• Ed Cullinane

Flight to Medina - A Second Coming of Al Qaeda?

On May 2nd 2011 the west’s most wanted man Osama Bin Laden was killed, and the world suddenly shifted. For over a decade his terror organization Al Qaeda (AQ) had not just been an enemy of the western world, but the enemy. Yet as we enter the 2020’s and look back on the decade we have just left, Bin Laden’s organization that was once so feared by the people of the west seems to have all but vanished. Instead we have spent the last six years hearing about a new actor on the world stage since their dramatic capture of Mosul in June 2014 ; the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh. In fact by 2015 most foreign policy analysts such as the Foreign Policy Research Institute were claiming that Al Qaeda would disband within the year. They were wrong. At a glance the rise of Daesh and the decline of AQ looks to be a relatively simple equation, with the media extensively designating AQ as a dead threat that had it’s crown taken from it as leader of the global Islamic Jihadist movement by the Islamic State. But as with most things, the reality on the ground paints a more complex picture; one of both conflict and cooperation between AQ and Daesh, and the existence of a deeper long term strategy enacted by AQ that may just put them on the front pages in this decade as they were in the early 2000’s. It might come as a surprise to some people to learn for example that in 2018 alone while the now deceased Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Daesh, did not appear even once in public or recorded video - the leader of Al Qaeda did no less than eight separate speeches to his followers. An undeniable sign of strength, not weakness. So what is this ‘long term strategy’? For Al Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri the path to final victory for the Jihadist movement was never a simple one. Alongside the philosophical leaders of the Salafist movement, he sees the struggle against the west as not a short fight, but a war of several phases inspired by Muhammad’s struggle at the very foundation of the Islamic faith. Of the three stages; Mecca, Medina & Mecca II, Zawahiri believes the struggle to have entered the second and more vulnerable stage “Medina”. But what does this mean? In 622AD the Prophet Muhammad fled from Mecca having failed to convert it’s people and having been threatened with death by the city’s leaders, he went to Medina instead where he gathered supporters and built an army that would go on to conquer Arabia and the city of Mecca itself within a decade. For Zawahiri, Al Qaeda has simply entered Medina to recover - and there has been no greater ‘shield’ to enable their recovery than Daesh. In rebelling against their former leaders in Al Qaeda, Daesh inadvertently has become the face of global Jihadism despite having only a small network and an unrealistic and naive approach to the conflict they entered. By fighting as a conventional army, they were destroyed piecemeal by Syrian, Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi forces, aided by western airstrikes and now have essentially ceased to exist. The reason this was a failed strategy is a story for another day, but by overshadowing Al Qaeda they have allowed the organization to retreat and rebuild while taking fire away from them - now Al Qaeda looks to be in an equally strong position to that they held in 2001 before 9/11. Evidence for this is compelling, with the recovery becoming visible as early as 2015. When Daesh tried to enter Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in 2015 for example one of their fighters was reported by the ‘Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Institute’ to have claimed that “what America and its agents could not do in 14 years, the Taliban did in 24 hours” following the AQ-aligned Taliban’s utter annihilation of Daesh in the region. Meanwhile in Yemen alone 10% of pro-Daesh forces defected to Al Qaeda in one month over December 2015. Since then there have been few if any attacks by AQ on the west, but a steady recovery of organizational infrastructure or even the expansion of AQ affiliated groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Formerly known as the ‘al-Nusra Front’ this group is an example of a new approach by AQ affiliates to ‘mask’ their allegiances and build powerful almost state-like organizations akin to the Taliban in several war-torn Muslim countries, another example being Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen. The reason for this approach has been accredited with lessons learned by al-Zawahiri while he led the Egyptian Islamic Group during his early career; the group being thrown out of Egypt due to a lack of popular support in a demonstration to him that success for Jihadist groups lies in maintaining support of the people. This is reflected in the policies enacted by the two aforementioned affiliates where Sharia Law in their territories was purposely not imposed immediately or too severely in both captured territories in Yemen and Syria to ease the local populations into the new status quo. New ‘state’ like institutions have even sprung up in Yemen, with an education system having been established along with a courts system to reflect a more ‘moderate’ approach to governance under AQ affiliates. Tying this together, it seems clear now more than ever that Al Qaeda has taken time and careful preparation to rebuild following the ‘War on Terror’ it faced during the early 2000’s. With Afghanistan still in an unstable balancing act, Syria still in conflict and Yemen having become a battleground of different regional powers, AQ has snuck down the middle and learned lessons of past conflicts waged by both themselves and Daesh and come out stronger. Now with Daesh gone and it’s remnants seeking new leadership following Baghdadi’s death, might they now turn to Zawahiri? And if so, might it be during this decade that Zawahiri and his new army leave Medina for Mecca?


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Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “More Islamic State Members Reject Governor of Yemen Province,” Long War Journal, December 28, 2015, available at http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/12/more-islamic-state-members-rejectgovernor-of-yemen-province.php

“Jihadist Gives Account of Afghan Taliban Nearly Eliminating IMU, Demands IS Address Happenings,” SITE Intelligence, December 11, 2015, available at https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/jihadist-gives-account-of-afghan-talibannearly-eliminating-imu-demands-is-address-happenings.html

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Zimmerman K. Statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on “The Persistent Threat: Al Qaeda’s Evolution and Resilience” [Internet]. American Enterprise Institute; 2017. Available from: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/HM/HM05/20170713/106235/HHRG-115-HM05-WstateZimmermanK-20170713.pdf

Ayesha Amr, “How al Qaeda Rules in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, October 28, 2015, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2015-10-28/how-al-qaeda-rules-yemen

Ed Cullinane

At the time of writing Ed Cullinane is a graduate of the University of Exeter where he studied Politics & International Relations. Areas that interest him in particular include strategic studies, military history and extremist political ideologies.