Al-Qaeda feels losses in Syria and Afghanistan but stays resilient

Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks and with many of its top leaders dead, Al-Qaeda remains a threat

Afghan security officials stand guard at a checkpoint in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on Oct 26, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Last week was a bad week for Al-Qaeda around the world.

At least seven top Al-Qaeda operatives were killed in the latest of a recent spate of US Special Operations drone strikes in north-west Syria.

Afghan commandos killed a senior Al-Qaeda propagandist in a raid in a Taleban-controlled district. And the United States continues to pressure the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, Al-Shabaab, which may be undergoing a leadership shake-up.

Yet nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks and with many of its top leaders dead, Al-Qaeda remains resilient and has "ingrained itself in local communities and conflicts" spanning the globe, from West Africa to Yemen to Afghanistan, a United Nations counter-terrorism report issued in July concluded.

Both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as their global affiliates and supporters, "continue to generate violence around the world, whether through insurgency tactics, the direction and facilitation of terrorism or providing the inspiration for attacks", the UN report said.

Over the weekend, Afghanistan's intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, tweeted that the country's special forces had killed a senior Al-Qaeda leader in the eastern province of Ghazni.

The tweet showed a grisly picture of the dead Al-Qaeda leader, Hossam Abdul al-Raouf, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhsin al-Masri, and said he had been living in Ghazni under the protection of the Taleban.

On Monday (Oct 26), the White House's National Security Council confirmed the death of Al-Raouf, a top propagandist and trusted lieutenant to Ayman al-Zawahri, Al-Qaeda's senior-most leader, who was on the FBI's most wanted list.

The council praised the Afghan forces in a tweet of its own: "His removal is welcome news in the fight against Al-Qaeda and denying it a safe haven in Afghanistan."

American officials said there was some erroneous reporting in initial media accounts, mistakenly identifying the terrorist killed in Afghanistan as another Al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, also known as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who is Al-Qaeda's No. 2 official and who has been viewed as a likely successor to Al-Zawahri.

The killing of Al-Raouf took place in the Andar district of the Ghazni province. This district, in the Taleban's Pashtun heartland, is almost completely controlled by the insurgent group.

If Al-Raouf was indeed under Taleban protection, it would be a flagrant violation of the Feb 29 agreement in Qatar between the Taleban and the United States that directed the Taleban to sever ties with the terrorist group.

Some counter-terrorism specialists also warned against overstating the importance of the death of Al-Raouf and other recent losses the group has suffered.

Some top American officials, including Mr Christopher Miller, head of the National Counter-terrorism Centre, have publicly asserted the end of Al-Qaeda is approaching.

"Abd-al-Ra'uf's demise is undoubtedly significant. He was a veteran jihadi, whose career began in the 1980s," Mr Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington, wrote in FDD's Long War Journal this week.

"He was a trusted subordinate for Zawahri and served Al-Qaeda in senior roles, including in its propaganda arm. But it is debatable whether his death, as well as other setbacks, add up to strategic losses for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere," Mr Joscelyn said.

Mr Joscelyn and UN counter-terrorism analysts warn that United States has underestimated Al-Qaeda's strength inside Afghanistan.

The UN counter-terrorism report released in July said that the terror group was "covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces", adding it most likely commands 400 to 600 fighters.

The report also said Al-Zawahri remained based in Afghanistan, although other counter-terrorism specialists assessed that he was hiding in neighbouring Pakistan.

More than 3,200km away, in north-west Syria, US military drones attacked insurgents linked to an Al-Qaeda affiliate there, Hurras al-Din, with two major strikes in the past two weeks.

Major Beth Riordan, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Central Command, said seven senior Al-Qaeda leaders were killed while holding a meeting on Thursday near Idlib.

"AQ-S takes advantage of the instability in north-west Syria to establish and maintain safe havens to coordinate terrorist activities," Maj Riordan said in an e-mail after the strike, using a military abbreviation for Hurras al-Din.

"The removal of these AQ-S leaders will disrupt the terrorist organisation's ability to further plot and carry out global attacks threatening US citizens, our partners and innocent civilians."

Just a week earlier, on Oct 15, several Al-Qaeda operatives were killed in a similar Hellfire missile drone strike, also near Idlib, Maj Riordan said without revealing more details.

Mr Charles Lister, director of the Middle East Institute's Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism Programmes, said one of those killed in the Oct 15 strike was Abu Mohammed al-Sudani, an Al-Qaeda veteran who had worked with and was close to both Osama bin Laden and Al-Zawahri.

The United States has no troops on the ground in north-west Syria, but the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command, with help from the CIA, is carrying out a shadow war against Hurras al-Din, a small but virulent Al-Qaeda affiliate that American officials say is plotting attacks against the West.

The two most recent strikes were carried with conventional Hellfire missiles equipped with an explosive warhead of about 9kg, military officials said.

Special Operations forces are also using a new Hellfire variant, called the R9X or the Ninja, to hunt individual Al-Qaeda leaders in places where the military is trying to avoid civilian casualties.

Instead of exploding, the modified Hellfire hurls about 45kg of metal through the top of a target's vehicle.

If the high-velocity projectile does not kill the target, the missile's other feature almost certainly does: six long blades tucked inside, which deploy seconds before impact to slice up anything in its path.

The centre of the latest drone strikes is Idlib province, whose population has ballooned to more than three million people during Syria's civil war.

It is home to violent Islamic extremist groups, dominated by the Al-Qaeda-linked organisation Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front.

Syrian military forces, backed by Iranian and Russian firepower, have targeted the group.

Hurras al-Din emerged in early 2018 after several factions broke away from the Nusra Front, which at least publicly has since distanced itself from Al-Qaeda's overall leadership.

Hurras al-Din is the successor to the Khorasan Group, a small but dangerous organisation of hardened senior Al-Qaeda operatives that Al-Zawahri sent to Syria to plot attacks against the West.

The Khorasan Group was effectively wiped out by a series of US airstrikes several years ago.

But with as many as 2,000 fighters, including seasoned leaders from Jordan and Egypt, Hurras al-Din is much larger and has operated in areas where Russian air defences, at least until recently, have largely shielded its members from American air strikes and the persistent stare of US surveillance planes.

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