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Jihadism in 2012

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

For the past six years, Stratfor has published an annual forecast on al Qaeda and the jihadist movement. Since our first forecast in January 2006, we have focused heavily on examining and documenting the change of jihadism from a phenomenon involving primarily the core al Qaeda group to one based primarily on the broader, decentralized jihadist movement -- and the lesser threat the latter poses.

The central theme of last year's forecast was that the al Qaeda core would continue to be marginalized on the physical battlefield and would struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield. While we did not forecast the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden, his death certainly furthered the downward trend we predicted for the al Qaeda core organization. Due to the al Qaeda core's struggles, we forecast that regional jihadist franchise groups would continue to be at the vanguard of the physical battle and would eclipse the al Qaeda core in the ideological realm. We also noted that grassroots operatives would remain a persistent, albeit low-level, threat for 2011.

The past year saw hundreds of attacks and thwarted plots planned by jihadist actors in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. But in terms of transnational plots and attacks, activity was down considerably compared to 2010. As we forecast, almost all of these plots involved grassroots operatives or militants from regional jihadist groups rather than militants dispatched by the al Qaeda core leadership. For 2012, we anticipate that these trends will continue and, given bin Laden's death, the core al Qaeda group will not only continue to degrade but struggle to survive. Like the past two years, jihadism in 2012 will be defined by the activities of the franchise groups and the persistent grassroots threat.


Contemporary vernacular imbues "al Qaeda" with a number of definitions, and the al Qaeda label is applied, often incorrectly, to several distinct actors. Therefore, we need to define what we refer to as jihadism, al Qaeda and the various agents in the jihadist movement to understand jihadism as a phenomenon.


In Arabic, "jihad" means to "struggle" or "strive for" something. The word commonly refers to an armed struggle, and one engaged in such a struggle is called a "mujahid" (mujahideen in the plural). Mainstream Muslims do not consider "jihadist" an accurate term for those who claim to fight on their behalf. In fact, those called jihadists in the Western context are considered deviants by mainstream Muslims. Therefore, the jihadist label reflects this perception of deviancy. We use the term jihadist to refer to militant Islamists who profess the violent overthrow of existing regimes in favor of global or regional Islamic polities. We use the term "jihadism" to refer to the ideology propagated by jihadists.

Al Qaeda, al Qaeda Prime or al Qaeda Core

Stratfor views what most people refer to as "al Qaeda" as a decentralized global jihadist network rather than a monolithic entity. This network consists of three distinct and quite different elements. The first is the vanguard al Qaeda organization, which we frequently refer to as al Qaeda prime or the al Qaeda core. The al Qaeda core is the small organization founded by bin Laden and currently led by Ayman al-Zawahiri and a small circle of trusted associates.

Although al Qaeda trained thousands of militants in its camps in Afghanistan, most of those trained were either grassroots operatives or members of other militant groups who never became members of the core group. Indeed, most of the trainees received only basic guerrilla warfare instruction, and only a select few were designated to receive training in terrorist tradecraft skills, such as bombmaking. Of the few who received this advanced training, fewer still were selected to join the al Qaeda core organization.

The al Qaeda core was designed to be a small and elite organization stationed at the forefront of the physical battlefield. Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States and its allies have applied intense pressure on this core organization. This pressure has resulted in the death or capture of many al Qaeda cadres and has ensured that the group remain small due to operational security concerns. The remnants of this insular group are lying low in Pakistan near the Afghan border, and this isolation has significantly degraded the group's ability to conduct attacks. Accordingly, the al Qaeda core has been relegated to producing propaganda and providing guidance and inspiration to other jihadist elements. With the death of bin Laden, the burden of the propaganda efforts will fall to al-Zawahiri, Abu Yahya al-Libi and, to a lesser extent, native English speaker Adam Gadahn. Despite the disproportionate amount of media attention it receives, the al Qaeda core constitutes only a very small portion of the larger jihadist movement and has not conducted a successful terrorist attack for years.

Franchise Groups

The second element of jihadism associated with al Qaeda is a worldwide network of local or regional terrorist or insurgent groups. These groups have been influenced by the al Qaeda core's philosophy and guidance and have adopted a similar jihadist ideology. In many cases, members of these groups received training in al Qaeda camps in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these groups have publicly claimed allegiance to bin Laden and the al Qaeda core, becoming what we refer to as franchise groups. These include such organizations as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Notably, even though these groups adopt the al Qaeda label, they are locally owned and operated. As such, some group leaders, like Nasir al-Wahayshi of AQAP, maintain relations and are philosophically aligned with the al Qaeda core. Others, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq, can be at odds with the al Qaeda core's leadership and philosophy.

