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Predicting Al-Qaida's Future By Examining Its Past

When Osama bin Laden was killed by American special forces nearly a year ago, it raised questions about the future of al-Qaida.

To imagine what that future might be, a new book goes backward in time, exploring the terrorist group's history. It's called Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al-Qaida Since 9/11. Author Seth Jones is an expert on international terrorism who has advised the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Jones tells NPR's Renee Montagne that he sees three distinct waves of activity in al-Qaida's history, beginning with attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. That wave peaked with the Sept. 11 attacks and ended as the Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan.

"There's then a second wave that emerges around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that is followed by a surge of al-Qaida activity in Madrid, in London, in Casablanca, in Bali," he says. "And then by about 2006, al-Qaida in Iraq in particular begins to lose its foothold ... and there's a major reverse wave."

Jones says the second wave would have been unlikely — or at the very least smaller — had the U.S. not invaded Iraq. And he credits the reversal of that second wave not to the American troop surge, but to Sunni locals frustrated and disgusted with civilian casualties, with American troops there to support local efforts against al-Qaida.

"There's no question that al-Qaida's decision to conduct brutal attacks against civilians, with car-bombings and beheadings that were captured on video, did al-Qaida in in Iraq," Jones says. "And frankly, what's interesting is, we're now able to see some of the declassified documents between al-Qaida's central leadership. They wrote a range of letters to [al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi], pleading with him to stop killing civilians, pleading with him to stop targeting Shia and arguing very strongly that if he continued to do that, al-Qaida in Iraq would lose support and would ultimately be defeated."

There's no question that al-Qaida's decision to conduct brutal attacks against civilians, with car-bombings and beheadings that were captured on video, did al-Qaida in in Iraq.

The third wave, Jones says, began because al-Qaida was able to gain a foothold in Yemen. Under the leadership of the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the group began to target the United States specifically. Jones points to the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who boarded a Detroit-bound airliner with plastic explosives concealed in his underwear.

"Awlaki walked through the attack against the U.S. homeland, provided training to Abdulmutallab, provided an innovative bomb that would make its way through airport metal detectors because it had no metal components on it, and then told him very specifically, 'You must wait until you get over U.S. airspace before you detonate the bomb,' " Jones says.

He adds that Awlaki's ability to get his message out via the Internet and social media, combined with his ability to launch attacks from his base in Yemen, drove the third wave of attacks.

But the situation is somewhat different now. The various branches of al-Qaida that exist now in places like Yemen and Somalia, have been quite effective in carrying out local attacks, Jones says. "Where they've had problems, though, is taking those tactics, techniques and procedures, and trying to conduct an attack against the U.S. homeland."

Jones says what the U.S. needs to do now is avoid putting large numbers of conventional forces on the ground in a Muslim country. "That would likely invite radicalization and support to al-Qaida," he says. A fourth wave of attacks could also be triggered by U.S. support for an Israeli strike on Iran — or a U.S. strike, he says.

Jones also recommends that the U.S. not ignore areas where al-Qaida has gained a foothold. He cites a strategy released by the Pentagon, showing the U.S. turning its attention to strategic issues in the Asia-Pacific region. "If that leads to a decline in U.S. support for key regimes in Yemen and Somalia and other countries, that could certainly allow al-Qaida to gain a foothold. In fact, I would argue, it already has."

However, if al-Qaida pursues its previous strategy of attacking civilians, Jones says, it could lose popular support again, just as it did in Iraq. "The killings in Iraq and Algeria and a number of other places led a number of very conservative Sunni clerics to denounce al-Qaida as un-Islamic," he says. "That kind of activity now would likely trigger that kind of response, even from conservative Sunnis."

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