Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Growing Threat of al-Qaeda and Its Affiliates

Updated June 2015

With terrorism and terrorists making headline news relatively frequently over the past few months, it appears like terrorism is on the rise again, 13 years after the "War on Terror" began.  Is it our imaginations or is it a fact that al-Qaeda, the world's major motivator of terrorists, is on the rise again or are they no longer an existential threat to the United States and the rest of the world.  A 2014 study by Rand looks at the evolution and status of al-Qaeda and gauges the state of al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups to see which viewpoint is correct.  

For those of you who are not aware, Salafi-jihadism describes an extreme form of Sunni Islam that rejects both democracy and Shia rule.  Most Salafi-jihadist groups are not al-Qaeda, however, al-Qaeda is Salafi-jihadist.  Salafi-jihandists focus on the holy war against infidel regimes and reject any form of innovation to Islam, preferring a "pure" form of Islam.  They believe that it is a duty for Muslims to perform violent jihad with many of them preferring to overthrow regimes in Muslim countries (the "near enemy") as opposed to attacking Western countries (the "far enemy") since they lack the resources to attack the far enemy, although we have to keep in mind that the far enemy has assets in near enemy nations (i.e. embassies).  They base their ideology on the persistent attacks and humiliation that Muslims faced as part of the anti-Islamic movement (i.e. the Crusaders or Zionists).  Most Salafi-jihadist groups consider America to be an enemy and are quite willing to both attack the U.S. homeland and its overseas interests as well as local enemies and are more than willing to kill civilians, preferring to have a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead.

As background, al-Qaeda first appeared among the world's terrorist groups in 1988.  It grew throughout the 1990s and peaked in September 2001.  It declined in prominence during the early 2000s as key leadership figures were killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other nations around the world.  It began to rise again around 2003 after the invasion of Iraq, claiming responsibility for a wave of attacks across Iraq, in Madrid and in London.  Around 2006, the U.K. and the U.S. foiled a number of al-Qaeda plots and used drones to once again kill key leadership figures.  Between 2007 and 2009, there was a third wave of growth as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took prominence and began to decline in importance after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the same year that al-Qaeda began to spread to Syria.  While bin Laden's death was a watershed moment, recent activity from AQAP would suggest that al-Qaeda is alive and well and that the group is more than its leadership.  Most of al-Qaeda's current leadership resides in Pakistan, however, it has become more decentralized and less hierarchical in organizational structure as the years have passed since Osama bin Laden was at the helm.  By decentralizing, al-Qaeda and its Salafi-jihadist groups are more easily able to survive government crackdowns since killing one of many leaders is not critical to the health of the organization.  That said, research shows that groups with high levels of centralization are more likely to achieve victory (41.5 percent chance of success) than those with low levels of centralization (17.4 percent).

Today, al-Qaeda can be divided into four tiers:

1.) Core al-Qaeda which includes the organization's leadership, mainly based in Pakistan.  This group is led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.  The core leadership is committed to establishing a caliphate that liberates all Muslim lands as shown on this map:

2.) Affiliated al-Qaeda groups which include Salafi-jihadist groups whose leaders have sworn bay'at (an oath of allegiance) to al-Qaeda leaders.  Theses include AQAP in Yemen, al Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Algeria and Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria.  These groups are formal branches of the al-Qaeda franchise.  They tend to focus on overthrowing local governments and establishing emirates, for example, Boko Haram leaders in Nigeria have focussed on establishing an emirate in Nigeria.

3.) Other Salafi-jihadist groups, some of which have established a relationship with al-Qaeda but were not created by core al-Qaeda, are not formal members of al-Qaeda and have not sworn bay'at to core al-Qaeda.

4) Individuals and networks that have no direct contact to core al-Qaeda and have little or no organizational structure.  These individuals and groups are inspired by al-Qaeda's cause and are generally outraged by what they perceive as injustices in how Muslims are treated in Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya and other nations.  They are motivated by a hatred of the West.

Now that we have all of this background information, let's look at whether Salafi-jihadist groups are growing in number.  Here is a bar graph showing the number of Salafi-jihadist groups by year since 1988:

There has been a significant jump in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups since 2010, the number of growing by 58 percent over a three year period alone.

