It looks increasingly likely that the changes in Islamist terrorism over the past five years will be as consequential in that realm as those that came about in the broader geopolitical sphere after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Back then, the international system moved rapidly from a bipolar world to a unipolar one. In the narrower sphere of terrorism, the changes of recent years have taken us from the unipolar and hierarchical world of the 9/11-era al-Qaeda to the multipolar, and highly if unevenly networked world that is Islamic terrorism today.
Many of the terms bandied about to describe this change, like al-Qaeda 2.0 or 3.0, are too glib to be useful, but they do, at least, indicate that change has taken place. Such terms can’t denote the stages that this brand of Islamic extremism has moved through over the past twenty years. Al-Qaeda 6.0, if one insists on the software metaphor, comes closer to capturing these stages, which might be defined as follows:
- Financing terror: the 1993–96 period when bin Laden stayed mostly in Sudan, providing inspiration and money to support operations;
- Going operational: the 1996–98 period when bin Laden, having moved to Afghanistan, shifted into direct action, directing attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa;
- Classic al-Qaeda: the 1998–2001 period featuring the attempted millennial attacks, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and the 9/11 plot;
- Plotting on the run: the 2001–06 period, when al-Qaeda scattered from Afghanistan but managed to inspire and help plan a series of attacks ranging from the 2005 London subway bombings to the foiled 2006 plot to blow up airliners crossing the Atlantic;
- Spinning off affiliates: the 2006–09 period when a number of powerful affiliates gained prominence or crystallized, especially in Yemen and North Africa; and
- Network of networks: from 2009 to the present, when affiliates began to cooperate and communicate among themselves. Some still look to al-Qaeda’s core leadership for inspiration or direction, but most are internally driven and, to the extent they cooperate, they do so without recourse to any central organizing platform.
So today’s al-Qaeda is fundamentally different from the one we knew a dozen and more years ago. There are three key differences. First, al-Qaeda’s center of gravity no longer rests in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, if indeed it has a center of gravity at all. Second, it is caught up in debates over tactics, goals and leadership that we always thought would come in the wake of bin Laden’s death. Third, al-Qaeda’s dedicated adherents and those merely inspired by it are harder to locate, contain and penetrate because they lack a central organizing apparatus to work back from. Meanwhile, they remain radical, militant, anti-Western, violent and dangerous.
So we are at a highly fluid moment of transition in international terrorism—a moment when we can confidently discern trends but cannot predict end-states with any assurance. What are these changes, what are their consequences, and what uncertainties do they present? Most of the answers can be captured by studying comprehensively three major trends.
The first of these trends involves fundamental changes in the physical field of battle, precipitated by the U.S. departure from Iraq and the ongoing drawdown, possibly even to zero, in Afghanistan. For the past decade, the most visible fights have been in those countries and their borderlands, and the presence of allied forces has constricted terrorists’ freedom of maneuver and provided intelligence platforms for the collection of very granular data on jihadis operating there. The future evolution of both countries can only be a matter of speculation. But even if neither becomes a major terrorist safe haven, it seems fair to surmise that terrorists will be able more easily to move, train and communicate there than they could under constant pressure from numerous and highly maneuverable U.S. and allied forces. Meanwhile, the United States, together with its partners in counterterrorism, must devise new ways to monitor, detect and combat radical Islamists, either remotely or from a much smaller number of fixed platforms in theater.
Clearly, this will be much more difficult if the United States fails to finalize a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan that keeps a significant U.S. force there. (As of this writing, just across the frontier into 2014, that outcome is still unclear.)
Moreover, in Iraq, a combination of factors has raised questions about that country’s long-term cohesiveness: Shi‘i Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki’s authoritarian style, Sunni attraction to the plight of brethren in neighboring Syria, and the hardening commitment to autonomy among Kurds.1 More immediately, these factors have opened up new opportunities for al-Qaeda in Iraq and given it a new lease on life. With sectarian strife sharply on the rise, violent deaths are now at their highest point since the sectarian civil war of 2006. Meanwhile, the border separating western Iraq from eastern Syria no longer exists for all practical purposes; local tribes straddle it, and the pipeline current that once carried foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria has now been effectively reversed.
The suggestion that Syria and Iraq could each come apart was once considered a worst-case scenario. But given the sectarian violence in Syria and the centrifugal pressures in Iraq, it is no longer so hard to imagine, particularly if ongoing efforts fail to convene the warring Syrian parties for successful negotiations in Geneva or, should those fail, somewhere else in due course. The weakening of Iraq and Syria as states also bodes ill for the capacity of neighboring states to control their borders and maintain internal stability, especially Jordan but also Lebanon. If the worst-case scenario were to come about, the map of the Middle East would have to be redrawn, both literally and intellectually. Not since the arrival of Ottoman power to the region in the early 16th century will there have been so vast a no-man’s land in the region in terms of basic governance. And all this would take place in circumstances brought about in part by terrorist groups, who would then have the means to influence the outcome.
A scenario along these lines has long been a “best case” for bin Laden’s often underrated successor Ayman al-Zawahiri. One of al-Qaeda’s original and central aims all along has been to bring down what its leaders consider apostate Arab regimes, the boundaries of which were imposed by the West. It is easy to imagine al-Zawahiri somewhere in his hideout relishing the prospect, earnestly seeking to bring it about, and taking pleasure in the fealty of so many of the most effective rebel combatants in Syria.
In Afghanistan, the danger is not just that U.S. withdrawal will weaken a deterrent to terrorism. It is also likely to stimulate the neighboring countries’ habit of treating Afghanistan as a pawn in a regional chess game. India, for example, is likely to become more active in the country in order to deny Pakistan the strategic depth that a weak or easily influenced Afghanistan has always represented for Pakistan on its western border. This, in turn, would work against any rapprochement between India and Pakistan in their long-running regional feud. And when India and Pakistan are at odds, opportunities aplenty open up for terrorists.
Possible contingencies in the wider region composing the Middle East proper, North Africa, the Sahel and the vast western reaches of South Asia are now so prolific that few predictions can confidently be made. The only certainty is that Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will in the future be less easily monitored, and trends there less easily shaped by U.S. power and that of its associates.
In many ways these are the least complicated ways in which the context of terrorism is changing. More complex and probably more consequential in the long run is a second trend: the changing pattern of governance in the areas of greatest concern. Starting with the advent of civilian rule in Pakistan in 2008 and continuing with the so-called Arab Spring two years later, the region encompassing South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa entered an era of transition, marking the end of predictable estimates of terrorists’ fortunes there.
Leaving aside Turkey and a couple of the Gulf countries, it is hard to disagree with Robert Kaplan’s observation that only two countries in this area today exercise full sovereignty over their territories: Israel and Iran. In most other countries, governments do not exercise confident control outside their urban capitals. This is certainly the case in North Africa, where borders are scarcely patrolled at all and where the terrain is marked by militant camps and corridors etched in long stretches of desert, mountain passes and remote valleys. To be sure, not all states face the same degree of powerlessness. Algeria is far tighter a ship than post-Qaddafi Libya, but even in Algeria the In Amenas raid of January 16, 2013 and the country’s restive Berbers speak to the volatility of the situation.
In sum, many of the political changes of recent years have dramatically enlarged the region’s ungoverned or sparsely governed space. While political leaders in this area still worry about terrorism, it is no longer the driving concern it was when greater stability reigned in the region, mostly under authoritarian governments. Instead, regional regimes are focused on the following concerns:
- managing the aftermath of a coup and creating a new constitutional order (Egypt);
- surviving sectarian strife (Syria, Iraq);
- managing protest in the midst of precarious democratic transition (Tunisia);
- ensuring the durability and effectiveness of civilian rule (Pakistan);
- supplanting tribal differences with a semblance of central authority (Libya);
- forging a balance between secular and religious forces (Turkey); and
- riding out the recent, region-wide political storm (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria).
In this region, terrorists gain when sovereignty is in question and governments are distracted by issues more central to their near-term survival. So intelligence services there that once focused on a granular understanding of societies in the service of authoritarian regimes are today either absent or shifting attention from terrorism to higher-priority concerns. As with the governments they serve, intelligence agencies and security organizations more generally are trying to find their way under new political circumstances with new masters (Egypt, Tunisia); seeking to establish themselves in competition with powerful militias (Libya); or helping established governments ride out growing pressures for change (Jordan and Saudi Arabia).
Taken together, these first two trends—along with terrorists’ gains in financing and operations—mean that al-Qaeda and its affiliates now have a larger area for safe havens and bases than they have had in more than a decade. Syria is Exhibit A.
