By Scott Stewart
In part one of this series, we examined the goals of the jihadist movement to understand their standard for measuring progress. In part two, we surveyed insurgent and terrorist theory to see how they could be used to help measure the progress of the various actors of the jihadist movement. Then in part three, we defined the distinct actors comprising the jihadist movement and provided our current assessment of the al Qaeda core. Last week, we provided our current assessment of the major franchise and regional jihadist groups as well as grassroots jihadists.
This week we will look at the current assessments of the al Qaeda core, the franchise and regional groups and the grassroots jihadists to draw out the implications they present for security forces and ordinary citizens.
Defining the Battlefield
First, it is important to understand that at its heart, the battle against jihadism is essentially an ideological battle. Military, law enforcement, intelligence, financial and diplomatic tools can be used to contain or reduce the power and reach of particular jihadist groups on the physical battlefield. However, as long as the jihadist ideology persists and continues to attract adherents faster than they can be killed or arrested, it will not be possible to end the jihadist threat using traditional counterterrorism programs. An ideological solution is necessary.
While some Western governments and individuals have attempted to wage ideological war against jihadism, non-Muslims really have no standing on the ideological battlefield. It is a battle that must be waged by Muslims. With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the pending drawdown in Afghanistan, many of the arguments for defensive jihad will be nullified. Instead, jihadists in most places, including Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, are conducting most of their fighting against fellow Muslims. Indeed, over the past decade, jihadists have killed far more Muslims in terrorist and insurgent attacks than they have non-Muslims. This fact, along with the manner in which jihadists have governed areas under their control in places such as Yemen, Mali, Somalia and Syria, has been working to undermine the jihadist ideology and to show Muslims that jihadist rule will not produce paradise on earth.
Weakness Is Not Necessarily Permanent
Our assessment of the al Qaeda core is that it has been weakened to the point of military irrelevance and dwindling ideological clout. As we noted in June, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has lost control of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — a clear reflection of the al Qaeda core's organizational irrelevance to the rest of the jihadist movement. If al-Zawahiri and the other core leaders were taken out tomorrow, the broader jihadist movement would barely be affected.
That said, this state of irrelevance is not necessarily permanent. The al Qaeda franchise groups in Iraq and Yemen have rebounded and regained strength after experiencing substantial losses on the battlefield. These two resilient organizations are now the strongest al Qaeda franchise groups in the world. They owe their recovery to a variety of factors, including strong, effective leadership, favorable local conditions, prison escapes and access to weapons and funding.
The United States has employed all the contents of its counterterrorism toolbox against the al Qaeda core for more than 12 years, but if Washington reduced that pressure, and if the al Qaeda core leadership found some space to operate, it is possible that the group could begin to regain strength. Currently, the insular and irascible al-Zawahiri apparently constrains the core group's regeneration because he lacks the charisma and larger-than-life presence of Osama bin Laden — not to mention bin Laden's personal wealth and connections. In fact, al-Zawahiri was not even a very effective leader of his own group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which languished and split before al-Zawahiri and his loyalists were absorbed into al Qaeda. Given space and opportunity, it is possible that a more effective leader could emerge in place of al-Zawahiri, but at the present time, there is no sign of such a leader, and it appears that the al Qaeda core will continue to decline.
Capitalizing on Geopolitical Struggles
Since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, jihadists have greatly benefitted from being pawns in larger geopolitical struggles. We see this occurring with the Taliban, which the government of Pakistan has sheltered from U.S. military power so that Islamabad can continue to use the group as a proxy to ensure a pro-Pakistan Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal. The Pakistanis are terrified of being caught between a hostile India and an either pro-India or aggressive Afghanistan. They believe their western neighbors provide strategic depth against the threat from India and therefore want to ensure a friendly Afghan government.
One of the main factors that have helped foster the resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is the geopolitical struggle between Sunni and Shiite powers now taking place in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Rather than completely destroy the Islamic State of Iraq following the Anbar Awakening, some Sunni tribal sheikhs decided to allow the jihadist group to survive so that it could be used against the surging Shiite power in the country.
Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries have also supported jihadist groups in Syria and Lebanon in an effort to combat the al Assad regime and Hezbollah, both of which are Iranian allies. This largesse has not only led to the growth of jihadist groups in Lebanon and Syria but has also served as a boon to the Islamic State of Iraq, which has been able to expand and evolve into the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The rise of jihadists in Syria was an important factor in the Obama administration's decision against attacking and weakening the al Assad regime further after it crossed the "red line" by using chemical weapons. Permitting the al Assad regime to survive and continue to fight against the jihadists in Syria will give the United States some time to plan on what course of action it wants to take to counter the jihadists' gains toward the establishment of an emirate in Syria.
Scope of Violence
Currently, most of the violence perpetrated by jihadist groups remains confined to their primary areas of operation, with some limited overflow into other countries in their core regions — e.g., Boko Haram kidnappings in Cameroon near the Nigerian border or low-level al Shabaab attacks in places such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Even groups with the intent to attack the United States and the West will continue to struggle to achieve success at a distance due to their limited tradecraft and capabilities.
While some groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have long financed themselves by kidnapping-for-ransom, other groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Boko Haram are increasingly adopting the tactic. The millions of dollars these jihadist groups make from kidnappings will continue to be a critically important source of revenue as other sources dry up. Other illegal activities such as smuggling and extortion will also become increasingly important as funds dwindle. These kinds of criminal enterprises enable the groups to finance their activities, but they also divert attention and personnel away from other militant activity.
The jihadist groups will also continue their attempts to encourage grassroots jihadists to conduct independent attacks, invariably in places where the groups are weak and have no capability to conduct effective attacks. Hard-line groups will certainly attempt to use any grassroots jihadists from the West who approach them, turning such individuals around to conduct attacks against Western targets. Fortunately, most Western jihadists are more focused on fighting jihad in Syria or Somalia than conducting attacks in Seattle, at least for now.
Overall, while the jihadists will continue their insurgencies and terrorist attacks, they will remain more of a chronic, deadly nuisance than a strategic threat as long as they are not permitted to harness and control the resources of a nation-state.