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Jihadism in 2014: The Grassroots Threat

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
9 MINS READJan 22, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

When I was planning this series I had originally intended to cover jihadist franchise groups before grassroots jihadists, but the events of the past few weeks have compelled me to change the order and discuss grassroots jihadism first.

As noted in the second installment of last year's Gauging the Jihadist Movement series that dealt with terrorist theory, jihadist ideologues such as Abu Musab al-Suri have publicly endorsed the leaderless resistance model since 2004. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula repeated those calls in 2009, and the al Qaeda core followed suit in 2010. Most recently, the Islamic State made the call in 2014. While these high-profile groups have drawn attention to the threat of lone wolf terrorism, the reality is the grassroots jihadist threat that springs from the leaderless resistance operational model goes back much further.

I personally first encountered grassroots jihadism in December 1990, when the district attorney for Manhattan approached a colleague of mine in the Diplomatic Security Service's New York Field Office seeking assistance in his investigation of the Nov. 5, 1990, assassination of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane. An Egyptian-born American citizen named El Sayyid Nosair killed Kahane, but the FBI declared that the assassination was not terrorism because he acted alone. Therefore, it would not assist the Manhattan district attorney and the New York Police Department with the international aspects of the case. My office was asked to step in to assist, and we investigated many leads in Egypt and throughout the region. Immediately, the Nosair case illustrated the complex nature of grassroots jihadists and the web of relationships they can have.

The FBI would eventually open an investigation into the odd assortment of characters who formed a network to support Nosair's defense efforts. Many of them were tied to the al-Khifa Refugee Center — also known as the Brooklyn Jihad Office.

The Spectrum

While the grassroots jihadist threat is not by any means new, recent events in the United States, France and other parts of Europe highlight the varying types of grassroots jihadists and the different threats they pose based on training and connections to professional terrorist cadres. The spectrum of grassroots jihadists ranges from rank amateurs to trained operatives who work independent of a core or franchise jihadist group.

A good example of an unskilled amateur is Christopher Cornell, who was arrested by the FBI on Jan. 14 in Cincinnati. Cornell was a self-radicalized Muslim with a history of problems who had no training in terrorist tradecraft or even in small-arms and small-unit tactics. While reaching out for contacts within the jihadist realm, Cornell unknowingly established contact with an FBI informant who was able to monitor his intent and efforts toward launching an attack against the U.S. Capitol.

While people frequently poke fun at individuals such as Cornell and liken them to the awkward television character Kramer from the television show Seinfeld, it must be recognized that when they become connected with genuine terrorist trainers or facilitators instead of government informants, they can pose far more danger than they would have on their own. A prime example of this is Richard Reid, who attempted to destroy a Miami-bound American Airlines flight over the Atlantic Ocean with a shoe bomb in December 2001. Many dismissed Reid as a bumbling amateur, but when provided with a professionally manufactured shoe bomb and instructions on how to bypass airport security, he came very close to destroying the aircraft and killing all 197 people aboard.

Another example of amateurs becoming extremely dangerous when directed by professionals is the case of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. A highly trained al Qaeda operational leader, Abdel Basit (also known as Ramzi Yousef), was able to take a ragtag band of amateurs associated with the Nosair case and work with them to construct and detonate a 1,200-pound truck bomb in the parking garage beneath the North Tower. Indeed, Basit made a career of working with grassroots jihadists in places as diverse as the United States, the Philippines and Pakistan. He was only captured after one of the grassroots jihadists he was training refused to become a suicide bomber and shared his location with Diplomatic Security Service special agents, who then worked with Pakistani authorities to capture him in Islamabad.

There are various degrees of coordination, capability and threat presented by jihadists. In some cases, individuals have contact with a jihadist group that helps in their radicalization process, but they receive little or no operational assistance. A good example of this is Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, who corresponded with Anwar al-Awlaki via email, but received no training from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Sometimes, amateurs can have limited or no contact with professional terrorist operatives but receive the training they need via the Internet. The Tsarnaev brothers learned to make the pressure cooker bombs they used in the Boston Marathon attack using instructions from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine.

The next step on the continuum is when a grassroots jihadist receives some training from a jihadist group, then returns home to conduct a self-motivated and self-planned attack. The 2009 Little Rock shooting, the Jan. 7 attack in Paris against Charlie Hebdo and the 2009 Najibullah Zazi case are all examples.

