With the arrival of the new year, Stratfor's unique protective intelligence team has once again presented its assessment of the state of the worldwide jihadist movement. In this condensed excerpt from Stratfor Threat Lens, a unique protective intelligence product designed with corporate security leaders in mind, we've split our discussion of the jihadist movement into three sections: the al Qaeda pole, the Islamic State pole, as well as the Taliban and the grassroots jihadist threat – the last of which takes its inspiration from al Qaeda, the Islamic State – or both. We'll be exploring the recent past and future prospects of each component in a three-part series, starting with Part 1: Al Qaeda.
The jihadist movement is a global insurgency – not just a terrorist phenomenon. Today, most of the world's jihadist groups have affiliated themselves with one of two poles: al Qaeda or the Islamic State. This seeming unity, however, belies numerous disagreements about how to pursue jihad. Much of this fractiousness stems from the many mergers of earlier extremist groups who have brought their own histories and philosophies into the new larger groups of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. This contentiousness is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the relationship between al Qaeda and Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that joined the al Qaeda movement in 2004 – only to split from it in 2014 to form the Islamic State, creating a competing pole in the jihadist movement.
Given these differences, it is little surprise that there is a great deal of variance among different groups – even among those under the same al Qaeda or Islamic State umbrella. In this, some "franchises" stick close to the philosophies and guidance provided by the nominal parent organization, while others stray further afield.
Let's take a look at how al Qaeda's various franchises fared in 2018 and what we can expect from them in the year to come.
Al Qaeda Core
The leadership of al Qaeda's core continues to provide ideological guidance for the group's branches and grassroots followers around the globe. While its core failed to conduct any major terrorist attacks in 2018, that does not mean it has forsaken such planning and operations. Indeed, British Security Minister Ben Wallace said in December that al Qaeda remains focused on major plots targeting the West and apparently wants to reprise the success of the iconic 9/11 attacks through another aviation attack. Wallace also noted that al Qaeda is attempting to develop new methods and tactics to smuggle explosives aboard aircraft and attack airports.
After predicting the fall of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, al Qaeda's core will continue to call on individual militants and groups to return to their fold. Al Qaeda's leaders believe that the group's gradualist approach, which we often refer to as "bin Ladenism," is a more effective way to advance the global jihadist insurgency. With this philosophy, al Qaeda will work to wear down Western powers and their Middle Eastern allies. The West will be its primary target, as it plans spectacular attacks and hopes to inspire grassroots militants to conduct such operations. At the same time, Stratfor believes that al Qaeda's core leadership will direct franchise groups to confront their rivals from the Islamic State, as well as encourage seasoned fighters, local groups and new recruits to join – or, in some cases, rejoin – al Qaeda. And with its fixation on aircraft and the discovery of grassroots jihadists among airport staff, al Qaeda is bound to succeed in an aviation-related attack again – it just remains to be seen whether it does so in 2019.
With its fixation on airplanes and the discovery of grassroots jihadists among airport staff, al Qaeda is bound to succeed in an aviation-related attack again – it just remains to be seen whether it does so in 2019.
Al Qaeda Franchises
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
AQIM remained active with sporadic attacks in North Africa, even if some of its subordinate groups in the Sahel upstaged the core in Algeria. AQIM has focused mostly on conducting an insurgency in mountainous and rural areas as it focuses more on surviving and integrating into the local population, rather than conducting flashy operations. Over the past year, the group came under heavy pressure from local security forces, meaning its efforts centered on ambushing and fighting security forces rather than attacking civilian targets. AQIM's Uqba Ibn Nafi brigade in Tunisia is in a similar situation as the main group in Algeria.
Under heavy pressure from security forces, AQIM is unlikely to significantly increase the number of attacks in 2019. Nevertheless, because it is so intertwined with the local population, security operations are unlikely to eradicate it. But if North Africa does witness political upheavals, such as large, destabilizing protests in Tunisia or instability that would arise from the death of Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, AQIM is well-positioned to take advantage of any ensuing chaos, particularly if security forces are redeployed from the fight against AQIM.
Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)
JNIM effectively marshaled manpower, resources and communications to maintain operational tempo in 2017, allowing it to degrade the capability of local security forces and remain the dominant jihadist group in the Sahel. The group shifted its focus from hotel attacks to more hardened targets in 2018, conducting kidnappings, ambushes, attacks on foreigners and raids on U.N. and French forces in Timbuktu and Ouagadougou. Most of JNIM's propaganda targets the French, while the group has advocated attacks on French assets in the Sahel and in France itself.
