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With All Eyes On ISIS, Al-Qaida Quietly Rebuilds


The Pentagon has announced that a U.S. airstrike killed one of the leaders of a shadowy al-Qaida cell known as the Khorasan group. The group is made up of about two dozen veteran operatives who were allegedly sent to Syria by the leader of al-Qaida to plan attacks against the West. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports that while ISIS is getting most of the headlines these days, al-Qaida appears to be organizing behind the scenes.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: For years now, some of al-Qaida's most seasoned operatives have been living in Iran. Osama bin Laden sent his family there right after the 9/11 attacks, and his closest confidants went with them. That is, until recently when al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri started moving these key people back out onto the battlefield.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: It sounds completely counterintuitive, but al-Qaida's been living large.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is the head of the National Security Program at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: They're letting, strategically, ISIS take all the heat, galvanize everyone's attention and they are, meanwhile, replenishing their ranks, growing and, I would argue, husbanding their resources for what they see as the next phase of the struggle.

TEMPLE-RASTON: One of the people who was supposed to help al-Qaida with that next phase was the Saudi man the Pentagon said it killed in an airstrike in Syria. His name was Sanafi al-Nasr, and he'd been funneling money and recruits to al-Qaida from Iran for more than a decade. He's thought to have shown up in Syria late last year. Zawahiri also enlisted another man who's better known. He's bin Laden's youngest son, Hamza bin Laden. He and Zawahiri appeared together in an audiotape back in August. Georgetown's Hoffman said it was a PR move.

HOFFMAN: Of course, with Hamza bin Laden, you have the best possible brand you could imagine. You have supposedly bin Laden's chosen heir.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A chosen heir whom Zawahiri appears to be grooming for a prominent position in today's or maybe tomorrow's core al-Qaida leadership. Intelligence officials say Zawahiri is also starting to move key people into Afghanistan and Pakistan, among them a former Egyptian army officer named Saif al-Adel.

SETH JONES: Saif al-Adel is a very important, strategic figure in al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Seth Jones. He's the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.

JONES: He's got a historical relationship with Ayman al-Zawahiri and he certainly did with Osama bin Laden and is someone whose credentials and charisma would help.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Help al-Qaida get back on its feet after a relentless drone campaign that hollowed out its leadership and help the group in its competition with ISIS. So now it appears al-Qaida's leadership is calling on people who are closely identified with the group's heyday, like bin Laden's son and one of its most popular operatives. RAND's Seth Jones says this falls into the group's pattern.

JONES: We look at snapshots when we look at al-Qaida. Some years, they're strengthening, and some years, they're weakening. But they have always been able to come back if given the opportunity.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which may explain why the U.S. has been so focused on al-Qaida's Khorasan group in Syria. Five of the group's key members have been killed in the past four months. In addition to this weekend's announced death, which al-Qaida has not yet confirmed, the U.S. said it killed the group's founder in northwestern Syria in July. Days later, an allied airstrike near Aleppo killed a French citizen, an explosives expert, who'd been a key member of the group. The problem, says Georgetown's Bruce Hoffman, is that al-Qaida keeps finding new people to fill those vacancies.

HOFFMAN: The bottom line is that al-Qaida has just always had a much deeper bench than we've ever imagined, and it has constantly been able to reinvent itself.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is why Hoffman says it still presents a significant threat and could still find a place in a post-ISIS world. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston develops programming focused on the news of the day and issues of our time.
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