Why al Qaeda and Islamic State Threats To Attack The West Should Be Taken More Seriously Now

Much like other moments when al Qaeda seemed destined for defeat, an emerging force arises to breathe life into the ranks of global jihadists: this time, it was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric for the last eighteen months has focused on being “tougher” on the Islamic State despite the group’s steady decline throughout the presidential campaign. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s leaders could not craft a more preferable American foreign policy for promoting global jihad if they tried. Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, advocated the return of torture, suggested aligning with Russia and by extension the Assad regime against the Islamic State, vowed to fill the Guantanamo detention center with “bad dudes,” and rejected the idea of taking in Syrian refugees.

 

Each of these policy positions demonstrates a complete reversal of U.S. strategy and narrative going back to 2006 when first the Bush and later the Obama administrations sought to narrow the fight to core terror group members and extract America from nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming up on sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, Team Trump seems committed to affirming al Qaeda’s original justifications for attacking the U.S. – i.e., defeat the “far enemy” they believe backs apostate regimes (“near enemy”) suppressing the Muslim world.

 

For terrorists with a globalist view, particularly members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Trump administration is a dream come true. Jihadi globalists have argued for decades that the Muslim world was at war with the West. Trump’s top national security advisors agree. Bin Laden, if he were still alive, or Zawahiri today could not have picked an opposition team more perfect to their narratives and purpose than what will arrive in office on January 20. LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Advisory, has called “Islam a Cancer,” and he routinely lumps a wide range of disparate adversaries into a grand evil alliance. His discussion of a broad war on an amorphous, largely undefined “Radical Islam” has been echoed by Trump advisors Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares who collectively have alleged the creeping of Sharia law in the United States and the penetration of the U.S. government’s intelligence services by the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have advocated for allying with Russia and partnering with dictators to put down the Islamic State. These advisors and many of their harder line supporters in the U.S. government have advocated for years a hedgehog (“one big thing”) solution – ridding the world of “Radical Islam” (whatever that may be).

 

Scenario: Yeehaw vs. Jihad – The Self-fulfilling Prophecy of a Global Terrorist Showdown

Trump and his national security team must be tough moving forward or risk becoming a fraud in the face of adversity. This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where aggressive clamping down on a broad jihadi conspiracy entices extremists to attack. Meanwhile, jihadists with a globalist view seek to drag the U.S. into war in a Muslim country, hoping to unite the followers of Islam under their banner in a global battle against the West. Each side gets the fight they seek; both sides ultimately prove themselves right through their aggression.

 

If Zawahiri wanted al Qaeda to be thrust back into the spotlight, regain steam during the Islamic State’s decline, pull the U.S. to over-commit again in the Middle East, bring the West to back apostate dictators, seal an alliance between Russia and the U.S., unify divisions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and convince Muslims worldwide that the West is, in fact, at war with Islam, now is the time to attack. The Islamic State is similarly motivated to strike. Any remaining Islamic State fighters with access to Western targets might have one last chance to revive a shrinking caliphate. A pinprick strike against a U.S. target in the homeland or even abroad might very well set off a Trump administration poised for a dramatic, over-sized response. Even further, Trump’s advisors and appointees appear dangerously out of sync for the start of a new administration.

 

Two years ago, al Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri told the Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra to hold back on attacking the West. Curiously, Zawahiri appears no longer hesitant about striking the U.S. stating in his January 5 speech, “We invite our mujahid nation to make the jihad against the modern day false idol, America, and its allies, their first priority as much as they can afford.”

 

The question, today, for Zawahiri and jihadi globalists, isn’t “should we attack?” but “can we attack?” The U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued external operations cells planning attacks in the West. Al Qaeda likely doesn’t have a 9/11-sized attack in its pipeline. But, they also don’t need such scale to provoke the U.S. The Islamic State or al Qaeda could execute gun runs and bombings reminiscent of the Islamic State’s recent Ramadan campaign hitting Westerners abroad. The abundance of Trump properties worldwide also provides an array of symbolic targets for jihadists to hit to further provoke a thin-skinned president. Al Qaeda and its affiliates might also target the oil and gas industry, a common economic target of past campaigns, or major multinational corporations noting the ties of Trump’s ultra wealthy appointees to multinational corporations. Some might see this targeting calculus as spit-balling, but we should remember al Qaeda once targeted the Lockheed Martin CEO as an asymmetric counter to the drone program that was decimating their ranks.

