On Security

The Global Jihadist Movement in 2020: The Threat Lens Forecast

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Thomas Abi-Hanna
Global Security Analyst, Stratfor
10 MINS READJan 28, 2020 | 10:00 GMT
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie speaks as a picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen during a press briefing Oct. 30, 2019, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie speaks as a picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen during a press briefing Oct. 30, 2019, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Highlights

The Islamic State has lost its territory and leader, and the jihadist struggle has entered its post-"caliphate" phase....

Editor's Note: With the arrival of the new year, Threat Lens presents its assessment of the state of the jihadist movement divided into its three main components: the Islamic State pole, the al Qaeda pole and the grassroots jihadist threat. This security-focused assessment is an excerpt from one of many such analyses found at Stratfor Threat Lens, a unique protective intelligence product designed with corporate security leaders in mind. Threat Lens enables industry professionals and organizations to anticipate, identify, measure and mitigate emerging threats to people, assets and intellectual property the world over. Threat Lens is the only unified solution that analyzes and forecasts security risk from a holistic perspective, bringing all the most relevant global insights into a single, interactive threat dashboard.

As 2020 begins, the world is firmly in the post-Islamic State "caliphate" phase of the jihadist struggle. In 2019, the Islamic State lost the last sliver of the vast territory it had seized during its rapid rise in 2014. The group also lost its "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a U.S.-led raid in October 2019. The conditions that fueled its growth and propelled it to the forefront of the jihadist movement have clearly changed. But the threat hasn't disappeared.
 
The movement continues to be split generally between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. However, in practice, the jihadist ecosystem is really far more complex. Though there are two major "brand names" of jihad, there can be quite a bit of variance in how closely particular groups and individuals adhere to the doctrine and tactical guidance of the central leadership of each pole. These poles can be broken down into three different sections: the core group, the associated franchise groups and the grassroots supporters. The core group is just that, the core organization that provides leadership and guidance to the rest of the movement.
 
The regional groups are referred to as "franchises" rather than branches, nodes or affiliates. While these organizations have adopted the branding of the main "corporation," they remain very much "locally owned and operated." Nearly all the franchise organizations were militant groups, or fragments of groups, before they swore loyalty to the Islamic State or al Qaeda. They have their own leadership and sources of funding and logistics.
 
Grassroots jihadists are individuals who ascribe to the jihadist ideology and who sometimes travel to join the core organization or a franchise group. Some may return to their home countries, where they can pose a threat. Other times, grassroots jihadists will follow the precepts of leaderless resistance and conduct attacks in their countries of origin either individually or in small cells.

The Islamic State Core

Status

The Islamic State core in Iraq and Syria is recovering from notable setbacks in 2019: losing the last remnants of its caliphate as well as its self-proclaimed caliph. In March, Syrian Democratic Forces retook the group's last remaining territory in Syria. In October, the group's leader was killed during a U.S. raid in Idlib, Syria. The group has reverted to waging a revolt in Iraq and Syria, continuing its strategy of wearing down its opponents through a combination of insurgent and terrorist tactics.

Forecast

The core of the Islamic State will expand the scope of its operations in Iraq and Syria, seeking to exploit fissures and chaos resulting from political upheavals, U.S.-Iranian tensions and other developments in the two countries. The group will engage in assassinations, raids, extortion and blackmail to undermine local governance and sow chaos.

Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP)

Status

ISWAP gained momentum throughout the year, especially within its base of Nigeria and to a lesser extent in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The group has proved capable of launching large attacks, such as the storming of small military bases. The Nigerian military has been taking cover in fortified supercamps, giving the group more room to exert control over the local population, an important source of funding.

Forecast

ISWAP will continue to gain momentum against security forces and will be persistent in its attacks, kidnappings and terrorist and insurgent operations. Governments show no sign of making a concerted effort to effectively counter it.

Wilayat Sinai

Status

Wilayat Sinai enters 2020 weaker than it has been in previous years. It continued to launch small attacks in its Sinai Peninsula base during 2019, but it was unable to conduct large attacks within the peninsula or to project its terrorist capabilities into mainland Egypt.

Forecast

The group's capabilities will continue to ebb and flow, but it will remain entrenched within Sinai. Any attacks in the delta will be constrained by security forces.

Islamic State-Khorasan

Status

Islamic State-Khorasan continued its attacks throughout the year, including several in Kabul, but it faced setbacks from U.S. and Taliban pressure. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared victory over the group in November 2019. It split off a Pakistan branch (Islamic State Pakistan Province), but no significant operational changes came from the move.

Forecast

The group's insurgent and terrorist campaign will continue, as will its attacks on civilians and security forces. Its focus will be on recruiting Taliban fighters unhappy with the U.S.-Taliban peace deal to swell its own ranks.

North African Branches

Status

The Islamic State's branches in North Africa — Algeria, Libya and Tunisia — enter 2020 in a weakened state. The franchise in Tunisia claimed several attacks in the capital of Tunis and rural parts of the country in 2019, but the others proved unable to exploit significant upheavals in Algeria and Libya.

