By Scott Stewart
The first two parts of this series established the benchmarks we would use to assess the current state of the jihadist movement. This week, we will define the movement and begin to evaluate its various elements.
Defining the Jihadist Movement
The jihadist movement is often portrayed in the press as a monolithic entity, with the entire movement frequently referred to as "al Qaeda" or "al Qaeda-linked militants." In reality the jihadist movement is far more complex. This is why we have titled this series "Gauging the Jihadist Movement" and not simply "Gauging al Qaeda."
As previously discussed, there are a number of jihadist actors and groups, and many of them hold to different religious doctrines and operational tenets. For example, some groups tend to be more nationalistic in nature, such as the Afghan Taliban, while others are more transnational, such as the al Qaeda core. And there is a range of groups with beliefs that fall between these two extremes. Even al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the jihadist franchise group most closely aligned with the al Qaeda core, has conducted terrorist attacks against local and regional targets in addition to transnational targets.
But target selection and the types of attacks employed are not the only differences. Some groups believe in the practice of takfir, or declaring another Muslim to be an unbeliever, while other groups refute takfir as un-Islamic. Some jihadist groups actively attack Shiite and Sufi Muslims while other groups will cooperate with Shiite, Sufi or even secular militant groups fighting for the same cause. There are also differences between groups regarding how Sharia should be administered in areas conquered by jihadist groups.
We refer to these regional groups that have sworn loyalty to al Qaeda as "franchise groups" because, while they do use the widely recognized transnational brand name, they are very much locally owned and operated. But even among the declared al Qaeda franchise groups, there can be differences in operational doctrine.
In Syria, we have seen these differences among jihadist franchise groups erupt into contention and even armed conflict. This situation has also resulted in open defiance to directives from the al Qaeda core leadership. One al Qaeda franchise group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has continued attempts to subsume another Syrian al Qaeda franchise group, Jabhat al-Nusra, even after al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant to confine its efforts to Iraq and allow Jabhat al-Nusra to maintain responsibility for Syria.
In Algeria, the differences between different factions within the franchise group have caused members of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat to defect to the government and Mokhtar Belmokhtar to break off and form his own separate jihadist group, the Mouthalimeen (Arabic for "masked") Brigade.
Additionally, not all jihadists are members of hierarchical groups. They may sympathize or associate with a group, attend a training camp and perhaps even fight with a group but not be formal members of the group. For many years there have been such "free radicals" orbiting within and around the jihadist movement. At Stratfor, we refer to such individuals as grassroots jihadists.
As noted last week, there has also been an effort in recent years to encourage such grassroots jihadists living in the West to adopt a leaderless resistance model and operate as lone wolves or form phantom cells with no overt connection to a jihadist group. However, true lone wolf or phantom cell operations require a uniquely disciplined and driven individual, and most individuals considered lone wolves are later found to have some degree of contact with a jihadist group.
Such contact can range from email discussions and financial support provided to a jihadist group in such cases as that of Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan to some level of training as in the case of Little Rock shooter Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad to training and funding from a jihadist group such as that received by Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. Sometimes groups will consider grassroots operatives as expendable drones they can manipulate, equip and send on a suicide mission, like would-be Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
So when we are seeking to assess the status of the jihadist movement, we need to consider three distinct levels of actors: the transnational al Qaeda core; regional jihadist groups (many of which are al Qaeda franchise groups); and the grassroots jihadists. As discussed over the past two weeks, we will be analyzing the current state of these elements of the jihadist movement using their objectives and insurgent and terrorist theory as our benchmarks.
As we have discussed for many years now, despite repeated (and ultimately impotent) threats from al Qaeda leaders of impending attacks that would surpass 9/11, the main threat from the jihadist movement has shifted from one emanating from the core group to one arising primarily from the franchise groups and grassroots. Indeed, as early as January 2006 we noted that al Qaeda had lost its ability to pose a strategic threat to the United States, and in July 2007 we strongly disagreed with a National Intelligence Estimate that assessed al Qaeda as having regenerated to a point of being stronger than ever, countering with our assessment that the al Qaeda core had been significantly weakened and did not pose a strategic threat to the U.S. homeland.
When we look at the al Qaeda core in relation to its goals and objectives of establishing emirates and eventually re-establishing the caliphate, the al Qaeda core has clearly failed. Indeed, the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks caused the United States to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the one existing jihadist emirate, so following 25 years of armed struggle, al Qaeda is no closer to achieving its objectives than when it began.
