September 11, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Jihadist Battle for 9/11’s Legacy

• On the 14th anniversary of 9/11, both al-Qaeda and its estranged progeny the Islamic State are commemorating the attacks in their respective online magazines

• Both groups and their supporters claim to be the true continuation of Usama bin Ladin’s vision, and seek to lead the global jihadist movement at a time when violent extremism is spreading

• The social media infighting between the two groups shows no sign of abating; al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has denounced Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but bemoans the division between the groups

• Both groups are pursuing parallel tracks: plotting their own attacks while encouraging lone wolf attacks that generate intense fear and reaction.


Al-Qaeda, the group that 14 years ago conducted the most destructive terror attacks in American history, now finds itself in a position where a one-time affiliate and present-day rival is claiming the mantle of the global jihadist movement once dominated by al-Qaeda. The so-called Islamic State has not just stolen the spotlight from al-Qaeda, but also the recruiting power derived from its appearance as a successful expression of the violent ideology known as bin Ladinism. The two groups are fishing in a growing but still limited pool of potential recruits—both actual and virtual—and both groups know extremely well that nothing generates support more than success—both actual and perceived.

In the year since the last 9/11 anniversary, both groups have suffered serious losses in terms of senior personnel. Indeed, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State each lost their number two in charge: Nasir al-Wuhayshi for al-Qaeda and Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali AKA Abu Muslim al-Turkmani for the Islamic State. However, despite these and other meaningful losses, the two groups are more of a threat now—both in the areas they control and externally, in Europe and North America. This is because their losses, however painful, are not enough to blunt the wave of radicalization stemming from the wars in Iraq and Syria, and from the collapsing states in Yemen and Libya, as well as in parts of Nigeria.

The last year has seen an increase in lone wolf or wolf pack terror attacks in Canada, Australia, France, Tunisia, the United States, and elsewhere. These attacks have varied greatly in their death tolls, but all of them fed into the perception and the reality that the ideology of both groups—which are far more alike than they are different—is ascendant despite the immense resources mobilized against it. Some of this stems from the utter lack of progress in the worsening conflicts across the region; extremism radiates out from these conflicts along with massive numbers of desperate and helpless refugees. Social media and the ‘stickiness’ of bin Ladin's violent message further amplify the likelihood that people far removed from the actual battlefield will see themselves as soldiers and take up arms in violence.

Within this encouraging environment for the global jihadist movement, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are pushing both on the ground and in cyber space to lead what they see as an expanding army. In Dabiq, the Islamic State's magazine, the terrorist group calls for the assassination of Western business leaders, and commemorates the 9/11 attacks. The al-Qaeda magazine Inspire hails the 9/11 attacks as ‘too beautiful to be forgotten,’ while detailing the much smaller but still horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris at the beginning of this year. Each group calls the other ‘illegitimate’ and tries to sway its supporters over to its side in perhaps what is the deadliest brand battle in modern times.

This anniversary of 9/11 highlights the dual nature of the modern terrorist threat; highly organized groups are plotting large-scale attacks while calling for and inspiring small-scale attacks to keep the enemy off-balance and fearful at all times. Further complicating efforts to counter this threat (which is easy to both exaggerate and downplay) is that the target pool has grown to include just about anything and anyone; there is no nation off-limits to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, nor is there any locale off limits; police barracks and beaches are equally legitimate targets. Given how many issues still need to be addressed—from Syria to Iraq to Libya and on—it is likely that the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will see the ideology responsible for those attacks even more widespread.


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