Although the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, marked a triumphant day for the United States, the death of the charismatic leader of al-Qaeda did not mark the end of his terrorist organization.

Al-Qaeda continues to operate globally and still poses a severe threat to international and homeland security. Of particular interest to the United States is how al-Qaeda has exploited the political weakness and instability in the horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula:

Terrorist organizations need several things to be effective: an ideological platform, financial wherewithal, and physical space to train, equip, and plan operations. Counter-terrorism efforts focus on denying both financial support and physical space, while simultaneously attempting to undermine terrorist ideology.

During the past two decades, the shifting organizational structure within terrorist organizations, from large units to smaller more autonomous cells, has made their identification and targeting more difficult. These cells and their networks operate globally. Therefore, counter-terrorism efforts must be global.

Effectively targeting cells requires an understanding of what conditions a terrorist organization is likely to prosper in. These conditions include corruption, lack of economic prosperity, and a weak central government. Corruption, whether sanctioned culturally or governmentally, allows terrorists to pay for operational freedom. Lack of economic prosperity — generally coupled with a lack of education — allows terrorists to exploit the local population. Finally, a weak central government is an invitation for terrorist organizations to take advantage of and gain a foothold within a country.

While these conditions are not required for terrorist groups or cells to exist — after all, many terrorist cells operate within stable, prosperous countries — they allow for a better incubation, and thus increased effectiveness, of a terrorist organization.

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Of particular concern to us will be Somalia and Yemen.

Al-Qaeda’s connection to Yemen, through the bin Laden family, began before the terrorist organization even took shape: The bin Laden family hails from southern Yemen. It moved to Saudi Arabia in the 20th century, where the family made its fortune in construction.

Osama bin Laden would further the ties with his home country by taking a Yemeni bride as his fifth wife. Despite these connections, al-Qaeda did not use Yemen as its original base of operation; it, instead, for most of the 1990s, chose Sudan. Sudan offered a familiar Arab-Sudanese culture and, after the Islamist military coup of 1989, a conducive environment to carry out terrorist operations from. Though much of the work in transforming Sudan into an Islamist state was carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, Osama bin Laden was a prominent figure in the process.

Al-Qaeda fighters in Somalia.

Bin Laden reportedly bought access to government officials and established 23 training camps in Sudan. In return, bin Laden undertook to complete a series of construction projects that Arab governments had left uncompleted. He also provided tens of millions of dollars in emergency assistance to the Sudanese government.

At the time, Sudan provided the necessary conditions wherein al-Qaeda could successfully expand: corruption, an impoverished population, and a weak government. However, these conditions were relative and fluid and bin Laden’s relationship with the Sudanese government was not to last. He was expelled in 1996 due to political infighting. Al-Qaeda would then move its operation to the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Before the rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan was divided with various warlords controlled parts of the country through violence. The Taliban succeeded in bringing a sense of stability and reigning over the local warlords. The Afghani population, tired from years of unrest, embraced the Taliban and the semblance of control they brought.

Yet, not being an altruistic movement, the Taliban eventually resolved into violently enforcing their laws on the population. Nevertheless, they maintained control over much of the population and territory of Afghanistan. This allowed them to sanction al-Qaeda’s operations, planning, and training facilities within the country.

From Afghanistan, with cooperation from cells outside the country, al-Qaeda was able to launch its successful 9/11 terrorist attacks. After the resultant U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, terrorist operations within the country were disrupted. Thus, al-Qaeda’s leaders were sent into hiding. A new area of operations now needed to be found.  

The collapsed state of Somalia seemed to be a prime destination for al-Qaeda to relocate to. Somalia was formed in 1960 from the unification of British controlled Somaliland in the northwest and Italian controlled Somalia in the southeast — the two constituent parts having just gained their independence. A military coup in 1969, by Mohammed Siad Barre, established the Barre regime.  Although Somalia was hardly a prosperous country under Barre’s regime, the country’s deterioration into utter violence and chaos began in 1991 with his overthrow. 

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Somalia was then fragmented as various groups, many with clan affiliations declared their independence. The resultant map was that of a disjointed and broken country with disproportionately held resources and disputed territory. Subsequent occupation, civil wars, and ineffective governments propped up by the international community have left Somalia divided, disrupted, and the area of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

Since 2000, Somalia has played host to a variety of transnational authorities. Despite years of negotiations between various actors, a strong central government has yet to be established. While the lack of leadership has a destabilizing effect regionally, it also creates ideal conditions for terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda.

In conclusion, we can see that al-Qaeda has been adept at parasitically exploiting failing or failed states, like Somalia and Yemen, which are characterized by a weak or non-existent central government, widespread poverty, and corruption. It then uses them as incubation grounds to operate in and export its terror from.