Are al-Qaeda’s 2022 Activities a Harbinger of the Terror Group’s Resurgence?
Attacks by jihadist terrorist groups continued in 2022 and showed no signs of abating. ISIS-Core in Syria and Iraq and its affiliates in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have threatened regional security and proved that they would constantly menace global security in 2023. Correspondingly, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups also have been active in regions and perpetrated hundreds of terrorist attacks in conflict zones such as in Syria and Yemen, the Sahel region such as in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger and its nearby countries in Togo and Benin, and the Horn of Africa such as in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. As opposed to ISIS-Core, which has been actively involved in terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda-Core has maintained its strategy of operating through its localized groups in these countries. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel region, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia have continued to convene local jihadist groups under their flags. Additionally, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) solidified its presence in Afghanistan and India and threatened regional security, taking advantage of the Taliban’s takeover that presented opportunities for Al Qaeda to operate and harbor in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s takeover has heated debate over whether Al Qaeda would use Afghanistan as a safe haven country. Nonetheless, the killing of Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in an over-the-horizon operation in downtown Kabul on July 31, 2022, did not live up to expectations and pointed to the close relationship between the Taliban government and Al Qaeda. The Haqqani Network Group, an Al-Qaida-affiliated organization, has already been embedded in the Taliban government, and its leader has been the Minister of Interior, making Afghanistan one of the safe havens of Al Qaeda. AQIS has embedded in Taliban ranks and settled in Afghanistan with its estimated 200-400 fighters. The organization also published an English and Urdu statement and called for attacks targeting the Indian governing party on June 7, 2022. The United States government designated three other AQIS leaders as terrorists on December 1, 2022, underlining that AQIS is one of the jihadist groups that operate in Afghanistan.
In the conflict zones, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups continued to do attacks in Syria and Yemen. HTS has been the perpetrator of hundreds of attacks yearly and targets Syrian regime forces, international military, and Kurdish groups. The group continued to control territory and set itself up as the civic authority in areas including the province of Idlib. HTS was able to enter Afrin city and occupied northern Aleppo province on October 11, 2022. Five regime soldiers lost their lives in another HTS attack on November 7, 2022. In Yemen, AQAP was one of the most active groups in 2015 and 2016 and the perpetrator of hundred of attacks; however, the group lost its capacity over the years and was able to conduct 29 attacks in 2018, 16 attacks in 2019, and 30 attacks in 2020. However, Yemen experienced the resurgence of the organization that targeted Southern Transition Council (STC)-affiliated Security Belt forces and killed 20 STC fighters in Ahwar on September 6, 2022, and then launched its operation to target STC-affiliated forces on September 13, 2022.
Africa deserves specific attention regarding spreading Al Qaeda’s influence and presence in Somalia, the Sahel and its neighboring countries, and Nigeria. New trends have underlined the geographic expansion of Al Qaeda attacks in Africa.
In the Horn of Africa, Al Shabaab is the most active and powerful Al Qaeda group. The group is the product of a failed state in Somalia where local Sharia courts have evolved into a terrorist organization capable of controlling territory, acting like a de facto state, and targeting state institutions with complex coordinated terrorist attacks. The organization collects taxes, rules out court cases, and patrols streets. Today the group, deeply embedded in Somalian society, is resilient and resourceful in adjusting to counter-insurgency campaigns. The elections in May 2022 changed the government, and the selection of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud ended a bitter election period but has failed to impact Al Shabaab’s capacity severely. The group continued its deadly attacks after the elections. For example, a suicide bombing attack targeting a military base in Mogadishu killed one soldier and injured six others on September 2022. The group was the perpetrator of bombing attacks targeting the Education Ministry on October 29, 2022, in Mogadishu, which killed 121 people and injured more than 300 others. Al Shabaab did not stop its deadly suicide attacks in the following days and conducted another one on November 27, 2022, targeting an international hotel in Mogadishu. In addition to its highly complex attacks in Somalia, Al Shabaab has made attacks in Kenya. After issuing a new threat and saying that Al Shabaab would continue its attacks in Kenya in late August 2022, the group was the perpetrator of abducting four Kenyans in November and targeted the Northern Frontier District killing two people in December 2022.
