WASHINGTON — Al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain as much of a threat to the U.S. as “it has ever been” after the terrorist group rebuilt itself while the U.S. and other nations focused on destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a State Department official said Thursday.
“Al-Qaeda has been strategic and patient over the past several years,” Nathan Sales, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, said at a briefing in Washington. “It's let ISIS absorb the brunt of the world's counterterrorism efforts while patiently reconstituting itself. What we see today is an al-Qaeda that is as strong as it has ever been.”
The U.S. focused in recent years on wiping out Islamic State's territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq after the militant group seized a swath of territory across both countries from 2014. President Donald Trump said in February that the U.S. and its coalition partners liberated all of the ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq, though Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that thousands of fighters were going underground to regroup.
The U.S. and other nations are continuing to confront ISIS — an offshoot and rival of al-Qaeda — as it expands its global franchise and its message inspires other groups from Africa to the Philippines. In one of the deadlier recent attacks, more than 200 people, including as many as 30 foreigners, were killed in a series of coordinated explosions on Easter Sunday at churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka that were inspired by ISIS.
At the same time, Sales said, al-Qaeda remains potent. A car bombing by al-Qaeda-linked militants al-Shabab in July killed at least seven people in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. The group claimed responsibility for an attack on an upmarket hotel and office complex in Nairobi in January. And it still holds territory in northwest Syria.
“We see active and deadly al-Qaeda affiliates across the globe, including in Somalia, where al-Shabab commits regular attacks inside Somalia and also has begun to attack its neighbors as well, particularly Kenya,” Sales said.
Al-Qaeda is also present in Yemen, where it has taken advantage of the country's instability and lawlessness to plot and to train its fighters. The Yemeni affiliate of the group was behind the failed “underwear bomber” attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009.
Providing fertile ground for the terrorist group, large swaths of Yemen are effectively beyond the reach of the weak central government, and a Saudi-led alliance continues to fight a war there against Houthi rebels allied with Iran.
Nevertheless, the statement about al-Qaeda's strength may come as a surprise to people who thought the group was more isolated and under pressure since the killing of its founder Osama bin Laden in 2011. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Hamza bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden's favorite sons and a possible heir apparent to the al-Qaeda leadership, was killed at some point in the past two years.
“No one should mistake the period of relative silence from al-Qaeda as an indication that they've gotten out of the business,” Sales said. “They are very much in this fight and we need to continue to take the fight to them.”
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