In terms of insurgent theory, the al Qaeda core leadership held a focoist view that they could act as a global vanguard and employ violence to establish the conditions necessary for a global uprising in the Muslim world. Again, however, while some groups and individuals have heeded al Qaeda's call to battle, it has been far from a global uprising. Indeed, most of the groups we refer to as al Qaeda franchises were pre-existing Islamist or jihadist organizations that have assumed al Qaeda's name. For example, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat assumed the name al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in September 2006.
Despite decades of effort, jihadist insurgents have not had much success in overthrowing existing regimes in the Muslim world. While there were jihadist elements involved in the string of so-called Arab Spring revolutions that ran from Tunisia to Syria, the jihadists were never really responsible for launching the revolutions. Even in places where they have benefited from a revolution and the subsequent vacuum of state authority, such as in Syria and Libya, it was more a case of their taking advantage of the situation than being the driving factor in the uprising. The same can be said for the civil war in Yemen, the coup in Mali and the decades of chaos wracking Somalia, which have provided jihadist militants with anarchic and permissive environments to thrive in.
Indeed, due to their inability to overthrow regimes in the Muslim world, jihadist groups have focused much of their insurgent efforts on such chaotic environments, hoping to repeat the success of the Taliban amid the mayhem and lawlessness in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Yet even in tumultuous locations such as Yemen, northern Mali and Somalia, the jihadists have not been able to achieve significant and lasting success in holding territory and establishing emirates.
The U.S. government and its allies have focused on denying the jihadists the ability to establish a sanctuary with the resources of an entire state, and the lack of success in the jihadist movement's insurgent operations is directly due to these efforts. In places like Yemen, Mali and Somalia, when jihadists have made some progress toward establishing a state, Western militaries have become more actively, if not directly, involved in operations that have countered that progress.
On the terrorism front, we have seen the jihadist movement devolve into early al Qaeda or even pre-al Qaeda operational models. They have not been able to send highly trained facilitators to mobilize and equip local cells, as we saw in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, or deploy professional teams of skilled operators like those seen in the 9/11 attacks. Instead, the al Qaeda core has been reduced to little more than a propaganda organization operating in the ideological battlefield while franchise groups have taken the lead in the physical struggle.
The regional groups have been able to adopt hierarchical structures in their areas of operation but have been unable to extend these organizations to project power very far outside their core areas. Furthermore, many of the franchise groups have not sought to conduct transnational attacks either due to lack of capability or lack of interest. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb initially adopted a targeting philosophy similar to that of the al Qaeda core, but its large suicide bombings inside Algeria provoked a backlash from the more nationalist elements of the organization, and it soon reverted to attacks and targets more like those it had previously conducted as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Even a group like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has sought to conduct regional attacks like the assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and transnational attacks such as the Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomb attack, has been forced to conduct such attacks by dispatching bombers from its own base of operations in Yemen rather than by sending operatives to Saudi Arabia and the West to plan and execute attacks.
This is not only because they lack the ability to dispatch well-trained operatives in the face of the increased intelligence and security programs in the post-9/11 world. Before 9/11, al Qaeda and the jihadists were a priority for the U.S. government, but they were merely one of many priorities. After 9/11 they quickly became the primary target for all facets of American counterterrorism efforts — military, intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy and finance. These counterterrorism efforts have resulted in the deaths and arrests of many jihadists and have also greatly impacted their training, communication, travel and fundraising networks.
All of the franchise groups possess the capability to conduct insurgent and terrorist attacks in their core areas of operation, but very few possess the capability to project military power beyond these areas. It has been more than three years since a franchise group has attempted a significant attack in the West. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's printer bomb attempt was in October 2010, and the failed Times Square bombing attempt, which was linked to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, was in May 2010 — and both of those plots failed. This long-term lack of success in attacking the West has resulted in some within the jihadist movement calling for grassroots jihadists to adopt a leaderless resistance model.
Although badly damaged, al Qaeda has thus far managed to survive the focused and prolonged assault against it. The violent ideology it promotes has also survived. If pressure on the al Qaeda core were eased, it is possible that it could recover some of its pre-9/11 power, but there are now other challenges that it will have to deal with. First, through the Arab Spring, democratic forces in the Muslim world have shown that they can produce the mass uprisings necessary to overthrow oppressive regimes. Jihadism is no longer seen as the only response to oppression — there are other, more effective solutions to create change. Second, there are other leaders in the jihadist realm who have arguably grown more powerful and influential than the al Qaeda leadership. These two factors, plus attacks by Muslim religious leaders against the theology of jihadism, may ultimately prove more dangerous to the al Qaeda core than the U.S.-led campaign against the group.
The next installment of this series will assess the current status of the most significant regional or franchise jihadist groups and the grassroots movement.