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 Snowden Strengthens U.S. Efforts Against Jihadi Terrorism

The Snowden leak of thousands of NSA documents has been a nightmare for the organization. No intelligence organization that is used to, and feels comfortable with, working in the shadows, wants to have its utmost secrets in the public domain, free for all to see. The leaked documents exposed the extent of the U.S. surveillance apparatus, its methods of information collection, and many specific targets of surveillance, revealing an extensive system far greater and more capable than what we had previously known. The revelations have caused the U.S. never-ending diplomatic headaches. The NSA’s failure to quickly identify the extent of the breach resulted in a constant stream of unpleasant new revelations to which the U.S. had to respond, never really able to stay ahead of the story and effectively stop the bleeding.

The damage from the Snowden leak went beyond undermining U.S. foreign relations (particularly with its close yet pervasively surveilled allies). The Obama administration also found itself exposed to loud critique over the constitutionality of the NSA surveillance programs, the adequacy of oversight by the legislative and judicial branches, and later even the extent to which the President was aware of the scope of NSA actions. At least in the first phase of the scandal, when the news focused on the extent of U.S. penetration of cyberspace, primarily through the collection of metadata and access to social media and email accounts,   the Administration and the NSA’s primary line of defense was the claim that these programs are critical for U.S. ability to fight terrorism. U.S. officials, as well as their British counterparts, maintained that their spying helped prevent numerous terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad. They lamented the news stories, maintaining that these revelations will undermine the ability of the West to confront the scourge of jihadi terrorism. Learning about NSA abilities and collection methods, the argument went, jihadis will now change their habits and modes of operation in order to reduce the risk of exposure. Thus, the message was that the Snowden stories are going to undermine counterterrorism and increase the threat of terrorism to the West. I argue that despite the many negative repercussions of the NSA stories, the claim that it increases the threat of terrorism is exaggerated.

There is no doubt that the Snowden leaks put the U.S. in a very unenviable position. The Administration and the NSA were put on the defense, forced to constantly respond to a barrage of revelations and accusations, and to deal with serious diplomatic crises, not knowing whether any particular fix to a revelation would be undermined by a new story from the Snowden cache. The U.S. government needed to restore public and allies’ trust while maintaining a surveillance apparatus it sees as crucial for serving the country’s national interest. Although these negative effects of the NSA stories cannot be denied (even if one acknowledges that to some extent these are wounds self-inflicted by overreaching administrations and the NSA), the fundamental claim of the administration and its intelligence services that Snowden’s leak undermines counterterrorism has been overstated. It neglects to consider how the NSA revelations positively affect the ability of the U.S. to deter existing and would-be jihadi terrorists.

Indeed, counterterrorism involves a lot more than thwarting ongoing plots. We acknowledge that when we talk about information campaigns, designed to capture ‘hearts and minds.’ These efforts are designed to convince people that U.S. objectives do not conflict with their interests. More specifically, the U.S. seeks to convince Muslims that their interests align with those of the West, and that affiliation with extremist views of Islam and radical Islamist actors is counterproductive to personal and community interests of Muslims. Likewise, we should also highlight the important role deterrence serves in countering terrorism. The effects of deterrence are often harder to measure; after all, how can one identify a terrorist plot that was never planned because its would-be initiators were deterred from turning to violence. Nevertheless, deterrence is essential for limiting the danger of terrorism.

Rather than using a ‘positive’ message as in efforts to capture ‘hearts and minds,’ deterrence is based on threats, especially threats of denial and punishment. A state engaged in counterterrorism seeks to convince jihadis that their plots will be thwarted and that they will be captured, jailed or even killed. Deterrence also seeks to cement in the minds of would-be terrorists that, given the prowess of their enemies, they not only won’t be able to achieve their broader goals, but they are also highly unlikely to successfully carry out acts of terrorism. This is because the states they fight would thwart their attack plans long before reaching fruition. In this way deterrence against terrorism seeks to change perpetrators’ considerations and lead them to abandon terrorism. The logic of deterrence is that the threat of negative consequences would shape the terrorists’ calculation of costs and benefits such that they would be dissuaded from attacking the U.S. and its allies.

The leaked NSA documents are likely to enhance U.S. deterrence against terrorists. By revealing the technological might of U.S. surveillance efforts, the Snowden leak provided U.S. enemies with new information that will force them to revise their assessments of their likelihood of success. The NSA stories will show jihadis that their chances of success are lower than they previously had believed and that most are likely to be captured before being able to execute their plans. Those who would still seek to harm the U.S. will inevitably feel the need for greater precautions that will prolong their planning and render cooperation with other jihadis less desirable because it would increase the risk of capture.

One could argue that U.S. opponents might infer different conclusions from the NSA documents. Instead of changing jihadis’ perceptions of U.S. prowess, committed jihadis may focus on the inability of the vast intelligence apparatus to secure its information and prevent such a huge leak. In such a view, U.S. deterrence will actually weaken. While this position cannot be dismissed altogether, it is more likely that terrorists and would-be jihadis will focus on what is more directly relevant for them – the risk of exposure and capture due to NSA capabilities. At all levels of terrorism, from the lone wolf, to the small independent cell of jihadis who have no formal affiliation to particular terrorist groups, to even operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates, the information about the tremendous capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community will suggest that the jihadis’ actions are highly likely to fail. Like people all around the world, jihadis also must have been surprised to learn the extent of the technological capabilities of the U.S. and the lengths to which Washington is willing to go in order to identify and thwart threats.

Scholars studying terrorism have long noted the tremendous psychological pressure that comes with living in the underground. Fear of drones, spying and electronic surveillance led jihadis to emphasize the need for strong security measures long before they understood the extent of US surveillance capabilities. The NSA revelations will take paranoia that is inherent to operating under constant state and international dragnet and significantly reinforce it. Indeed, the psychological pressures on jihadis, particularly in the West, are likely to considerably accelerate. As a result we can anticipate that many, though probably not all, jihadis planning to attack the U.S. will either slow their planning, or decide not to move forward with their plots. In the case of jihadi sympathizers still not committed to the path of jihad, we can expect many to abandon the idea altogether.

Jihadis may have known for some time that the business of terrorism is not the exhilarating activity it was made out to be. With the Snowden revelations terrorism just became even less appealing.   


Barak Mendesohn ([email protected]), an FPRI Senior Fellow, is associate professor of political science at Haverford College and tweets regularly at @BarakMendelsohn.

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