The focus on today’s anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death highlights the role of the 9/11 attacks in elevating his mythical status in the American psyche. The two wars that followed and his more than 4300 days on the FBI’s Most Wanted List only added to Bin Laden’s mystique, establishing him as the central figure in the post-9/11 chapter of violent global jihad. However, by the time of his death one year ago today, paradigms associated with bin Laden and his role in global jihad were already shifting significantly.
Here are six areas taking on new or expanded meaning in this next chapter of global jihad.
1. Friend me: Adding Fuel to the Wi-Fire. For all his propaganda mastery over nearly 30 years, bin Laden’s overriding security concerns trumped his ability to stay in touch with constantly evolving technologies. When his custom-built, Internet-free Abbottabad compound was ready for occupancy in January 2006, Facebook was sprinting from six million users to over 850 million today as the technological revolution that British technologist Ben Hammersley has described as easily on a par with the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment was transforming the way people live and terrorists operate. The scope and scale is enormous. In 2003 less than one billion devices connected to the Internet worldwide. By 2010 that number had grown to over 12 billion on its way to surpassing 25 billion in 2015. In 2007Apple introduced the first iPhone and five years later Smartphones outnumbered personal computers. During that same time period wireless data traffic on AT&T’s network grew by an astonishing 20,000%.
The advent of this 24/7 online revolution cuts across all age categories but is most pronounced in the age group—bin Laden believed it was 15 to 25—that make up most terrorist operatives and strivers susceptible to radicalization and mobilization. The messenger, message, new media, and operations are now linked together in dynamic a way never seen before in human history. One needs look no further for proof of concept than the now deceased Wi-Fire terror celebrity ideologue, Anwar al Aulaqi, whose English-language sermons are still widely available online. According to a January 2012 analysis by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, of 28 plots in the U.S. since Barack Obama was elected, al Aulaqi played an inspirational and/or operational role in 18 of them. Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen rank near the bottom of GDP per capita income, literacy rates, and online connectivity yet host three of the most active terrorist propaganda media machines. In 2011 the Afghan Taliban and the Somalia-based al Shabaab even started their own Twitter feeds.
Al Qaeda’s core narrative evolved over time but always under the watchful guise of bin Laden. Any shift—such as his direction in 1996 not to attack Saudi oil infrastructure, which he rescinded in 2004 —was presented in carefully crafted “edit-then publish” propaganda messages. Once a faxed fatwa, or couriered video or audiotape was published, it was a completed work. The 24/7 online world of this next chapter is a “publish-then-edit” enterprise where grievances are transmutable and values and social mores are increasingly becoming bottom up driven and fungible. In this form of digital direct democracy one can shift from a reader of extremist material to a producer—or, more worrisome, to a violent jihadist—in just a few clicks.
2. Far Enemy Strategy under Review: Think Globally, Act Locally. In this next chapter bin Laden’s signature strategy is already being replaced by a de facto “Near Enemy Plus” strategy necessitated by new realities. Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made no appreciable gains during the first 30 years of his terrorist career focused on the near enemy and his belief that “the road to Jerusalem goes through Cairo.” He now finds himself on the outside looking in as his Egyptian homeland is being reshaped by Muslim Brothers, Salafists, and other Islamists who never accepted his embrace of bin Laden’s far enemy strategy. Left with playing a near term losing hand, Zawahiri has issued a series of lengthy, forgettable Arab Awakening themed statements since President Mubarak’s overthrow while continuing to mouth the “America first, head of the snake” strategy crafted by his predecessor.
Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates and allies continue to lease the brand name and propaganda script of a dead man who spent a decade pining, and failing, to repeat 9/11 while pursuing their own de facto “Near Enemy Plus” strategy. It recognizes the importance of striking the U.S. but in the context of a broader prioritized agenda that has to deal with the reality of diminished resources and capabilities. Unlike al Qaeda core in Pakistan, which is engaged almost entirely in terrorism and survival, the affiliates and allies are involved in terrorism, insurgency, criminal enterprises, humanitarian, and governance areas on the local and regional level. Their intent to strike U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland has not changed, their priority list has. The announcement of allegiance to al Qaeda core in February by al Shabaab leader Godane—he made similar ones in recent years that bin Laden cautioned against—has as much to do with intra-group divided loyalties among clans, nationalists, and long time global jihadists like Godane as any meaningful strategy shift.
This next chapter will move us closer to answering the fundamental question of the viability of a diffuse multi-generational model that operates in a local front approach akin to what al Qaeda strategist Abu Musab al Suri envisioned in 2004, where leadership is separated from open fronts and independent actors. As bin Laden knew well, Al Qaeda’s tactics have been increasingly rejected but the political and ideological basis for defensive jihad still resonates among recruits drawn from a comparatively tiny pool of a vast demographic. It is drawn from a youth bulge in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia—not unlike the bulge produced by the baby boomers in the U.S.—but where the near term prospects are much bleaker. Sixty-five percent of the population is under 30, has come of age during the post 9/11 wars, Arab Awakening, and the stalemate over Palestine. Unemployment has hovered between 20-40 %; twice the world average. The two regional countries with the most-pronounced youth bulge are Yemen and Pakistan, the same locations where the greatest external threats to the U.S. homeland have originated since 9/11. Even a tiny minority represent a powerful recruiting pool where terrorism has long been a part of the fabric of society but never more so than the last decade.
