on al-Qa’ida is because they are saying that Islamic State is weak. And I think we will just find ourselves oscillating between the two.

“The entire movement of which these two groups are part is much stronger today because of the collapse of states, weak governance, grievances and threats against various Sunni populations that are making them [al-Qa’ida] accept or tolerate the presence of groups that have an ideology that is a bit different from what they would normally accept.”