 

I have no insight into recent rumors of an inauguration timed terrorist attack. However, the stars do seem in line for a globalist jihadi comeback (AGAIN!). This is only one of several scenarios emerging from the Islamic State’s wake, and I would note that if the West doesn’t see a directed al Qaeda attack or Islamic State attack provoking the U.S. in the next six months, then it would suggest that globalists either don’t have the capability to strike the U.S. as thought and/or that Western counterterrorism has gotten very good at detecting and disrupting terrorists ability to strike the West. Only time will tell.

 

Author’s Note: In October 2016, I was preparing an updated terrorism forecast regarding al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and whatever comes next. But I got distracted by a more pressing issue. Two colleagues and I decided to publish our long study of Russian influence operations against the U.S. electorate, and this delayed completion of a longer forecast of what might come from the third foreign fighter glut after Syria. Any forecast I would have made in October would surely have been off the mark, failing to account on the unanticipated changes and uncertainty of U.S. and resulting Western foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy. Rather than do a linear sequence of posts leading up to my final foreign fighter and terrorism futures forecast, I moved this scenario forward in the series due to its immediate relevance post inauguration. The rest of “Countering Terrorism From The Third Foreign Fighter Glut” and additional scenarios will come out here at FPRI in the coming weeks.

 

 

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The False Promise of Drone Strikes? Ease vs. Effectiveness

Over the weekend, the Pentagon announced that Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) Farouq al-Qahtani (also known as Nayf Salam Muhammad Ujaym al Hababi), a senior al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, had been killed in a drone strike in Kunar, Afghanistan. In a statement, the Pentagon said,

On October 23rd, U.S. forces conducted precision strikes in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, targeting Faruq al-Qatani and Bilal al-Utabi, two of al-Qaeda’s most senior leaders in Afghanistan. We are still assessing the results of the strikes, but their demise would represent a significant blow to the terrorist group’s presence in Afghanistan, which remains committed to facilitating attacks against the United States, our allies, and partners.

What the Pentagon fails to admit—even after years of conducting drone strikes in the region—is that the death of al-Qahtani will have little effect on defeating al Qaeda and winning the “War on Terrorism.” He secured the relocation of some al Qaeda members from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and he planned attacks on the U.S. and the West: “In 2010, [al-Qahtani] participated in two attacks against Coalition Forces convoys, and he led operations in northeast Afghanistan that included attacks against U.S. military bases in 2009.” All signs point to al-Qahtani being an invaluable member of al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan. Both former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn and former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell characterized him as a great asset for al Qaeda and tough enemy for the U.S. Al-Qahtani worked with the Taliban and was a “true believer” in the cause. Kunar—where the deadly strike occurred—is where U.S. forces have experienced some of the worst fighting. Al-Qahtani forged a strong al Qaeda presence there.

No matter what role al-Qahtani served—alliance forger, fundraiser, attack planner—his death only serves as a symbol similar to Osama bin Laden’s. When bin Laden was killed in 2011, President Barack Obama and his cabinet members pegged al Qaeda as “on the run” and no longer a major threat to the world. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said a month after bin Laden’s death, “I’m convinced that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” Neither declaration proved true. Al Qaeda is resurgent across the Middle East: from regrouping and fundraising in Pakistan to training hundreds in Afghanistan to legitimizing itself in Syria.

Despite these pronouncements of impending victory, U.S. counterterrorism strategy is inherently flawed. The U.S. relies on a tactic known as decapitation, which states that eliminating the leaders of an organization will lead to its destruction. This tactic has been used since the Bush administration, yet consecutive administrations have said the same thing in variety of ways: “killing so-and-so was a great victory for the U.S. and its allies because this death removes a skilled and talented leader from al Qaeda’s ranks.” Killing any leader of al Qaeda—or the leader of any organization or state—will not cause its ultimate collapse. Since the start of the U.S. targeted killing program, approximately 58 leaders have been killed in Pakistan, 22 in Somalia, and 35 in Yemen. Yet, the U.S. incorrectly keeps saying that this particular death is paving the way for the destruction of al Qaeda. Taking away from its message and ideology is what will lead to its demise. Without a strong and meaningful message, potential donors and members will have no reason to help al Qaeda. Killings its leaders (and potentially civilians) will only embolden the organization and create another martyr to the cause.