Furthermore, the group expanded its influence in nearby countries and conducted attacks in Ethiopia. Aiming to benefit from security vacuums left by the Ethiopian government that struggled with unrest at home since the Tigray conflict in late 2020, Al Shabaab began to train ethnic Somalis and Oromos in 2021. Hundreds of its militants crossed the border in eastern Ethiopia and claimed responsibility for killing dozens of Ethiopian soldiers on April 2022. As a result, its militants retreated, but the group remains active in the border region. Emboldened by its previous successful attacks in the region, Al Shabaab launched a multi-day invasion in July 2022 and succeeded in evading Ethiopian forces and briefly took control over Hulhul, a town inside Ethiopia.
In the Sahel region, jihadist attacks draw the most significant attention. ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS’s regional branch, and Al Qaeda’s JNIM groups have been active in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. JNIM, a merger of four jihadist groups in the Sahel – Ansar Dine, Katibat Macina, al-Mourabitoun, and the Sahara branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – was formed in 2017 and waged a campaign of violence targeting civilians, local security forces, UN peacekeepers, and international militaries. The group uses pastoralist populism, a strategy based on operationalizing the conflicts and benefiting from ethnic divisions, and controls territory in central Mali. The international military, local security forces, and ISIS-GS branch targeted JNIM in the Sahel countries in 2022, but the group has remained the most active and deadliest actor across the Sahel. Since the withdrawal of French forces in October 2021, JNIM targeted UN peacekeeping missions in more than 50 attacks. In addition, JNIM has expanded its influence and has been involved in attacks in Togo and Benin. Its first attacks were recorded in 2021, but the group targeted the military in these countries in 2022. For example, JNIM attacked a military outpost and killed 17 soldiers in Togo in November 2022. On the same day, the terrorist group conducted two attacks in Benin and wounded one soldier.
In Nigeria, Ansaru is another Al Qaeda-affiliated group. The organization was formed in 2012 by Boko Haram’s former militants and had a high representation of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in the following years. However, the group faded into obscurity and lost its power starting in 2015. Claiming that the group defends the interests of Islam in the regions where the group operates, Ansaru’s comeback has taken place in Nigeria’s North-West and North-Central zones, recording the soaring numbers of banditry violence against civilians and government forces. Ansaru has provided weapons and other support to bandits. Kidnapping in the region has been vital for the organization to sustain and expand its activities.
Al Qaeda attacks in 2022 show that Al Qaeda is still a resilient organization. The group adjusts its strategies in its regions based on how the organization can get recruits to sustain and expand its global influence. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups capitalize on conditions related to Muslim grievances and weak government responses in Africa. Muslim communities in the Sahel, which feel discriminated against by other ethnic groups, tend to join JNIM to respond to their “enemy” groups. It is the weak government response and providing logistics to banditry groups in northwestern Nigeria where Ansaru takes advantage of operating. Leaving these Al Qaeda groups to operate freely in Africa worsens the situation, and they opportunistically aim to expand their activities in neighboring countries. International military involvement seems to be an effective solution to train local forces, provide resources, and take a leading role in operations.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, effective western counterterrorism efforts against Al Qaeda have pushed the organization to adjust its strategies and resulted in delegating central leadership. In this period, Al Qaeda has decentralized and allowed its regional affiliates to operate independently to tailor their strategy based on country- and regional-level developments. Nevertheless, the organization’s global activities, successful attacks across the globe, and expansion, particularly in Africa, show that Al Qaeda will compete again with ISIS to be the leader of global jihadism, threaten regional security, and maintain its status as a threatening terrorist organization in the following years.