The operative strategy of al-Qaeda (AQ) leading to September 11th, 2001, and to the execution of the “Planes Operation”, an operation which Khalid Shaykh Mohammed and the present leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had already prepared and studied for some years, initially foresaw the involvement of many more aircraft and, above all, that they should explode in flight over various American cities. The “Planes Operation”, meticulously studied down to the smallest detail, was not supported by everyone within AQ, to which some leaders were opposed, and led to a very harsh debate and confrontation, since many were aware that it would draw the eyes of the world and, in particular, of American Power against al-Qaeda. It is worth remembering, for instance, the letters of Saif al-Adel who, in subsequent years, explained the reasons for the future complications relative to the plan. Al-Qaeda’s plan to strike the United States took several months to develop, with the chosen militants, for the most part, Saudis, sent to the United States to learn the language, to acclimatize and to take flight-training courses (some with poor results).
Al-Qaeda had been operating in Afghanistan for some years prior to the attack, hosted by the Taliban, however, their activities did create difficulties for the Taliban and they were asked several times to hand over Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda at the time had a few dozen men in the organization, most of them veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war and, additionally, had several thousand militants training in their camps who did not directly belong to the organization (now AQ is made up, considering all their affiliates, of thousands of militants).
The attacks of 11 September 2001, then led to a new, more forceful ultimatum to the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and, yet again, the Taliban refused. Over the years, after the initial rifts that there had been in the beginning when bin Laden and his organization moved from Sudan, OBL and Mullah Omar began to appreciate each other, became respectful, and above all developed a fundamental sense of loyalty.
It is interesting to recall how at the time, as they still do today, the Taliban leadership continued to repeat to the United States that there was no proof that al-Qaeda had carried out that attack. Just as the Taliban has repeatedly recalled how the organization lost everything and gave up everything to support al-Qaeda (AQ), necessary to consolidate the relationship with al-Qaeda, knowing that sooner or later they would return.
Shortly after the invasion, in the two-year period 2002-2004, the Taliban had reappeared in the country and began their insurgency, reconquering many areas, cleverly perfecting and improving their propaganda.
In a recent statement, US President Joe Biden hastened to say that al-Qaeda no longer operates in Afghanistan, or that in any case their presence is marginal, and the risk is minimal. AQ, instead, continued to fight alongside the Taliban in recent years without the group ever renouncing their alliance with AQ with which there has always been a close relationship (generational, family, and matrimonial ties. The Taliban’s yearly spring operations have always obtained support and backing from al-Qaeda, which has also helped the Taliban in the training of new militants at a logistical and operational level, and in the production of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Together with al-Qaeda Central (AQC), al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), and the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have also supported the Taliban in operations against the Afghan security forces. It is likely that this jihadi alliance network will remain operational in Afghanistan and Pakistan to organize themselves and continue pursuing their strategies, with the support of al-Qaeda and the protection of the Taliban, in the various Asian countries where they operate.
There were mistakes made on the part of the US and the coalition: namely of not having understood Afghanistan, of not having understood the ethnic composition of the country, and of not having implemented the right moves in fighting what is a significant problem in the country, corruption. The military capacity of the Afghan army, furthermore, was practically emptied and it stopped fighting because it no longer had the military advantage against the Taliban, which was then worsened with the withdrawal of US troops, as Lt. General Sami Sadat recalled in an article for the New York Times.
Other faults include the mismanagement of counter-terrorism operations, both on the ground and with drones, which caused civilian deaths and enmity, as well as the excessive use of torture, particularly in the early years of the war, which fueled jihadist terrorism and the desire for revenge.
After twenty years, unfortunately, nothing has changed because the Taliban leaders who have been appointed are some of the same veterans who belonged to the Taliban leadership of twenty years ago. Nothing has changed because the Taliban are not willing to disengage from al-Qaeda. Nothing has changed because al-Qaeda is not a defeated or critically weakened organization, and instead has kept its central leadership cohesive despite losing some important leaders like al-Rauf and al-Masri. AQ maintains a robust media apparatus and continues to emphasize propaganda production and, although it is seemingly publishing more selectively, the organization keeps its military side strong and competent and which keeps its ideology of fighting the “far enemy” and of “Global Jihad” against perceived oppressors strong. This was demonstrated, for example, by the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015 and the Pensacola Florida attack in 2019, even if in recent years it has implemented a more local and low-profile strategy. However, it should be emphasized that AQ’s branch networks are heterogeneous, and some affiliates, such as al-Shabaab, JNIM, Hurras al-Din (HaD), and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, although they refer in propaganda to striking the "far enemy," continue to primarily operate and focus locally, while other affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are more persistent in calling for attacks against the distant enemy and then projecting themselves towards the "Global Jihad", for example, to target the United States or France, etc. AQ continues to operate in Afghanistan and maintains the ability to conduct external operations (from the former Pakistani tribal areas or in areas of the Indian Subcontinent for example), without forgetting that AQ maintains strong affiliates and allies throughout the Muslim world. Over the past few weeks, these affiliates have congratulated the Taliban on their victory (from the Sahel to the Islamic Maghreb, from the Arabian Peninsula to the Indian Subcontinent, from South-East Asia to the Middle East), which even if they have communication difficulties with AQC and operate in an independent manner, remain strongly tied to the central leadership.
The strategy that al-Qaeda adopted after 2011 with the death of Osama Bin Laden and the succession of al-Zawahiri, then more so after 2014, was to maintain a low operative profile and to maintain an almost “populist” attitude of aiming to avoid civilian casualties and instead target the police, military and counter-terrorism forces of the states in which it operates, to weave ties with the local populations and above all, to create a new generation of militants.
In these 20 years, the strategies of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have changed, have evolved, and improved in ways, learning from past mistakes, because they have better understood how to operate, how and when to strike, how to ingratiate themselves with the local populations, and how to best utilize propaganda.
Today, al-Qaeda’s branches leverage technology and are widely present on the web, social media, and messaging applications which are accessible to all, such as Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, as well as on lesser-known platforms such as Rocket Chat, Element, Hoop.
To date, after twenty years, the governments and intelligence agencies pursuing al-Qaeda have failed to achieve success in the fight against terrorism. In the next ten or twenty years, this may very well create difficulties for us if we do not understand their ideology, their propaganda, their operations and, above all, the mistakes we have made.
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst of jihadist terrorism. He collaborates as a Senior Analyst with several Italian and European research centers. He has long been conducting research, analyses and consultancies on all that concerns jihadist terrorism and its organizations, from ideology to operations, also exploiting his own numerous direct sources present in the different geographical contexts affected by the phenomenon. Moreover, he is an expert in the study, research and analysis of the propaganda of jihadist organizations through direct monitoring of jihadist media channels on the web, social networks and messaging apps. You can find him on Twitter: @G88Daniele
Visual Citations: @war_noir