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Al-Qaida Today: Evolution Of A Terrorist Organization


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, the story of a group of African-American landscape painters known as "The Highwaymen." But first, how much of a threat is al-Qaida today?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's entirely consistent to say that this tightly organized and relatively centralized al-Qaida that attacked us on 9/11, has been broken apart and is very weak, and does not have a lot of operational capacity. And to say, we still have these regional organizations like AQAP; they can pose a threat.

LYDEN: That's President Obama, speaking at a press conference this week. To help us understand just how al-Qaida is operating, and what kinds of threats it poses, we talked with Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He's a foreign correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, reporting from the Middle East and North Africa. He joined us via Skype from Istanbul, and we asked him what al-Qaida looks like today.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, al-Qaida today kind of operates almost in - anywhere where you have a cell of - bunch of Jihadis. So you have al-Qaida from Mali to Yemen to Pakistan to Afghanistan and, of course, in Iraq and Syria. It's very, very decentralized, and that is far more dangerous - in my opinion - than al-Qaida of Sept. 11. Al-Qaida, Sept. 11 - you had bunch of guys sitting on top of a mountain, plotting to attack America.

Today, you have al-Qaida cells in the mountains of Yemen, in the alleyways of Aleppo, in the cities and the deserts of Iraq; and they have progressed. So the main idea, the main theme of al-Qaida is still, of course, is attacking America. But at the same time, they're trying to move forward, and establish a local governance and local franchises in the places where they are.

LYDEN: One place that the U.S. is most concerned about is al-Qaida activity in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - or AQAP. Now, this has been spreading, taking over entire Yemeni towns, trying to create new havens. How successful has al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula been?

ABDUL-AHAD: Very, very successful. They chose a part of Yemen that's very desolate, very rugged. In that part of Yemen, they've lost the towns they control, but they've never been, you know, been driven out of the mountains and the desert they control. And this is why I say it's very dangerous - because in one way, they still try to plot attacks on America. But at the same time, they have imposed their own moral codes, their own ideology on the local population.

LYDEN: As this is going to back alleys and in various towns and cities - places that you've been living, for example; Baghdad being one of them - how has the recruitment strategy changed?

Well, the recruitment ideology is the same, you know? I'm here in Istanbul, and I often meet people, like someone I met today who is Syrian, who was telling me how they've been betrayed by the wars. They feel let down in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. And look, al-Qaida comes to help us. Al-Qaida's fighting. The same thing in Yemen.

ABDUL-AHAD: This is a very brilliant strategy of al-Qaida. They use the local grievances against the local ruler, against the corruption, against whatever; and they use that as a recruiting method to, you know, recruit suicide bombers, recruit fighters, recruit members.

LYDEN: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. He joined us from Istanbul. Ghaith, thank you.

ABDUL-AHAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.