September 11, 2023

IntelBrief: The State of Global Terrorism Twenty-Two Years After September 11

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Twenty-two years after the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks, the global terrorism landscape appears different, in many ways, but there are also some shocking parallels.
  • The center of gravity for Islamic State has shifted from the Middle East to South Asia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where its affiliates, branches, and franchise groups are proving remarkably resilient and highly capable.
  • More than a year after the death of its last publicly-known leader, al-Qaeda has yet to name a new chief, though many suspect jihadist veteran Saif al-Adel could be calling the shots from Iran.
  • Despite jihadi terrorists’ battlefield losses, their ideology still inspires homegrown violent extremists in the West to launch attacks that occupy substantial bandwidth of Western security services and intelligence agencies.

Twenty-two years after al-Qaeda’s devastating September 11 terrorist attacks, the global terrorism landscape appears different, in many ways, but there are also some shocking parallels. The Taliban, which harbored al-Qaeda for years in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks, is back in power. According to the most recent United Nations Monitoring Team report, al-Qaeda is rebuilding training camps throughout the country, enjoying the safe haven and sanctuary offered by a government dominated by the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network. However, over the past two decades, the United States and its allies have enhanced their own counterterrorism capabilities, from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to produce an ‘over-the-horizon’ precision strike capability. This was demonstrated by the U.S. drone strike killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in July 2022. Yet there are growing concerns within the U.S. national security community that a shift from focusing on counterterrorism to a near-obsession with great power competition will leave the country vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

More than a year after the death of al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda has yet to name a new leader, though many suspect jihadist veteran Saif al-Adel could be calling the shots from Iran. With the Taliban in control of Afghanistan, there are serious concerns that the country could once again become a major hub for foreign fighters and jihadis from around the world. This could lead to a resumption of international terror operations being plotted from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Wherever jihadis have found significant sanctuaries in the last twenty years—in Afghanistan before 9/11, then in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen, and most recently in Iraq and Syria—major terrorist attacks or plots have been directed against the West from these regions. Yet, as reported by CNN, a new U.S. intelligence community assessment suggests that al-Qaeda is "unlikely" to revive in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but pointed to a continued threat posed by the Islamic State's Afghan affiliate. But it is not an either/or proposition; deteriorating conditions in the region will favor terrorist groups of all stripes and could cast doubt upon the intelligence community's particularly optimistic forecast.  Just last month, the FBI disrupted a plot in Philadelphia, arresting a seventeen-year-old who was communicating with Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Syria but with strong links to Central Asia, including a presence in Afghanistan. The alleged plot involved the teenage suspect communicating with members of KTJ, who were providing instructions on how to build improvised explosive devices.

No group has yet supplanted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) relentless obsession with plotting against aviation targets in the West, but over time, as geopolitical dynamics continue to evolve, jihadist groups could carve out more room to operate. This is occurring not just in failed states, but in regions where borders remain porous, security forces are weak and corrupt, and the rule of law is non-existent. Propaganda output is often tied to a group’s ability to control territory, and with growth opportunities in Afghanistan and parts of Africa, a propaganda onslaught could lead directly to more cases of homegrown violent extremist attacks in Europe, North America, Australia, and elsewhere. Many counterterrorism experts seem sanguine that what happens in the Sahel will stay in the Sahel, pointing to evidence that jihadist groups in the region tend to remain focused on local and parochial targets. However, it may be difficult to tell if or when that intent changes. For example, al-Shabaab has grown more transnational in its focus over time, evidenced by the 2019 arrest of a Kenyan Shabaab operative in the Philippines who was seeking aviation training in order to conduct a “9/11-style” attack in the West.

Islamic State is a different organization than it was at its 2015-2018 peak, a time during which it constructed a proto-state, the so-called caliphate, that encompassed territory equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom and encompassed nearly 8 million people. The group made millions of dollars per day from a diversified portfolio of revenue-generating sources: kidnapping for ransom, oil smuggling, human trafficking, and extortion, to name just a few. As of September 2023, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been significantly attenuated, losing several of its top leaders before their identities were ever made public. While the core group in the Levant fights to remain relevant, Islamic State branches, franchises, and affiliates elsewhere are flourishing. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province and Islamic State Greater Sahara have benefited from ongoing political instability, including coups in countries such as Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. In Afghanistan, Islamic State Khorasan Province remains highly active and capable of launching spectacular attacks within the country. U.S. officials remain concerned that, over time, the group will attempt to conduct high-profile attacks against U.S. or European targets abroad. For the time being, though, the group must contend with its violent rivalry with the Taliban. Former foreign fighters and their families are also still wallowing in camps in northeastern Syria, a lingering threat that deserves more attention.

Overall, the operational tempo of jihadi groups has declined in recent years. Various affiliates of al-Qaeda and Islamic State have become more active, while others have gone quiet. AQAP, at one point the most capable al-Qaeda offshoot and arguably the most feared terrorist group in the world, and some other groups have been decimated by a relentless Western campaign of drone strikes and special operations forces raids. From Libya to the Philippines, jihadist groups are regrouping, but struggling to reinvigorate external operations networks and recruit new members.

The quantity of attacks rose consistently worldwide between 2009-2016, but the overall number of attacks by Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their branches have dipped starting in 2017, leveling off between 2018-2020 before continuing to decline into 2023. The global jihadi movement has survived an onslaught from the most powerful military coalition in modern history, led by the United States, and while its transnational stature has been diminished, the movement has gained local and regional influence in different parts of the world. Both Islamic State and al-Qaeda remain determined adversaries, and jihadi ideology continues to resonate. Despite jihadi terrorists’ battlefield losses, their ideology still inspires homegrown violent extremists in the West to launch attacks, occupying substantial bandwidth of Western security services and intelligence agencies. The debate over whether to focus locally or revert to a relentless quest to conduct spectacular attacks in the West could lead to a long-term and enduring fissure within the global jihadist movement. With the movement already divided by the al-Qaeda-ISIS split, this issue, similar to the decision on when to attempt to establish the caliphate, is a core ideological debate that is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. Still, if the attacks of September 11, 2001 have taught us anything, it's that jihadist groups like al-Qaeda are enduringly patient and should never be underestimated, even as the U.S. seeks to move on from the war on terrorism and attempts to calibrate the proper response to today's terror threat.