Leaderless Jihad in a Leaderless World

The fight against terrorism has come at a tremendous cost of lives lost and development disrupted. Radical Islamist extremism has become the world’s most potent global revolutionary force and terrorism has become a constant threat inside and outside our societies.

As terrorists gain and lose ground, what remains constant is their tenacious ideology, their flexible and adaptable propaganda and their technological prowess in warfare. Unless we start to look deeper, beyond the statistics and the maps and start to understand the allure of the ideology, their modus operandi and how these will evolve and transform their power in the future, we will be far from making a difference or be able to turn back the tide of extremism.
The focus of this essay is to analyse the scale of the global terrorist threat and explain how it is being reinforced by the current state of political affairs. It will describe how both the Islamic State (ISIL) and Al Qaeda continue to present a global security threat.

This is due to the following macro-trends:

  1. The strategy of both Al Qaeda and ISIL to become a decentralised leaderless movement;
  2. The growth of technology that is offering terrorist groups greater strategic and operational reach;
  3. The increasing numbers of at-risk youth reinforced by demographics and the persistent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa; and finally
  4. The growing nexus of crime and terror, which will support terrorists for many years to come.

After  more than 39 months of occupation in Syria and Iraq, ISIL-controlled territories and fighting forces have been severely degraded and the loss of Mosul and Raqqa has marked an end of the physical ‘caliphate.’ ISIL is on the run.

However, it remains unique among other terrorist organisations of the past for a multitude of reasons:

  1. Its deluded ego that believed itself powerful enough to construct a pseudo state, an ‘Islamic Caliphate’.
  2. Its ability to sustain itself economically (in 2015 it amassed a wealth of US$ 2 billion through organised crime).
  3. Its globalist and apocalyptic ambitions and its heady millenarianism.
  4. Its powerful ideology that it spreads with its sophisticated media campaign. To date it has attracted over 40,000 foreign fighters from over 110 countries to its cause.

While the world has been fixated on ISIL, Al Qaeda has been shoring up its own power. Today, it is stronger than it was 16 years ago when it launched its September 11 attacks. At that time, Al Qaeda numbered in the thousands worldwide. Today, its Syrian affiliate alone commands 30,000 troops by some estimates and it has affiliated groups in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, north Africa and elsewhere. It is continuing to reinvigorate its cause and legacy most recently by using Hamza bin Laden; the 28-year-old son of Osama as its new figurehead.

ISIL is far from decimated as well. It is still estimated to have a total of 12,00015,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. ISIL spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al
Adnani, just before he was killed by a drone, prepared the group for its next reincarnation. He proclaimed ‘we began in the desert without cities and without territory’ and in the desert we can revive once again. While the disruption of the caliphate represents an important strategic milestone, it is worth recalling that ISIL had been beaten before in 2008 and yet this did not prevent its revival four years later as a highly effective military force capable of capturing land the size of Great Britain and luring thousands of recruits. ISIL will now return to the vicious and effective insurgency it ran before it toppled Mosul and Raqqa. The caliphate is gone but the organisation and its ideology is not.

This is largely due to its ability to mutate and change and take advantage of the current state of global disorder. State fragility is becoming endemic with no fewer than one third of the states in the United Nations earning a ‘high warning’ or worse in the Fragile States Index. ISIL is not the only complex threat. Non-state actors such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabbab and Al Qaeda hold effective power over growing areas in Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen where central governments have lost power.

This is an edited extracted from an essay that appeared in the Global Terrorism Index 2017.