Other regional groups may adopt some or all of al Qaeda's jihadist ideology and cooperate to some degree with the core group. But for a variety of reasons, they maintain even more independence than the franchise groups. They are more akin to allies than true members of the al Qaeda movement.

Grassroots Jihadists

The third and broadest element of the global jihadist network encompasses what we refer to as grassroots jihadists. These are individuals who are inspired by the al Qaeda core -- or, increasingly, by the franchise groups -- but who may have little or no actual connection to these groups. Some grassroots operatives, such as Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty to charges related to a New York City Subway bomb plot in 2009, travel to places like Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen, where they receive training from jihadist franchise groups. Other grassroots jihadists, like accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, may communicate but have no physical interaction with members of a franchise group. Some grassroots militants have no direct contact with other jihadist elements. Lastly, some would-be grassroots militants seek out contact with other jihadist elements but accidentally make contact with government informants. In recent years, such cases have been occurring more frequently, resulting in sting operations and arrests.

Moving down the hierarchy from the al Qaeda core to the grassroots operatives, there is a decline in operational capability and expertise in what we refer to as terrorist tradecraft -- the skills required to effectively plan and execute a terrorist attack. The operatives belonging to the al Qaeda core generally are better trained than their regional affiliates, and both of these elements tend to be far better trained than grassroots operatives, who must travel abroad to obtain training.

While these various elements of the jihadist network are distinct, the Internet brings them together, especially at the grassroots level. Videos, websites and online magazines indoctrinate aspiring militants in the jihadist ideology and provide a forum for like-minded individuals and groups.

2011 Forecast in Review

As noted above, the heart of our jihadist forecast for 2011 was the idea that the efforts of the U.S. government and its allies would continue to marginalize the al Qaeda core on the physical battlefield, which would in turn cause the organization to continue to struggle for relevance on the ideological battlefield. We concluded that the regional jihadist franchise groups would remain at the forefront of the physical battlefield and assume a more prominent position in the ideological battlefield. While the franchise groups have indeed subsumed the al Qaeda core, many groups, such as al Shabaab and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), are weaker than they were a year ago.

We did not see a successful attack attributed to the al Qaeda core in 2011, though there is evidence to suggest the group had never stopped planning. For example, in April German authorities arrested a Moroccan-born man, Abdeladim el-K (German privacy law prevents suspects from being fully identified), who they claim was sent to Germany by al Qaeda operational leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman to conduct an attack. German police on Dec. 15 also arrested a man who reportedly was inspired by el-K and who was allegedly attempting to continue el-K's attack plans.

2011 differed from previous years in that there were no transnational attacks from franchise or affiliate groups. AQAP conducted an attack in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August 2009, attempted an attack on a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, and attempted to bomb cargo planes in October 2010, but was quiet last year, as were the TTP and AQIM. The Caucasus Emirate, a jihadist group loosely affiliated with al Qaeda, was active in the Caucasus and conducted some attacks in Moscow, but those attacks were not categorically transnational. Likewise, al Shabaab carried out some attacks in northern Kenya following the Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia, but we consider those attacks more regional than transnational despite their occurring across a national border.

In our 2011 forecast, we also noted our belief that, due to the accessibility of U.S. and European societies and the ease of conducting attacks against them, we would see more grassroots plots, if not successful attacks, there than attacks by the other jihadist elements. This forecast was accurate. Of the 12 plots against the West in 2011 that we classify as jihadist (down from 20 in 2010), one plot was connected to the al Qaeda core, 11 to grassroots elements (down from 15 in 2010) and none to franchise groups (down from 4 in 2010). The one plot connected to the al Qaeda core involved an operational planner who linked up with grassroots militants in Germany.

We also forecast that, because of the nature of the jihadist threat, soft targets would continue to be attacked in 2011 and that additional plots targeting aircraft would take place. We saw the continued focus on soft targets, but aside from the March 2 attack against U.S. Air Force personnel outside the Frankfurt airport and the Caucasus Emirate's suicide bombing attack at the arrival terminal of Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January, we did not see plots directed at aircraft. Instead, we saw aviation-related plots often focused on soft targets outside airport security.

In addition, we predicted an increase in plots and attacks involving firearms and other weapons rather than improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The shooting in Frankfurt, the thwarted knife attack against cartoonist Lars Vilks in Goteborg, Sweden, and several thwarted plots in the United States, including those in Seattle, Alabama, New York and Killeen, Texas, all evidence our prediction.

