American forces launched raids against suspected terrorist targets in Somalia and Libya over the weekend, capturing a suspected al Qaeda leader indicted in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa, and exchanging fire with militants belonging to the same group claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nairobi mall weeks ago.
"We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Indonesia Saturday. "And those members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run, but they can't hide."
Kerry's remarks hint at how groups ideologically or operationally aligned with al Qaeda have evolved since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Osama bin Laden is dead, but his extremist movement is alive.
"Al Qaeda central has been fairly inactive over the past few years; very few if any attacks are attributed to what we would consider the al Qaeda of 9/11," says Erin Miller, an expert with the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. "There have been increases in what we're seeing as attacks attributed to 'al Qaeda linked groups.'"
Those "linked" groups showed how deadly they were in recent weeks, when attacks in Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, all suspected of being the work of Islamist extremists, killed and wounded hundreds of people. Those attacks mark the latest chapter in the decentralization of the extremist movement once led by bin Laden, from a tightly controlled group focused on the United States to local affiliates that may share operational or even only ideological ties with his original group. The data shows an increase in the number of attacks, while the choices targeted, experts say, reflect a more regional agenda. In the United States, you're still more likely to get killed by furniture than you are to die in a terrorist attack. But in the states the US relies on as front-line partners battling extremist groups, things are very different.
"These groups are much more focused on their local or regional contexts than the previous al Qaeda global movement," says Brian Katulis, analyst with the Center for American Progress. "That's not to say they don't hate the United States--just that their primary focus is in their own countries."
In some ways this is a return to a prior era--it was bin Laden himself who insisted on confronting "the far enemy" (the United States) rather than the "near enemy" (typically, US-backed governments in Muslim majority countries). The past few years have seen extremist groups affiliated with al Qaeda much more focused on the "near enemy."
The Obama administration's critics have argued that the attack in Kenya proved "al Qaeda and its affiliates are still extremely powerful and still able to really strike terror into the hearts of people," Republican New York Rep. Peter King, former chief of the homeland security committee, told ABC News shortly after the Westgate Mall attack occurred. "This shows, I think, the really growing influence of al Qaeda in Africa."
A description like "al Qaeda and its affiliates" describes a lot of groups, Miller says, but it doesn't necessarily tell you much about them, because the affiliation could be operational or ideological. That is, they may coordinate with the al Qaeda leadership, or they may simply share the group's extremist religious vision or approach to violence.
"Often we don't know what the specific relationship is between al Qaeda central and these specific groups," Miller says. "They have not shown much of a capacity or ability to attack in the United States" the way core al Qaeda did when it killed thousands on September 11, 2001. The strength of the original group that carried out the 9/11 attacks has been waning for a decade, and it's the "affiliates" who have largely been responsible for the bulk of the carnage since. Here's a chart illustrating the number of attacks by core al Qaeda and organizations directly or loosely affiliated with bin Laden's original group and its ideology:
The most active group is the Afghan Taliban, which has been battling American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Frequency of attacks doesn't automatically correlate to lethality. But neither al Qaeda nor its allies have been able to replicate the level of death and destruction it caused within the United States 9/11, and it is allies or fellow travelers like the Afghan Taliban and Boko Haram who have carried out most of the attacks since.
While these groups have no love for the US, their motivation is largely local: the wing of the Pakistani Taliban that claimed responsibility for the bombing of a church in Peshawar weeks ago that killed more than eighty people may have been trying to derail potential talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government. Boko Haram, which has launched several high casualty attacks in Nigeria in recent weeks, wants to establish a Taliban-style Islamic state. Al Shabaab, an extremist group in Somalia whose leadership swore a loyalty oath to al Qaeda in 2012, has claimed credit for the attack on the Westgate Mall, in Nairobi, Kenya, which began killed some seventy people. The siege ended only after prolonged fighting between militants and Kenyan security forces.
As a group, Al Shabaab has grown increasingly lethal. Here's a chart showing how both the number of attacks attributed to Al Shabaab have increased, along with even larger increases in fatalities and injuries. Almost a quarter of Al Shabaab's attacks, 22.7 percent, have taken place inside Kenya, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, which tracks terrorist attacks worldwide for the State Department.
Al Shabaab emerged following a 2006 US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, and is one of the few foreign extremist groups that has managed to recruit noticeable numbers of American citizens (Kenyan officials have said there are Americans among the Nairobi attackers, Attorney General Eric Holder has said there's no evidence of that thus far). But al Shabaab has been weakened by military losses and ideological infighting, following an African Union military intervention which drove the group out of the Somali capital of Mogadishu and other urban areas that had been key sources of revenue for the group. At the same time, human rights groups say that terrorist attacks have provoked abuses and discrimination by Kenyan authorities towards Somali refugees, something al Shabaab likely hopes to exploit. While the group was once split over whether to focus on Somalia or attacks on foreign targets, the internal power struggle left those with a more international focus in charge, says Dr. Ken Menkhaus, a professor of Political Science at Davidson College whose studies have focused on East Africa.
"The motivation [behind the attack] is to try to reframe the conflict in Somalia as one of Somalis versus foreigners, which plays to Shabaab's strengths, and the way to do that is to launch an attack like this against a soft target that they hope will provoke a heavy-handed government response," says Menkhaus. He called the attack a "strategy of desperation" by a group that has seen its power and popular support in Somalia wane. Daveed Garteinstein-Ross, an analyst with the Center for Defense of Democracies, says it's unclear whether this is an act of weakness or strength, but that the attack is likely "designed to inflict a cost on Kenya's civilian population for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia, and thus put pressure on Kenya to withdraw its forces." In 2010, al Shabab set off bombs that killed nearly 80 people in Uganda as a reprisal for that country's contribution to the African Union force in Somalia.
It's up for debate whether that regional focus is a response to US policy, extremist groups' alienating the very groups whose support they're seeking to gain, or some other factor. During the incident in Nairobi, the attackers reportedly singled out non-Muslims, possibly in reaction to criticism that extremist groups have mostly killed Muslim civilians. States with ongoing military conflicts like Syria, or ineffective internal security forces also give such groups more freedom to operate. "These organizations are moving and have moved to exploit the weak security systems in the countries where they operate or where they reside," says Katulis.
Katulis also says the Obama administration's lethal targeting of al Qaeda's high-ranking leaders "may make [extremist groups] operate more locally as a result of a loss of leadership." The administration's approach has also caused significant civilian casualties—and even former administration officials have said they may be creating more terrorists than they kill.
Ironically, al Shabaab's recent losses may make it more dangerous in the short-term, says Christopher Anzalone, a scholar at George Mason University's Center for Global Islamic Studies. "The weakening of al Shabaab inside Somalia may very well make attacks outside of Somalia more common." Running an alternative government, as the group was trying to do in Somalia for years, is a lot harder than wanton slaughter.
The raid in Somalia this past weekend may have been motivated by that fear. US officials told NBC News that the target of that operation was Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, also known by his alias Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, who has pledged loyalty to the core al Qaeda leadershp. Godane, Anzalone says, "has always been very transnational in his outlook."