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.
Today’s jihadi threat, blended between al Qaeda and ISIS, networked by Facebook, and evolving based on conditions in hundreds of locations, produces attacks on three or more continents every day. On the surface this seems to indicate a stronger, unprecedented emerging jihadi threat to the West. Media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack and others suggest as much. We analysts and followers of jihadi activity, though, often give terrorists too much credit.
Many, if not most, Western jihadis are deeply troubled souls, at times more confused about their intentions and motivations than we are – Omar Hammami, Zachary Chesser, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau are three of many such examples. Counterterrorism pundits, myself included, try to tease out order from chaos. But today’s counterterrorism landscape does not lend itself to such linearity.
Years ago, Bruce Hoffman rightly proposed a spectrum approach to understanding al Qaeda comprising of a core, affiliates, and locals. His framework was appropriate but now needs some updates with the rise of the Islamic State. With two competing poles and a spectrum of adherents littered throughout at least five continents, jihadi plots and their perpetrators might best be examined through the blending of three overlapping categories: ‘directed’, ‘networked’ and ‘inspired’. These three labels should not be seen as discrete categories but instead as phases across a spectrum – some plots and their perpetrators will bleed over these boundaries.
Directed – Less frequent, highly capable, most dangerous
The image most recalled in Western minds is the directed plot by al Qaeda. Memories of 9/11 reinforced by endless episodes of television shows like ‘24’ and ‘Homeland’ prime Western citizens to assume every media account of an attack must surely be the evil handy work of a shadowy terrorist organization perpetrating the next 9/11. True, directed attacks by al Qaeda external operations elements remain the most dangerous threat to the West.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen remains the top threat in large part because of their talented bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. Second only to AQAP is the Khorasan Unit in Syria embedded amongst Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Their newly touted French bombmaker David Drugeon combined with access to an unprecedented number Western foreign fighters suggest troubling capability. The Islamic State, by contrast, seems poised to make a major shift. It is now a hybrid force that holds, defends, and governs territory while also launching hit-and-run raids and terrorist attacks in other parts of Iraq and Syria. But as it is “rolled back” by Iraqi forces, U.S. air raids, Iranian sponsored militias, and perhaps even the Assad regime, this so-called state may come to resemble al Qaeda focusing more on regional or global terrorist attacks.
In reality, dangerous plots such as 9/11, 7/7 in London or the Abdulmuttalab Christmas boming attempt of 2009 have proven scarce as Western operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia, Iraq and now Syria, along with improved law enforcement globally, have exerted sustained pressure on al Qaeda and the Islamic State challenging their ability to plan, prepare and deliver spectacular attacks. Still, time remains on the side of both al Qaeda and the Islamic State, suggesting the surreptitious delivery of highly lethal bombs on Western aviation, transportation hubs or crowded symbolic targets is inevitable. As counterterrorism and intelligence officials often say, it is a matter of when and where rather than if.
Networked – Mixed capability powered by more than a decade of jihadi conflicts
Last week’s attacks in Paris represent what many have feared since the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq sparked a jihadi resurgence: what might happen if trained extremists return home and commit violence? Immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attack, everyone (including myself) was asking who was behind this attack, al Qaeda or the Islamic State?
The answer likely seems to be ‘neither of them’ and ‘both’. The Islamic State on Thursday and al Qaeda on Friday issued statements praising the Paris operation but falling short of taking responsibility. Each group would enjoy credit for pulling off such an attack and each did contribute in some way. Cherif Kouachi was arrested for participating in a jihadi network and then trying to fight in Iraq in 2005. Said Kouachi traveled to Yemen several times, linked up with AQAP, presumably trained with them, and returned to France with the intent and capabilities to piece together a plot with a loose network of supporters. Meanwhile, Amedy Coulibaly, the kosher market attacker in Paris, pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and claims in a video released over the weekend that he worked with the Kouachi brothers, who – again – had claimed to be acting on behalf of AQAP.
It is also unclear whether Coulibaly just recently pledged his loyalty to the Islamic State or if he had any face-to-face and meaningful contact with the jihadi proto-state. The combination of allegiances amongst the attackers comes while the Islamic State battles with al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. So how should we understand two AQAP linked brothers and an Islamic State fanboy coming together in Paris? The Kouachis and Coulibaly knew each other prior to the al Qaeda and Islamic State split. All were definitely inspired by a combination of both groups, but whether they were fully directed in all of their cumulative actions appears unlikely. A more appropriate way to think about the Hebdo plot and many others to come is ‘networked.’
In the coming years, an increasing number of veteran foreign fighters will leave the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, returning home or joining sister groups in places like Libya. As we’ve seen in France this week and across Europe as a whole, three generations of foreign fighters dating back to the early 1980’s will mix together creating their own local communities of jihadi sympathizers with connections back to both al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In Syria and Iraq, these former foreign fighters might be sworn enemies, killing each other on the battlefield, but under perceived siege in their shared homeland, these jihadis unite against their common enemy: the West. Communication between these former foreign fighters to each group will be uneven and haphazard. At times, former foreign fighters will reach out to their comrades in al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Likewise, both of these groups may engage their former members in the pursuit of an attack. But this communication will not necessarily involve formalized command and control by one group or the other, nor will it mean the two groups, al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are formally collaborating in plots involving members of both groups.
