Global Ethics Corner: Is al-Qaeda Making a Comeback?

Feb 19, 2013

President Obama called al-Qaeda a "shadow of its former self," but the organization is making inroads in Mali and Algeria and some say it is as dangerous as ever. How much of a threat is al-Qaeda? Has the terrorist group made a comeback?

"Al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self," declared President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address. Many believe that the fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the death of Osama Bin Laden, have forced the Islamic terrorist organization to its knees. Indeed, in 2011, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta triumphantly declared its "strategic defeat" as "within reach."

But with Jihadist ranks swelling across the Middle East and North Africa, Panetta's prognosis looks premature. Not only do many analysts insist that al-Qaeda is staging a comeback, some say it's more dangerous than ever.

Al-Qaeda's apparent resurgence can be traced to the Arab Spring. Experts believe al-Qaeda is exploiting instability in places like Libya and Syria to accumulate new weapons, operational bases, and training grounds. But it's in the fragile and unstable states of Africa that al-Qaeda is believed to be making the greatest inroads. Terrorist incursions by al-Qaeda affiliates in Algeria and Mali have raised the specter of a terrorist haven in Africa. Some analysts speculate that local Islamic militant groups like those in Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali represent a deadly new form of decentralized international terrorism.

But not all analysts agree. Rather than heralding a new era of unity, the growing preponderance of local terrorist groups may instead suggest discord among Salafi-jihadist ranks, fueled in part by nationalist ambitions. In fact, despite their apparent ties to al-Qaeda, some experts warn there’s no evidence that groups like Nigeria's Boko Haram are part of a coordinated network with international terrorist ambitions.

Still others take issue with the notion of an al-Qaeda "comeback." They argue that the terrorist group never disappeared in the first place. Moreover, they say groups like al-Qaeda will never be defeated outright. At best, they will be managed as second-tier threats.

As analysts debate the threat posed by al-Qaeda, what do you think? Is al-Qaeda making a comeback?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Daniel L. Byman, "Breaking the Bonds Between Al-Qa'ida and Its Affiliate Organization," Brookings, No. 27, August, 2012

Kirthi Jayakumar, "Is the Al-Qaeda rising, again?," Global Ethics Network, November 13, 2012

Jack Keane, "Jack Keane: Al Qaeda Is Making a Comeback," The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2012

Bruce Riedel, "Al Qaeda’s Dangerous Play in Mali," Brookings, January 15, 2013

Bruce Riedel, "New Al-Qaeda Generation May Be Deadliest One," Brookings, January 24, 2013

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance: whatatravisty Mateus_27:24&25 [also for picture 6] Maghrebia [also for picture 9] The White House James Gordon Julien Harneis fabcom Senator Chris Coons AK Rockefeller U.S. Army

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