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TerrorismWhy al-Qaida is still strong sixteen years after 9/11

By Tricia Bacon

Published 12 September 2017

Sixteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, al-Qaida conducted the most destructive terrorist attack in history. An unprecedented onslaught from the United States followed. One-third of al-Qaida’s leadership was killed or captured in the following year. The group lost its safe haven in Afghanistan, including its extensive training infrastructure there. Its surviving members were on the run or in hiding. Though it took nearly ten years, the United States succeeded in killing al-Qaida’s founding leader, Osama bin Laden. Since 2014, al-Qaida has been overshadowed by its former ally al-Qaida in Iraq, now calling itself the Islamic State. In other words, al-Qaida should not have survived the sixteen years since 9/11. So why has it?

Sixteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, al-Qaida conducted the most destructive terrorist attack in history.

An unprecedented onslaught from the United States followed. One-third of al-Qaida’s leadership was killed or captured in the following year. The group lost its safe haven in Afghanistan, including its extensive training infrastructure there. Its surviving members were on the run or in hiding. Though it took nearly ten years, the United States succeeded in killing al-Qaida’s founding leader, Osama bin Laden. Since 2014, al-Qaida has been overshadowed by its former ally al-Qaida in Iraq, now calling itself the Islamic State.

In other words, al-Qaida should not have survived the sixteen years since 9/11.

So why has it?

The ties that bind
Much of the credit goes to al-Qaida’s extraordinary ability to both form alliances and sustain them over time and under pressure.

In my forthcoming book “Alliances for Terror,” I examine why a small number of groups, such as al-Qaida and IS, emerge as desirable partners and succeed at developing alliance networks.

Understanding terrorist alliances is critical because terrorist organizations with allies are more lethal, survive longer and are more apt to seek weapons of mass destruction. Though terrorist partnerships face numerous hurdles and severing al-Qaida’s alliances has been a U.S. objective for over a decade, the fact is that these counterterrorism efforts have failed.

It was allies that enabled al-Qaida to survive the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The Afghan Taliban stood by al-Qaida after the attack, refusing to surrender bin Laden and thereby precipitating the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Fleeing, al-Qaida was able to turn to allies in Pakistan to hide its operatives and punish the Pakistani government for capitulating to U.S. pressure to crackdown on the group.

It was alliances that helped al-Qaida continue to terrorize. In October 2002, for example, al-Qaida’s ally in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah, struck a bar and a nightclub in Bali, killing more than 200 and injuring more than 200 more, to brutally commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11.

And it was alliances that allowed al-Qaida to project viability. With the “prestige” that came with conducting 9/11, al-Qaida was able to forge more of them and indeed create affiliate alliances in which partners adopted its name and pledged allegiance to bin Laden.

Al-Qaida’s first and most notorious affiliate alliance, al-Qaida in Iraq, was formed in 2004 with Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Using the standing