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On the move

Shamil ShamsApril 29, 2014

Three years after bin Laden's death, al Qaeda has a smaller presence in South Asia, and has shifted focus to the Middle East. But experts say the terrorist outfit still works with other Islamist groups in the region.

Tribal fighters who have been deployed onto the streets, patrol in the city of Falluja, 50 km (31 miles) west of Baghdad January 5, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)
Image: Reuters

On May 2, 2011, American Special Forces unilaterally raided a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden - the former head of al Qaeda - who had been hiding in the garrison town for around six years. America's most-wanted terrorist was finally dead, and the world heaved a sigh of relief.

Bin Laden's assassination was dubbed as the end of an era. Though there was much pondering over Islamabad's role in allegedly protecting him, the fact that bin Laden was dead was considered a huge blow to al Qaeda. Washington claimed victory over the terrorist organization, which had caused much harm to the US for around two decades.

But did bin Laden's death have a real impact on the workings of al Qaeda? Is it no more as strong and lethal in South Asia as it was three years ago prior to the killing of it's influential leader?

A Pakistani man reads a newspaper (Photo: EPA/ARSHAD ARBAB +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
US-Pakistani ties deteriorated in the aftermath of bin Laden's assassinationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Weakened, and on the run

Simbal Khan, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a researcher at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, says al Qaeda had already weakened much before bin Laden's death. Khan believes the US drone strikes in the restive tribal areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border were one of the major reasons behind al Qaeda's decision to reduce its presence in the Af-Pak region.

"The drone strikes, together with Pakistani military's own operations, made al Qaeda's mobility difficult in these areas," Khan told DW. "We must not forget that al Qaeda makes use of local conflicts, and since the intensity of the Afghan conflict started to recede after US President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan by 2014, al Qaeda also became disinterested in the region."

Ghaffar Husain, a London-based researcher and counter-terrorism expert, agrees with Khan's analysis: "Al Qaeda's senior leadership based in the Af-Pak area, which controlled the global jihadist movement, had been eliminated" before its leader's death.

Khan, however, warns that it would be silly to think that al Qaeda has no presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan anymore. "It has a smaller presence but it is collaborating with local extremist organizations. There is probably no international al Qaeda in these areas, but it has franchised off to smaller groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan," she said.

One of the important groups that works with al Qaeda, Husain says, is the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Al Qaeda - the global movement

"Al Qaeda had moved out from the Pakistani tribal areas to the Middle East and North Africa. So, the trend, which started before bin Laden's death, picked up pace post May 2011," Khan said.

According to Husain, it is only al Qaeda's central command which has been weakened; the global phenomenon is alive and probably getting stronger in some parts of the world.

Somali militia of Al-Shabab are seen during exercises at their military training camp outside Mogadishu (AP Photo)
Al Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab controls parts of SomaliaImage: dapd

"The organization is active in Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. In Syria, for instance, al Qaeda is more powerful than ever. The al Qaeda brand might not have the same resonance that it used to have once, but the various other organizations like Boko Haram and al-Shabab are doing similar work and carrying on the al Qaeda legacy," Husain told DW.

Experts are of the view that al Qaeda has been in the process of revitalizing itself since bin Laden's assassination.

"Al Qaeda is always looking for new recruits in conflict-ridden areas. Since the Arab Spring and the beginning of political instability in many Middle Eastern countries, al Qaeda has found a new battlefield. For al Qaeda to reinvent itself, places like Libya and Syria are more conducive than Pakistan and Afghanistan," Khan pointed out.

Bin Laden's successor

A number of Western officials have suggested that bin Laden's successor and al Qaeda's head Ayman al-Zawahiri could also be in Pakistan, and that could still make South Asia a central point for the terrorist organization in the future.

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan (AP Photo/Ishtiaq Mahsud, File)
Al Qaeda is still tied to the Pakistani TalibanImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

"I wouldn't be surprised if the al Qaeda head is hiding and sheltered in Pakistan. But it is unlikely that he is around the Pakistani-Afghan border region because that area is under a lot of observation. But he could be in hiding in one of the Pakistani cities like bin Laden did," Husain said.

"Nothing can be said about it with certainty. He could be in Pakistan or could be in the Middle East or North Africa," said Khan.

The security analysts, however, doubt whether Al-Zawahiri could make a big contribution to al Qaeda's revival due to his old age.