Why you should care
Radical Islamists continue to threaten in many places, even though the U.S. has successfully beheaded much of al-Qaida’s original organization.
Is it ISIL or ISIS? That’s the debate consuming counterterrorism experts and Western media outlets as they try to write about the Islamic jihadi group currently running roughshod over huge swaths of Iraq and Syria. It comes down to how you translate the name from Arabic — as the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”
But that’s just the beginning when it comes to keeping track of the alphabet soup of al-Qaida groups that have sprouted up in the last decade. The groups’ extremist Sunni ideology has spread, tentacle-like, even as al-Qaida Central is on the run, fractured and weakened by U.S. drone strikes and the spectacular raid that took out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan three years ago. They’re taking root in lawless pockets of the globe across the Middle East and into Africa.
Al-Qaida’s extremist Sunni ideology has spread, tentacle-like, to lawless pockets of the globe.
Here’s a quick primer on who these extremist groups are and why, even as we try to keep Iraq from crumbling, we need to keep an eye on the threats in Yemen and across North Africa:
Date of al-Qaida affiliation: 2004
Provenance: Iraq and Syria
Most famous member: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
The group was formed in the depths of the Iraq war in 2004 by the extremist Sunni kingpin Zarqawi to go after U.S. coalition forces fighting in the country, and was behind countless attacks on American and Iraqi targets, even after Zarqawi himself was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
ISIL was eventually neutralized by a coalition of moderate Iraqi Sunnis — dubbed the “Sunni Awakening” — and a surge of American forces, but was never completely eliminated. And with the civil war in Syria creating a power vacuum, ISIL has enjoyed a resurgence. Too much so, in fact, for al-Qaida’s central leadership, which disowned the group earlier this year for trying to supplant another affiliate, the Nusra Front, on the Syrian battlefield.
That hasn’t halted the group’s rise, which was punctuated with their bold march into northern Iraq two weeks ago. Now the region and the West are scrambling to help the Iraqi government — brought into power thanks to the U.S. invasion — stop ISIL from taking down the whole country.
Date of al-Qaida affiliation: 2009
Most famous member: Anwar al-Awlaki
Until ISIL’s splashy invasion of Iraq, American counterterror experts considered al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the most worrisome of the group’s global affiliates, because unlike many overseas extremists, they’ve proven to have both the interest and the ability to launch attacks against the United States. That includes the failed underwear-bombing attempt aboard a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009.
The United States controversially took out al-Awlaki, an American citizen and the group’s chief propagandist, in a 2011 airstrike. But that hasn’t diminished the threat. The State Department temporarily closed a handful of embassies last August due to warnings of a potential AQAP attack.
Date of al-Qaida affiliation: 2006
Provenance: Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger
Most famous member: Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka Mr. Marlboro)
Al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has deep roots in the insurgency fighting Algeria’s authoritarian regime. But it really caught Western attention in 2012, when the extremist group and its allies wrested control of much of northern Mali, taking advantage of the political chaos that ensued after a military coup in Bamako. It took French ground troops aided by U.S. and other military assistance to force them back, but they still have strongholds in some of the most remote parts of this desert region and take advantage of North Africa’s porous borders.
The one-eyed Belmokhtar, a man of many nicknames, split from AQIM in the fall of 2012 to form his own terrorist cell, al-Mulathamun Battalion, which was responsible for the siege of the In Amenas oil facility in southern Algeria in 2013 that killed dozens of foreign workers.
AQIM itself coordinates with and supports other smaller regional groups that have launched attacks in Mali and other parts of West Africa, terrorist organizations with names like Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al-Dine (AAD).
Think it’s hard to keep all of these groups and their acronyms straight? Just think how the Western security officials trying to track their ever-shifting permutations and alliances must feel!