The allegiance of ‘networked’ jihadis based in the West will be based on the relative strength and fame of al Qaeda versus the Islamic State. The frequency and location of plots will hinge on global geopolitical trends, the local security environment in the West, the local network of former foreign fighters, and the availability of weaponry. Veteran jihadis with know-how and motivation, will execute these ‘networked’ plots not under the direction of a sanctioned jihadi leader but instead as part of an intelligent swarm bringing together perpetrators and their skills as needed. ‘Networked’ attacks will be more frequent than ‘directed’ attacks but fewer than ‘inspired’ plots and their success will be mixed, depending on the capability and proper execution of the ‘swarm’ conducting the attack. The Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attack represents a highly successful ‘network’ attack.
Inspired – Frequent, lower capability but still dangerous at times
As al Qaeda’s reach and capability waned, AQAP used the Internet, a dynamic cleric named Anwar al Awlaki, and an online, English-language magazine called Inspire to encourage Western audiences to conduct attacks. The result, with the notable exception of Ft. Hood, has been a wide range of bungled plots and random violence by jihadi wannabees. Today, the Islamic State rather than al Qaeda has caught the imagination of unconnected jihadi sympathizers in Europe and North America. These sympathizers have responded both to the statements of the ascendant group’s leader and to the media attention granted to fellow copycats and have executed attacks in places as far off as Ottawa and Sydney. Along with these notable recent attacks, law enforcement agencies across the globe disrupt similar plots on a weekly basis. Recently the individuals behind these plots claim allegiance to ISIS more than al Qaeda.
The duration of allegiance to either group by the lone wolf varies, extending back years in some cases, but more often only a few months or weeks. ‘Inspired’ plots are essentially a function of fame seeking in a highly individualistic social media age. These ‘inspired’ plots will continue and occur in spikes as one lone jihadi wannabe, often witnessing the attention gained by another, seeks to join in the media splash of whatever group currently holds international attention. Globally, ‘inspired’ plots will be more of a detriment than a benefit to al Qaeda and the Islamic State over the long run. While ‘inspired’ plots spark fear and in some cases a heavy-handed backlash against Muslims (bringing more recruits into the jihadi movement), these uncoordinated attacks usually fail, are aimed at targets of limited strategic significance, or kill innocent Muslims. These failures and fizzles can reduce popular support for the group. Regardless, ‘inspired’ plots remain a thorny challenge for law enforcement whose technical capacity and legal authority to surveil the Internet are limited and whose capacity cannot possibly cover the sheer volume of potential leads.
What to look for post Hebdo?
The Charlie Hebdo attack, unlike recent attacks in Sydney and Ottawa, will have a significant policy impact on France in particular and in the West more broadly. On both the terrorist and the counterterrorist side, several questions emerge. First, how will al Qaeda and the Islamic State handle the aftermath of the operation? With neither possibly fully directing this ‘networked’ attack, both groups must both decide how much they want to control the beast they have created globally, or how much control they want to claim.
Some reports suggest the Islamic State may be commanding its networks in Europe to launch attacks, perhaps trying to compete with the success potentially earned by the Kouachis, who were possibly
acting on behalf of AQAP. Meanwhile, al Qaeda writ large has always been wary of loosely connected attacks, but may feel compelled to pursue the Hebdo success, further embracing ‘networked’ and ‘inspired’ attacks, and increasing the pace of the plotting and planning to sustain their relevance vis-à-vis the Islamic State.
Second, will the Paris operation push the West to take a serious stance on foreign fighters and Syria? Having kicked the can down the road on the Syrian conflict as thousands of Western foreign fighters have joined the ranks of Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State, the West may now finally understand the magnitude of their policy inaction.
Foreign fighters traveling to Syria this decade outnumber the foreign fighters that went to Iraq last decade tenfold, and these Syrian foreign fighters are returning home daily. The European Union currently hosts a mishmash of programs for returning fighters. While only a small percentage of returning fighters will return to execute ‘networked’ attacks, we are still talking about thousands of former fighters. If even a small percentage of them act, that could still result in many attacks.
Third, will the Charlie Hebdo attack truly represent the tipping point for a real jihadi social movement or simply be an anomaly in what will largely remain a bipolar jihadi landscape? If al Qaeda and the Islamic State don’t truly embrace the ‘networked’ plots available to them, the cadres of former foreign fighters may take the knowledge and skills they obtained from fighting in places like Syria and instead follow their egos instead of global jihadi leaders, creating fledgling jihadi cells and groups at home. The pace and type of Western jihadi attacks we see in coming weeks will be telling.
Fourth, have jihadis learned the lessons of the Boston Marathon bombing? One of al Qaeda’s main failings for years may have been that it tried too hard – planning overly complex and ambitious operations against hardened and high-profile targets.
The success of the Tsarnaev brothers and now the Kouachi brothers demonstrates that such a spectacular attack may not be needed to seem spectacular to the media. Both in Boston and now Paris, smaller scale, more conventional attacks informed by Inspire thinking have achieved at low cost what al Qaeda has failed to do in almost a decade. How many al Qaeda, Islamic State, or independent plots will now follow the Tsarnaev-Kouachi model, and what will the implications be for law enforcement?
The Charlie Hebdo attack, unlike other plots, will resonate for many months, if not years, to come. Monitoring the pace and type of attacks directed and networked by both al Qaeda and ISIS will illuminate how jihadis compete and cooperate in the coming years. More importantly, however, the Paris attacks make clear that the West will finally need to address problems largely sidestepped for years.