Jan 24, 2011 | 12:55 GMT

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Jihadism in 2011: A Persistent Grassroots Threat


For the past several years, STRATFOR has published an annual forecast on al Qaeda and the jihadist movement. Since our first jihadist forecast in January 2006, we have focused heavily on the change in the nature of jihadism from a phenomenon involving primarily the core al Qaeda group to one based mainly on the broader jihadist movement and the decentralized threat it poses.

The central theme of last year's forecast was that the al Qaeda core would continue to be marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2010 and would struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield. We also forecast that the regional jihadist franchise groups would continue to be at the vanguard of the physical battle, and that grassroots operatives would remain a persistent, though lower-level, threat. The past year was indeed quite busy in terms of attacks and thwarted plots planned by jihadist actors. As forecast, most of these plots involved militants from regional jihadist groups or grassroots operatives rather than militants dispatched by the al Qaeda core leadership.

For 2011, we anticipate that this dynamic will continue and that the core al Qaeda group will continue to struggle to remain relevant both on the physical battlefield and on the ideological front. Like the year before, 2011 will be defined by the activities of the franchise groups and the persistent grassroots threat.


In the common vernacular today, "al Qaeda" has come to mean a number of different things. Before we can conduct a meaningful discussion of the jihadist phenomenon we must first define what we are talking about.


In Arabic, the word "jihad" can mean to "struggle" or "strive for" something. The word is also commonly used to refer to an armed struggle. In Arabic, one engaged in such a struggle is called a "mujahid" (mujahideen in the plural). Mainstream Muslims do not consider the term "jihadist" as an authentic way — within the context of classical Islam — to describe those who claim to be fighting on their behalf. In fact, those called jihadists in the Western context are considered deviants by mainstream Muslims. Therefore, calling someone a jihadist reflects this perception of deviancy. Because of this, we have chosen to use the term jihadists to refer to militant Islamists who seek to topple current regimes and establish an Islamic polity via warfare. We use the term jihadism to refer to the ideology propagated by jihadists.

Al Qaeda, al Qaeda Prime or al Qaeda Core

As a quick reminder, STRATFOR views what most people refer to as "al Qaeda" as a global jihadist network rather than a monolithic entity. This network consists of three distinct and quite different elements. The first is the vanguard al Qaeda organization, which we frequently refer to as al Qaeda prime or the al Qaeda core. The al Qaeda core is comprised of Osama bin Laden and his small circle of close, trusted associates, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although al Qaeda trained thousands of militants in its camps in Afghanistan, most of these people were either members of other militant groups or grassroots operatives and never became members of the core group. Indeed, most of the people trained received only basic guerrilla warfare training and only a select few were designated to receive training in terrorist tradecraft skills such as bombmaking.

The al Qaeda core has always been a small and elite vanguard organization. Since the 9/11 attacks, intense pressure has been placed upon this core organization by the U.S. government and its allies. This pressure has resulted in the death or capture of many al Qaeda cadres and has served to keep the group small due to operational security concerns. This insular group is lying low in Pakistan near the Afghan border, and its ability to conduct attacks has been significantly degraded because of this isolation. All of this has caused the al Qaeda core to become primarily an organization that produces propaganda and provides guidance and inspiration to the other jihadist elements rather than an organization focused on conducting operations. While the al Qaeda core gets a great deal of media attention, it comprises only a very small portion of the larger jihadist movement.

Franchise Groups

The second element of jihadism is the global network of local or regional terrorist or insurgent groups that have been influenced by the al Qaeda core's philosophy and guidance and have adopted the jihadist ideology. Some of these groups have publicly claimed allegiance to bin Laden and the al Qaeda core and have become what we refer to as franchise groups. These include such organizations as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is important to note that even though these groups take on the al Qaeda brand name, they are like commercial franchises in that they are locally owned and operated.

While all these organizations are independent, some of the leaders and groups, like Nasir al-Wahayshi and AQAP, are fairly closely aligned to the al Qaeda core. Others, like the former leader of the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have been more at odds with al Qaeda's program. Other regional groups may adopt some or all of al Qaeda's jihadist ideology and cooperate with the core group but maintain even more independence than the franchise groups for a variety of reasons. Such groups include the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad e-Islami (HUJI). In the case of some larger organizations like LeT, some factions of the group cooperate with al Qaeda while other factions actually oppose close cooperation with bin Laden and company.

Grassroots Jihadists

The third and broadest layer of the global jihadist network is comprised of what we refer to as grassroots jihadists. These are individuals who are inspired by the al Qaeda core — or, increasingly, by the franchise groups — but who may have little or no actual connection to these groups. Some grassroots operatives like Najibullah Zazi travel to places like Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen where they receive training from jihadist franchise groups. Other grassroots jihadists like Maj. Nidal Hasan may communicate with a franchise group but have no physical contact. Still other grassroots militants have no direct contact with the other jihadist elements or accidentally make contact with government informants while attempting to reach out to the other elements for training or assistance in conducting an attack.

