After 12 years of American pressure, al-Qaida's core is, as President Barack Obama put it, "on the path to defeat." That's a good thing, but no one believes that crushing al-Qaida Central deep in its Pakistani sanctuary will mean the demise of the entire movement. Whether of necessity or as part of a deliberate strategy, al-Qaida has endorsed or adopted franchises across the Islamic world. Now American policymakers must assess the comparative danger posed by each of these and identify the most strategically significant ones.
Counterterrorism experts often rate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the most active and lethal of the franchises, given its history of attacking the Saudi and Yemeni regimes and Western targets in the region, as well as its support for terrorist strikes aimed at the United States. AQAP was reorganized into its current form in 2009 from a merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaida, but it can trace its roots to the 1990s, when a number of fighters returned to Yemen after helping expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. AQAP now focuses on exploiting instability in Yemen and consolidating its control over part of that nation. In addition, it actively recruits English-speaking Muslim youths and produces Inspire, an English-language propaganda magazine.
A second important franchise grew out of the insurgency and civil war in Iraq. After being decimated in 2006 and 2007 by the U.S. military, Iraqi security forces and local self-defense militias, this group appeared to be on the rocks. But it has lately undergone a renewal as it exploits the anger, fear and frustration felt by Sunni Arabs in Iraq dissatisfied with their role in a state politically dominated by Shiites. It has instigated a relentless wave of bloody bombings that has returned the country to a level of violence not seen since the surge of American forces in 2007.