The Changing Contours of Terrorism: Mapping the Rise to Fringe Terror Outfits
In the last two years, the perception of ‘global jihad’ has undergone a massive makeover with the rise of violent armed fringe terror groups, especially in the Middle East, South Asia and the African Continent. This phenomenon could be attributed to diminishing control in the terror space by the Al-Qaeda (AQ) leadership, which just a decade ago was the face of terrorism in the 21st Century. Many also attribute their existence and growth to uncontrolled US military intervention, in their bid to eliminate Osama bin Laden and his affiliates in South Asia and Middle East, over the last decade or so. The American Counter terrorism strategy in this regard, despite Osama’s targeted killing at Abottabad, Pakistan in 2011, has miserably failed and infact mobilized a large number of disillusioned youth to take up arms in the name of ‘jihad’ by joining terror outfits, which classify the US as their arch nemesis. It must be recognized that despite infighting and division among jihadist movements, presently, the AQ and its so called affiliate groups have become quite influential by controlling vast territories in the Middle East and Africa, more than they ever exerted in the past.
Another reason for their continuous growth across the Middle East is their legitimate stance against the ruling oppressive governments in the region, which has allowed them to brainwash the Sunni youth to adhere to violent tactics for an eventual righteous Sharia based regime. A disturbing trend about the spurt of these terrorist organizations in recent times has been the use of extremist violence, especially against civilians belonging to Non Islamic backgrounds.1 By uploading videos of executions and beheadings of non-conformists on Social Media, such as Twitter and Facebook, these groups have gained wide traction on the web and attracted individuals across the globe to fight for their theocratic cause. This piece seeks to understand the varied contours of these new terror groups in recent times, by analysing their decentralization from the Al Qaeda, their collaborations with each other, their structure and approach to terrorism and the growing conundrums faced by counter terrorism strategists.
Rise of the Affiliates – Dominance of Al-Qaeda waning?
In late 2014, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, while emphasizing their renewed strategy against world terrorism stated that in the present day, any principal terror threat was not associated with the centralized AQ leadership but from regional decentralized AQ affiliates and extremists. With the American recognition that the AQ was no longer the force it used to be, one could argue that their ‘War on Terror’ was indeed a success. Termed as the ‘Microsoft of the Terror world’2, the worldwide efforts against this aging organization and the loss of senior personnel, has degraded its core leadership, limiting its ability to conduct attacks and direct its followers. However, the rise of the former AQ affiliates and other outfits has questioned the efficacy of the America’s military and warfare tactics.
Several reasons such as leadership losses in Pakistan, coupled with weak governance and instability in the Middle East and Northwest Africa could be attached to the waning power of AQ leadership and tactics. It must be noted that even among the groups which have or had formal alliances with the AQ, owing to their emergence in localized conflicts, their operations are self-sustaining and autonomous without any actual integration to the AQ leadership.3 This degree of decentralization was acknowledged by AQ Chief Ayman al Zawahiri in 2014 when he reiterated that the ‘Al Qaeda was a message before an organization’, though some may argue that this was an effort to downplay the on-going leadership disputes. Although alliances were present, these groups had preferred to focus on regional concerns than take up the cause for a ‘global jihad’, which was the immediate priority for AQ against the West.4 Many of these localized groups, even though entrenched in their geographical limits, are now posing a threat to AQ’s dominance of the terror space and could expand their operations to an international stage, once provided with resources.5
The AQ leadership during Osama’s lifetime was also frustrated at its minimal ability to control and influence key decisions of several local leaders belonging to their affiliate groups, often declaring their distance to the latter’s irrational policies and sometimes even completely disassociating with them, if the latter acted in its name but did not consult it. Despite subscribing to the core objective of jihad for unifying other similar Islamist groups, the AQ tactics and strategies have preferred to adopt a less ‘radical’ approach by resisting certain groups, whose actions were undisciplined, excessively violent and could affect the group’s public opinion with the Muslim masses.6 Another critical factor for AQ’s diminishing influence has been the inability of Zawahiri to recapture the legitimacy and popularity among its members and jihadi loyalists, who were mesmerized by Osama’s charisma and terrified by the authority which he exercised over them. Zawahiri, on the other hand, has faced a higher level of public defiance and his directives to prevent infighting among the ranks have been routinely disregarded.
