Seven years after Osama bin Laden's killing, Al-Qaeda has grown by avoiding the limelight

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India May 02, 2018, 11.39 PM(IST) Written By: Surya Gangadharan

File photo: Osama bin Laden Photograph:( Zee News Network )

Can you imagine a "more tolerable" jihadist group, one that is "less extreme"?  Apparently there is one, it's called Al-Qaeda!

The description of Al Qaeda as less extreme would be offensive to many, especially those whose family members died in the 9/11 attacks, the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 bombings in Saudi Arabia, the 2004 Madrid bombings and so on. Not to forget the atrocities of Abu Ausab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, killing, maiming and videotaped beheadings. That was also Al-Qaeda. 

According to a commentary in the online journal War on the Rocks by Tore Refslund Hamming, a European academic and specialist in Sunni jihad, Al-Qaeda has today become more digestible largely because Islamic State has eclipsed it in terms of cruelty. 

Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 in a US Navy Seals raid on his hideout in Abbotabad, Pakistan
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Islamic State today struggles to survive in a corner of the Syrian desert its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a fugitive with an American bounty of $25 million on his head.  

But Al-Qaeda is growing under the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri despite losing senior operatives in US air strikes and clandestine special forces operations. It partly explains why the last attack linked to Al-Qaeda dates back to 2015, to the Kouachi brothers' hit on Charlie Hedbo in Paris. 

Al-Qaeda's lower profile, according to Hamming, could also be due to the fact that focus has shifted from attacks on the West to attacks in the Arab Muslim world. 

But the Al-Qaeda chief seems to want to change that narrative.  

In a March 20 address, Zawahiri repeated Osama's discourse that the West remained the primary enemy of jihadists as it had agents in the Arab world through whom it sought control and dominance. Adding his voice to the call for attacks on the West is Osama's son Hamza bin Laden. Al-Aaeda affiliates have joined the chorus.

Hamming believes that this may not suggest that an attack on the West is imminent. Al-Qaeda knows that it cannot constantly brand itself as the leader of global jihad without delivering anything. At the same time, it does not want to be perceived as similar to Islamic State.  

As the group's leadership wrestles with these problems, the Al-Aaeda banner continues to expand. In Syria, its affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is thought to be the most powerful jihadist group currently. Based in Idlib province, it has some 30,000 fighters.  

In Yemen, it has taken advantage of the civil war to strengthen AQAP or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. Last year, the US State Department estimated it had 4,000 fighters on its rolls.

In Somalia, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab has exploited clan politics and broader grievances with the corrupt and weak central government.  Al-Qaeda is also regrouping in Afghanistan. There's speculation Zawahiri and Hamza are there or in neighbouring Pakistan.

Clearly, Al-Qaeda has grown by avoiding the limelight.  

But this calculus could change if the group's leadership believes the time to strike has come.