But the distinction between “core” al Qaeda and the affiliates has always been an empty one. All of the official al Qaeda affiliates—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Shabaab in Somalia—have sworn an oath of loyalty (bayah) to Ayman al Zawahiri. Earlier this year, the head of the Al Nusrah Front in Syria reaffirmed his oath of loyalty as well. This is no small matter. It means that these groups are committed to following Zawahiri’s orders and pursuing al Qaeda’s strategic vision, which goes far beyond attacking America.
In practice, it is of course impossible for Zawahiri to manage the day-to-day operations of the affiliates. But he does not need to—decentralization is a source of organizational strength, not weakness. If one head of the jihadist hydra is cut off, others live to fight another day. Still, there is abundant evidence that al Qaeda’s senior leadership communicates with, and sets the agenda for, the affiliates. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders also rely upon loyal followers who will advance the organization’s cause even absent day-to-day guidance.
Consider just some of the terrorists who run al Qaeda’s operations outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Headquartered in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by Nasir al Wuhayshi, a terrorist who served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp for several years prior to 9/11. Wuhayshi was bin Laden’s protégé and remained loyal to the al Qaeda master even through the darkest times, including the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, when all could have been lost. Bin Laden later returned the favor, rejecting a plea by some AQAP members to replace Wuhayshi as their leader with Anwar al Awlaki, the charismatic al Qaeda ideologue who has since been killed in a drone strike. Some of Wuhayshi’s lieutenants also served al Qaeda in Afghanistan well before the 9/11 attacks. And together they are advancing al Qaeda’s global jihadist agenda, simultaneously fighting for territory inside Yemen while overseeing plots against the United States.
By what standard is Wuhayshi today not a core member of al Qaeda? Is the reason simply that he lives in Yemen, and not Afghanistan or Pakistan?