Al Qaeda’s core leadership, the so-called Al Qaeda Central under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, is based in various hideouts in Pakistan’s far north, next to the border with Afghanistan. From these inaccessible areas governed by fiercely independent tribes, Al Qaeda leaders maintain links with militant groups that fight under their banner in various parts of the world.
Al Qaeda’s organization appears to be relying increasingly on its affiliates in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, which combine armed struggle against local authorities with Al Qaeda’s vision of a global jihad against Western targets.
Local commanders pledge their loyalty to Al Qaeda Central, in exchange for guidance and support, but enjoy considerable autonomy in their day-to-day activities.
Al Qaeda Affiliates in the Arab World:
- Presence: Tribal areas of Yemen’s south and east, able to strike in major urban areas.
- Leadership & Organization: Nasir al-Wahayshi heads the core group of Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, attracting the remnants of Saudi militant cells. Abu Hamza al-Murqoshi is believed to lead Ansar al-Sharia, an AQAP-affiliate that functions as an armed militia.
- Biggest attacks: Bomb attack in the capital Sana’a killed almost 100 soldiers in May 2012. In the same month, an attempt to bomb a US-bound plane was thwarted.
- Recent activities: In Summer 2011, Ansar al-Sharia took advantage of unrest in Yemen to establish Islamic emirates in Yemen’s south-east. Yemeni army recovered most of the territory by July 2012, but militants continue to target government officials and security forces.
- Presence: Majority Sunni-populated areas of north-west Iraq, particularly in the Anbar province and the city of Mosul.
- Leadership & Organization: 2005 merger united the main Sunni jihadist groups fighting US forces under the ISI umbrella. Remnants of these groups are being joined by new local recruits, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
- Biggest attacks: Coordinated wave of attacks across Iraq killed more than 100 people on 23 July 2012.
- Recent activities: At least one sophisticated and deadly attack a month since the withdrawal of US troops in December 2011. ISI specializes in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs to target government officials and security forces. Since 2012, it is believed to be extending its operations into Syria.
- Presence: From its original base in Algeria, AQIM extends its operations across Africa’s Sahel region, along the borders of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
- Leadership & Organization: Origins lie in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which fought the Algerian state in late 1990s. GSPC remnants under the command of Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud have entered alliances with various militant and criminal groups active in the Sahel desert.
- Biggest attacks: 2007 bomb attack on United Nations offices in Algiers. Failed plot in January 2012 to attack US or European ships in Mediterranean.
- Recent activities: AQIM generates substantial revenue through kidnappings of European tourists and smuggling operations, which it uses to fund attacks against Algerian and Mauritanian forces. As of 2012, AQIM and its affiliates are believed to be establishing a safe haven in northern Mali, a large area taken over by local Tuareg rebels.
- Presence: Militants with links to Al Qaeda play a key role in the armed struggle against Syrian government forces, with a notable presence on all major battlefields in the country.
- Leadership & Organization: Nusra Front is a mix of Sunni militants from Iraq, local Syrian recruits and jihadists from various Muslim countries. It operates independently, though it often enters tactical alliances with other rebel groups.
- Recent activities: Nusra Front is part of the rebel force that has captured roughly half of Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital. It is believed to be behind regular bomb attacks in the capital Damascus.