Eighteen years after 9/11 attacks jihadism remains a global and local threat
Eighteen years ago tomorrow, Osama bin Laden and his jihadist al Qaeda group conducted the most devastating terrorist attacks in history. The attacks in New York and Washington took the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent victims, shaking the entire world to its core. And the aftershocks continue to be felt today — whether it’s in the residual consequences of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the complete overhaul of global air travel security.
Almost two decades later, the United States remains engaged in both Middle Eastern and Afghan theatres. Just this past weekend, the White House pulled the plug on the latest round of peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. And on a local and individual level, the attacks continue to affect the health of survivors and first responders who witnessed the horror firsthand and were exposed to asbestos and other toxic building materials in the process.
But just as the impacts of the 9/11 attacks have been both global and local — or “glocal” — in nature, so, too, has the evolution of jihadist movement itself. Today, a wide array of insurgencies continues to rage across a significant swath of the globe, as do a number of grassroots jihadists and jihadist cells. Thus, in order to ensure jihadists can never again conduct the kind of atrocity we witnessed in 2001, it is critical that counterterrorism efforts be equally glocal in nature.
Jihadism has never really been a monolithic movement. Since the beginning, it has been comprised of various elements all working together to varying degrees. Indeed, competing jihadist leaders were believed behind the assassination of one the founders of transnational jihadism, Abdullah Azzam, in 1989. Azzam supporter Mustafa Shalabi was then killed two years later by followers of Omar Abdel Rahman (widely known as the “Blind Sheikh”), who sought to assume control of the U.S. branch of Azzam’s lucrative global network for financing the jihad. These two deaths, however, offered only the first glimpse into the competition and division at play within the larger jihadist movement.
In 1999, bin Laden met with a Jordanian jihadist named Ahmad Fadhil al-Khalayleh (who the world would later come to know as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) in Afghanistan. But according to some researchers, al-Zarqawi’s criminal past and his severe interpretation of takfir created significant rifts between the two men. And as a result, bin Laden refused to admit al-Zarqawi into al Qaeda, which would later prompt al-Zarqawi to form the jihadist group Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) based on his own theology and operational precepts. But this new group was only one of several independent jihadist groups in various regions of the world.
Then came the 9/11 attacks in 2001. This was a watershed moment for the jihadist movement, as never before had a terrorist group pulled off such a spectacular attack. Al Qaeda quickly became seen as a uniquely powerful force, with its name — and bin Laden’s — instantly becoming known around the world. The perceived power and sudden stardom of the al Qaeda brand led to a number of existing jihadist factions to become franchise groups. From the outside, it seemed the world’s jihadists were consolidating under the al Qaeda name. Beneath the branding, however, these groups remained locally owned and operated, and often ignored al Qaeda operational and doctrinal guidance.
The growing tensions between al Qaeda and the renamed Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, which Stratfor began to note in 2005, would ultimately culminate in the group formally breaking away from al Qaeda to become the Islamic State in 2013. But in the eight years leading up to this major fracture, plenty of other discord was brewing elsewhere in the larger jihadist universe. Somalia’s Islamist militant group al Shabaab, for example, formally joined al Qaeda in 2012. But a year later, the group’s leader, Ahmad Abdi Godane, continued to purge al Qaeda loyalists, including Ibrahim al-Afghani and U.S. citizen Omar Hammami. Godane was also believed to have orchestrated the 2011 death of al Qaeda leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed for his criticism of Godane.
Another example of the divisions was seen in a recovered letter written by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM’s) advisory council in 2012. In the letter, the council chastised the Algeria-based group’s military commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, for his disdain and disrespect for AQIM leadership. Belmokhtar then split from AQIM in 2012 to form his own jihadist group, which has since morphed into Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). Today, JNIM remains within the general al Qaeda orbit and opposes the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel. But the group’s splintering nevertheless serves as a reminder that the jihadist universe is nowhere near as unified as it may seem.
The same goes for the Islamic State pole of the movement. After the group successfully conquered large portions of Iraq and Syria in 2014, many local groups assumed the Islamic State branding and became franchises. Despite their rebranding, these franchise groups remain locally owned and operated. And like their al Qaeda counterparts, their own local concerns and struggles continue to trump any guidance or doctrine from the Islamic State core organization.
In many ways, however, this glocal nature has also benefited the Islamic State and al Qaeda by providing a great degree of durability and resilience. If jihadism was indeed managed by a single hierarchical institution, then taking out its core leadership could help to destroy it. But this decentralized franchise model instead helps insulate local groups from damage incurred by the upper echelons of the jihadist movement. The 2011 killing of bin Laden, for example, has had very little impact on the operations of groups such as AQIM or AQAP. And likewise, the massive losses that the Islamic State core have suffered in Syria and Iraq in recent years have had very little effect on the Islamic State West Africa Province or the Islamic State Sinai Province.
This is largely because these franchises were independent groups before they ever adopted the al Qaeda or Islamic State name. And as a result, they have their own local leadership as well as existing support, finance and logistics networks. While a few franchise groups have received some help from the two core groups in terms of training or funding, such support is thus not key to their survival.
The third part of the decentralized jihadist movement is comprised of grassroots jihadists who are either individuals or small cells that think globally but act locally. These grassroots factions continue to pose a significant threat in many parts of the world, and play an increasingly important role to the movement at large in terms of projecting terrorist capability — especially as groups and franchises struggle to send terrorist cadres out to conduct transnational attacks without detection.
That said, the number of attacks by grassroots jihadists is down significantly from just a few years ago, likely due in part to the Islamic State’s waning aura. But defeating the grassroots threat nonetheless remains difficult. The core groups have also been weakened, but remain dangerous and undoubtedly continue to plot attacks. Just in the past two months, the United States conducted airstrikes in northern Syria against al Qaeda targets believed to be planning transnational attacks. And similar attention must be kept on the Islamic State core group to prevent it from regaining additional strength and reach.
But such pressure cannot be applied by just a global force like the United States, as defeating such a glocal opponent requires equally local and global efforts. The local part of this equation involves mostly counterinsurgency operations and, in many places, often requires additional help. Thus, to prevent these core groups from recovering their strength, U.S. and coalition forces must remain engaged in supporting local partners across the world — from West Africa to the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines. At the same time, global and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies must continue to work thwart efforts by the core and franchise jihadist groups to dispatch terrorist cadres for attacks, or to fund and direct grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks.
Until the ideology of jihadism is defeated, preachers of hate will continue to attract new adherents to the cause, and they will continue to threaten the rest of the world. And while conducting security operations against jihadist insurgents and terrorist cadres won’t alone discredit and defeat the virulent ideology driving the jihadist threat, such efforts are needed to help stem its influence and spread.