Here is a graph showing both the high and low estimates for the number of active Salafi-jihadist fighters by year since 1988:

Ascertaining the exact number of fighters is difficult since groups obviously do not publish membership lists, however, between 2010 and 2013, the number of Salafi-jihadists doubled in both the high and low estimates, mainly on growth in the number of figures in Syria which saw its numbers grow to between 25,000 and 51,000, based on growth in the number of Syrian rebel fighters.  The concern about the situation in Syria cannot be understated, particularly since between 1000 and 1500 rebel fighters in Syria have come from Europe, particularly France, Belgium and Sweden.  It could prove to be problematic if these fighters are further indoctrinated on the battlefield and return to Europe as "agents of instability".

Why has there been such growth in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters?  Here are two main reasons

1.) The weakness of governments in Africa and the Middle East; militant groups function best where weak governments have difficulty establishing the rule of law.  The fact that the number of terrorist groups and terrorists mushroomed after the Arab Spring is no coincidence.   As we found in the case of Saddam Hussein, sometimes the heavy hand of a dictator is what is required to maintain social order in a very diverse society that is split along religious lines (i.e. Sunni and Shi'a)

2.) The spread of militant networks; as individuals train together, they develop a social network that connects them as they move from nation to nation/battlefield to battlefield.  Like military personnel in traditional military roles, their social interaction creates a strong bond.

Interestingly, one other nation that had effectively targeted terrorist groups in the past is now seeing a resurgence.  Since Muammar Qaddafi's overthrow in 2011, Libya has become one of the most active Salafi-jihadist sanctuaries in North Africa; this is in sharp contrast to Libya's 2003 decision to renounce terrorism, a decision that was quite effective at reducing the strength of Libya's domestic terrorist network.  Despite the 2012 "democratic" elections, armed militias now control much of rural Libya and Ansar al-Sharia Libya is looking to establish shari'a law in the countryside.

Here is a map showing the areas in Libya with the highest levels of Salafi-jihadist activity in 2014:

Interestingly, under Muammar Qaddafi's leadership, Libya had quite successfully and effectively targeted and controlled the growth of al-Qaeda-related terrorism.  Even former Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice made this comment in 2006:

"...tangible results that flow from the historic decisions taken by Libya's leadership in 2003 to renounce terrorism and to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs..."

So much for that progress.  While the moves toward democracy in Libya are praise-worthy, the country as a whole has become less stable, ending the central government's ability to battle terrorism since much of the countryside is controlled by militias. 
Let's close with this graph that shows the growing number of attacks by al-Qaeda and its affiliates between 2007 and 2013:

The violence levels for attacks by core al-Qaeda and its affiliates are highest in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Syria and include a mix of suicide attacks, assassinations, use of improvised explosive devices against governments and civilians and complex attacks using multiple fighters.  Approximately 99 percent of the attacks were against "near enemy" targets in 2013.  

The report notes that some Salafi-jihadist groups pose a high threat to the U.S. homeland since they are involved in active planning against America and Americans.  The highest threat comes from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the same group that claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo and grocery store attacks in Paris.  While core al-Qaeda has historically had difficulty in recruiting volunteers that are both willing and capable in the West, their recent use of both Hollywood-style videos and the Resurgence and Inspire magazines suggest that they are still very dedicated to radicalizing Westerners, a move that appears to be having some success.  In case you were curious, here is the promotional video trailer for the Resurgence magazine:

On top of these methods, al-Qaeda has proven to be quite savvy when it comes to the use of social media, particularly YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

The authors of the report express concerns that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2016 will seriously jeopardize the West's security interests because the Taliban could well take over the nation once again, allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that are currently present in Pakistan, Afghanistan and along the inaccessible frontier regions between the two nations to increase their presence.  We also have to keep in mind that, while core al-Qaeda and its affiliates seem to focus on "near enemy" targets, the tactics that they use (i.e. in  al Shabaab's attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya) could be used as learning experiences for attacks on "far enemy" targets.  As well, the fact that thousands of potential fighters hold passports for Western nations, allows them to travel freely from their "near enemy" battlegrounds to Europe, North America and Australia, among other nations.

1 comment:

  1. Tunisia would do well to study the Israelis method of holding Islamic terrorist at bay. It begins by careful monitoring what is happening in side the country.