It was one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s last victories. Just over a week before the leader of al-Qaeda was killed in Kabul by missiles fired from a US drone, militants from the organisation’s largest subsidiary in sub-Saharan Africa Africa attacked the most important military base in Mali.
The tactics of the attack were familiar – suicide bombers breaching defenses to allow gunmen to reach stunned defenders – but the operation marked a major escalation.
In addition to a decade of insurgent warfare in malial-Qaeda had never hit a target of such importance or so close to the capital, Bamako.
The attack on the Kati base underscored the tenacity of the organization in Africa and elsewhere despite decades of intense pressure from a US-led counterterrorism campaign and fierce rivalry from a breakaway faction that is became the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis or IS).
“The international context is favorable to al-Qaeda, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of the global jihad,” said a UN report in July based on information provided by member states.
The attack in Mali last month was a vindication of Zawahiri’s decision in 2011 to abandon the strategy of spectacular strikes against the West that had been favored by his predecessor, Osama bin Laden. Instead, he ordered regional al-Qaeda commanders to seek gains locally, undistracted by attempts to attack international aircraft or bomb European cities.
The recent UN report warned that any territory carved out by al-Qaeda or IS could be used as a launching pad for such operations in the near future.
“The threat from IS and al-Qaeda remains relatively low in non-conflict areas, but is much higher in areas directly affected by conflict or nearby. Unless some of these conflicts are successfully resolved… one or more of them will incubate an external operational capability for Isil [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]al-Qaeda or a related terrorist group,” he said.
Progress in Mali vindicated another part of Zawahiri’s strategy: building grassroots support. The grievances of marginalized communities could be exploited, especially when the government is weak or predatory, he told affiliate leaders after taking over al-Qaeda in 2011. Strong ties could be forged with local actors through collaboration and even intermarriages. If they resorted to violence, affiliates had to seek out targets that were considered legitimate.
The strategy preceded the rise of IS from 2014, but the success of the rival group has given new impetus. While IS relied on fear and coercion to defeat local populations, al-Qaeda sought to appear moderate in comparison.
Al-Qaeda has suffered major setbacks – nearly wiped out in Syria and Iraq and unable to compete with IS in some theaters, such as Nigeria and Egypt’s Sinai desert.
But in Africa, in particular, Zawahiri’s strategy has paid off. The late leader has personally entered into an alliance with al-Shabaab, the extremist movement that controls much of Somalia’s rural areas and can field a force of thousands. In July, 500 al-Shabaab fighters attacked Ethiopian troops in an unprecedented cross-border foray. The Somali affiliate is also wealthy enough to send millions of dollars to al-Qaeda’s central leadership, intelligence services suggest.
Deep-seated problems caused by competition for resources due to climate change, political instability, massive population displacements and the recent withdrawal of French troops from Mali provide al-Qaeda with opportunities to expand, analysts say.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), quickly exploited the presence of the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company linked to the Kremlin contracted to support the country’s beleaguered army.
Wagner has repeatedly been accused of systematic human rights abuses, including massacres of civilians, which pit local communities against the government and build support for extremists.
The attack on the Kati base outside Bamako was a response to the government’s collaboration with the Wagner group, JNIM said.
“We say to the government in Bamako: if you have the right to hire mercenaries to kill defenseless innocents, then we have the right to destroy you and target you,” the group said in a statement translated by SITE. IntelligenceGroup.
Gen. Stephen J Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters last week that the JNIM was “moving south”.
“They are now almost investing… Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and they are now starting their operations in the… border regions of the coastal states. So it’s very concerning, I think, for the world watching,” he said.
In North Africa, al-Qaeda is still present but has been largely ousted from Libya and Tunisia as the chaos seen at the start of the decade subsided.
Its affiliate in Yemen, though weaker than before, still exists and has long been viewed by Western security experts as a potential threat. Outside of Africa, the greatest gains have been made in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban victory very predictably strengthened al-Qaeda’s hand… It’s just a fact,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, CEO of US threat analysis firm Valens Global.
Al-Qaida has forged deep relationships with key factions and senior Taliban officials who, though divided, appear willing to offer the group a safe haven under certain conditions. The house in which Zawahiri was living with his family when he was killed belonged to an aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan interior minister.
Other Prominent Al-Qaeda Veterans are in Iranwhere they fled in 2002 but are still active, despite restrictions on their movement and communications, according to reports.
A challenge for the group is that many al-Zawahiri’s heirs were killedsaid Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
These include young leadership candidates such as like Hamza bin Ladenfounder’s son, who died in a drone strike in Pakistan between 2017 and 2019. Al-Qaida’s No. 2 was killed in what is believed to be a Mossad operation in Tehran in 2020.
One important factor that could help al-Qaeda is that the United States and its allies are now focusing elsewhere.
“We don’t pay a lot of attention to it…and the question at least here in DC is what would make us move away from Asia again?” said Zimmermann. “What would be the strategic distraction from our new focus on China? Everyone talks about a major terrorist attack, but I’m not convinced it would.