The ongoing effort to reduce or eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria has yet to diminish the Syrian civil war as the engine driving the extremist movement, just as Iraq’s sectarian strife did in the mid-2000s, or as the mujahideen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan did in the 1980s. The country is now a magnet for foreign fighters from as near as Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and North Africa, and as far away as Bangladesh, Britain, Chechnya and even Australia. Martyrdom reports and other data on the internet suggest that as many as 6,000–10,000 foreign fighters have shown up in Syria, comprising perhaps as much as 7–10 percent of the rebel force.
There are good reasons for this. First and foremost, their enemy in Syria—the ruling Alawi minority—is tailor-made bait for the most radical Sunni Islamists, who consider it a heretical sect. They will be doubly motivated if, as is very likely, a political succession plan cannot be forged diplomatically anytime soon, for that will probably lead to intensified fighting. If in due course that fighting should lead to Assad’s demise, a bloodbath of comparable or greater magnitude may follow. That will likely open the spigots of terrorist funding even wider. The Alawis who staff Syrian ministries are unlikely to survive such a transition, meaning that there will be no administrative continuity if current arrangements come undone. That is a recipe for chaos, perhaps even greater in magnitude than we saw in post-Saddam Iraq.
It is also a circumstance in which those who are best armed, organized and disciplined are likely to prevail, not least the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. As they consolidate the terrain they hold in the Syrian northeast, we must be mindful that territorial gains like this are a long-cherished dream of al-Zawahiri and, in time, could provide a launching pad for plots aimed at U.S. targets—including in the homeland—comparable to the one that existed in Afghanistan before 9/11.
As was the case at the end of the Afghan war in the 1980s, fighters trained in Syria are likely to filter back to their homelands, many of them now undergoing transitions that were unimaginable in the aftermath of past insurgencies. These fighters will be hoping for opportunities to use their skills to advance jihadi causes there. This is nowhere more the case than in North Africa, where the weakness of many central governments combines with geography to create some of the world’s most poorly governed spaces. It is worth noting in this regard the possibility that itinerant jihadis might at some point flow into and out of Egypt. In the past, the “blowback” phenomenon proceeded from the fact that only one kinetic insurgent front was active at any one time. Things may not be so simple in the future.
Heralding the likely future, and emblematic of the opportunities this opens up for extremists, is the aforementioned January 2013 raid on the In Amenas natural gas facility in southern Algeria. This raid has been much less discussed than the September 2012 attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, but it bears significantly greater importance in what it tells us about the evolving nature of the threat.
Directed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a first-generation al-Qaeda veteran and fighter for the breakaway al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the attack was carefully planned for weeks and carried out with precision. Illustrating the freedom with which extremists can move in this area, Belmokhtar was able to use networks across the region to acquire weapons and recruit fighters from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria and Mauritania. He was clearly able to tap into other networks; some of Belmokhtar’s Egyptians had also taken part in the Benghazi attack. Although the occupying force of terrorists at the facility was brutally suppressed by Algerian security forces, nearly 40 civilians were killed along with close to 30 militants. Belmokhtar’s stated objectives were to avenge the French intervention against extremists in northern Mali and to exert pressure on the Algerian government, by any measure the most authoritarian government still standing in the region.
Meanwhile, events farther south in Africa have underlined both the durability of other al-Qaeda-like groups and their capacity to work together. If Syria, Iraq and North Africa have problems with sub-sovereign conditions, they are modest compared with those on display in the vast stretches of the Sahel running from Mali through Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic and the South Sudan all the way to Somalia. The Nigerian federal government is clearly struggling with an extremist-inspired uprising in its northeast. And there is evidence that the local group, Boko Haram, has been able to recruit fighters from outside Nigeria, even while developing ties with other regional groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and the larger al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
For its part, al-Shabaab in September defied predictions of its demise with the devastating attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. It is not yet clear whether this was an act of desperation by a group that an African peacekeeping force had severely degraded, or whether it shows the group’s resilience and a new determination to attack international targets—a shift urged by one of its leading factions. Regardless, the attack demonstrated an ability to plan, surveil, deploy heavy weapons and attack a vulnerable target in a major African capital.
The region as a whole is likely to see more incidents like the In Amenas, Nairobi and Benghazi attacks, largely due to the combination of porous borders, weak security environments, populations 60–70 percent under the age of thirty and broadly sympathetic to jihadi causes, and terrain marked by historic and well-traveled smuggling routes. These kinds of threats do not necessarily implicate the U.S. homeland, although, left unchecked, one day they might. But they clearly do implicate U.S. diplomatic and commercial targets and, of course, targets belonging to U.S. allies, partners and associates.