With the U.S. celebrating another step towards victory against al Qaeda, here is what to expect in the coming weeks or months. In response to the death of al-Qahtani, al Qaeda will retaliate in some form. Al Qaeda has the infrastructure, imbedded bureaucracy, and community support to survive continual decapitation strikes. Due to its increasingly franchised nature, this death will do nothing to damage al Qaeda groups operating outside of Afghanistan.

It has survived 15 years of strikes and in the unlikely event that the next administration changes course away from reliance on drone strikes, al Qaeda will continue to operate across the Middle East and orchestrate attacks. The U.S. should not necessarily abandon the use of signature strikes, but increasing restraint is needed. Killing leaders has not been successful, so come January 2017 when the next administration takes office, one of its first priorities should be to evaluate the failure of drones under the Bush and Obama administrations. Such an evaluation would help to determine if scaling back of drone use is required or if drones should be used in a support role before and after ground engagements. Conducting drone strikes is the safest way to attack an enemy, but it has proven not to be the most effective. This latest strike against Farouq al-Qahtani is no different.

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Two-and-a-Half Years After ISIS’s Rise: Global Jihad Spreads And Morphs

Today, Islamic State foreign fighters bleeding out of Iraq and Syria power an unprecedented wave of directed attacks on three continents inspiring cascading waves of inspired violence from distant supporters scattered around the world. With that having been said, the good times for the Islamic State ended in 2016.  Their decline has come as fast as their rise and points to yet another shift in global jihad. The jihadi landscape, in only three years, has transformed from the unipolar world of al Qaeda to a bipolar competition between the al Qaeda and Islamic State networks to a multipolar jihadi ecosystem with dozens of groups holding varying degrees of allegiance and affinity for their extremist forefathers. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State now represent two big players in a sea of militancy filled with many competing currents. As seen in Figure 10 below, the world of jihad has never been so vast, dispersed, and diluted.

As always, there are a few notes on the al Qaeda versus Islamic State chart as of September 2016 (see Figure 10). I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups. I’ve been to too many military briefings where organizational charts have been pushed as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates largely represent swarming collaborative relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy synonymous of Western military constructs. 

In the chart, circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups.  Larger circles equal bigger groups, smaller circles denote lesser-sized groups, and I can only make circles down to a certain size before the writing becomes illegible.  More overlap between circles represents my estimate of greater communication and coordination between the groups. Sometimes I couldn’t overlap groups as much as I’d like due to space limitations and this being a two- rather than a preferred three-dimensional rendering. I’ve inserted dashed circles for what I anticipate to be emerging Islamic State affiliates or new jihadi groups of no particular leaning. I could probably list a dozen other names in the chart but to prevent excessive cluttering I’ve stopped with these names. (Many thanks go to Will McCants for insights on ISIS affiliates, J.M Berger as always for his social media prowess and Aaron Zelin, particularly this year, for further refining my perspective on the emergence of fractures.) For past estimates of  al Qaeda versus the Islamic State, see depictions from February 2014, March 2014, and April 2015.

estimate-4-sep-2016 aq vs ISIS

 
What’s changed in two-and-a-half years? What should we think of jihad’s winding path?

Remarkable Speed Of Change. The most remarkable aspect of jihad’s last five years has been the speed with which things have changed. The end of the Afghan Mujahideen to al Qaeda’s zenith on September 11, 2001 took a decade. Al Qaeda’s downward spiral in Iraq began in 2008 and the Islamic State’s rise began in 2013 –i.e., half the time of the previous generation. ISIS broke from al Qaeda and overtook them in roughly eighteen months and has now receded dramatically in nearly the same amount of time–a rise and fall occurring in a little over three years. Each foreign fighter mobilization and outflow over the last thirty years has been larger and faster than the one before it. Advances in communication and transportation have made each generation’s radicalization, recruitment and mobilization easier and subsequently faster. This trend, should it continue, points to a new wave of jihad arising fairly quickly.