The most prominent instance when the then leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi (currently Caliph of the Islamic State) in April 2013, publicly announcing the Jabhat Al Nusra Front (NF) in Syria was under his command,7 despite Zawahiri strictly ordering him to refrain from activities in Syria and concentrate on AQ operations in Iraq. Thereafter, owing to failed negotiations, the AQ denounced itself from the Islamic State by calling it an infidel and denouncer of Allah. Many contend that Zawahiri’s inability to compromise was an act of stupidity and the AQ should have kept its ally in Baghdadi for facilitating the organization’s growth in the long run. To add salt to Zawahiri’s wounds, on Baghdadi’s declaration as the worldwide Caliphate, a title initially bestowed upon Mullah Omar, the leader of Taliban, the IS made its aspiration of becoming the new leader for world terrorism adequately clear and it would rather compete with than be subsumed by the Al-Qaeda.8
Many affiliate groups and lone wolf jihadists, following the IS example, have deserted the AQ leadership, using extremist violence as a means to exert their idea of jihad in the present day.9 It has also been argued that the AQ under the leadership of Baghdadi would have carried forward its legacy as the face of global terror and best positioned to fill in for Osama after his death. An affiliate (AQAP), one former affiliate now rival (the IS), and one potentially soon-to-be former affiliate (the Nusra Front) have emerged as worthy and formidable successors for the perishing AQ. Although many argue that one must treat these affiliate groups as a separate threat from elements directly under the AQ leadership, a counter argument to that could bethat the rise of these affiliates could be the underlying strategy of the AQ to assert its geographical presence across larger territories for a renewed idea of global jihad. The proponents of this view argue that the Al Qaeda is merely recreating a network of terrorist organisations by consolidating and rebranding its affiliates, which share common ideology and objectives, to continue threatening the US and other Western countries.
Understanding Merger of Affiliate Groups: The Boko Haram – IS Partnership
Rivalry among like-minded militant groups is as common as co-operation, as outfits may align and realign with each other according to fluctuating expectations about the future of the conflicts they’re involved in, as well as a host of other factors, such as competition for resources, leadership transitions, and the defection of adherents to rival groups that appear to be on the ascendant. However, the recent Boko Haram-IS alliance is set to be the world’s most infamous terrorist collaboration which seeks to enhance the idea of global jihad with an aggressive brand of terror and the footprint of the Caliphate into Africa.
The Boko Haram, a violent Sunni based group, commenced as an urban based insurgency group which attacked churches and schools providing Western education, in a bid to cleanse the society of its evil. Much like the IS, its movement is primarily motivated to overthrow the existing oppressive regime under President Goodwluck? to establish an extreme theocracy. The pledge to the IS doesn’t come as a surprise since movements have been in ideological alliance for at least a year, with both subscribing to an ultra-violent and Takfiri annihilationist brand of Islam.
Though only one-third the size of IS with fewer foreign fighters, the magnitude of their attacks have been far more lethal in last two years.10 It has also managed to establish a larger footprint than IS by escalating its territorial presence in Northern Nigeria as well as across the borders into Chad, Cameroon and Niger, making it a dominant regional force since 2013. The linkage between the Boko Haram and IS was evident, after the former’s declaration of a West African Caliphate, merely two months after latter’s announcement. Further, its rhetoric, which previously was mostly local and filled with grievances against the Nigerian government, has now started aping the IS tactics by calling out for international jihad. Several analysts argue that the IS’s recent acts of beheading its captives publicly and creating public spectacles out of atrocities has been directly inspired by Boko Haram’s antics against Nigerian Christians.