While more training often makes an operative more dangerous, this does not exclusively determine the threat level an individual poses. Personal capability and access to soft targets are also important factors. For example, Little Rock shooter Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad attended a training camp run by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and received small-arms training there, but he only killed one soldier in his attack. Conversely, Maj. Nidal Hasan, who had received no jihadist training, succeeded in killing 13 and wounding 30 in an attack that became the most deadly on U.S. soil since 9/11.

Other plans where jihadist groups in Pakistan trained grassroots jihadists to carry out attacks in the West have also seen mixed results. For example, while Mohamed Sidique Khan and his confederates were able to kill 52 victims in their July 7, 2005, bombings in London, Faisal Shahzad was not able to build a viable improvised explosive device and instead left a large, conspicuous dud at Times Square in May 2010.


Al Qaeda has a history of sending operational commanders to organize and mentor grassroots jihadists in conducting major attacks. They used this model for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and several other plots. However, counterterrorism measures taken following the 9/11 attacks have made this operational model more difficult to implement, and we have not seen such an attack in several years. Instead, jihadist organizations are increasingly turning to the leaderless resistance model because even using fighters returning from training or combat in the Middle East to carry out attacks has become more difficult.

Since the Islamic State called for jihadists to adopt the leaderless resistance model in September 2014, we have seen an uptick in grassroots activity. A month ago, it appeared as if this would be a short-lived trend, but the events of the past two weeks have shown that the trend is continuing. Interestingly, the Charlie Hebdo attackers were acting out of solidarity with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while their co-conspirator, Amedy Coulibaly, pledged allegiance to the rival Islamic State. This case not only illustrates the increased frequency of grassroots attacks, but also the complexity of the web of contacts and influences that can motivate them.

Countries are trying to block travel to places such as Syria where grassroots jihadists can receive training and combat experience, but as our grassroots spectrum shows, this will not totally alleviate the problem. Rather, it will only help to limit the small-arms and terrorist tradecraft training provided to grassroots jihadists. If these individuals are not permitted to travel, they may just strike in their home countries ahead of schedule. Such was the case on Sept. 23, when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a soldier at the Canadian War memorial in Ottawa and stormed the Canadian Parliament building after being denied a passport to travel to Syria — presumably to fight with the Islamic State.


As designed, the leaderless resistance model employed by grassroots jihadists poses problems for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Most counterterrorism intelligence efforts have been designed to identify and track people with travel, communication or financial links to known terrorist groups. Such methods have proven effective. Still, one of the many difficulties in identifying grassroots jihadists is that such links may not exist, and the relationship between grassroots operatives and terrorist groups may be ambiguous — and government agencies simply do not fare well in dealing with ambiguous things.

Beyond the lack of links or solid links, another significant problem for security agencies lies in the sheer volume of potential grassroots actors. There are simply too many actors for the authorities to effectively monitor all the time. Monitoring a single individual's actions and communications full time requires an incredible amount of resources, especially if translation is required. When monitoring hundreds or even thousands of individuals, the problem is magnified significantly.

Because of resource constraints, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are forced to conduct quick assessments and prioritize their surveillance efforts. This often means focusing on grassroots operatives who have contact with a terrorist entity and ignoring those who do not because of the severity in the potential threat they pose on the threat spectrum. This prioritization of scarce resources often allows other grassroots operatives assessed as posing a lesser threat to conduct their operational planning without police surveillance detection. Of course, even jihadists who pose a lesser threat can still kill people. Moreover, if they do launch a successful attack, security forces are inevitably criticized for failing to monitor the specific person(s) in the sea of potential attackers.

Furthermore, security agencies can only monitor the suspects they know about. Other people can fly beneath the radar until they strike. It is impossible to identify them all before they attack, and it is impossible to protect every potential target. Despite the best efforts of the security forces, some attacks will eventually slip through and succeed.

As long as jihadists urge radicalized followers to adopt their ideology and conduct attacks using the principles of the leaderless resistance model, grassroots jihadists will continue to pose a broad threat that is difficult to counter. As a result, these kinds of attacks will remain a part of modern life. However, this threat will also continue to be less severe than the one posed by highly trained professional terrorist operatives, meaning that while it is chronic, it is not acute.

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