Volume Of Fighters And Groups. The Syrian conflict generated the largest foreign fighter wave in history. Despite the Islamic State’s reckless consumption of its foreign manpower, today and through the near-term, there will be more jihadi foreign fighters scattered around the world than at any point in history. Compared to previous generations of jihadis, survivors of Syria and Iraq’s battlefields will be better trained, more experienced, better connected physically and virtually, and have greater opportunities amongst numerous weak and failing states. The world should prepare for, and expect, years of jihadi violence emanating from this most recent foreign fighter mobilization.

Don’t mistake dispersion for strength. Scary maps showing the spread of jihad have been a favorite scare tactic of governments and the counterterrorism punditry for a decade. Similar to al Qaeda’s transition to affiliates beginning around 2004, the Islamic State’s members, supporters and re-branded followers have now spread from Morocco to the Philippines. Unmet jihadi dispersion can equate to resilience, but should not be confused with strength. With the exception of a declining emirate in Libya and challenged affiliates in Yemen and Afghanistan, the Islamic State’s affiliates operate largely as small terrorist groups working to establish their base of operations and local popular support. Likewise, al Qaeda’s affiliates have yet to regain their previous heights–e.g., al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) of 2011, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of 2012, and al Shabaab of 2013. Affiliates of either stripe, as of yet, lack the projection power and global appeal of their headquarters. Don’t make what are mostly molehills into mountains just yet; this is particularly the case when there remain sufficient unconventional warfare methods to encourage their destructive competition.

Scale of jihad matters more than it’s spread. Dispersion should bring concern when one or more affiliates begin to scale in size. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during al Qaeda Central’s decline (2009 – 2012) and the Islamic State since taking Mosul demonstrate what Clauset and Gleditsch revealed in their study “The Developmental Dynamics of Terrorist Organizations” that the larger a terrorist group grows the greater number, pace and size of terrorist attacks they can execute.

Al Qaeda’s growth from 1993 to 2001 allowed them to increase the pace, complexity, and lethality of their plots. The swelling of the Islamic State’s ranks and the grabbing of turf in Syria and Iraq enabled the creation of operational space for developing external operations branches and the manpower to reach Western targets. Their growth brought the recent unprecedented violence of their Ramadan offensive–i.e., directed and networked attacks every day in a new country creating a wave of cascading terrorism perpetrated by inspired followers. The lesson for the West: ignoring jihadi group growth will lead to a terrorism cancer nearly impossible to rein in.

Fracturing and Competition. Despite recent fear mongering over the Islamic State’s rise or al Qaeda’s comeback, the global jihad as a whole has more fracturing and infighting than any time in its history. The Islamic State versus al Qaeda rivalry remains but is likely secondary to the generational and resource competition occurring across many affiliates. Splinters have erupted in Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham (Syria), Boko Haram (Nigeria), al Shabaab (Somalia), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU – AFPAK) in just the past few months. Characterizations of global jihad as unipolar or even bipolar should be met with skepticism–the sands have never shifted so much or so quickly. Remember, jihadis are violent young men, routinely narcissistic, highly egotistical, often jealous of each other, and particularly rash. Analysts should beware imprinting order on what is largely chaos.

 
What might we think of today’s jihadi terrorism landscape moving forward? 

The al Qaeda versus Islamic State debate is nothing more than a silly DC Beltway sideshow. Three years ago, pundits and analysts widely refuted the notion of an al Qaeda break up. Two years ago, I participated in a debate regarding “al Qaeda’s grand strategy” while the Islamic State was overtaking their terrorist forefathers by seizing Mosul and declaring a caliphate. Despite these analytical surprises, similar prophesying about jihad’s future direction has returned. Some analysts again trumpet a resurgent al Qaeda, a claim made by an analyst every year since the 9/11 attacks, or they have begun parallel theorizing about the Islamic State’s grand strategy. Luckily for pundits, no one keeps score in the counterterrorism fear factory where production is rewarded over performance.

