Al-Qaeda more dangerous than ever despite Bin Laden's death: US experts

Hopes of demise premature as new recruits and safe havens mean extremists still pose threat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:44am


More than 2-1/2 years after US commandos shot dead al-Qaeda figurehead Osama bin Laden, the global extremist network is more dangerous than ever, American experts and counterterrorism officials have warned.

Thanks notably to a flood of recruits flowing to join al-Qaeda-linked jihadist forces fighting in Syria's civil war, the group is back on its feet, and securing territory from which it could once more threaten Europe and the United States.

Bin Laden's former lieutenants in al-Qaeda's historic leadership have been killed by US Special Forces or in drone strikes, or else are isolated and on the run in the lawless tribal badlands on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But armed groups in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and West Africa have flocked to his banner and al-Qaeda is rebuilding its influence and recruiting fighters across the region.

"Their leadership has been hit very hard, but this brand is still growing. And it's growing from an increased number of safe havens," said retired US Marine Corps general James Mattis.

Mattis may have hung up his uniform, but he admits the war is far from over, warning: "The congratulations that we heard two years ago on the demise of al-Qaeda were premature and are now discredited."

Speaking at the Jamestown Foundation's annual conference on terrorism in Washington last week, Mattis said: "Al-Qaeda is resilient, they adapted. We have to think strategically before we act, not only act tactically."

Bin Laden's death in May 2011 triggered a wave of optimism that the United States might have broken the back of the jihadist threat. But since the audacious commando strike that took out al-Qaeda's apparently largely symbolic chieftain, militants inspired by or linked to Bin Laden's brand of armed jihad have sacked a US consulate in Libya and stormed a Kenyan mall.

"The oxygen that al-Qaeda depends on is access to sanctuaries and safe haven. And unfortunately over the past two years it gained greater access to more ungoverned spaces," said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Centre for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University.

"The success of the attack in Nairobi and earlier in Mumbai suggests that these groups have now within their capacity the ability to fulfil one of Bin Laden's last commands or operational desires, which was to stage Mumbai-style attacks in Europe."

He added: "For those who want to join al-Qaeda's movement, events in Cairo, in Damascus have validated what they long said: Jihad is the only solution to the problem of change in the Muslim world today."