By Ben Hubbard and Shreeya Sinha
May 28, 2014
In outlining his foreign policy priorities at the United States Military Academy on Wednesday, President Obama called on Congress to authorize up to $5 billion to support countries “on the front lines” in the fight against terrorism.
That approach is intended to address the decentralization of Islamic extremism over the last decade.
The Al Qaeda organization founded by Osama bin Laden still exists, but it has been supplanted as the world’s foremost jihadist force by a range of new groups across the Middle East and Africa.
Some of these groups have ties with Al Qaeda’s central leadership. Most make their own decisions, follow their own leaders, maintain independent sources of funding and focus more on waging local battles than on attacking the West.
Here is where some of the most important of these groups operate:
Al Qaeda’s Hot Spots
Countries where analysts say Al Qaeda or related groups have been known to operate. Militants control or have been active in areas around the cities shown.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
The remnants of Al Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, operate near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Analysts differ on Mr. Zawahiri’s influence over the affiliates, and American drone strikes have thinned the Qaeda leadership ranks and limited its ability to organize, move and communicate.
Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and North and West Africa are exerting growing influence in their regions, posing new challenges for American counterterrorism efforts. Their networks receive occasional ideological guidance from Mr. Zawahri, but they are increasingly focused on local and regional objectives, financed through activities like kidnapping-for-ransom operations. Some affiliates — particularly Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen — have sought to attack the United States directly.
The Syrian civil war has turned the country into the world’s largest magnet for international jihadists. Along with many Islamist rebel brigades, the country hosts two main extremist groups.
The Nusra Front, a Qaeda affiliate, says its priority is to topple President Bashar al-Assad. It has maintained close ties with other rebel groups, who respect its battlefield prowess.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is an expanded version of Al Qaeda in Iraq that controls a number of cities in northeastern Syria and western Iraq. Its brutal tactics alienated it from the Syrian rebel movement, as did the fact it has emphasized the establishment of an Islamic state over the fight against Mr. Assad. It was officially disowned by Al Qaeda in February.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is believed to maintain the closest ties with Al Qaeda and has been considered one of its most dangerous affiliates since it sought to attack Western targets and claimed credit for the failed effort on Dec. 25, 2009, to blow up an airliner approaching Detroit.
In Yemen, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, American drone strikes have had a devastating effect on the group’s ability to operate. The American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and other top leaders in the group have been killed. Still, American intelligence and military officials warn of increasing operational ties between the Qaeda franchise in Yemen and the Shabab, a militant group in Africa.
A range of extremist groups operate across North Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is known for suicide bombings and kidnappings and for its seizure of towns in Mali before being pushed out by French forces.
In Libya, Ansar al-Shariah led the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. In Egypt, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has carried out bombings and drive-by shootings targeting Egyptian security forces.
Boko Haram has waged an insurgency against the state in Nigeria, launching attacks that have killed thousands in recent years. The group recently gained international infamy — and a reprimand from other militant groups — after it kidnapped more than 250 schoolgirls, as discussed in the video. It is a cultlike Islamic extremist group with a reputation for capricious violence against civilians. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram has received help from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s affiliate in North and West Africa.
Until recently, the Shabab controlled significant territory in Somalia, but withdrew from major cities in the face of a military campaign by the African Union, Kenya and others. It has recently launched attacks aimed at punishing other states for their military presence in Somalia. These operations include the attack by Shabab gunmen last year on Westgate mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
The group came to prominence as a nationalist movement seeking to combat the United States-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. American counterterrorism officials have said the organization has collaborated with Boko Haram in Nigeria and Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and North Africa.
The United States Special Operations Command unit that has battled militants in Yemen has also carried out lethal drone strikes in Somaliaagainst the Shabab. The Times’s Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported in July 2011, that such efforts “represented an intensification of an American military campaign in a mostly lawless region where weak governments have allowed groups with links to Al Qaeda to flourish.”