By declaring allegiance to the IS, Boko Haram has alienated its affiliation with the AQ, which had assisted the group in military training, acquisition of arms and financing its attacks against the Nigerian government.11 Although some term this alliance as a superficial one and a mere cry for help from Boko Haram, in light of recent defeats at the hands of the armed forces, many believe that this would help boost the IS global footprint. For Boko Haram, this alliance will act as a shelter of the IS umbrella in the African region, potentially creating fruitful linkages to other Muslim world conflict zones in terms of recruits, weapons, finance, know-how and intelligence. Boko Haram could also gain significantly from the social media traction of the IS to recruit foreign fighters in its cause.
It would be difficult to quantify at this time how much mutual influence both these organizations would have on each other on a day to day basis but their collaboration could evolve new strategies, propaganda and tactics. The allegiance may also serve as a domino effect to motivate other Islamist outfits, which may have resisted combining forces, to forego any such anxieties and become part of the movement for the fear of being left out of it entirely.
Corporatization of Terror Space by IS
Presently, the Islamic State (IS) could be labeled the most radical and extremist jihadi group witnessed in the last few decades. Despite being pitted against the governments of Iraq & Syria, array of local groups – the Free Syrian Army (backed by the West) and the Kurdish pesh merga, the Nusra Front and other AQ affiliates, the IS made significant territorial advances into the region and gained plenty of traction through media frenzy and social media expertise. A notable feature of this group has been its prowess in capturing regions in both Iraq as well as Syria as a non-state actor in International Law, negating the sovereignty of the international borders and idea of a Westphalian state. Further, the IS, since the establishment of the Caliphate has been administering their territories efficiently, providing basic services and levying tax on its residents, effectively acting like a quasi-state ever since. Owing to its functioning as a state, it showcases itself as an equal opportunity organization and proceeds with a sales pitch of conquest in all its forms, including the sexual kind, making it appealing to several disenchanted foreign fighters who seek recruitment into it.12 Further, its sophisticated and innovative outreach, through social media and video podcasts, is a novel mechanism for highlighting jihadist propaganda to umpteen numbers of people worldwide and brainwashing some disillusioned youth to join their cause as well. According to Martin Chulov, it has matured from a ragtag band of extremists to one of the most cash-rich and capable terror group in the world with a $2 billion jihadist network funded primarily through extortions, crime and trafficking networks, hostages, oil, etc. Although there is no publicly accessible proof that governments of any state has been involved in the creation or financing of ISIS as an organisation, the rich contributors and religious trusts from the Gulf States with a Sunni majority population have contributed heavily to their kitty. The operational legitimacy of a state, a self-sustaining financial network coupled with a textbook advertising and marketing campaign has made the IS a distinct brand from other currently operational terror groups.
Any substantial effort to curb their activities would require deep insights into their logistics, their financing and their management structure as much as their extreme theology. For any terrorist organization to succeed, it must develop a robust business model to finance its activities. Although it displays itself as a religious descendant of the 7th century Caliphate, its management and business structure is similar to any modern day multinational corporation. Routine counter terrorist operations have often stumbled upon financial records, payrolls, supply purchase records, administrative records, and other details of fund flows into and out of a single local cell. Such a decentralized and organized structuring was identified as a ‘Multidivisional hierarchy form’ of management, which sought to create semiautonomous divisions ordered largely around geography and freeing top leaders of provincial divisions from daily decision making to focus on strategy and overall performance.13
The cells carrying out daily operations were organized into units such as finance, intelligence, military, medical, media, logistics and courier mail division. The provincial division merely offered influence, oversight and some financing to semi-autonomous cells and monitored their results, leaving command decisions autonomy to its local leaders. The ledgers of the group generated enough revenue to make it a self-sustaining entity.14 The divisional leaders could send or redirect income into the field to bolster operations and send the surplus back to the group’s treasury. Their handling of cash flow was decentralized, making it difficult for intelligence forces to disrupt their overall structure with individual raids.