JNIM will remain the primary security threat to government and civilians in the Sahel. It will retain steady streams of recruits and money, while it will also mount attacks against hardened targets. At the same time, the Sahel could re-emerge as another theater for clashes between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as has occurred before, when militants with a JNIM forerunner, al-Mourabitoun, killed several former members who defected to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). If the ISGS begins asserting itself directly against JNIM or infringes upon JNIM's financial operations, it could provoke retaliation from the al Qaeda franchise.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
In 2018, AQAP focused primarily on Yemen, while the group's operational activity declined as it faced setbacks from increasing drone strikes, problems with local recruiting and other factors (the United Arab Emirates reportedly cut deals with AQAP militants to prevent them from attacking Emirati forces). AQAP also engaged in direct clashes with the Islamic State's Yemen province. But even if 2018 was a quiet year for the group, AQAP still has robust resources and battle-hardened fighters, and it possesses deep local connections to boot. Still, the United States conducted 36 airstrikes against the group last year, most of which targeted AQAP leaders and facilities. And on the first day of 2019, Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi, a key operative in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, was killed in an airstrike.
AQAP will continue to focus on cultivating local relationships and fighting against its local enemies, including the Houthis, foreign forces and the Islamic State. While this may not result in a surge in attacks against targets in Yemen or beyond, it will lay the groundwork for the group to recover its strength. The group will likely intensify its efforts against the Islamic State, while retaining focus on internal efforts rather than attempts to project terrorist capability abroad. Ultimately, AQAP will continue to benefit from the ongoing instability in Yemen's civil war, allowing it to remain stronger than its regional, Islamic State rival.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)
AQIS directed its energies last year to assisting the Taliban in military operations inside Afghanistan, meaning it engaged in little to no activity outside the country. Aggressive measures by local security forces also limited its capabilities outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
AQIS shows no signs of emerging as a significant force on the Indian subcontinent. It will struggle to marshal adequate resources or manpower, while aggressive actions by security forces (particularly those in India and Bangladesh) will also hamper it. An attack against a significant or foreign target is possible, but the group is unlikely to become an operational security threat in 2019.
Al Shabaab remained the most powerful militant force in Somalia in 2018, conducting kidnappings, ambushes and complex attacks throughout the country, including Mogadishu. It succeeded in overwhelming security measures in the Somali capital, staged numerous cross-border raids along the Somali-Kenyan border and even attempted an attack in Nairobi. The group acknowledged the Islamic State, its rising competitor, for the first time in December 2018 following an attack by a local Islamic State franchise on al Shabaab fighters.
Al Shabaab will remain a powerful force within Somalia for the foreseeable future. With al Shabaab's revenue streams showing no signs of drying up and security forces unable to eradicate it, the group will continue to conduct attacks and kidnappings throughout the country. Mogadishu will be vulnerable to al Shabaab operations, including bombings that cause mass casualties and complex attacks. Attacks further afield are also possible, because the group has the intent, capability and resources to stage attacks against neighboring countries such as Kenya, as demonstrated by an assault on the Dusit Hotel in Nairobi on Jan. 15. Al Shabaab will also retain an interest in attacking targets associated with the United States, which has conducted a number of drone strikes against the group.
Al Shabaab will remain a powerful force within Somalia for the foreseeable future. With al Shabaab's revenue streams showing no signs of drying up and security forces unable to eradicate it, the group will continue to conduct attacks and kidnappings throughout the country.
Al Qaeda in Syria
Al Qaeda's franchises in Syria faced major setbacks as the government of President Bashar al Assad retook most of the territory where they once operated. The remaining units of al Qaeda such as Tanzim Hurras al-Deen are now bottled up in Idlib province, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – the latest incarnation of Jabhat al-Nusra – has pulled out of al Qaeda's orbit. The group reportedly sought to project its ability to launch attacks from Syria, but it was too busy focusing on internal problems to successfully do so.
Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliates will face mounting pressure from Syria, Turkey, Iran, Russia and other militant groups in the country. The group will attempt to exploit any chaos that may ensue from the U.S. withdrawal, as well as from any potential clashes among the state actors (Syria, Turkey, Israel, Russia and Iran) in Syria. The group is unlikely to launch attacks overseas because it will be too focused on local dynamics (and survival) to dedicate time or resources to attacks elsewhere.
Ansar al-Islam and Jund al-Islam
The operational activity of al Qaeda's two affiliated groups in Egypt (Ansar al-Islam in the Sinai Peninsula and Jund al-Islam in the Western Desert) ground to a near-halt in 2018, as both groups proved incapable of conducting either large or small attacks against civilians or security forces. Jund al-Islam began to build up manpower in early 2018, amid reports that it was recruiting former army officers. However, the arrest of prominent leader Hisham Ashmawy in October 2018 represented a significant setback for the group.
2019 will be a litmus test for the durability of al Qaeda's Egyptian branches. While the core group often plays the long game, the near-complete absence of operational activity, combined with the loss of a key leader, bodes ill for its prospects. Al Qaeda will attempt to rebound in Egypt with attacks against security forces or foreigners, but the Islamic State will nevertheless continue to overshadow the group in the country.