Our regional forecasts for 2011 were accurate, especially for the United States, Europe, North Africa and Indonesia. Our biggest miss was underestimating how involved AQAP would become in Yemen's internal conflict as different groups challenged President Ali Abullah Saleh's rule and how this involvement would distract the group from conducting transnational attacks.

Forecast for 2012

We anticipate that the al Qaeda core will continue to struggle in the physical and ideological arenas. The group still has prolific spokesmen in al-Zawahiri, al-Libi and Gadahn, but in 2011 the group issued remarkably few messages. The remaining leaders appear to be lying low following the deaths of bin Laden, al-Rahman and others.

Even though AQAP lost important English-speaking ideological figures when Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed (Khan was the editor of AQAP's English-language Inspire magazine) the group's main operational and ideological leadership remain at large. Among this leadership are the group's emir, Nasir al-Wahayshi, operational commander Qasim al-Raymi, and innovative bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.

The remaining ideological leaders include the group's mufti, or religious leader, Saudi-born Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish. With a degree in Islamic law, fighting experience with bin Laden at Tora Bora and time served in Guantanamo Bay, al-Rubaish has impeccable jihadist credentials. The influential head of AQAP's Shariah Council, a Yemeni imam named Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab, is among AQAP's ideologues. While AQAP is unlikely to ever recreate what Samir Khan accomplished with Inspire magazine, the group's al-Malaheim Media is still active, and its Arabic-language offerings continue. Those messages frequently are translated into English on such websites as the Ansar Al-Mujahideen English forum.

Moreover, the English-language statements of al-Awlaki and the editions of Inspire magazine remain on the Internet with a readership that numbers in the thousands. Indeed, an article from the first edition of Inspire, "How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," was linked to thwarted grassroots plots in Texas and New York in 2011. We believe that the threat from grassroots jihadists will persist for the foreseeable future.

We disagree with those who claim that the unrest in the Arab world will end jihadism. The overthrow of the Gadhafi regime in Libya and the democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt will provide alternative outlets to jihadism for dissent, and other Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will undercut jihadism ideologically. But the small core of hard-line jihadists will remain undeterred; this group will continue to propagate its ideology and recruit new adherents.

Recruitment will be more difficult in the current environment, and while this may hasten the eventual decline of jihadism, it will not kill the ideology this year. In addition to persisting in such lawless places as Yemen, Somalia and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, jihadism will maintain its niche in the West, and grassroots jihadists will continue to be radicalized and mobilized in the United States, Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

Regional Forecasts

The United States and Europe

The al Qaeda core and franchise groups will continue to struggle attacking the United States and Europe directly and will continue to reach out to grassroots operatives who have the ability to travel to the West. Otherwise, they will attempt to recruit aspiring jihadists living in the West. This means we will likely see more thwarted or botched plots involving poorly trained operatives and simple attacks like the shooting in Frankfurt. While such attacks can and do kill people, they are not spectacular events as 9/11 and the 2008 Mumbai attacks were. This trend also means that travel to places like Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or contact with jihadist planners there, will continue to be an operational weakness that Western intelligence agencies can exploit. Such was the case in Birmingham, England, where 12 suspected plotters were arrested in September and November. Individuals seeking to acquire weapons and explosives will also remain vulnerable to detection.

While Nasir al-Wahayshi's appeal for aspiring jihadists to avoid contacting franchise groups and traveling overseas in search of training is sound, it has been difficult for jihadists to follow. This is evidenced by the fact that we have seen very few plots or attacks in which the planners were true lone wolves who had absolutely no contact with outside jihadists -- or with government agents they believed to be jihadists. While the leaderless resistance model can be difficult for law enforcement to guard against, its downside for jihadists is that it takes a unique type of individual to be a true and effective lone wolf.

Since we believe most plots in the United States and Europe in 2012 will involve grassroots jihadists, we also believe that soft targets -- public gatherings and mass transportation hubs, for example -- will continue to be the most popular target set. In places like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, we believe hotels and housing compounds will be more attractive targets than U.S. embassies or consulates, which are much more difficult to successfully attack. With a thwarted plot against a cartoonist involved in the Mohammed cartoon controversy taking place as recently as September, we do not see any end to that threat.

We predict that al-Wahayshi's advice will go unheeded but that grassroots jihadists in the United States will continue to plan and conduct simple attacks using firearms and other weapons. We do not foresee difficult and elaborate attacks employing explosives.