The broader potential recruiting pool includes rising dissatisfaction levels in fragmented societies competing for limited resources and movements to large urban centers that house what Brookings’ Peter Singer has described as millions of young urban poor, the angry losers of globalization. He has noted that sixty years ago there were two urban agglomerations of more than 10 million people: New York and Tokyo. Today there are 22 with another 30 or more likely by 2025. They are breeding grounds for the toxic brew of personal, political, and ideological grievances.
3. Most dangerous neighborhood on the planet, still. Ironically this next chapter of global jihad pivots on what happens in the same neighborhood where the last one picked up steam in the 1980s and peaked on 9/11. In this next chapter the US-led coalition’s role and influence in Afghanistan will attrit as local, regional, and international players and their proxies push their own self-interest agendas. The Pasthunwali tribal code of the honored guest has been the saving grace for al Qaeda core since 1996; first, in Afghanistan and later in Pakistan. But it has limits. The Afghan Taliban internal debate about what to do about bin Laden after the 1998 East Africa bombings, 2000 USS COLE attack, and 9/11 was only settled by the majority-of-one vote cast by Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Taliban is not a monolith, and Afghan and Pakistani militants operate from a geographically diverse self-interest model that includes healthy doses of corruption, drug trade and other criminal enterprises, and territorial hegemony. Local, ethnic and tribal loyalties—not national interests or global jihad—come first.
Even if the insurgents regain some level of dominance in the Pashtun areas in the south and east and threaten Kabul following the U.S. military drawdown in 2014, it is not a given they will let al Qaeda core operate with the same level of pre 9/11 impunity regardless of the outcome of nascent negotiations underway. That approach cost the Taliban their 1996 prize of ruling Afghanistan, and “past performance is [probably] not an indicator of future returns” in their post-2014 investment strategy.
In Pakistan nearly all of the militant jihadi groups that successive Pakistani military and civilian leaders nurtured from 1979 to 9/11 are now active against the state; with Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) being the most prominent exception. Their level of collaboration with al Qaeda developed over years of living together, intermarriages, shared training and logistics support, fighting together against enemies on both sides of the FATA, and rooting out spies will be difficult to untangle or deter. The potential for LeT to bring Pakistani-Indian relations to a boiling point, as it did with the November 2008 Mumbai attack, are additional inhibitors to avoiding the unthinkable. As Brookings’ Bruce Riedel has pointed out, a failed nuclear-armed Pakistani state of 185 million would have much greater implications for the U.S. than a resurgent Taliban in a failed Afghan state of 30 million.
4. DIY Terror: Fighting Overseas Wars at Home. Bin Laden failed for ten years in a row to employ or direct an operational infrastructure to successfully conduct attacks in the U.S. despite the fact that hundreds of Americans have traveled to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and other jihadist battlefields during the last thirty years. Homegrown terrorists who went looking for one, often found law enforcement rather than al Qaeda. Fighting overseas wars at home—more than 50% of plots since 9/11 have targeted U.S. military personnel—more localized grievances while coming of age in post 9/11 America, and the burgeoning prisoner cause célèbre constituency that spans the upcoming 9/11 trials to recent homegrown arrests back to the mid 1990s Blind Sheik Rahman will be near the top of the DIY list. Last June Abu Yahya al Libi, one of the most prominent of al Qaeda core’s remaining ideologues and a 2005 escapee from U.S. military custody in Bagram, Afghanistan again promoted in-place DIY’s by equating one attack in the West to more than tens of attacks in faraway battlefields.
The notion that DIYs are less sophisticated, most clearly are, than those operatives with group affiliations and support from overseas could be subject to review in this next chapter. More than 10 years without a successful attack by al Qaeda core on the U.S. homeland and more than six years anywhere in the West is not the definition of a sophisticated operating model. While spanning the motivational and ideological spectrum, Nidal Hassan, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, Norway’s Anders Breivik, and France’s Mohamed Merah have already proven the power of “unsophisticated” DIY terror during that same timeframe.
Even those who received training and plotting instructions, like New York subway plotter Najibullah Zazi in 2008-09, and were re-routed back to the West have been left largely on their own after returning home. Zazi spent the next eight months back in the U.S. planning without direction until in September 2009 he inadvertently alerted authorities to his plotting when he sought guidance from an al Qaeda core contact in Pakistan on the correct mixture of two bomb-making ingredients listed in his training notes. Zazi, like Merah who killed seven in Toulouse, France in March and a host of al Qaeda core trained operatives arrested in Europe in the last two years have become the rule rather than the exception.