In recent years, such cases have been increasing in frequency and often result in sting operations and arrests. As we move down the hierarchy from the al Qaeda core to the grassroots, there is a decline in operational capability and expertise in what we refer to as terrorist tradecraft — the skills required to effectively conduct a terrorist attack. The operatives belonging to the al Qaeda core are generally better trained than their regional counterparts, and both of these layers tend to be far better trained than the grassroots operatives. Indeed, as noted above, grassroots operatives frequently travel abroad to obtain training that will enable them to conduct attacks. While these jihadist elements are separate and distinct, the Internet has long proved to be an important bridge connecting them — especially at the grassroots level. Websites provide indoctrination in jihadist ideology and also serve as a way for aspiring jihadists to make contact with like-minded individuals and jihadist groups.

2010 Forecast Review

As noted above, the heart of our jihadist forecast for 2010 was the idea that the efforts of the U.S. governments and its allies would continue to marginalize the al Qaeda core on the physical battlefield. Its absence from the physical battlefield would also cause the organization to struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield. Because of this, we concluded that the regional jihadist franchise groups would remain at the vanguard of the physical battle in 2010, and that some of these groups, such as the Somali franchise al Shabaab, could become more transnational in their attacks during the year. We did not see a successful attack attributed to the al Qaeda core in 2010, though there were some indications that al Qaeda operational planner Saleh al-Somali, prior to his death in December 2009, may have been involved in a plot with grassroots operatives that was uncovered in July 2010 in Oslo, Norway. (The Oslo plot apparently was put in motion before al-Somali was killed, reportedly by a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan.) Evidence also emerged over the past year linking al-Somali to the aforementioned September 2009 plot by Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York subway system as well as a thwarted April 2009 plot to bomb a shopping center in Manchester, England. It is notable that al-Somali attempted to employ grassroots operatives like Zazi who were citizens of Western countries in his attack plans rather than professional terrorist operatives belonging to the al Qaeda core who have more trouble traveling to the West.


In 2010, jihadist franchise groups such as AQAP were more active operationally than the core group. In addition to operations in their home countries, the franchises were also involved in a number of transnational attacks. AQAP was responsible for the Oct. 29 cargo bombing attempt and claimed responsibility for the downing of a UPS flight in Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010. Al Shabaab conducted its first transnational strike with the July 11 bombings in Kampala, Uganda, and the TTP trained, dispatched and funded grassroots operative Faisal Shahzad in his failed May 1 Times Square bombing attack.

In our 2010 forecast, we also noted our belief that, due to the open nature of U.S. and European societies and the ease of conducting attacks against them, we would see more grassroots plots, if not successful attacks, in the United States and Europe in 2010 than attacks by the other jihadist elements. This forecast was accurate. Of the 20 plots we counted in the West in 2010, one plot was connected to the al Qaeda core, four to franchise groups and 15 to grassroots militants. It is notable that the one plot linked to the al Qaeda core and two of those involving franchise groups also utilized grassroots militants. We also forecast that, because of the nature of the jihadist threat, we would continue to see attacks against soft targets in 2010 and that we would see additional plots focusing on aircraft. We were correct on both counts.

As far as our regional forecasts, they were fairly accurate, especially in places like Pakistan, North Africa, Indonesia and Somalia. Our biggest error concerned Yemen, where we believed that AQAP was going to have a difficult year due to all the attention being focused on the group in the wake of the Fort Hood shooting, the Christmas Day underwear-bomb plot and the attempted assassination of Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. We clearly overestimated the ability — and willingness — of the Yemeni government and its American and Saudi allies to apply pressure to and damage AQAP. The group finished 2010 stronger than we anticipated, with most of its operational capability still intact.

Forecast for 2011

While it has been apparent for some time now that the al Qaeda core has been eclipsed on the physical battlefield by the franchise groups, over the past year we've seen indications that it is also beginning to play a secondary role in the ideological realm. Some posts on jihadist message boards criticize bin Laden and the al Qaeda core for their lack of operational activity. Some have even called them cowards for hiding in Pakistan for so long and consider their rhetoric "tired and old."

At the same time, AQAP has received a great deal of attention in the international media (and in the jihadist realm) due to operations like the assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed, the Fort Hood shootings, the Christmas Day underwear-bombing attempt and, most recently, the printer bomb plot. This publicity has given AQAP a great deal of credibility among radical Islamists. The result is that AQAP has moved to the forefront of international jihadism. This means that people have begun to listen to what AQAP says while they have begun to ignore the messages of the al Qaeda core. AQAP was well-positioned to take advantage of the bully pulpit afforded by its media-stimulating attacks. In addition to AQAP's popular Arabic-language online magazine Sada al-Malahim, the emergence of AQAP's English-language Inspire magazine and the increased profile and popularity of American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki have also helped propel AQAP to the forefront of jihadist tactical and ideological discussions.