The third major trend in the evolving terrorist movement is the heightened degree to which terrorists are now debating future strategy. They are learning from and adapting to the circumstances flowing from the death of bin Laden, the “Arab Spring”, and the instances in which they have either been defeated by counterterrorism forces or rejected by other Muslims. On strategy and targets, a robust debate is underway. There are undoubtedly some in the al-Qaeda core and in the stronger affiliates, such as Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who still relish the prospect of another major attack on the U.S. homeland—and have not given up on it. Most experts believe their chances of bringing this off have diminished, but it is prudent to recall that each time we discover one of their methods, they surprise us and often impress us with their ingenuity: the underwear bomb, the package bomb, the surgically implanted bomb. It is hard to believe that they have given up trying to surprise us with innovations designed to penetrate our defenses.
We should be especially mindful of this given the uncertain status of WMD material in the chaotic Syrian conflict. Additionally, among the AQIM documents recovered in northern Mali is a professional training manual for SA-7 surface-to-air missiles—in other words, the nerve-wracking MANPADS problem. This could be in contemplation of using such weapons against the regime in Syria, or against a civilian airliner somewhere else, something terrorists have tried but failed to do in the past.
Moreover, we have been taken by surprise when smaller, less well-understood groups have taken it into their heads to point an attacker toward a U.S. homeland target, as Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban did with Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square truck bomber of 2010. And bin Laden’s simple and basic message—that the Islamic faith and territory are under attack, that the West is inherently anti-Islam, and that followers are duty-bound to fight back—continues to reverberate on the internet and among radical preachers, ensuring that an inestimable number of Boston-style jihadis will pop up with various schemes inside the United States. Indeed, al-Zawahiri himself is known to have on occasion favored smaller targets outside the U.S. homeland in contrast to bin Laden’s fixation on the U.S. “far enemy.” And one theme we are seeing among the affiliates now is their attraction to local targets associated with weaker local government in places like Tunisia, Libya and Jordan.
So the jihadi movement is now pulled in many directions. It is not abandoning altogether the idea of a U.S. homeland attack, but is drawn more immediately to “softer” U.S. and partner targets abroad, and intrigued by the possibility of scoring gains in a region now characterized by weaker and more distracted local governments. Related to this is the degree to which the movement is now learning from its mistakes. We see this particularly in the way it is reflecting on the fact that populations have resisted jihadi rule when they have gained control of specific localities. There is a growing realization that they cannot gather many adherents when they treat populations harshly and fail to provide any useful services. This is spelled out explicitly in revealing documents recovered from AQIM safe-houses after the French chased them from northern Mali. In one lengthy document AQIM leader Droukdel is sharply critical of fighters and commanders for having been much too hard on locals, especially women, and seeking to rush adoption of sharia; he says they must bring people along slowly, as they would “babies.”
There is a similar dawning among the jihadis of Yemen, Iraq and especially al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate in Syria, which has had to deal with the challenges posed by an even more extreme self-styled al-Qaeda clone, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Accompanying this change of attitude is a new trend of providing practical services to populations that fall under their sway. And in the Maghreb, the Ansar al-Sharia movement, particularly strong in Tunisia and Libya, is encouraging adherents to integrate into society as opposed to isolating themselves with like-minded extremists. This brand of Islamist extremism may be on its way toward a kind of Hizballah model; the Iran-inspired group has long been noted for provision of social services that help bring populations to its banner. Of course, the same has long been true of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Incorporating a social service appendage to its portfolio would make it still harder to detect terrorist activities, separate them sufficiently from populations, and root them out.
In sum, al-Qaeda today may be weakened, but its wounds are far from fatal. It is at a moment of transition both in terms of its internal deliberations and its external opportunities. Some of those opportunities hold the potential to energize the movement and give it new momentum. And should it gain in those ways, it will not be the al-Qaeda we knew in the past. It is likely to be a more variegated and less hierarchical adversary that would still hold the potential to do significant harm to American and allied interests. It would be an adversary more difficult to categorize, detect or contain.
In light of the death of Osama bin Laden and the absence of any attack comparable to that of 9/11 over a dozen years, most Americans think we have won the War on Terror. But we have not won the new war that terrorism poses, and unless we are vigilant we could even lose it. We must therefore pay close attention to all of these trends, and to what the extremists themselves tell us about their aspirations. As we do, we would be well served to bear in mind the wisdom of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose character Éowyn says in the Lord of the Rings: “It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two…”
1For more on the latter, see Ofra Bengio, “The Elephant in the Room”, The American Interest Online, December 12, 2013.