The jihadi movement may have finally become what its original luminaries always wanted it to be – and in Paris of all places. The amorphous connections between the Charlie Hebdo attackers, the Kouachi brothers – who attributed their actions to “al Qaeda in Yemen” – and kosher market attacker Amedy Coulibali – who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a recently released online video– may reflect exactly what some early jihadi strategists intended: broad based jihad via a loose social movement. Terrorism researchers, obsessed with the writings of their academic adversary in jihad, Abu Musab al Suri, have for years suggested the social movement approach represented the ultimate vision of al Qaeda’s founding leadership.
This vision, however, does not seem to be shared by today’s al Qaeda chief, Ayman al Zawahiri, who for nearly a decade has sought to rein in the group’s disobedient affiliate in Iraq, which now also controls much of Syria in the guise of the Islamic State. Al Zawahiri also questioned the value of goofy self-recruits perpetrating attacks on behalf of al Qaeda without formal membership or direction from the group. Zawahiri’s resistance to freelance members may not be sufficient to quell the zeal witnessed by last week’s Charlie Hebdo attack. The manifestation of al Qaeda social movement theory may finally be realized by three forces: the growing development and global proliferation of social media, an unending call for jihad due to the intractable Syrian civil war, and the West’s failure to adapt to the wicked problem of non-state threats in a networked world.