Three separate terrorist attacks last week were conducted by various types of actors from the jihadist movement. In the first attack, a suicide bomber targeted a group of tourists Jan. 12 in the heart of Istanbul's Sultanahmet district, killing 11. The second attack, on Jan. 14 in the center of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, occurred when four men armed with pistols and pipe bombs attacked a police checkpoint and an adjacent Starbucks. Four civilians and all four attackers were killed. In the third attack, on Jan. 15 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, three gunmen attacked a local cafe, killing 30, before turning their attention to a hotel across the street. An examination of the three attacks and their perpetrators highlights how they fit into Stratfor's analytical narratives relating to jihadist terrorism.
Equipped by the Pros
We begin with the suicide bombing in Istanbul. Although no group has claimed credit for the attack, it is generally accepted that the Islamic State conducted it. Despite the fact that the Islamic State is normally quick to claim responsibility for attacks — even those carried out by grassroots operatives not directly connected to the organization — the group has consistently remained silent about its attacks in Turkey, such as the October 2015 double suicide bombing at a Kurdish rally in Ankara that killed 102 and the suicide bombing in July 2015 directed at a cultural center in Suruc, near the Syrian border, that killed 33.
The Istanbul bomber, Nabil Fadli, was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Manbij in northern Syria. He reportedly crossed into Turkey as a refugee a few days before the attack. According to reports, he fought with the Free Syrian Army before joining the Islamic State. As is the case with most Islamic State suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria, there is little to suggest that Fadli had received training in terrorist tradecraft. Instead, he was handled, armed and equipped by professional Islamic State cadres who planned the attack and viewed him merely as a sort of smart bomb.
There is a noted variance of ability among the Islamic State's bombmakers in different locations, but the core group's bombmakers in Iraq and Syria — where they have access to military-grade high explosives and bomb components — are normally able to construct effective devices, as we saw in Istanbul. According to Turkish authorities, Fadli's suicide vest was made with a combination of TNT and RDX, common military high explosives. The vest was likely built by Islamic State bombmakers in Syria, smuggled over Turkey's border and united with the bomber.
The attackers in Jakarta could only wish for the help of Islamic State master bombmakers with access to military-grade ordnance. Instead, they were left to fend for themselves and do their best. Between the four attackers, they were able to muster only two pistols and a handful of crude pipe bombs filled with something like black powder or a perchlorate mixture. From videos of the attack it is apparent that the attackers were not trained marksmen, and indeed there were only four victims despite the fact that the attack occurred in the middle of a busy and congested city. Two of the attackers died in an explosion, but it is unclear whether it was an act of suicide or whether a device detonated prematurely. Either instance denotes poor execution, especially considering that the detonation happened when the two were alone, not when they were in the midst of a crowd.
Two of the deceased attackers were identified as known jihadists who had done stints in prison, which highlights the fact that although they claimed the attack in the name of the Islamic State, they were Indonesian jihadists who had assumed the Islamic State brand and not members of a new terrorist entity. Abu Bakar Bashir, the former leader of the now-defunct Jemaah Islamiyah, declared allegiance to the Islamic State, but Bashir is in prison and marginalized, and there was no recognition of the pledge by the Islamic State to indicate that it views the Indonesian jihadists as a formal wilayat, or province, as it has other groups such as the group formerly known as Boko Haram in Nigeria.
There have been similar pledges of allegiance by factions of Malaysian jihadists and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, but so far the Islamic State has not formally recognized any of them — although the Islamic State core group did quickly claim credit for the Jakarta attack through its social media outlets.
The Jakarta attack makes it clear that after many years of heavy losses, the Indonesian jihadists sorely miss leaders such as Noordin Mohammad Top, Riduan Isamuddin (also known as Hambali), Umar Patek and Dulmatin, who possessed the type of sophisticated terrorist tradecraft that helped them plan and execute large-scale terrorist attacks in Bali and Jakarta. Jihadists in Indonesia will continue to plot attacks, but they will be simple attacks against soft targets.
Sustainable Franchise Operations
Finally, as we look at the attack in Ouagadougou we see the operation of an experienced al Qaeda franchise group with a reach that spans Africa's Sahel region. Some have characterized the Ouagadougou attack as sophisticated, but a careful examination shows that the three young gunmen — armed with AK-47 rifles and hand grenades — used only basic insurgent skills; no real terrorist tradecraft was required. However, they were members of a group led by a very seasoned jihadist, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the attack was certainly well planned. And unlike in Jakarta, the young attackers in Ouagadougou were prepared and equipped to succeed with their armed assault.
The Ouagadougou attack was tactically similar to the Nov. 20, 2015, attack against the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, that killed 20. This type of armed assault is well within the capabilities and reach of Belmokhtar's group, which is known to venture across the Sahel region, from Libya to Mauritania, to conduct kidnappings and armed assaults. And this is not the group's first foray into Burkina Faso: It is thought to have been involved in the kidnapping of a Romanian security officer from a mine in the northern part of the state in April 2015. The group is reportedly also responsible for the Jan. 15 kidnapping of Dr. Ken Elliot and his wife, Jocelyn, from Djibo, Burkina Faso.
Belmokhtar has long been known for kidnapping Westerners to fund his group's operations. He has also been involved in other illegal activity such as the cigarette smuggling operation that earned him the nickname Mr. Marlboro. It is easy to acquire arms and pay fighters with the money his group nets from smuggling and kidnapping operations. In contrast to the January 2013 raid on the Tigantourine natural gas facility that left 29 militants dead and three more in detention, high-profile operations such as those in Bamako and Ouagadougou that involve only two or three young suicide operatives every couple of months are fairly sustainable for Belmokhtar and his organization.
Jihadists who are able to hook up with core groups tend to pose a much larger threat than grassroots operatives working individually and in hostile locations.
By attacking international hotels in capital cities that cater to Western business travelers, diplomats, intelligence officers and journalists, attackers can ensure that they gain significant international media attention without having to attack a tougher target such as a modern embassy. The Ouagadougou attack was all about publicity, as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was uncharacteristically busy on the public relations front during the attack, even claiming to have spoken with one of the attackers during the assault. The group also prepared a publicity plan for the attack, taking names and photos of the attackers to release in a statement claiming responsibility. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wanted to avoid a repeat of the confusion that followed the Bamako attack, which was claimed by multiple groups.
Both the attack and the press statements served as reminders that the Islamic State does not have a monopoly on jihadist violence, and they will help al Qaeda in its efforts to recruit fighters and raise money. The millions of dollars that the group will make from its kidnapping operations also will not hurt those efforts.
When it comes to terrorism, location matters. Jihadists who are able to hook up with core groups — such as the Islamic State in Syria or an experienced franchise group such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — tend to pose a much larger threat than grassroots operatives working individually and in hostile locations, as we saw in the Jakarta attack. However, we are certain to see more attacks from the core groups, franchise groups and the jihadist grassroots alike.