March 20, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Local War on Global “Jihad”

• As the tragedy in Tunis shows, the realities of the new terror spectacular of low-scale attacks with large-scale reactions—carried out by malevolent actors driven by motivation as much as affiliation—have pushed away the responsibility of effective counterterrorism from national agencies down to local police and security

• The age of large-scale international intervention into conflict areas has passed for the moment and the battlefield is shifting back from war zones to disaffected neighborhoods—forcing intelligence agencies to work extremely closely with local police to disrupt known wolves of terror instead of documenting their crimes after the fact

• While the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Bardo Museum attack, it’s not as clear-cut as that, with family and social ties driving exposure to the ideology of bin Ladinism shared by AQIM and the Islamic State; and police are forced to look closely at smaller and more quickly radicalized networks instead of the organizational charts built with advanced analytical tools.


The global war on ‘jihad’ has gone exceedingly local. The attack on tourists visiting the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, in which perhaps four or five attackers (two of them killed in the attack) murdered 20 foreign tourists and three Tunisians, is the local result of a regional and global fight against extremism.

In this age of the new “terror spectacular,” in which groups favor relatively small-scale attacks that produce large-scale reactions, the battlefield of counterterrorism (CT) has shifted from the frontlines of Syria and Iraq to the sidewalks of Tunis, Paris, Ottawa, and Copenhagen. National-level intelligence services are working to identify extremists who travel to Syria and Iraq as well as those who might return, but it is left to local police to deal with the issue.

This is a sea change in the widely adopted CT approach of the last decade, in which extremists are kept bottled up in contained conflicts where the full might of military and intelligence capabilities can be brought to bear on identifiable travel and activity. The tribal areas of Pakistan are a perfect example of this approach, where known bad actors move within a free-fire zone that keeps the groups relatively off balance. Al-Qaeda Central has not recovered from this approach, though its affiliates elsewhere have fared somewhat better. The issue now is that with the trend of motivation over affiliation attacks, there are no contained areas to closely monitor. Training camps are no longer in a few places but rather dispersed across Libya, Pakistan, Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. But the most alarming aspect is that the training camps are less important, given the unsophisticated nature of the new terror spectaculars and the inspirational, rather than directional, nature of the attacks.

Hatim al-Khashnawi and Yassin al-Abidi, the two identified deceased attackers in Tunis, reportedly traveled to nearby Libya for training, perhaps with the Islamic State but perhaps not—Increasingly motivation and opportunity trump affiliation. Such innocuous travel (it’s like traveling from the U.S. to Canada, given the shared border) might put the travelers on the security radar, but it’s not enough to trigger action. Families might know the particulars but international CT tripwires aren’t designed to reach down into family dynamics, further bringing the global war on terror down to the community level. This puts the onus on local security forces to balance community outreach and trust with proactive disruption of emerging threats.

This means that national intelligence community experience in link and network analysis, as well as elicitation skills, need to be in the toolbox of local and regional security and law enforcement, to better spot the threats that aren’t tripping the national alert wires. Better engagement with communities is probably the best way to prevent attacks within the community. Law enforcement agencies don’t engage with a community, but with individuals, and it is paramount that police and security officials maximize every encounter with individuals to not only narrow the gap between the government and the governed but to elicit valuable information at a local level that will prevent national security catastrophes. The age of large-scale military intervention to quell extremist threats has passed for the moment, even as the threat has increased. The global threat will need to be fought at a local level with help from national and international agencies.


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