This structuring has been existent since the regime of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2005-06 and has been effectively followed ever since. Baghdadi, even under the IS regime, has not tweaked the organization’s management model much after taking over the reins. It contains 18 semi-autonomous provincial divisions drawn across Iraq & Syria, with top leaders declaring goals, and local commanders in charge of the precise timings and tactics for the campaign and the resources which ought to be used. The group compiles detailed data on daily operations and measures its performance by number of deaths during the conduct of such operations. The civilian bureaucracy of the IS is supervised by 12 administrators who oversee the activities of the Divisions. The IS, at the end of 2013, tweeted an annual report containing attack-related metrics drawn from 7,681 operations executed in Iraq.15 The organization of data geographically has helped the group apply its resources across its territory for operations, including deployment of suicide bombers.16
Alexander Cooley, the Chairman of political science in Columbia University finds that the techniques adopted by the IS in data collection, though frightening, follows rational managerial approach under a corporate model. Another critical corporate feature of the IS has been absorption of entire jihadi networks, commencing with like- minded groups, into its ranks after it conquers an area, much like the Mergers & Acquisitions strategy adopted by companies. Apart from these factors, their coffers are filled with profits from oil smuggling,17 extortion and other rackets.18 The abundance of financial resources in the hands of the IS will help it consolidate its territories and build its support in Iraq & Syria, with the only challenge being serving the needs of its citizens. Until and unless their local managers, after taking advantage of their Principal’s reputation and resources, slack off in achieving their targets or create their own fiefdoms, the organizational structure of the IS will not decline in the foreseeable future.
Growing Conundrum for Counter Terrorist Operations
As contended previously, the rise of fringe outfits from the AQ network may have diminished the latter’s dominance in instilling terror; but since these affiliates shared same ideologies and had increased geographical presence, the globalized threat of jihad through terrorism continues to grow manifold. In 2013, when Obama had speculated that the AQ affiliates were less capable and mobilized than the AQ to carry out any attack on American soil such as 9/11, many had predicted that America was attributing too much credit to AQ by ascribing them responsibility for every terror strike.
According to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials, there have been several threats posed by AQ affiliates to the sovereignty of the United States, either directly or indirectly.19 Recently, extremist groups have been displaying a surge of energy, following the IS’s string of victories on all fronts, feeding into the success of the global terror narrative.20 Several other governments are alarmed by the increasing possibility of former members of these affiliates, with violent extremist ties and battlefield experience, returning to their native lands and elsewhere to commit terrorist acts. Despite all the mudslinging at each other, the primary goal of all jihadist groups is working toward the common goal of eliminating or subjugating Infidels and Apostates and imposing global sharia, which might be a disastrous possibility in the near future if not effectively curbed.
The fast changing conflict dynamics in the terror space with the rise of the AQ affiliates has placed the US and other allies in a difficult spot, since its engagement with the enemy of its enemy could turn counterproductive, in its struggle to foil international terror. While tackling multiple terrorist opponents, governments may often blind itself with complications by targeting top leaders to encourage splintering and factionalism within a group, the consequences of which may be beneficial to another group. The fall of the ever so threatening IS group in the hands of counter terrorists may only stabilize and strengthen other groups such as the Nusra Front or the AQ.
It is imperative for nations to recognize the corporatized functioning of terror outfits rather than merely considering them as extremist theocrats. Significant progress in the international law regime is necessary to redefine the idea of sovereignty and attribute responsibility upon non-state actors such as terrorist outfits. An effective strategy must be crafted and calculated by US against the entire jihadi movement by collaborating with its prior adversaries such as Iran and Syria, to eliminate their common enemies. Apart from the regional military coalition the US has built, there is a need for mutual co-operation and commitment among other nation states as well to prevent recruitment of would be jihadists and develop a robust counter terrorism plan, which will include curbing money laundering and other finances to such organizations, de-radicalization of misguided youth, frequent exchange of information and extradition of terrorists, to eradicate this growing menace of terrorism in this day and age.
1Fuelled by ever increasing, unspeakable acts of inhumanity by the Islamic State, jihadist groups around the world seem to be competing for the title of “most brutal” or “most inhumane.”
