It was one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s last victories. Just over a week before the al-Qaida leader was killed in Kabul by missiles fired from a US drone, militants from the organisation’s biggest affiliate in sub-Saharan Africa attacked the most important military base in Mali.
The tactics of the attack were familiar – suicide bombers blowing a gap in defences to allow gunmen to reached stunned defenders – but the operation marked a major escalation.
In more than a decade of insurgent warfare in Mali, al-Qaida had never struck any target of such significance nor so close to the capital, Bamako.
The attack on the base in Kati underlined the tenacity of the organisation in Africa and elsewhere despite decades of intense pressure from a US-led counter terrorist campaign and fierce rivalry from a breakaway faction that became the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis or IS).
“The international context is favourable to al-Qaida, which intends to be recognised again as the leader of global jihad,” a UN report compiled from intelligence supplied by members states said in July.
The attack in Mali last month was a vindication of Zawahiri’s 2011 decision to abandon the strategy of spectacular strikes against the west that had been favoured by his predecessor, Osama bin Laden. Instead, he directed al-Qaida’s regional commanders to seek gains locally, without being distracted by attempts to attack international aviation or bomb European cities.
The recent UN report warned that any territory carved out by al-Qaida or IS might be used as launchpads for such operations in the near future.
“The threat from IS and al-Qaida remains relatively low in non-conflict zones, but is much higher in areas directly affected by conflict or neighbouring it. Unless some of these conflicts are brought to a successful resolution … one or more of them will incubate an external operational capability for Isil [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], al-Qaida or a related terrorist group,” it said.
Progress made in Mali vindicated another part of Zawahiri’s strategy: to build grassroots support. The grievances of marginalised communities could be exploited, particularly where government was weak or predatory, he told leaders of affiliates after taking control of al-Qaida in 2011. Strong ties could be built with local actors through collaboration and even inter-marriage. If they used violence, affiliates needed to seek targets that would be seen as legitimate.
The strategy predated the rise of IS from 2014, but the success of the rival group added impetus. Where IS relied on fear and coercion to cow local populations, al-Qaida sought to appear as moderate in comparison.
Al-Qaida has suffered major setbacks – almost eliminated in Syria and Iraq and unable to compete with IS in some theatres, such as Nigeria and Egypt’s Sinai desert.
But in Africa particularly Zawahiri’s strategy has paid off. The late leader personally concluded an alliance with al-Shabaab, the extremist movement which controls much of Somalia’s rural areas and can field a force of thousands. In July 500 al-Shabaab fighters took on Ethiopian troops in an unprecedented cross-border incursion. The Somali affiliate is also wealthy enough to send millions of dollars to the al-Qaida central leadership, intelligence suggests.
Deep problems caused by competition for resources due to climate change, political instability, massive displacement of population and the recent withdrawal of French troops from Mali offer al-Qaida opportunities for further expansion, analysts say.
Al -Qaida’s affiliate in Mali, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), has been quick to exploit the presence of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company with links to the Kremlin hired to support the country’s embattled military.
Wagner has been repeatedly accused of systematic human rights abuses, including massacres of civilians, which turn local communities against the government and build support for extremists.
The attack on the Kati base outside Bamako was a response to governmental collaboration with the Wagner Group, JNIM said.
“We say to the Bamako government: if you have the right to hire mercenaries to kill the defenceless innocent people, then we have the right to destroy you and target you,” the group explained in a statement translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Gen Stephen J Townsend, commander of the US Africa Command, told reporters last week that JNIM were “on the march towards the south”.
“They are now nearly investing … Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, and they are starting operations now in the … border regions of the coastal states. So this is of great concern, I think, for the world that’s watching,” he said.
In north Africa, al-Qaida still has a presence but has been largely squeezed out of Libya and Tunisia as the chaos seen earlier in the decade has calmed.
Its affiliate in Yemen, though also weaker than before, still exists and has long been considered by western security experts a potential threat. Outside Africa, the biggest gains have been made in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban victory has very predictably strengthened al-Qaida’s hand … That is simply a fact,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, CEO of the US-based threat analysis firm Valens Global.
Al-Qaida has built deep relationships with key factions and senior members of the Taliban who, though divided, appear prepared to offer the group a safe haven on certain conditions. The house Zawahiri was living in with his family when he was killed was owned by an aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan interior minister.
Other prominent al-Qaida veterans are in Iran, where they fled in 2002 but are still active, despite restrictions on their movements and communications, reports suggest.
A challenge for the group is that many obvious heirs to al-Zawahiri have been killed, said Katherine Zimmerman, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
These include younger leadership candidates such as Hamza bin Laden, the founder’s son, who died in a drone strike in Pakistan between 2017 and 2019. Al-Qaida’s No 2 was killed in what is believed to be an operation by the Mossad in Tehran in 2020.
An important factor that may help al-Qaida is that the US and its allies are now focused elsewhere.
“We are not devoting that much attention … and the question at least here in DC is what would cause us to pivot away from Asia again?” said Zimmerman. “What would be the strategic distraction from our new China focus? Everyone says a major terror attack, but I’m not convinced actually that it would do it.”