Forecast

The groups will remain a persistent but largely low-level menace to Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, especially in rural areas with sparse government control.

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)

Status

ISGS enters 2020 with significantly upgraded capabilities; it has grown more than any other franchise in 2019. ISGS exploited the increasingly chaotic Sahel to launch large-scale attacks, boost its recruitment and establish additional logistic networks. It also began to claim some attacks under the brand of ISWAP, although it remained operationally separate from the group in Nigeria. It killed numerous soldiers in Niger and in Mali.

Forecast

ISGS will continue to capitalize on its momentum to expand its insurgent and terrorist campaign in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. It will work to establish links with ISWAP, and it may claim attacks under the group's banner.

Islamic State-Philippines

Status

Abu Sayyaf continued its suicide attacks in 2019 and managed to recruit at least one local suicide bomber, and militants also kidnapped their first Western hostage since 2016. However, military pressure on the group in the far south Sulu Archipelago showed signs of weakening it. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters continue to carry out small attacks in rural Cotabato.

Forecast

This franchise will continue its insurgency, but it will be isolated to the Sulu Archipelago and rural patches of Mindanao province. That region will continue to be the base of the Islamic State presence in Southeast Asia, and the group will recruit and support grassroots jihadists in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP)

Status

The Islamic State established a new franchise in Central Africa in April, but it had two branches: one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the other in Mozambique. It subsumed the militant groups Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the Congo and Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo (or al Shabaab) in Mozambique, which had been waging insurgencies for years.

Forecast

ISCAP will remain a bifurcated group, with each branch operating independently of the other. The Mozambique group will exploit local grievances against the government and foreign mercenaries and will focus on attacks on locals and security forces, as well as foreigners, including those in the energy industry. The Congo branch is unlikely to garner enough resources to increase its capabilities.

The Al Qaeda Pole of the Jihadist Movement

Core

Status

Al Qaeda's core, based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, remains largely an ideological totem for the global movement. It has shown little significant operational activity over the past year. This stems from aggressive U.S. efforts against it. Missile strikes in Syria in June and December of 2019 reportedly killed senior al Qaeda figures. Because of the pressure, the group has so far been unable to capitalize on the death of Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi. Al Qaeda also lost Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, who also died in a U.S. raid. The son's death deprived the group of a popular potential successor.

Forecast

Al Qaeda's core will continue to lag operationally. As long as Ayman al-Zawahiri remains in charge, the core will remain largely irrelevant to the wider movement. He lacks charisma and doesn't appeal to younger jihadists.

Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)

Status

Al Qaeda's umbrella group in the Sahel, JNIM, is one of its strongest branches going into 2020. The group increased its already formidable scale, scope and tempo of attacks in 2019, which contributed significantly to deteriorating security in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara gained more momentum in the Sahel than JNIM, but the two groups largely avoided direct conflict.

Forecast

JNIM will continue to expand its activity throughout the Sahel. Its growing strength will make it a greater threat to surrounding areas, including coastal West Africa. However, it is unlikely to grow to the point where it can assert control over a large piece of territory, as it did in 2012.

Al Shabaab

Status

Al Shabaab remained a strong terrorist and insurgent threat in East Africa, conducting large attacks in Somalia —  most notably a devastating Dec. 28 truck bombing — and in Nairobi, Kenya. It sustained these operations despite an intensive U.S. air campaign against it.

Forecast

It will remain the predominant jihadist group in East Africa, conducting large attacks and kidnappings, which will affect security forces, civilians and foreign interests in the region. The group is likely to emphasize its focus on expelling foreign influence, and attacks against civilians and security forces will remain significant risks.

The Taliban

Status

The Taliban enter 2020 controlling or contesting large swaths of Afghanistan while maintaining a full spectrum of capabilities, including terrorism, insurgency and conventional military operations. The group moved closer to a peace deal with the United States until talks broke down after an attack in September that killed a U.S. soldier.

Forecast

The Taliban will maintain a robust terrorist and insurgent capability, which they will continue to deploy throughout the year in their effort to bolster their negotiating position. The group will attempt to keep the Afghan government from ruling effectively and to drive out foreign influence, most notably the United States.

Grassroots Jihadists

Status

Attacks by grassroots militants — individuals or small cells inspired by jihadist ideology — have been greatly reduced. The frequency and scale of such attacks decreased substantially in 2019. The decrease can be attributed to a number of factors, including heightened vigilance from authorities and heavy losses sustained by the Islamic State. The Easter attacks in Sri Lanka were most significant. A number of smaller attacks were reported in the United Kingdom, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Authorities also thwarted grassroots attacks in the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria, Turkey and elsewhere.

Forecast

The threat of grassroots attacks will persist around the world, and the struggle against militant jihadism will take decades. The number of people responding to calls for attacks by militant groups will remain relatively small. The risk of simplistic attacks, such as stabbings and vehicular assaults, will be more likely.

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