Victims’ families and residents look at one of the two memorial pools that cover the space, where once the Twin Towers stood (photo: Farhad Peikar )
Visiting Lower Manhattan in New York City, one can hardly see traces of the World Trade Center site where once stood the iconic Twin Towers, which were dramatically leveled in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Three new skyscrapers soaring upwards have replaced the twins, including the One World Trade Center that at 541 meters is the tallest building in North America. Two more high-rise towers are expected to be completed in the next five years, while a state-of-the-art transportation hub is already open to the public.
With the completion of two memorial pools, covering the space where the Twin Towers once stood, and the opening of a memorial museum, the 9/11 attacks have already become part of distant memory, gradually sliding aside other historical events, such as the Pearl Harbor attack by Imperial Japanese forces in 1941.
It is not only the Ground Zero site that is drifting into history: in the minds of many ordinary Americans, the event itself and the subsequent “war on terror” have also become remnants of the past.
On the national security side, the US government has continued to be on high alert and has expanded its global security reach to try and defuse any possible terrorist attacks against its territories.
The US radar over the world is still in operation, but it is no longer the al-Qaeda network in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region or its associates, like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, that are on the top US watch-list. The US and its Western allies have increased their focus on the Middle East in order to turn the tide of war against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, that now controls a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria. Just earlier this week, the New York City Police Chief Bill Bratton told the hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security that more than 20 terror plots have been foiled in New York since September 2001 and that the risk of another devastating attack by radicalized supporters of Islamic State group was “greater than ever.”
Is al-Qaeda dead in Af-Pak region?
The war on terror that began when the US invaded Afghanistan was considered complete following the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks in the US, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives. Since then, al-Qaeda as a group has been severely weakened in Afghanistan, and according to many Western officials, only a small number of its operatives are still actively militant in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In an interview with Al Jazeera English’s UpFront show on Thursday, former President Hamid Karzai also cast doubt on al-Qaeda’s strength in his country, saying its presence in Afghanistan was a “myth”. “I have not seen them and I’ve not had any report about them, any report that would indicate that Al Qaeda is operating in Afghanistan.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan, succeeded bin Laden as the new emir of al-Qaeda and has vowed to wage war against the US. Yet despite many unsuccessful attempts, al-Qaeda has been unable to carry out any attacks inside the US in the past 14 years. A large number of al-Qaeda’s top to mid-level leaders have either been killed or detained by the US-led coalition forces after they ousted the Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001. Fearing the US drones strike, a number of al-Qaeda leaders, mainly Arab nationals, who initially fled to Pakistan, left the region for their origins in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
ISIS overtakes Al-Qaeda in MENA region
There are many groups in the MENA region, including the al-Nusra Front in Syria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahara and Sahel and Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - all allegedly linked to al-Qaeda’s core command in Af-Pak region. However, while all these groups pose transnational terror threats, there is no coordination in their activities or central command or control structure.
A number of al-Qaeda top commanders in the MENA region have severed ties with the group and have instead sworn loyalty to Islamic State. The emergence of Islamic State and its robust presence on social media networks has attracted large numbers of radicalized youth militants and as a result further overshadowed al-Qaeda’s prominence in the MENA region.
Threat of al-Qaida still lingers
While there seems to be a consensus on al-Qaeda’s growing weakness in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is no guarantee that the group will not regroup and revive after the withdrawal of foreign forces. The US currently has around 9,800 troops in Afghanistan assisting Afghan forces in training and in combating Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other extremist uprisings. The US however is also scheduled to pull out all its troops from the country by the end of 2016 - unless Washington changes the withdrawal timetable and extends the mandate of its troops in the face of the growing recent insurgency.
The death of the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the emergence of Islamic State cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan - as well as the approaching withdrawal date for US troops - have already encouraged Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders to publicly voice unison and common cause.
Last month, al-Zawahiri issued a statement announcing his loyalty to the Taliban’s new emir or “Commander of the Faithful”, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. In return, Mullah Mansour accepted al-Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance and in a statement posted on the Taliban’s official website, Voice of Jihad, thanked him and the fighters he commands for their pledge.
This public declaration of ties has come as a surprise because, for many years, the Taliban leadership tried to portray a national image of their struggle and attempted to distance themselves from the global cause that al-Qaeda has been pursuing. The Taliban never abandoned al-Qaeda publically, but it rarely mentioned any partnership with the group in its statements, leading some to believe that the Taliban had severed ties with al-Qaeda and could be incorporated into the Afghan government through peace negotiations.
Mansour’s decision to appoint Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operational leader of the Haqqani network, is further proof of the Taliban's and al-Qaeda’s cooperation. Based on documents found in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, Sirajuddin Haqqani had close ties with al-Qaeda and was working closely with bin Laden’s lieutenants.
Mansour’s public intimacy with al-Qaeda might stem from his fear about the Islamic State’s growing influence in the region or it might be part of efforts to gain a stronger perch in the ongoing struggle between Taliban leaders over Mullah Omar’s successor. Irrespective of the reason, the new developments indicate that al-Qaeda still has the potential to retain a foothold in the future post-NATO Afghanistan.