2Coined by Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
3In the last few years, the affiliates have increased their financial independence through kidnapping for ransom operations and other criminal activities such as extortion and credit card fraud.|4Whether to fight the “near enemy” (local regimes) or the “far enemy” (such as the United States and the West), for example, has been contentious since the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States
5In 2013, the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab group increased their outreach with an attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, thereby furthering its terror base.
6Attacks by AQ affiliates against civilian religious pilgrims in Iraq, hospital staff and convalescing patients in Yemen, and families at a shopping mall in Kenya has angered the leadership.
7The AQI was crucial in reigniting the old network of fighters which had previously fed Iraq, now back into Syria.
8The IS has levied accusations at the AQ claiming that their fight has stagnated and its leaders have forgotten Osama bin Laden’s vision.
9The loss of the Nusra Front (NF) as a key affiliate in Syria has dampened the AQ movement the most after its split with the IS; The al-Mulathamun Battalion (AMB), previously a part of AQAP, separated in late 2012 after its leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, announced a split from AQ network; Similarly, groups such as Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia and the Libyan cities of Benghazi and Darnah which followed AQ ideologies have started operating independently in the North African space; Egypt’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai Peninsula have now chosen to pledge allegiance to IS over AQ.
10The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that the Boko Haram killed 10,000 people last year, mostly in Nigeria’s Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states and displaced over 2 million people. In January 2015, the world’s single largest terror attack since 9/11 was carried out by Boko Haram, which saw the slaughter of 2,000 civilians in the border town of Baga. It conducted the first large scale abduction of women for jihadi “brides” when it abducted 276 school girls in Borno’s mostly Christian town of Chibok.
11Boko Haram is known previously to have sustained itself through jizya, robberies, military depot raids, zakat from supporters, arms trafficking, and drug smuggling through West Africa.
12The group attracts followers yearning for not only religious righteousness but also adventure, personal power, and a sense of self and community. The group’s brutal violence attracts attention, demonstrates dominance, and draws people to the action
13This strategy is akin to the one followed by GM president, Alfred Sloan in the 1920s while reorganizing the company
14During a particular 11 month period, the group churned almost $4.5 million mainly from sale of stolen goods, controlling smuggling routes, collecting extorting taxes. It possessed a dedicated ‘spoils’ division in charge of selling property looted from its enemies.
15The data measures casualties across 18 different types of operations in 2012 and 2013. These include- assassinations (almost doubling in 2013, to 1,083), suicide car and truck bombs (more than tripling, to 78), and detonation of roadside bombs or other so-called improvised explosive devices (4,465 in 2013, up 62 per cent from the previous year).
16Islamic State sent 240 of its members to their deaths via suicide attacks in 2013.
17Islamic State has built an asset base around crude widely estimated at up to $2 billion. By August it controlled more than a dozen oil fields in Iraq and Syria, which were estimated by the International Energy Agency to be generating 70,000 barrels a day.
18Even before Islamic State seized the Iraqi city of Mosul, the group was generating nearly $12 million per month in revenue through extortion and smuggling rackets from Mosul residents.
19AQAP, labelled as the most threatening outfit to US security has launched at least two failed attacks on U.S. soil; the Nusra Front has aspirations to launch an attack against them in the near future; the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi recently released an audio statement warning the US of an impending direct conflict; Al Shabaab and Al Murabitoun as the greatest threats to U.S. interests in East Africa and the Sahel, respectively.
20Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen recently concentrated its efforts in the country’s east, establishing a stronghold in Hadramawt governorate while re-infiltrating previously cleared areas in Abyan and Shabwah governorates near Aden. Al Shabaab, one of the few groups to be weakened in 2011, lost control of Mogadishu and much of the territory it had controlled in Somalia, but has expanded its operations throughout East Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which had seized control of north Mali until a French-UN offensive, may be regaining ground in the Sahel. Nigeria’s Boko Haram has transformed from a terrorist group to an insurgency. Further, analysts warn of al Qaeda’s regrowth in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as the U.S. and international military presence winds down.
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