August 19, 2022

IntelBrief: The Global Jihadist Movement in a Post-Zawahiri Era

AP Photo/File

Bottom Line Up Front 

  • The killing of longtime al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri could accelerate a trend that has been consistently emerging in recent years—the factionalization and regionalization of the global jihadist movement.
  • To survive, al-Qaeda adopted a franchising strategy which led it to expand worldwide and establish regional branches in the Levant, North Africa, Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and Indian subcontinent.
  • Relentless U.S. counterterrorism operations have eliminated successive IS leaders, forcing the group to reconsider its options and strategy for future survival as an organization.
  • There is a strong argument to be made that sub-Saharan Africa has become the epicenter of jihad, with a drastic increase in both the frequency and sophistication of attacks.

The death of longtime al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in late July following a U.S. drone strike signaled the end of an era. Zawahiri’s roots in the global jihadist movement stretched back decades to his tenure in Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was one of the last remaining veteran jihadists who had worked closely with Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri’s death will undoubtedly impact al-Qaeda, though it remains too early to discern exactly how, and whether the impact will be positive or negative. But beyond al-Qaeda itself, the killing of Zawahiri could accelerate a trend that has been consistently emerging in recent years—the factionalization and regionalization of the broader global jihadist movement.

Al-Qaeda, for its part, has faced two decades of relentless and aggressive U.S.-led counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes and special operations forces raids against its leadership. To survive, the group adopted a franchising strategy, which led it to expand worldwide, establishing regional branches and affiliates in the Levant, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and beyond. While he was criticized widely for lacking charisma and failing to inspire the next generation of would-be jihadists, Zawahiri should be credited for keeping the majority of al-Qaeda’s franchises intact and loyal to al-Qaeda central, and retaining a sense of continuity from the perceived victories of the Afghan jihad which gave al-Qaeda its pedigree. Without his leadership, the organization may have become overshadowed by its offshoots like Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which pursue more localized agendas. Although some have suggested that al-Shabaab is moving in the opposite direction, increasingly looking to expand its operations outside of Somalia, Zawahiri’s death could impact the trajectory of al-Qaeda franchise groups as affiliates and branches reevaluate their respective strategies to focus more directly on their “near enemies”.

In 2014, Islamic State stormed across much of Iraq and Syria with astonishing efficiency. The lightning operation and the propaganda campaign that amplified its success turned al-Qaeda into an afterthought and IS quickly came to dominate the global jihadist movement. After seizing major cities across Iraq and Syria, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi consolidated control over a proto-state, declared a caliphate, and attracted tens of thousands of supporters from all over the world in unprecedented numbers. The territorial caliphate has been defeated—IS lost its last territory in Baghouz, Syria in the spring of 2019—but like al-Qaeda, IS has expanded globally through the development of regional franchise groups that swear bayat, or an oath of allegiance, to the organization’s emir. Relentless U.S. counterterrorism operations have eliminated successive IS leaders, forcing the group to reconsider its options and strategy for future growth and survival as an organization. At the same time, some counterterrorism measures have continued to fuel grievances and conditions that create an enabling environment for terrorist groups to recruit and regroup.

Both al-Qaeda and IS have focused resources on strengthening their affiliates throughout Africa and exploit ongoing conflicts or governance deficits to garner local and regional support. The center of gravity for the global jihadist movement was initially in South Asia, where al-Qaeda core was able to set roots thanks to sympathetic regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the rise of IS, the main theatre of the jihadist movement shifted to the Middle East. But in mid-2022, there is a strong argument to be made that sub-Saharan Africa has become the epicenter of jihad. Despite the best efforts of multiple U.N. stabilization missions (though none have had explicit counterterrorism mandates or resources), and fragmented counterterrorism efforts from a range of international actors, terrorist attacks against government and civilian targets have increased in both frequency and sophistication. IS propaganda now routinely highlights successful operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, and the Sahel.

With the core leadership of both al-Qaeda and IS at a nadir, jihadist groups throughout Africa could agitate for more autonomy. Competing priorities, limited resources, and fresh opportunities could transform the jihadist landscape throughout Africa. Hyper localized and regional agendas, however, will not necessarily continue in perpetuity. History has shown that group objectives can evolve over time. For example, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria sought to overthrow the Algerian government, but this did not preclude the group from targeting French interests and citizens, including kidnappings, bombings, and attempted hijackings. As French and German forces reconsider their troop commitments in the Sahel, and as Russia and Russian backed private military contractors like the Wagner Group expand their roles, the security environment in the region will remain in flux. The French withdrawal from Mali, which was finalized earlier this week, may create an opportunity for jihadist groups to use the country as a safe haven if Malian forces and their Russian security partners fail to secure the country’s rural areas. If a jihadist group can carve out territory that can be used as a launchpad for regional or transnational terrorism, pressure on Western governments to bolster ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region will mount. This possibility likely impacts the decision making of groups like JNIM and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). At the same time, failure to address the structural conditions which generate support for violent groups could render counterterrorism measures ineffective in the long term. Moreover, as lines between designated terrorist organizations and other nonstate armed groups blur, questions must be raised about the impacts and benefits of imposing international and U.N. sanctions and embargoes on al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates due to their association with a transnational terrorist group.

More than two decades after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the creation of a complex international framework of institutions and laws to respond to an emergent transnational threat, the policy focus on counterterrorism has been subsumed by conventional conflicts, climate and a number of crises, including the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions and food insecurity. While some governments have portrayed these as mutually exclusive priorities, they have underestimated the extent to which there has been overlap between terrorism and geopolitics. At the same time, the diminished attention to counterterrorism can be seen as one measure of success in eliminating a transnational threat; it remains important however to invest in prevention and mitigation strategies.

Jihadist ideology of the kind propagated by al-Qaeda continues to resonate with many communities globally, fueled by a lack of political and economic progress, structural inequalities, and continuing sectarianism. Furthermore, new technologies offer jihadists additional advantages, including a greater ability to communicate undetected through end-to-end encryption, while sophisticated propaganda successfully radicalizes violent extremists in the West. Zawahiri has left his imprint on global jihad, but the future of this movement could look far different as a result of the decentralization that began under his leadership. This evolution may leave fragile states unprepared to deal with the security challenges posed by increasingly capable regional or local jihadist groups, who will likely benefit from the U.S. and its allies’ preoccupation with the rise of China and a revanchist Russia.