The “al Qaeda versus Islamic State” dichotomy is a hollow paradigm, reflective of analytical status quo bias from those unable or unwilling to envision a future of jihadism different from what has been seen in the past. While “al Qaeda” or “ISIS” may be convenient for communicating media narratives, today’s vast jihadi landscape cannot be accurately characterized by the names of two groups who are past their primes and that have, at best, limited ability to control their adherents. However, this paradigm will continue in the near term because….

Right now, we know less, proportionally, about what’s going on in jihad than anytime since September 11, 2001. Never have counterterrorism analysts and pundits had so much to cover and so little time and ability to do so. Today, jihadi ranks have expanded widely across three continents and they communicate in dozens of languages. With the exception of a couple of open source outlets and academic think tanks, no one can track the endless string of al Qaeda and Islamic State “Number 2’s” killed by airstrikes. The rapid, successive deaths of leaders in nearly all jihadi groups worldwide has created a chaotic jihadi stew where younger, more violent emerging leaders strike out seeking to raise both their own stature and that of their group locally.

Successfully anticipating jihad’s divergence will require tens or even hundreds of analysts equipped with advanced degrees, language skills, and field experience tapped into a blend of human and technical sources. Luckily, we have that! It’s called the U.S. intelligence community. Moving forward, Western intelligence services will be positioned to put together the global picture.

Jihadis have gone local and academics and analysts should as well. To understand jihad’s local flavor moving forward, look to journalists (like here and here) and academics (here’s one) doing true field research, in-person interviews and reporting rather than those relying heavily on social media personas of dubious access and reliability.

Connections Mean Less, Intentions Mean More. A decade ago, and even in recent years, al Qaeda connections were used to characterize perpetrators or groups. But terrorist connections mean little in the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the unending battle in Syria. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters from Africa through Asia have fought with al Qaeda last decade or the Islamic State this decade. Every Arab male between 18 and 26 years of age is now more likely than not to have a connection in some form to a person that fought with either or both terrorist group. Even recent inspired terrorist plots lacking any physical connection to al Qaeda or the Islamic State have surfaced links to both groups (here and here). Moving forward, analyses must wade past connections to examine the intentions of jihadis and their groups. Do they seek to target the West? If not, then add them to the long list of those needing monitoring but too numerous to thoroughly vet simply because “they are connected to a guy on Twitter who is connected to a guy who might be in the Islamic State”.

The next five years of jihad will look more like the 1990s than the 2000s. Figure 10 demonstrates the diffusion of jihad. I can’t properly account for all of the groups rising and falling, shifting between networks while paving their own local agendas. With the Islamic State’s decline, and al Qaeda’s limited reach, emerging groups powered by returning foreign fighters will converge and diverge largely based on regional and local forces. Instead of the al Qaeda versus Islamic State paradigm currently being put forth, the multipolar jihadi landscape of the 1990s leading to al Qaeda’s rise provides a more appropriate historical framework for anticipating future jihadi manifestations.

Prior to the September 11 attacks, many different Sunni terrorist groups with or without connections to al Qaeda pursued their own agendas competing for recruits, resources and influence amongst many different countries. This setting appears more reflective of the diffuse set of jihadis pursuing a range of ideological positions and local agendas in the near-term. Those groups that scale the largest and the quickest amongst this chaotic stew will be of the greatest concern moving forward.

 
Final Note

Unless something changes, Figure 10, will be my last al Qaeda versus Islamic State bubble chart. Surely my comments above have pointed to my own hypocrisy and underlying belief–there are too many actors, locations and competing interests to characterize jihad in a simple bipolar chart. Last decades’ theorizing should remind us how unlikely anyone will be to accurately estimate where, when, and how jihad’s next wave will emerge. Rather than focus on groups and fighters, it will be long-run forces that forge where jihad will revive and thrive next. Rest assured, after the Islamic State’s foreign fighter mobilization their surviving legions will unleash violence again somewhere soon.

Al Qaeda versus the Islamic State: a short video

Watch this short movie to see how the al Qaeda versus Islamic State estimates have changed in the past two-and-a-half years.

 

 

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How To Break Up With Al Qaeda & Date ISIS

A year ago I began building a graphic to describe the recent history of the al Qaeda and Islamic State split and the currents created by foreign fighter migrations to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria.  The infographic here doesn’t cover everything, but it is what I use for my five minute brief on al Qaeda and the Islamic State.  This was also what I used to develop my research and resulting articles for 2016. (The bottom right hand corner is the “Third Foreign Fighter Glut”– you can read part 1, “Foreign Fighters”, and part 2,“ISIS Affiliates”.)

