Al-Qaeda's murder of 2,977 people in the 11 September 2001 attacks, in which it effectively used three hijacked commercial jetliners as cruise missiles to strike the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and crashed a fourth in Pennsylvania, constituted the most lethal and spectacular terrorist operation in history. In the years following 9/11, al-Qaeda and its cognates tried in vain to match it with massive, indiscriminate attacks in Bali and Madrid, among other places. In fact, since US forces killed al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, prompting his replacement by the far less charismatic Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL – which arose from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) but declared its independence from al-Qaeda central – has eclipsed al-Qaeda as the world’s most disruptive and high-profile jihadist terrorist group. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda probably remains the largest and most widespread jihadist terrorist organisation. Al-Qaeda central is repelling the Islamic State’s challenge in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the main jihadist player in Yemen, where it controls large areas of coastline and much of the highway system. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) recently consolidated with several other highly active jihadist factions. Indeed, al-Qaeda overall appears to have exploited the Islamic State’s diversionary prominence and its claim on counter-terrorism resources to regroup. Now, with ISIS largely defeated in Iraq and Syria, al-Qaeda may be poised for a comeback.
In the past few weeks, the group has opportunistically asserted itself with respect to the Myanmar government’s brutal campaign against the country’s Rohingya people, a vulnerable, restive and mostly Muslim ethnic minority. Sparked by several attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants in late August, Myanmar’s actions have drawn condemnation from the United Nations and several humanitarian groups, which claim the measures taken amount to systematic collective punishment and ethnic cleansing, an assertion backed up by satellite imagery of burning villages. The Rohingya have periodically clashed with Myanmar’s Buddhist majority for years. Over 400,000 Rohingya have fled the country into Bangladesh in the last six weeks. This development has proven to be a propaganda coup and potential recruitment spur for al-Qaeda. In a 12 September statement, al-Qaeda called for all Muslims to defend the Rohingya, disparaging the government’s purported ‘fight against terrorism’, and exhorting ‘all mujahid brothers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma’ to secure the Rohingya’s rights ‘by force’. It remains uncertain how many jihadists will answer this call. But unless the international community adequately addresses the persecution of the Rohingya, the situation could drive the revival of Jemaah Islamiah, al-Qaeda’s once formidable affiliate in Southeast Asia, and more generally, is liable to energise al-Qaeda.