Key U.S. officials are not backing down from their assessment that core al-Qaida, while still a threat, is in decline, brushing aside intelligence suggesting the terror organization remains entrenched in Afghanistan and may be growing stronger.
For months, tensions have been growing between the United States and its allies over the status of al-Qaida, with some counterterrorism officials arguing Washington is in danger of underestimating the threat posed by the terror group.
But the State Department’s top counterterrorism official on Tuesday said al-Qaida has been significantly degraded as a result of U.S. efforts.
"I think al-Qaida's on the ropes, no doubt," Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales told the virtual Global Security Forum in a pre-recorded interview.
"We have decimated their senior leadership cadre over the past 20 years leaving core al-Qaida leadership really a remnant of its former self," he said.
Sales’ comments come just a day after U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien similarly downplayed al-Qaida core’s capacity to do harm.
"Al-Qaida's been incapable of directing a complex, large-scale attack against the U.S. because of the pressure that we've kept on them,” he said. “And there's more to come."
Just how big of a blow al-Qaida’s leadership has suffered of late, though, remains a question.
Neither Sales nor O’Brien addressed recent rumors that al-Qaida’s long-time leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have finally succumbed to illness. Nor did they speak to the alleged assassination of Zawahiri’s likely successor, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in an Israeli operation this past August in Tehran, as first reported by The New York Times.
But Sales argued no matter who might be in charge, their influence has waned.
“There’s a sense in which the question of who leads al-Qaida core matters is a little bit less today than it did a decade ago, certainly two decades ago,” he told the virtual forum.
“What we have seen is a sort of devolution of authority from al-Qaida core to the branches and affiliates,” Sales said. “Those branches, I think, have an increasing amount of organizational autonomy to develop attack plans to set strategic objectives.”
But international counterterrorism officials and Afghanistan’s own security officials argue their intelligence suggests al-Qaida core remains relevant and has been growing stronger.
“Senior figures remain in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives,” Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the United Nations monitoring team for Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, warned in a webinar last month.
Recent U.N. reports, based on member state intelligence, also warn that the group’s core leadership appears to be assembling a growing cadre of fighters, perhaps as many as 600, while operating in 12 Afghan provinces.
Such remarks stand in stark contrast to statements by key U.S. officials, which put the number of fighters available to al-Qaida’s core leadership at as little as “a few dozen fighters who are primarily focused on their survival.”
The pushback against such rosy assessments, however, is not just coming from U.S. allies and countries with interests in the region.
Afghan Taliban & al-Qaida ties
A new report on Afghanistan from the Defense Department’s inspector general, released Tuesday, also raised questions about al-Qaida’s staying power, citing Washington’s reliance on the Taliban to sever all ties with the terror group.
“It is unclear at this point whether the Taliban is upholding its commitments," Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote, adding, “it is difficult to discern the extent to which it is meeting the requirement that Afghanistan not serve as a haven for terrorists who threaten the United States.”
The report also noted that al-Qaida leadership has generally welcomed February’s deal between the U.S. and the Taliban.
"It does not require the Taliban to publicly renounce al-Qaida and the deal includes a timeline for the United States and coalition forces to withdraw — accomplishing one of al-Qaida’s main goals," the report noted.
But Sales, who spoke prior to the report’s release, said the terms of the deal signed this past February, “are perfectly clear.”
“We are going to be watching very closely to verify,” he said. “We expect them to live up to their obligations.”
Al-Qaida affiliates in Africa
In the meantime, Sales said the U.S. intends to focus on what it sees as the more pressing danger from al-Qaida’s network of affiliates in Africa, including al-Shabab, Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQOM).
“These groups are continuing to fight with a fair degree of operational autonomy, without getting the message that al-Qaida has been eviscerated,” he said, calling the U.S. effort to degrade and defeat al-Shabab “a top priority.”
Concerns about the reach of al-Shabab have grown considerably over the past year, escalating sharply after a deadly attack this past January on the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya, which caught U.S. forces unprepared.
There has also been concern that al-Shabab may be interested in the idea of carrying out attacks on the U.S. and the West, with a 2019 arrest in the Philippines that indicated links between the group and possible attacks using airliners.
As part of its ongoing campaign against al-Shabab, the U.S. has relied heavily on drone strikes targeting senior leaders.
But the U.S. is also ramping up efforts on other fronts.
The State Department Tuesday named two senior al-Shabab officials – explosives expert and media chief Abdullahi Osman Mohamed and Jaysh Ayman unit commander Maalim Ayman – as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs).
Sales, briefing reporters after the announcement, described al-Shabab as “one of the most dangerous and capable al-Qaida affiliates in the world” and said the designations will take a toll on the group’s finances.
“It makes it that much harder for designated individuals or organizations, to try and move money through the international financial system,” he said.
“We're bringing all of our tools to this fight,” the State Department official added. “Not just sanctions, but also information sharing, counter messaging, combating travel and building partner capacity to protect soft targets.”
A United Nations report issued last month found al-Shabab has an operating budget of at least $21 million in 2019 and managed to raise at least $13 million from just four sources during a nine-month period ending this past August.