Al Qaeda in Iraq is another example of a local affiliate pursuing an agenda that differs from Al Qaeda central. The group was initially led by the Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was killed by the United States in 2006. Before then, however, Zarqawi refused to heed al-Zawahiri and bin Laden’s warnings to target only the U.S. troops in the country. Instead, Zarqawi concentrated much of his group’s resources on killing Iraqi Shi’ites in the hopes of provoking a full-blown sectarian civil war. In such a civil war, Zarqawi hoped, Iraq’s Sunnis would become more reliant on Al Qaeda in Iraq, giving him the chance to seize power in the country. Ultimately, this effort failed as AQ in Iraq alienated Iraq’s Sunnis as well as Shi’as. More broadly, Zarqawi’s vicious intra-Muslim attacks deprived AQ of any popular support across the Muslim world, just as al-Zawahiri and bin Laden feared.
Zarqawi’s successors have proven no less burdensome to the central AQ leadership. The group has not made a valiant effort to the attack the U.S. homeland. Instead, since the Syrian civil war began it has begun concentrating its efforts on using unrest in that country to seize power in Damascus. This has often put it at odds with the remaining central AQ leadership, most notably, al-Zawahiri. For example, Islamic State of Iraq leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has publicly defied al-Zawahiri in trying to forcibly merge Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria with his own group to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) under his own leadership. This won him a direct rebuke from al-Zawahiri and led at least one al-Nusra fighter to say that the attempted merger “was the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad.” Still, al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri’s opposition to his forced merger, showing that the AQ is no longer the top-down coherent terrorist group that mounted the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In recent years U.S. officials have contended that Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses the most dangerous threat to the United States of all the different AQ affiliates. This certainly seems to be the case. The group has made valiant efforts to encourage American Muslims in the United States to mount attacks on the U.S. homeland, both through the printing of the English language Inspire magazine and in direct communications. AQAP also trained and armed a Nigerian in Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to take down a commercial flight on Christmas Eve, and tried to ship bombs to the United States in printer cartridges using UPS.
This is sufficient to earn AQAP the distinction of being the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland. Still, the group can at most be said to be a hybrid organization focused on both the near and far enemies, with the overwhelming bulk of its efforts going to the former. For years now AQAP has mounted frequent attacks against Yemeni security forces and seized and briefly held territory within Yemen.
By contrast it has proven to be extremely reluctant to devote any substantial resources to attacking the U.S. homeland. Indeed, as noted above, most of its efforts in this regard have been devoted to convincing others to attack the American homeland. Even in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, AQAP did not devote a single one of its hardened operatives to attacking the United States, as Abdulmutallab showed up on AQAP’s doorstep on his own initiative, and was only briefly trained for the mission AQAP recommended. In the case of the bombs it shipped in printer cartridges, AQAP has bragged repeatedly about how few resources—the bombs only cost $4,200—it devoted to that failed plot.
This doesn’t mean that AQAP doesn’t pose a direct security threat to the United States, but if an organization’s mission is measured by its allocation of resources, AQAP remains a domestic jihadist group first and foremost, with only a passing interest in global jihad. Indeed, it is notable that in the recent AQ leadership meeting that U.S. intelligence groups intercepted, al-Zawahiri is said to have exhorted Nasir al-Wuhayshi, founder and head of AQAP, to attack the West. That al-Wuhayshi, who was a member of bin Laden’s inner-circle in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, would need to be reminded that the far enemy is the main target shows just how much AQ has transformed over the past twelve years.
The near enemy is now AQ’s central preoccupation; attacking the West is merely a hobby and one that it is increasingly less interested in retaining.