The government of Pakistan has been busily trying to divide the TTP and channel the group's efforts toward other targets in the region, such as foreign forces in Afghanistan and India. Islamabad has had some success in that regard, but we anticipate that some factions of the TTP will continue to target the Pakistani state. In any case, we expect to see fewer and smaller attacks in Pakistan in 2012 than in 2011.


We will need to keep a close eye on the leadership of the Afghan Taliban and their dialogue with the Karzai government. The current conflict between the Taliban and Afghan and NATO forces will lessen somewhat if the Taliban become more involved in the political process, but we do not anticipate the militant group renouncing violence altogether. With some Pakistani jihadist groups vowing to target foreign forces in Afghanistan, acts of terrorism may increase against foreigners in Kabul and Kandahar. Given the intensity of foreign counterterrorism operations and the ongoing insurgency, jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan will have little opportunity to set their sights on targets beyond the immediate region.


India continues to face the threat of Kashmir-based militant groups as well as transnational jihadist groups supported by state and non-state elements within Pakistan. These groups include the Haqqani network and residual elements of Lashkar-e-Taiba, all of which will continue to plan attacks inside India and against Indian interests in nearby countries, such as Afghanistan. India also faces a persistent but smaller threat from domestic jihadist groups like Indian Mujahideen.

Central Asia

For the first time in modern history, Kazakhstan in 2011 was the site of multiple suspected jihadist attacks, including three suicide attacks. Jund al-Khalifa, a Kazakh al Qaeda franchise group, emerged last summer, and we anticipate that it will continue its activities in 2012. Other groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are active in the region, but because these groups are weak and disorganized and operate largely from the area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, they do not pose a major threat to the region's governments.


The Russians have hit the Caucasus Emirate very hard, arresting or killing several key leaders. The group was already suffering from internal divisions at the beginning of 2011; consequently, it did not pose a strategic threat to Russia last year. However, the jihadist group will continue to attack Russian and local government security forces in the Caucasus and will continue its attempts to take the fight to the heart of Moscow -- especially since Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov and dissenting Chechen insurgent leaders resolved their differences last summer. Low-level attacks against soft targets can be expected in the coming year. With the 2014 Winter Olympics being held in Sochi, we anticipate the Russians will focus a great deal of effort on weakening the jihadist groups in the region.


As noted above, AQAP has lost some important English-speaking ideologues, yet the group maintains much of its militant capability. Yemen, where AQAP is based, increasingly is seen as a destination to which foreign jihadists travel to fight and receive training. With the government in Sanaa struggling to retain power in 2011, AQAP was able to take advantage of the instability of the Saleh regime, which was cracking down on protests and fighting throughout the country, and seized portions of southern Yemen. The group also has become very adept at using ambushes, roadside IEDs and sticky bombs to assassinate government officials and military officers. AQAP's experience could later be applied elsewhere if the group is able to again expand its focus beyond Yemeni government targets.

As the crisis in Yemen is resolved and the government turns its attention to regaining control of the country, we anticipate severe clashes between AQAP and government forces. If AQAP declines to fight and withdraws to its remote hideaways, the group may resume operations against foreigners in Sanaa and Aden and conduct transnational attacks. Given AQAP's tactical advances, such attacks might be more deadly than similar attacks in the past.


While the Islamic State of Iraq was greatly damaged by Sunni cooperation with the Americans, the U.S. military withdrawal will change that dynamic. The power struggle between Sunnis and Shia could allow the Islamic State of Iraq to regenerate because the Sunni sheikhs not only tolerate the organization, but support it as a tool against the Shia and their powerful Iranian supporters. Given the tense political situation and the still-unresolved ethno-sectarian balance of power, there will be plenty of opportunity for terrorist attacks.

North Africa

In northern Algeria, AQIM has continued to resist the al Qaeda core's targeting philosophy, instead concentrating on attacking government and security targets. In a sense, AQIM essentially functions as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat but with a different name. The Algerian government has hit AQIM very hard in its traditional mountain strongholds east of Algiers, and the ideological rift over whether to follow al Qaeda's dictates also has hurt the group. Increased abductions of Westerners and clashes with security forces in the Sahara-Sahel are not convincing evidence of AQIM's expanding reach -- nor are incompetent attacks to the south of Algeria. Much of this expanded activity in the south is the result of rivalries between sub-commanders and attempts at raising money via kidnapping and banditry for survival. This is a sign of weakness and lack of cohesion, not strength.