5. Thirty Years War: Upheavals in Slow Motion. The onset and speed of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt caught everyone, including al Qaeda core, by surprise. Twenty-eight days in Tunisia and 18 days in Tahrir Square accomplished what Ayman al Zawahiri could not in 45 years. But those heady days already seem like the distant past. Today local, regional, and international involvement has slowed upheavals to more managed self-interest levels with uneven outcomes. The 17th century Thirty Years War in central Europe reset the political order of an entire region, changed the relationship between subjects and rulers, and ushered in a new governance model; the nation-state. Similarly, it will take years of challenges, instability and governance experiments to come to a new social contract.
The stakes for global jihadists in this next chapter are already in play. The Islamists’ prominent role in governance, with a distinctly nationalist pedigree, is providing a viable alternative to al Qaeda’s caliphate-by-force narrative. It is relegating the group to a near term future as a troublemaking quasi-opposition party in exile with no ideological vocabulary to deal with democratic coalitions. Just as the Reformation pushed toward a separation of church and state, the Arab Awakening is pushing toward a closer link between mosque and state but not close enough for global jihadists.
Yet opportunities abound. History is littered with prison releases and escapes resulting in new terrorist leaders. The development of factionalism within Islamist movements could include the emergence of new extremists, some linking up with al Qaeda. Terrorist acquisition of weapons stocks, particularly chemical-biological devices in Syria, can be game changers. Instability in Yemen is providing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula an opportunity to solidify territorial gains by providing social services, welcoming more foreign mujahedin, and expanding its near enemy plus external operations portfolio. Iraqi sectarian and ethnic violence and instability in Syria and Libya are providing opportunities for al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb to make gains and establish footholds.
Bin Laden’s defensive jihad narrative initially focused primarily on the Palestinian question, the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, and the flow of oil to the West. They have dominated U.S. foreign policymaking and have an ideological and political component for global jihadists that are subject to revision in this next chapter. The U.S. will soon no longer need to import oil from the Persian Gulf and is on track to become an energy exporter. Hamas’ ascension coupled with newly empowered Arab Awakening partners decreases the global jihadists already unwelcomed input to what has been an intractable conflict.
6. Democratization of science and technology. Technologist Kevin Kelly has noted that in every technology’s lifespan there is the period described by computer scientist Marvin Minsky as the “haves and haves-laters.” Kelly noted that the first cell phones were the size of bricks, cost around $2000, and were the provenance of techno-geeks and the wealthy. Twenty years later, 90% of Americans walk around with cheap cell phones small enough to fit in their shirt pocket and mobile broadband has permutated the poorest countries of the world.
We tend to think of drones in military terms of predators and reapers. It’s time to think again. How about your own personal surveillance drone the size of a large Frisbee or even smaller that you can operate with your iPhone. One with a 40 minute hover period that could prove effective for terrorists as a surveillance platform. According to the FAA, 30.000 drones could be in the nation’s skies by 2020.
It is remarkable that global jihadists already adept at other ubiquitous tools of the globalized technological revolution and who have themselves been subjected to repeated cyber attacks—six al Qaeda linked sites were taken down in late March—have not put themselves near the top of information warfare cyber operators lists. That may be changing. In June 2011 al Qaeda core, for the first time, went to some length to encourage individuals to conduct cyber attacks in the West by declaring “Hacking on the Internet is one of the key pathways to Jihad.”
When Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy in 1999 said “you have zero privacy anyway get over it,” he was a man way ahead of his time. Today several companies have developed apps for those phones that employ GPS and analyze your Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter networks to see if any friends—or friends of friends—are nearby. This new generation of apps broadcasts your location at all times to friends—and in many cases to people you don’t even know but have similar interests. That is a far cry from 2009 when Colleen LaRose (Jihad Jane) joined her intended target, Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks’ online community and became a citizen of his virtual artist enclave to track his movements.
What about money transfers? The ancient hawala system that helped Faisal Shahzad finance his failed attack on Times Square two years ago today is being joined by modern systems like Twitpay, Facebook credits, and a host of other online options as a means to move money discreetly from point A to point B. Many Generation Yers who already question why their parents carry cash in their wallets will soon replace their wallets almost entirely with their most precious possession; their Smartphones.
The increasing democratization of science and technology down to the individual level has emerging implications for have-later terrorists. Increased transparency, sharing, and technological advances are providing even more operational options to redefine tactics, select and surveil targets, move money, and execute attacks.
In this next chapter of global jihad it turns out that the light at the end of the tunnel leads to another tunnel.
Randall Blake is a Federal Executive Fellow at The Brookings Institution from the National Counterterrorism Center. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the ODNI, the Intelligence Community or the U.S. Government.
The image people often have is plane-loads of these [jihadists] flying out, but that’s the wrong image: It’s people filtering out in dribs and drabs.