I offer this as another Sunday morning infographic to read as you wake up. If the graphic is helpful to anyone, have at it!  And in the coming weeks I’ll be updating it with another segment at the bottom entitled “2016 and beyond.”  

Break up AQ Date ISIS
 

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After Orlando: What is different about the current Islamic State-inspired attacks?

Omar Mateen’s violent rampage that killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub on June 12, 2016 solidified a dangerous new trend of cascading terrorist attacks in the West.  Successful directed attacks both encourage networked terrorist attacks and mobilize inspired supporters to commit violence in their homelands. Dating back more than a year ago to the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, tracing responsibility for terrorist attacks to either the Islamic State or al Qaeda has become increasingly challenging.[1] Some attacks demonstrate direct linkages back to top terror leaders. But most attacks have differing degrees of connection to either terror group’s central headquarters. As of today, the two most recent mass shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando show no direct connection between Islamic State and its inspired supporters.[2] In some cases, inspired attacks show an affinity for the terror group’s online propaganda and/or leaders. But the greater the distance between the attack location and Syria or Iraq, the more muddled the linkages become between attackers and terror groups.

System Vulnerability

The Islamic State’s successful direction of the Paris attack sparked a rapid increase in networked attacks – attacks committed by terror group affiliates and former foreign fighters operating in cells acting largely on their own initiative, but relying on support from their chosen groups network. In the weeks after the Paris attacks, Islamic State affiliates perpetrated a suicide bombing in Tunisia, a car bombing and assaults in al Arish and Giza, Egypt, a car bombing in Yemen, a suicide bombing in Istanbul, Turkey, and a multi-prong attack in Jakarta, Indonesia.[3]

Relatively dormant al Qaeda affiliates mobilized in the wake of the Islamic State’s Paris success. Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s splinter al Murabitoon allegedly reunited with their former overlords al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) conducting raids in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast along with many other smaller attacks.[4] Al Qaeda affiliates likely feel compelled to launch attacks. In the Sahel, a strong Islamic State affiliate in Libya pressures the once dominant AQIM. Launching successful operations in Mali and Burkina Faso provides motivation for local members to stay with the brand rather than leave for the more popular Islamic State.[5]  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate, but over the last year it has seen rise of a Yemeni Islamic State challenger. AQAP, like AQIM, must demonstrate success to prevent being overtaken by the more fashionable younger generation of the Islamic State.

The most curious outcome of the Islamic State’s Paris attacks leading up to the more recent Orlando assault has been a rash of inspired attacks – attacks committed by lone individuals or small groups with no demonstrable connection to jihadi terror groups and motivated simply by propaganda calls for violence. Examples are plentiful: an attempted knife attack in the London subway, a vehicular attack in Valence, France, a Paris police station assault in Paris, a machete attack in Marseilles, a police shooting in Philadelphia. All of these attacks along with many other disrupted plots have been inspired by the Islamic State.[6] Only after the Islamic State’s brazen Paris attacks did these perpetrators choose to launch deadly strikes.

At any given time around the Western world, lone individuals or small groups sit primed to undertake violence inspired by a jihadi group. These inspired terrorists, whether they opine for al Qaeda or the Islamic State, come in two varieties. The more dangerous and operationally effective inspired extremists are those persistently committed to jihadi ideology, slowly radicalized over extended periods reaching their resolve for violence over many years. These individuals or groups deliberately plan and plot their attacks. They link local frustrations with broad jihadi grievances common to both al Qaeda and the Islamic State. As seen with Nidal Hasan of the Fort Hood shooting, Amedy Coulibaly in Paris, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino and now Omar Mateen in Orlando, justifications for violence blend propaganda from both terror groups, but the tipping point for action likely came from observing successful jihadi violence elsewhere.

