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. In this final excerpt from Threat Lens' jihadist forecast, we evaluate the Taliban's prospects in Afghanistan and explore the worldwide grassroots jihadist movement. Read part one of the series on al Qaeda and part two on the Islamic State.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have come to dominate the global jihadist movement, but they certainly do not have a monopoly on this brand of militancy. And in terms of actual state-building, one group — the Taliban — exercised control over a large area long before either al Qaeda or the Islamic State ever grabbed pockets of territory. The Afghan-based movement, in fact, presents a unique case study: Though it shares both al Qaeda and the Islamic State's aim of establishing a state governed by an austere vision of Islam, it remains largely nationalist in its aims, choosing to limit its struggle to Afghanistan. For years, the Taliban have retained a close relationship with al Qaeda (after all, it hosted and protected the latter's founder, Osama bin Laden, at the time of the 9/11 attacks), yet they are not a franchise of the transnational movement. In fact, al Qaeda's leadership has even pledged allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.
With Afghanistan entering a critical year, let's take a look at the Taliban's likely course of action in 2019.
The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when the United States and the opposition Northern Alliance overthrew them in the wake of 9/11. However, the group has shown remarkable resilience and is today stronger than it was at the beginning of 2018. Over the past year, the Taliban dealt significant blows to Afghan security forces through a combination of terrorist and insurgent attacks as well as conventional military operations. The group proved capable of conducting complex attacks against the British compound in Kabul, in addition to a targeted attack on the governor's compound (where a U.S. general was in attendance) in Kandahar.
Though a divided movement, the Taliban will continue to build momentum, gain strength and make advances against Afghan security forces. The reported plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan will also prove a boon for the Taliban, and the group will be eager to exploit any security gaps or weaknesses left by departing American forces. As long as the United States has a presence, the Taliban will not overrun Kabul, although they do have a lot of latitude to operate. They can be expected to continue the operational activity they have conducted in previous years, including conventional military operations, insurgent and terrorist attacks, and as strikes on civilians and population centers.
Beyond organized militancy, the world has witnessed the growth of "DIY" jihadist attacks over the past decade. Taking inspiration from the radical ideology of groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State — and embracing the tactics of leaderless resistance — individuals or small groups of people in the West and further afield have staged attacks against perceived enemies of Islam. And because of the difficulty in producing something as complicated as a bomb, many attackers have opted for comparatively low-tech solutions such as stabbings, shootings or using vehicles to mow down pedestrians.
Here's a look back at the past year in grassroots jihadism, as well as what could be in store for 2019.
Grassroots militancy remained a persistent, low-level global threat in 2018, but did not match the spectacle of attacks seen in previous years. The pace of grassroots activity slowed slightly last year, and there were no attacks causing mass casualties in the West on the scale of previous attacks in Nice, Barcelona or Manchester.
The Islamic State relied largely on grassroots militants for operations in the West, but the group appeared to have motivated fewer attacks in 2018 — perhaps because its battlefield defeats in Syria and Iraq have taken the sheen off its appeal.
The Islamic State relied largely on grassroots militants for operations in the West, but the group appeared to have motivated fewer attacks in 2018 — perhaps because its battlefield defeats in Syria and Iraq have taken the sheen off its appeal. Nevertheless, the threat remains present as evidenced by the dozens of attacks blocked by intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the world. There were numerous simplistic attacks such as stabbings everywhere from Australia to Tajikistan that remained isolated events. Authorities also thwarted attacks, including one in Florida in December 2018. The two attacks with the highest profile, meanwhile, came at the end of the year: a shooting at a Christmas market in Strasbourg that killed five and an attack in Morocco's mountains that killed two European hikers.
Grassroots militants will continue to be a threat throughout 2019, since the ideological struggle against jihadism is a generational one that will not conclude for many years. Any resurgence by the Islamic State, particularly in its core area of Iraq and Syria, will likely prompt additional grassroots attacks in the West. Al Qaeda also remains vocal in advocating attacks, claiming that strikes in the West have far more propaganda value and impact than those on the battlefields of the Middle East, Africa or South Asia. Such assaults will have a greater chance of success than those directed or instigated by professional militants, but the lack of expertise means they will likely have less impact than complex attacks or large-scale strikes, such as car bombings. Attacks are likely to be relatively simplistic and will likely come in the form stabbings, shootings or vehicular assaults. However, there could be some attacks with drones or against targets that don't receive significant attention, such as trains. Indeed, militants have previously advocated railway attacks, though grassroots militants have so far failed in their attempts to attack that mode of transport.