By this gauge, al Qaeda's influence has only grown stronger despite the heavy pressure they have been under for the past 15 years. It will be very difficult to root al Qaeda elements out of the bases it has established in places such as northwestern Syria, Libya and Yemen as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. With this in mind, we will examine the status of those regional franchise groups and their allies.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
Al Qaeda's moderate, gradualist approach has enabled the group's Syrian project, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to set itself apart from the Islamic State in the Syrian civil war. While the Islamic State has adopted an adversarial "us or them" stance, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has shown itself willing to work alongside other rebel groups in Syria, non-jihadists included. It has emphasized the struggle in Syria, noting that it will turn its attention to external operations against the "far enemy" only once it concludes its fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. This focus has enabled the group to find external funding and support, much to the consternation of the United States. In the process, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has proved itself to be one of the most effective Syrian rebel organizations and the help it has provided other groups during joint operations has earned it a reputation as a critical opposition force.
The successful mainstreaming of groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will help ensure the survival of the al Qaeda wing of the jihadist movement. Al Qaeda's affiliates have become deeply embedded in several different regions. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna and other al Qaeda-linked militias are among the most effective forces combatting the Islamic State. This has given them room to more broadly promote themselves in much the same way Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has done in Syria. In fact, the critical role played by al Qaeda forces in ousting the Islamic State from Sirte
gives the core another reason to believe in the validity of its approach.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
While al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula lost control of the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in April 2016, they managed to obtain massive resources from its occupation. This was in contrast to their failed 2012-2013 attempt to seize and control ground in southern Yemen, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and their Ansar al-Sharia arm decided to fight a bitter battle to maintain control of the areas they had conquered, suffering terrible losses at the hands of the Yemeni military and U.S. airstrikes. Learning from that lesson, this time they retreated from Mukalla, taking whatever they could and relocating forces back to the tribal areas that have long served as their refuge. In doing so, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula avoided the heavy losses they sustained in 2013. Instead, the group departed Mukalla with abundant finances and a large stock of weapons and still retain considerable freedom of movement inside Yemen.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda's Algeria-based franchise, splintered in 2013 and suffered additional losses in 2014 when some of its members defected to the Islamic State. However, the group was reinvigorated in 2016 when Mokhtar Belmokhtar returned to the al Qaeda fold with his al-Mouribitoun group
. Al-Mouribitoun has operated across the region, not only conducting attacks but becoming embroiled in the kidnapping of a number of foreigners. Their ransom demands will help boost the finances of the organization as they have done for many years now. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
retains capable sub-groups in Mali, Tunisia and Libya and has also been expanding in Burkina Faso in recent months. In 2016, the group claimed credit for high-profile attacks against hotels and resorts
, targeting foreigners in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Grand-Bassam in southern Ivory Coast. With no stability in sight for northern Mali, coupled with the ability to raise funds through smuggling and kidnapping operations and the large quantities of weapons still available for sale in Libya, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb should be able to continue to gain momentum in 2017.
In Somalia, 2016 has been a hard year for al Shabaab. The increasing capability of some Somali military units has led to better intelligence operations and heightened cooperation with U.S. special operations forces. Consequently there has been a marked increase in strikes directed at high-value al Shabaab targets
. But despite these successes, al Qaeda's Somali franchise still poses a significant security threat both as an insurgent and terrorist force. The group continues to launch terrorist attacks in Mogadishu and beyond. In February, al Shabaab conducted an attack against an airliner
using a bomb concealed in a laptop computer that narrowly failed to take the plane down. Al Shabaab also regularly amasses forces capable of overwhelming the positions of Somali and African Union forces in southern Somalia, providing the group with a robust supply of arms, vehicles and other materiel. The group remains in a position where it could surge back to power in large portions of Somalia if the African Union troops withdraw.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent never really became what it was envisioned to be. The core had imagined the franchise as an organization that could connect the many transnational, regional and local jihadist groups across South Asia. On paper the group claims to unify the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and a large number of Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi groups. However in practical terms, only a few attacks in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been claimed in the name of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
This dearth of attacks does not mean that the umbrella group's purported members have been inactive. In Afghanistan, the Taliban made numerous gains
in 2016 and, like last year, have continued fighting even after the end of the traditional fighting season in the summer. This indicates that the Taliban has established a robust presence inside Afghanistan and does not need to move men and weapons across the snowed-in passes on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border to conduct attacks. The Taliban has made headway in almost all parts of Afghanistan in 2016 and is not likely to lose momentum in 2017.
Survival is the primary goal of any organization pursuing a long war strategy, and al Qaeda has achieved this goal against heavy odds. Under the leadership of Ayman al Zawahiri the organization has shown itself to be crafty, resilient and opportunistic. In September 2001 it took advantage of gaps in air transportation security to pull off the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Today it is taking advantage of gaps in U.S. foreign and national security policy — and battlefield ambiguity in places such as Syria, Yemen and Libya — to embed itself in those regions and create bases that it can use to conduct future attacks against the West and eventually attempt to create a caliphate. In 2017 they will continue their efforts to wear down the U.S. and its Western and regional allies and dissuade them from involvement in the Muslim world.