The less effective and more common inspired terrorists appear mobilized more by headlines than ideology. Edward Archer in Philadelphia, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on the Canadian parliament, and dozens of other perpetrators with a mix of psychological issues and egomaniacal motivations rapidly mobilize in response to successful Islamic State attacks hoping to join the band wagon. Headline-inspired attacks come in reactionary waves and feature a mix of bumbled plots and unforeseeable terrorist successes. These attacks target randomly and despite their wide range of success often times generate additional headline-inspired attacks in the name of the Islamic State.

What’s different about the Islamic State’s inspired attacks?

In the Islamic State-era, the pace of terrorist attacks, whether directed or inspired, has proven more rapid in pace, greater in number, and as a result are more difficult to detect. Al Qaeda throughout its history sought operational control over its directed attacks and those of its networked affiliates which resulted in slow and less frequent successes. This in turn likely influenced its decline. The Islamic State, in contrast to al Qaeda, cares less about potential failures or collateral damage. They allow affiliates, former foreign fighters and inspired supporters to plan, resource, and execute attacks with greater independence often learning of attacks in their name only after they’ve happened. Al Qaeda would conduct rounds of communication between affiliates and its headquarters finely tuning the application of violence, this oftentimes created communication signatures tipping off counterterrorists to upcoming plots.[7] The Islamic State, however, has developed a loose system allowing for lots of plots and few signatures putting counterterrorists at a significant disadvantage. Unlike al Qaeda, who sought spectacular attacks on symbolic targets, the Islamic State’s message has been to attack soft targets and large gatherings of people anywhere and everywhere.[8]

What does Orlando mean for the future of terrorism?

Al Qaeda’s calls for inspired attacks during the Anwar al-Awlaki-era found some support in the U.S., but the plots never achieved the terror group’s vision. The assumption since September 11, 2001 has been that the most deadly attacks would come from directed plots perpetrated by operatives trained, resourced, and promoted by the headquarters of terror group .

Mateen in Orlando and Farook and Malik in San Bernardino have turned this assumption on its head. Inspired, homegrown extremists have perpetrated the most deadly attacks in the U.S. since September 11, 2001 by simply hitting soft targets they know well with gun assaults that could be executed by anyone almost regardless of skill. The Islamic State and al Qaeda no longer need to direct attacks when their inspired plotters achieve equal body counts and media attention.

Today, there are no barriers to another extremist replicating the techniques of Orlando and San Bernardino. All terrorist groups and their supporters, whether international or domestic, directed or inspired, have watched and learned from the Islamic State’s successes in Europe and the U.S. and will follow their model in the future: soft targets, gun runs, encrypted communication, and openly available assault weapons.

NOTES

[1] Clint Watts. (12 January 2015) Inspired, Networked, Directed – The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo. War On The Rocks. Available at: http://warontherocks.com/2015/01/inspired-networked-directed-the-muddled-jihad-of-isis-al-qaeda-post-hebdo/

[2] Dina Temple-Raston. (16 February 2016) Analysts Parse Differences Between San Bernardino, Paris Attacks. National Public Radio. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2016/02/16/466898543/analysts-parse-differences-between-san-bernardino-paris-attacks

[3] (29 April 2016) ISIS Goes Global: 90 Attacks in 21 Countries Have Killed nearly 1,400 People. CNN. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/world/mapping-isis-attacks-around-the-world/index.html

[4] Caleb Weiss. (8 June 2016) al Qaeda has launched more than 100 attacks in West Africa in 2016. Long War Journal. Available at: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/06/over-100-al-qaeda-attacks-in-west-africa-since-beginning-of-the-year.php

[5] Andrew Lebovich. (16 January 2016) The Hotel Attacks and Militant Realignment in the Sahara-Sahel Region. Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel. Available at: https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-hotel-attacks-and-militant-realignment-in-the-sahara-sahel-region

[6] Karen Yourish, Derek Watkins and Tom Giratikanon. (22 March 2016) Where ISIS Has Directed And Inspired Attacks Around The World. New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/17/world/middleeast/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html.

[7] Clint Watts. (4 April 2016) Why ISIS Beats Al Qaeda In Europe. Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-04-04/why-isis-beats-al-qaeda-europe

[8] Clint Watts. (23 March 2016) A Wounded Islamic State Is A Dangerous Islamic State. Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/23/a-wounded-islamic-state-is-a-dangerous-islamic-state-brussels-attacks/

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