Twenty Years After 9/11: What Is the Future of the Global Jihadi Movement?

Date01 September 2021
AuthorClarke, Colin P.

Are we serious about dealing with the al Q[a]ida threat?... Is al Q[a]ida a big deal?" Those were questions posed by Richard Clarke, the National Counterterrorism Coordinator at the National Security Council (NSC), to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice just one week before the al-Qa'ida terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (1) Clarke went on to explain that there were two schools of thought within the U.S. government about the threat posed by al-Qa'ida prior to 9/11--one school saw al-Qa'ida as little more than "a nuisance" while the other school believed that the terrorist network was "the point of the spear of radical Islam." (2) Twenty years after that initial debate--with blood and treasure spilled in pursuit of defeating al-Qa'ida and the Taliban militants who hosted them once again in control of Afghanistan--the same questions are being asked.

Speaking in mid-April 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden offered the following assessment of the global terrorism landscape: "Over the past 20 years, the threat has become more dispersed, metastasizing around the globe: al-Shabaab in Somalia; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; al-Nusra in Syria; ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia." (3) President Biden offered these remarks as a justification for his administration's policy of withdrawing the remaining 3,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In early July 2021, President Biden offered more remarks on the withdrawal, noting that in addition to "delivering justice" to al-Qa'ida leader Usama bin Ladin, the United States also achieved its secondary objective, which was "to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States." (4)

Once again, there is a debate within the U.S. government, various intelligence agencies, and the broader counterterrorism and national security community about the magnitude of the threat posed to the U.S. homeland and American interests abroad by al-Qa'ida and the global jihadi movement. Both the Trump and Biden administrations were in favor of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In defending the Trump administration's overtures to the Taliban to kickstart talks for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, President Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed in March 2020 that "Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self." (5) Subsequently, Representative Adam B. Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, noted that "the terrorism threat from the Afghan region is not zero, but, at the moment, it's less than it is in other parts of the world." (6)

The Taliban takeover of Kabul in the late summer of 2021 has prompted a reevaluation of the threat. While in June 2021, the Pentagon assessed groups like al-Qa'ida may be able to regenerate and pose a threat to the U.S. homeland within two years of a U.S. military withdrawal, it was reported that "officials now believe terror groups like al-Qa'ida may be able to grow much faster than expected." (7) Even despite these new concerns, to many it may seem that, after two decades of the Global War on Terrorism, the United States has successfully navigated the challenges posed by the global jihadi movement, which is more of a problem that needs to be managed rather than a growing threat capable of catastrophic destruction. But this set of interpretations fundamentally misunderstands the resiliency and determination of a movement that has grown in size, sophistication, and geographic expanse and looks wholly different than it did merely two decades ago. The opening section of the Biden administration's interim national security strategic guidance notes that global dynamics have shifted and the world is at "an inflection point." (8) Later in the document, it notes, "We must adapt our approach to counterterrorism, including by aligning our resources to evolving threats." (9) This resource realignment relegates terrorism to a second-tier threat, which risks squandering hard-fought gains against groups like al-Qa'ida and the Islamic State.

In looking at the future of the global jihadi movement, this article proceeds in four parts. First, it assesses the current balance sheet, taking stock of 20 years of terrorism and counterterrorism and laying out where the movement has succeeded and where it has failed. Second, it maps out areas where the global jihadi movement will likely look for new geographic opportunities. Third, it examines the potential future technology of jihadi terror, by looking at how Islamist terrorists may leverage advancing and emerging technologies. Fourth, it concludes with an overview of where things could be headed next and what developments might unfold in the short and long term.

Part One: The Balance Sheet

It is difficult to measure 20 years of progress and setbacks in fighting terrorism and especially difficult to do so in the immediate aftermath of potentially one of the biggest setbacks of all, the recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The United States and its allies have made significant strides in combating salafi jihadis, their organizations, and their networks. Counterterrorism assessments are always perilous endeavors, since not all factors and variables deserve equal weight. Ultimately, for both the United States and its allies on the one hand, and the global jihadi movement on the other, the result is a bit of a mixed bag for both sides. For the jihadis, the conflict with the West has always been a long game, measured in generations, not years. And nearly every positive indicator for the United States and its allies comes with potential drawbacks, negative implications, and second-order effects. For example, the United States has done an admirable job in attacking core al-Qa'ida and Islamic State, only to see these groups develop branches and affiliates in far-flung corners of the globe. In a sense, decentralization has been a relief valve to handling U.S. counterterrorism pressure. In many parts of the world, the situation more closely resembles a stalemate. But if the United States and its allies are indeed locked in a draw with the jihadis, it is the former that is prepared to blink first. The two sections below attempt to measure the current state of affairs by touching upon wins and losses on each side of the ledger.

For all of the critiques leveled against the United States over the Global War on Terrorism and notwithstanding the potentially significant setback of the late summer 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the United States has achieved several important milestones. Above all else, there has been no attack on U.S. soil anywhere near equivalent to what occurred on September 11, 2001. The U.S. government--including the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, and the military--has constructed a worldwide counterterrorism apparatus to dismantle terrorist organizations, deny terrorists entry into the country, and disrupt terrorist plots both at home and overseas, especially those targeting U.S. and allied interests. (10) There is danger in taking a victory lap, but there should also be an acknowledgment that protecting the U.S. homeland has remained a top priority across several administrations.

Decapitation operations have successfully eliminated a succession of high-value targets, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (2006), Usama bin Ladin (2011), Anwar al-Awlaki (2011), Abu Yahya al-Libi (2012), Ahmed Abdi Godane (2014), Abu Khayr al-Masri (2017), Hamza bin Ladin (2019), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (2019), Qasim al-Raymi (2020), and Abu Muhammad al-Masri (2020). The strongest jihadi groups are limited operationally, and in many cases, jihadi franchise groups are preoccupied with local and regional conflicts and civil wars. (11) Neither al-Qa'ida nor the Islamic State has developed into a mass movement, as the vast majority of Muslims worldwide still harbor negative views of jihadi organizations according to polling data. (12)

Indeed, al-Qa'ida and the Islamic State seem no closer to their ultimate goal of creating a durable caliphate. Al-Qa'ida has always envisaged this as a long-term project. When the Islamic State attempted to create a caliphate, it was crushed, deflating hardline Islamist extremists worldwide. And its horrific violence was put on display for all to see, leaving very many, including in the Muslim world, in disgust. This strengthened the hands of moderates in many parts of the Muslim world in their ideological battle with the extremists and ensured that the prospects of a jihadi takeover in the heart of the Levant remains fairly dim. However, the stunningly rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the late summer of 2021 restored significant luster to the jihadi cause, with the perception of a dramatic victory over a second superpower in Afghanistan, sending a jolt of energy through the global jihadi movement. And although al-Qa'ida is still a long way from its goal of creating a caliphate, it again has an "Islamic Emirate" in which to operate.

After a whirlwind period between 2014 and 2019 that saw the Islamic State capture and control vast swaths of territory in the Levant while attracting more than 40,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries, (13) its physical caliphate was finally destroyed in March 2019 as the Syrian town of Baghouz fell to U.S.-led coalition forces. (14) With the Islamic State's core leadership focused on survival, its command-and-control has been attenuated and its core leadership mostly contained. (3) The same fate that befell al-Qa'ida in the early 2000s is now playing out for the Islamic State: its once powerful wilayats in North Africa and South Asia are struggling to rebuild. The decentralized model that al-Qa'ida and the Islamic State have adopted is manifestly less effective in successfully executing external operations and spectacular attacks, and...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT