Part 1 of this series looked at the goals and successes of the jihadist movement Part 2 analyzed insurgent and terrorist theory. Part 3 defined and evaluated the movement. Part 5 scrutinizes the al Qaeda core as well as gauging the overall implications for security.

In part four of the series, we turn our attention to the major groups involved in the movement and assess the grassroots jihadist phenomenon. There is obviously not sufficient space in one Security Weekly to provide an exhaustive analysis of every jihadist group on the globe, but there is certainly enough room to address the most significant groups.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

One of the most influential groups in the jihadist movement is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Jihadist activity in Yemen has been cyclical. Yemen was the location of the first jihadist attacks against U.S. interests in December 1992, and it was the site of one of the first Predator strikes against jihadists in November 2002. The U.S. and Yemeni campaign against jihadists in Yemen was initially considered one of the successes in the “Global War on Terrorism,” but a February 2006 jailbreak from a high-security prison outside Sanaa and political chaos in Yemen allowed the jihadist movement there to re-energize.

In January 2009, a video was released on the Internet announcing the formation of a new al Qaeda franchise group comprised of an amalgamation of Yemeni jihadist groups and the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda franchise, which had been decimated and was forced to seek refuge in Yemen. The group called itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

As noted last week, it rose to become the most active transnational jihadist group, launching failed attacks against the Saudi government and the United States. With its Internet magazines — the Arabic-language Sada al-Malahim and the English-language Inspire — it also became very influential on the ideological battlefield.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took advantage of the 2011 civil war in Yemen to seize control of large portions of southern Yemen. However, in response to this aggressiveness, the Yemeni military and its American allies launched a major counteroffensive against the group in mid-2012 that forced it to pull back from the areas it had conquered and return to its hideouts in Yemen’s rugged, remote interior.

Part 1 of this series discussed two letters discovered in Timbuktu, Mali, written by Nasir al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and sent to Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud), the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In those letters, al-Wahayshi discussed not only why his group did not declare an emirate in southern Yemen, but also the terrible loss of men and weapons his group had suffered in Yemeni military assaults and U.S. airstrikes.

The letters also told us that although al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had conquered a large area, it had refrained from declaring an emirate because its control was tenuous and it lacked the ability to provide services for the people. The group retains the ability to conduct hit-and-run strikes against the Yemeni military and energy infrastructure. It has also launched an extensive assassination campaign directed against government security force leaders and kidnapping operations against foreigners to raise the money required to sustain its operations. However, it has suffered serious setbacks over the past 18 months and has lost most of its gains. It is currently attempting to regroup while under pressure from the Yemeni military and U.S. drone strikes. However, there is no indication that the planners and bombmakers behind its imaginative transnational attacks have been killed, so it appears the group retains that capability.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

The Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Levant has had a history of ups and downs similar to that of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Jihadists in Iraq experienced a great deal of success after the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country. In 2004, one of the largest of these groups — Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — became an al Qaeda franchise group and renamed itself al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq). In 2006, this franchise group formed the nucleus of a coalition of jihadist groups called the Islamic State of Iraq. The group remained an al Qaeda franchise and was placed under an Iraqi leader, both to give the group an Iraqi face and to attempt to overcome some of the hard feelings toward the group that its foreign leaders, such as al-Zarqawi, had created among Iraqi citizens.

The Anbar Awakening in 2006-2007, coupled with the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, severely damaged the organization, as did the U.S. operation that resulted in the deaths of the group’s top two leaders in April 2010. However, following the drawdown and eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the group was able to recover, becoming one of the largest jihadist groups in the world.

The civil war in Syria has proved to be a boon for the group. Initially, it provided support to Syrian jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, but eventually it became directly involved in the fighting and is now perhaps the strongest jihadist group operating in Syria. Indeed, its forays into Syria have caused it to change its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Not only has it fought the Syrian regime and Syrian Kurds in northern Syria, it has also established control over Syrian cities, towns and oil production facilities.

The group has attempted to subsume other Syrian jihadist groups, including the Syrian al Qaeda franchise group Jabhat al-Nusra. This led Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani to appeal to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ordered the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to confine its efforts to Iraq and allow Jabhat al-Nusra to maintain responsibility for Syria. But Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has ignored al-Zawahiri’s order. This dismissal of al-Zawahiri reflects not only the group’s strength but also the weakness of the al Qaeda core.

In addition to its activities in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continues to conduct terrorist attacks in Iraq and has developed a cadre of sophisticated terrorist operatives who have demonstrated the ability to plan and conduct terrorist attacks against multiple Iraqi targets. The group also has operatives who possess advanced bombmaking capabilities. In terms of terrorist tradecraft, insurgent forces and control of territory and revenue from oil production, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is growing in power; if left unchecked, it has the potential to be the next jihadist group to establish an emirate. While the organization has not yet demonstrated an interest in attacking beyond its core territory, the group’s rising power will undoubtedly attract the attention of the Unites States and its allies, who do not want to permit the emergence of a jihadist emirate in the heart of the Middle East.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Over the past several years, Algerian security forces have applied immense pressure to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s units in the mountain hideouts of Algeria’s north. The jihadists’ units in Algeria’s south have fared somewhat better, and the group has focused much of its finance and logistics efforts in that region. These southern units have been able to range far and wide across the Sahel region to kidnap Westerners for ransom, smuggle contraband and engage in occasional terrorist attacks.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also seized the opportunity presented by the chaos in northern Mali in 2012 to work with its allies in other groups, such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, to take control of several towns there and declare an emirate in northern Mali. However, the group has been split by internal divisions and struggles for power. In October 2012, one of the southern al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb units led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar split off to become an independent organization. The French invasion of northern Mali in January 2013 quickly ended the jihadist emirate there, and as in Yemen, the jihadists suffered substantial losses of men and weapons.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Belmokhtar’s group still pose a threat of kidnappings or attacks against soft targets in the Sahel region, like Belmokhtar’s January 2013 attack on the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas, Algeria. But these groups have suffered heavy losses over the past year, including the deaths of many operatives during the Tigantourine operation. It will take them some time to recover from these setbacks. Despite threats and concerns that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would set its sights on France in retaliation for the invasion of Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its associated groups have not demonstrated the intent to conduct attacks in France or other places outside its core areas of operation. 

Other jihadist groups in North Africa, such as Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia and Ansar al-Shariah in Libya, maintain contact with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other elements of the larger jihadist movement, but it is unclear how close those relationships are. The Ansar al-Shariah branches in Libya and Tunisia are closely tied to the local and national militant structures in their respective countries, and they are both attempting to take advantage of the post-Arab Spring chaos that remains in their countries. Because of this, they tend to be more nationalistic than al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which seeks to create an emirate across northern Africa. The Ansar al-Shariah groups in Libya and Tunisia have both shown the ability to conduct insurgent attacks, assassinations and bombings, but they have not yet displayed any indication of advanced terrorist tradecraft or the intent or capability to engage in attacks outside their core areas of operation.

Boko Haram

While the Nigerian jihadist franchise Boko Haram appeared to be on an upward trajectory in 2011, when it quickly progressed from employing small, crude devices on its home turf to large vehicle bombs in Abuja, the Nigerian military’s campaign against the group (and the separate but related jihadist group Ansaru) has whittled down the group’s capabilities. The military’s offensive has also reduced the size of the area Boko Haram controls in northern Nigeria, although it has not been able to prevent Boko Haram from conducting attacks in Nigeria’s northeast. The group remains focused on survival, and the pressure the group is under has prevented it from conducting attacks outside its core area in Nigeria and just over the border into Cameroon. The group has not demonstrated the intent or capability to conduct transnational attacks, and it likely does not have the time or resources to plot them, even if it desired to do so.

Al Shabaab

The world’s attention was drawn to al Shabaab after the armed assault it launched in September against the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and its botched attack in Addis Ababa in October. However, the group has suffered some significant setbacks in the past 18 months as African Union troops have evicted al Shabaab from its lucrative former strongholds, such as the port of Kismayo and large sections of the capital, Mogadishu.

Internal fighting has also wracked the group in recent months. This might be coming to a close, however, since al Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane (also known as Abu Zubayr) appears to have killed or vanquished most of those opposed to his leadership.

While currently on the defensive, al Shabaab has shown an ability to conduct complex attacks inside Somalia using both insurgent and terrorist tactics. Its terrorist attacks in Somalia have involved the successful deployment of suicide bombers and large vehicle bombs. To date, however, al Shabaab has yet to demonstrate the ability to conduct anything more than rudimentary attacks outside Somalia.

Before the group can pose a transnational threat, it must develop the capability to dispatch operatives trained in advanced terrorist tradecraft to conduct missions in hostile environments, and of course it must possess the intent to conduct such attacks. While Godane is more of a transnationalist than some other al Shabaab leaders — who tend to be more nationalistic and concerned about the struggle inside Somalia — it does not appear that the group has the ability or the resources to conduct transnational attacks even if Godane so desired. Thus, at present the group will continue to pose a regional threat, albeit deadly, rather than a truly transnational one.


The Afghan Taliban have employed a classic insurgent long-war campaign since the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and with the pending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the group’s patient strategy thus far appears to have been successful. It remains to be seen if it can regain power in Afghanistan — or at least in the Pashtun portions of the country — since it never controlled all of Afghanistan and was engaged in a civil war with the Northern Alliance at the time of the U.S. invasion.

The Afghan Taliban is a nationalist jihadist organization, and it has never demonstrated the intent to conduct transnational terrorist attacks. Even some of the members of the Quetta Shura who have demonstrated more sophisticated terrorist tradecraft (such as the Haqqani network) have not conducted attacks outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Due to the support the Taliban still enjoy from the government of Pakistan, it is quite likely they will become an even more powerful force in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal, either through some sort of political settlement or with the force of arms.

The unrelated Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) not only declared war on the government and non-Sunni Muslims in Pakistan but also trained would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and helped finance his botched attack. While the group has not been involved in any transnational attack since 2010, it still possesses the capability to train and dispatch grassroots operatives like Shahzad.

Grassroots Jihadists

As noted in Part 2 of this series, jihadist ideologues have called for grassroots jihadists to rise up and conduct attacks in the West for several years now. Yet despite the clearly articulated grassroots jihadist theory, this has not generated many grassroots operatives, and many of those who have answered the call have sought to conduct huge, spectacular attacks — attacks outside their capabilities. This has meant that they have had to search for help to conduct their plans. And that search for help has often resulted in their arrests, just as Adam Gadahn warned would happen in a May 2010 message advocating simple, lone wolf attacksThis means that to date, the grassroots approach has largely been a failure, and it certainly has not generated the steady wave of deadly attacks in the West that its creators intended. The April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing has clearly demonstrated how following the simple “build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” attack model can effectively kill people and create a prolonged period of terrorist theater in the global media.

It is quite possible that the success of the Boston bombing will help jihadist ideologues finally convince grassroots operatives to get past their grandiose plans and begin to follow the simple attack model in earnest. If this happens, it will not only prove deadly but also have a big impact on law enforcement and intelligence officials, who have developed very effective programs of identifying grassroots operatives and drawing them into sting operations. If grassroots operatives adopt the simple attack philosophy in earnest, security agencies will obviously have to adjust their operations.

While grassroots actors do not have the capability of professional terrorist operatives and do not pose as severe a threat, they do pose a much broader, amorphous threat that will persist and could perhaps even intensify in the immediate future.

Scott Stewart is vice-president of analysis at Stratfor. This article has bee republished with the permission of Stratfor