A cell of Moroccan militants allegedly linked to AQIM conducted a successful bombing attack in April against a cafe in Marrakech, Morocco, that killed 17 people, but it was a relatively unsophisticated attack against a soft target. Moroccan authorities claim to have arrested those responsible for the attack.

AQIM elements in the mountains east of Algiers remain weak and ineffective. Even the IEDs the group has employed have been somewhat weak, indicating that the group is running out of explosives. Some of the factions in the Sahel allegedly have received weapons from Libya, but aside from some landmines we have not seen signs of advanced weaponry, such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles or anti-tank guided missiles.

On the whole, AQIM is a shadow of what it was five years ago. It will continue to kidnap victims in the Sahel -- or acquire kidnapped foreigners from ethnic Tuareg rebels in Mali and Niger -- and conduct the occasional small attack, but it still is not a unified militant organization that poses a regional, much less transnational, threat.


Former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) fought against the Gadhafi regime, and the group's leader, Abdelhakim Belhadj, is now the commander of the Tripoli Military Council. (Belhadj and the LIFG renounced jihadism in March as part of a deradicalization program run by Seif al-Islam Gadhafi.) With the fall of the regime in Libya and the current struggle for power among the various militias -- some of these militias, like the Tripoli Military Council, are Islamist -- jihadists have been presented an opportunity. It will be important to monitor Libya to see if the jihadist elements are able to make any gains there.


The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak has created an opening for Egyptian citizens to participate in the political process. This will help dilute jihadist sentiment in the country. A faction of former militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyah is even taking part in the elections. However, while Mubarak was deposed, the military regime is still in place. The small core of hard-line jihadists is unlikely to embrace the change and will continue its struggle. Indeed, jihadist elements have attacked a number of oil pipelines in the months since Mubarak fell. We anticipate that attacks against pipelines and security forces will continue, and 2012 could also see a return of attacks against tourists in the Sinai if the authorities are unable to weaken the jihadists there.

If the military regime is unwilling to relinquish power to the newly elected parliament, the resultant conflict and disillusionment with the democratic process could convince people to turn to jihadism as a viable political alternative.


Divisions between Somali jihadists weakened al Shabaab in 2011, with rifts emerging between factions with nationalist goals and those aligned with al Qaeda with transnationalist goals. Al Shabaab has lost much of its territory in Mogadishu, and though it still has assets in the capital city and can conduct attacks and occasional raids there, it no longer controls large sections of the city. The Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia, the increased presence of African Union Mission in Somalia peacekeepers in Mogadishu and continuing pressure from U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle operations has forced al Shabaab to retrench. Aside from some low-level attacks in northern Kenya, the group cannot plan or conduct attacks outside Somalia. We do not see al Shabaab being defeated in 2012, but we believe that they will be unable to conduct a spectacular attack outside their immediate region.


Boko Haram made huge operational leaps in 2011; the group now employs vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) instead of small IEDs and small arms and machetes. This indicates that at least some element of the group has received outside training, likely from AQIM or al Shabaab (there have been reports of both). Boko Haram also became a transnational threat when it conducted a VBIED attack against a United Nations compound in Abuja that killed at least 21 people. Boko Haram has made threats to conduct attacks in the Niger Delta, but so far it has been unable to strike outside northern Nigeria or the capital. Despite its operational advancement, Boko Haram is still far from being a true transnational threat. The group may attempt to increase its operational range inside Nigeria, but we expect it to remain predominantly focused on northern Nigeria. We also believe that Boko Haram would strike other Nigerian cities, such as Lagos, before embarking on transnational attacks.


The Indonesian government has continued to hit the remnants of Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad and other jihadist elements hard, and it is unlikely that Indonesian jihadists will be able to regroup and conduct large-scale terrorist attacks in 2012. However, they will likely continue low-level attacks against soft targets, such as Christian churches in places like Poso, to incite sectarian violence. Non-jihadist Islamist groups -- Front Pembela Islam, for example -- may also incite riots and contribute members to other jihadist groups.


While the al Qaeda core has been marginalized and heavily damaged, the ideology of jihadism continues to survive and win new converts, albeit at progressively lower numbers. As long as this ideology is able to spread, the war its adherents are waging will continue. While jihadists do not pose a strategic geopolitical threat on a global, regional or national scale, they nonetheless are capable of killing scores of people. For that reason alone, the jihadist threat remains in 2012.

This article reprinted by permission of Stratfor

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