by: Jennifer Cafarella and Katherine Zimmerman
Al Qaeda may be planning attacks in the United States for Monday, November 7, according to a senior FBI official. The FBI continues to assess the intelligence and whether the threat is credible. If true, the plot could signal al Qaeda’s refocus on targeting the US homeland after building significant safe havens in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda never stopped planning attacks against the US even when it was prioritizing the local fights and working within local dynamics. The group seeks to lead a global insurgency, rooted in these local fights, that it will take to the West. Al Qaeda’s increasing involvement in local conflicts, especially the Syrian Civil War, accelerates rather than contains the threat of the group globally.
Al Qaeda has active attack planning cells based in its safe havens in Syria and Afghanistan. Safe havens provide al Qaeda bases from which to launch attacks against the US. re-emergenceAfghanistansanctuary in SyriaTwo recent American strikes targeted high-level al Qaeda operatives involved in external operations in both countries.
- A US airstrike killed a senior al Qaeda operative, Haydar Kirkan, on October 17 near Idlib City in northern Syria. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook confirmed the strike on November 2, describing Kirkan as connected to al Qaeda senior leadership, as facilitating al Qaeda’s efforts in Turkey and Europe, and as al Qaeda’s “senior external terror attack planner in Syria.”
- The US also targeted two high-level operatives in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province on October 23: a senior planner for attacks against the US and al Qaeda’s commander in northeastern Afghanistan, Faruq al Qatani, confirmed killed, and Bilal al Utabi, who was re-establishing al Qaeda’s Afghanistan safe haven “to threaten the West.”
Al Qaeda has had planning cells developing external attacks from Syria since at least 2014. The US initially launched airstrikes in September 2014 against the “Khorasan group,” an al Qaeda cell in Syria that had entered the “execution phase” of an attack against US interests in Europe. In response to these targeted strikes, Al Qaeda altered its operational methods in Syria but never abandoned its efforts to develop an external attack capability and deploy it.
- Jabhat Fatah al Sham has forward deployed recruiters abroad who funnel foreign fighters to Syria and likely cultivate al Qaeda attack cells abroad. The U.S. State Department designated one recruiter, French national Omar Diaby, in September 2016. Diaby is now leading a French foreign fighter group in Syria allied to al Qaeda after recruiting numerous French nationals to join the fight there.
- Jabhat Fatah al Sham has cultivated numerous subunits of French, Libyan, Crimean, Uzbek, Chechen, and other foreign fighters.
- Jabhat Fatah al Sham and allied groups publish foreign fighter recruitment propaganda via a media outlet titled “al Muhajirun,” which publishes videos subtitled in multiple languages including English, Russian, German, Dutch, and Turkish.
- Individuals who fought with Jabhat al Nusra in Syria have been arrested in numerous countries including the US and Germany, indicating that al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters are returning to Europe from Syria, like their counterparts fighting with ISIS, in a way that can set conditions for future attacks in the west.
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For further reading, please see:
- Jennifer Cafarella, Nicolas A. Heras, and Genevieve Casagrande, “Al Qaeda is Gaining Strength in Syria,” Foreign Policy, September 1, 2016
- Jennifer Cafarella, “The Myth of a Locally-Focused Former al Qaeda Affiliate,” the Cipher Brief, August 1, 2016
- Jennifer Cafarella and Katherine Zimmerman, “Avoiding al Qaeda’s Syria Trap: Jabhat al Nusra’s Rebranding,” Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project, July 29, 2016
- Jennifer Cafarella, “How Turkey Could Become the Next Pakistan,” Institute for the Study of War, July 19, 2016
- Jennifer Cafarella, “Why Most Dangerous Group in Syria Isn’t ISIS,” CNN, February 26, 2016.
- Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman, “Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength,” Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project, February 2016
- Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Katherine Zimmerman, and Harleen Gambhir, “San Bernardino Shooting a Terrorist Attack with al Qaeda and ISIS Footprints,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, December 4, 2015
- Jennifer Cafarella, “Jabhat al Nusra in Syria: An Islamic Emirate for Al Qaeda,” Institute for the Study of War, December 2014
- Katherine Zimmerman, “The Khorasan Group: Syria’s al Qaeda Threat,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 23, 2014
- Katherine Zimmerman, “Competing Jihad: The Islamic State and al Qaeda,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 2, 2014