In a March 2010 video titled "A Call to Arms," American-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn openly advocated a tactical approach to terrorist attacks — conducting simple attacks utilizing readily available weapons — that was first publicly advocated by AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi in Sada al-Malahim and expanded upon in each issue of Inspire. Ordinarily, it is the al Qaeda core that sets the agenda in the jihadist realm, but the success of AQAP in inspiring grassroots operatives has apparently caused the core group to jump on the AQAP bandwagon and endorse al-Wahayshi's approach. We believe it is highly likely that we will see more examples of deference to AQAP from the al Qaeda core in the coming year. Overall, we believe that the al Qaeda core will remain marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2011 while struggling to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield.

Regional Forecasts

  • U.S. and Europe: Tactically, we anticipate that the core and franchise groups will continue to have difficulty attacking the United States and Europe directly and will continue to reach out to grassroots operatives who have the ability to travel to the West. This means we will likely see more plots involving poorly trained operatives like Zazi and Shahzad. While such individuals do have the capacity to kill people, they lack the capacity to conduct spectacular terrorist attacks like 9/11. This trend also means that travel to places such as Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or contact with jihadist planners there, will continue to be an operational weakness that can be exploited by Western intelligence agencies.

    While al-Wahayshi's appeal for aspiring jihadist militants to avoid contacting franchise groups and travel overseas in search of jihadist training makes a great deal of sense tactically, it has proved very difficult to achieve. This is evidenced by the fact that we have seen very few plots or attacks in which the planners were true lone wolves who had absolutely no contact with outside jihadists — or with government agents they believed to be jihadists. So while the leaderless resistance model can be quite difficult for law enforcement to guard against, its downside for the jihadists is that it takes a unique type of individual to be a true and effective lone wolf. Since we believe most plots in the United States and Europe will again involve grassroots jihadists in 2011, we also believe that soft targets such as public gatherings and mass transportation will continue to be the most popular target set. We can also anticipate that franchises will continue to seek ways to attack aircraft.

    Certainly, AQAP has a history of such attacks, and perhaps even groups like al Shabaab or TTP could attempt to hit this long-popular jihadist target set. In places like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, we believe that hotels and housing compounds could serve as attractive and softer alternative targets to more difficult targets such as U.S. embassies or consulates. As we have recently noted, we also see no end to the targeting of people and institutions involved in the Mohammed cartoon controversy. We also believe it is likely in the coming year that more grassroots militants in the United States will heed al-Wahayahi's advice and begin to conduct simple attacks using firearms rather than attempting more difficult and elaborate attacks using explosives.
  • Pakistan: The number of jihadist bombing attacks in Pakistan is trending down, as is the size of the devices involved. This means that the Pakistani government seems to have reduced the capabilities of the TTP to conduct attacks. It may be no coincidence that such attacks have trended down at the same time that U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes along the border have been picking up. That said, the Pakistani tribal areas are teeming with weapons and ordnance and there is a wide array of jihadist elements that could employ them in an attack, from the TTP to al Qaeda to al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters. This means that Pakistan will face the threat of attack for the foreseeable future. The area along the border with Afghanistan is rugged and has proved hard to pacify for hundreds of years. We do not think the Pakistanis will be able to bring the area under control this year.
  • Afghanistan: In the coming year, as the spring thaw sets in, we will be watching closely for a Taliban resurgence and a more concerted attempt to reverse gains made by the International Security Assistance force in 2010. Our 2011 forecast for this conflict can be found here.
  • Yemen: We will continue to monitor Yemen closely. As mentioned above, so far the large influx of U.S. intelligence and military assets has not seemed to have helped the Yemeni government to seriously weaken AQAP, which is the strongest of the jihadist franchises outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, region and the one with the longest transnational reach. Interestingly, the group has not had a very good track record of hitting international targets inside Yemen, aside from occasional attacks against unarmed tourists. This might cause AQAP to divert from harder targets like embassies and motorcades of armored vehicles toward softer targets like individual foreigners and foreign housing compounds. In December, a Jordanian jihadist conducted a poorly executed attack against U.S. Embassy personnel who had stopped at a pizzeria. This could have been a one-off attack, but it could also have been the start of a change in AQAP targeting in Yemen.
  • Indonesia: The Indonesian government has continued to hit Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad very hard, and it is unlikely that the group will be able to regroup and conduct large-scale terrorist attacks in 2011.
  • North Africa: In the north of Algeria, AQIM has continued to shy away from the al Qaeda core's targeting philosophy and concentrated on attacking government and security targets — essentially functioning as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat with a different name. The Algerian government has hit AQIM very hard in its traditional mountain strongholds east of Algiers, and the ideological rift over whether to follow al Qaeda's dictates has also hurt the group. An increase in the abduction of Westerners and clashes with security forces in the Sahara-Sahel is not a convincing indication of AQIM's expanding reach. Nor are incompetent attacks like the Jan. 5 attack against the French Embassy in Bamako, Mali. Much of this expanded activity in the south is the result of rivalries between sub-commanders and efforts to raise money via kidnapping and banditry in order to survive. This is a sign of weakness and lack of cohesion, not strength. AQIM is a shell of what it was four years ago. It will continue to kidnap victims in the Sahel — or acquire kidnapped foreigners from ethnic Tuareg rebels in Mali and Niger — and the occasional small attack, but it is not at this time a unified militant organization that poses a regional, much less transnational, threat.
  • Somalia: Al Shabaab went transnational with the Kampala attacks and has also been able to consolidate its grip over the jihadist landscape in Somalia this year by absorbing main rival Hizbul Islam. However, al Shabaab itself is not a monolithic entity. It is comprised of different factions, with the main subsets being led by al Shabaab chief Ahmad Abdi Godane (aka Abu Zubayr) and one of his top commanders, Muktar Robow (aka Abu Mansur). Abu Zubayr leads the more transnational or jihadist element of the organization, while Abu Mansur and his faction are more nationalist in their philosophy and military operations. This factionalism within al Shabaab and the general unpopularity of jihadism among large portions the Somali population should help prevent al Shabaab from conquering Somalia (as will an increase in the number of African Union peacekeeping troops and the operations of other anti-al Shabaab forces like the Ethiopian-backed militia Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah). However, Abu Zubayr maintains close contact with people in the Somali diaspora in East Africa, South Africa, Australia, Europe and the United States. These contacts provide funding and fighters that will help sustain the insurgency in Somalia, but they could also be used to conduct transnational attacks outside of Somalia.
  • India: India continues to face a very real threat from transnational jihadist groups such as the LeT and HUJI, which will continue to plan attacks in India and against Indian interests in places like Afghanistan. India also faces a persistent, though lesser, threat from domestic jihadist groups like Indian Mujahideen (IM).
  • Egypt: The Jan. 1, 2011, bombing at a church in Alexandria raised the possibility that transnational jihadists were once again becoming more involved in Egypt — especially in light of threats by the Islamic State in Iraq to attack Egyptian Christians in Iraq in early November 2010. However, it now appears that initial reports that the Alexandria attack was a suicide operation may have been incorrect, and Egyptian authorities are reporting that the device was similar in construction to devices used in two 2009 attacks, indicating that the bombmaker in the Alexandria attack was not likely a recent import from Iraq. The Egyptian militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyah publicly joined forces with al Qaeda in August 2006, but little has come from the union. It will be important to watch and see if the Alexandria attack was an anomaly or the beginning of a new pattern of attacks in Egypt.
  • Caucasus: The rise of the Caucasus Emirate in 2009-2010 brought with it an increase in operational tempo and resulted in the March 29, 2010, suicide attacks against the Moscow Metro. The group also attempted to provide a unified umbrella for a number of disparate militant groups operating in the region — an umbrella that had more of a jihadist than the traditional nationalistic bent seen in militant groups operating in the region. However, a power struggle within the group, combined with a Russian counteroffensive, has resulted in the group being unable to provide the unified leadership it envisioned. There are still militant groups active in the Caucasus, and while they can kill people, they do not possess the cohesion or capability to pose a true strategic threat to Russia. It appears that in the coming year the Russian authorities will launch an operation in Dagestan that will utilize the tactics they have used in Chechnya. Such an operation could produce a significant backlash.
  • Iraq: The year 2010 was highly successful for U.S. and Iraqi troops in the fight against the Iraqi jihadist franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Combined U.S.-Iraqi efforts, with local assistance, have severely damaged the group's finances, leadership and ability to recruit. It is unlikely that the ISI's propensity for violent attacks will wane, but the group's diminished leadership, operational capacity and logistics infrastructure make its future seem bleak. At the beginning of 2010, the trend was for ISI to conduct an attack every six to 10 weeks against government ministries, but by the end of the year major attacks were occurring less frequently and against softer, less strategic targets, like churches.

While the al Qaeda core has been marginalized, the ideology of jihadism continues to survive and win new converts. As long as this ideology is able to spread, the war its adherents are waging to subjugate the rest of the world will continue. While jihadists do not pose a strategic geopolitical threat on a global or even a regional scale, they certainly can still kill plenty of people.

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