Twenty Years After 9/11: What Is the Future of the Global Jihadi Movement?

Abstract: Twenty years after 9/11, with the United States withdrawn from Afghanistan, the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a shift in focus and resources to great power competition, jihadi terrorism appears to have been demoted to a second-tier priority. But complacency is dangerous. While al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State have been weakened, their affiliates and branches remain active. And even though the violent excesses of Islamic State rule in Syria and Iraq disgusted very many Muslims, jihadi ideology continues to resonate throughout the Arab and Islamic world, fueled by a lack of political and economic progress and sectarian animosities. The fall of Kabul, and the perception of a dramatic victory over a second superpower in Afghanistan, has sent a jolt of energy through the global jihadi movement. With new battlefields in Africa and the potential for Afghanistan now back under Taliban control to once again become a magnet for foreign fighters, there is a significant risk of a jihadi resurgence. In the future, a range of advancing or emerging technologies from autonomous weapons to artificial intelligence to synthetic biology may offer small groups of jihadi terrorists the potential to carry out highly destructive and even catastrophic terrorism, while climate change looks set to create the destabilized conditions in which jihadis thrive.

“Are we serious about dealing with the al Q(a)ida threat? … Is al Q(a)ida a big deal?” Those were questions posed by Richard Clarke, the National Counterterrorism Coordinator at the National Security Council (NSC), to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice just one week before the al-Qaida terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.1 Clarke went on to explain that there were two schools of thought within the U.S. government about the threat posed by al-Qaida prior to 9/11—one school saw al-Qaida as little more than “a nuisance” while the other school believed that the terrorist network was “the point of the spear of radical Islam.”2 Twenty years after that initial debate—with blood and treasure spilled in pursuit of defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban militants who hosted them once again in control of Afghanistan—the same questions are being asked.

Speaking in mid-April 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden offered the following assessment of the global terrorism landscape: “Over the past 20 years, the threat has become more dispersed, metastasizing around the globe: al-Shabaab in Somalia; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; al-Nusra in Syria; ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.”3 President Biden offered these remarks as a justification for his administration’s policy of withdrawing the remaining 3,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In early July 2021, President Biden offered more remarks on the withdrawal, noting that in addition to “delivering justice” to al-Qa`ida leader Usama bin Ladin, the United States also achieved its secondary objective, which was “to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.”4

Once again, there is a debate within the U.S. government, various intelligence agencies, and the broader counterterrorism and national security community about the magnitude of the threat posed to the U.S. homeland and American interests abroad by al-Qa`ida and the global jihadi movement. Both the Trump and Biden administrations were in favor of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In defending the Trump administration’s overtures to the Taliban to kickstart talks for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, President Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed in March 2020 that “Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self.”5 Subsequently, Representative Adam B. Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, noted that “the terrorism threat from the Afghan region is not zero, but, at the moment, it’s less than it is in other parts of the world.”6

The Taliban takeover of Kabul in the late summer of 2021 has prompted a reevaluation of the threat. While in June 2021, the Pentagon assessed groups like al-Qaida may be able to regenerate and pose a threat to the U.S. homeland within two years of a U.S. military withdrawal, it was reported that “officials now believe terror groups like al-Qaida may be able to grow much faster than expected.”7 Even despite these new concerns, to many it may seem that, after two decades of the Global War on Terrorism, the United States has successfully navigated the challenges posed by the global jihadi movement, which is more of a problem that needs to be managed rather than a growing threat capable of catastrophic destruction. But this set of interpretations fundamentally misunderstands the resiliency and determination of a movement that has grown in size, sophistication, and geographic expanse and looks wholly different than it did merely two decades ago. The opening section of the Biden administration’s interim national security strategic guidance notes that global dynamics have shifted and the world is at “an inflection point.”8 Later in the document, it notes, “We must adapt our approach to counterterrorism, including by aligning our resources to evolving threats.”9 This resource realignment relegates terrorism to a second-tier threat, which risks squandering hard-fought gains against groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

In looking at the future of the global jihadi movement, this article proceeds in four parts. First, it assesses the current balance sheet, taking stock of 20 years of terrorism and counterterrorism and laying out where the movement has succeeded and where it has failed. Second, it maps out areas where the global jihadi movement will likely look for new geographic opportunities. Third, it examines the potential future technology of jihadi terror, by looking at how Islamist terrorists may leverage advancing and emerging technologies. Fourth, it concludes with an overview of where things could be headed next and what developments might unfold in the short and long term.

Part One: The Balance Sheet
It is difficult to measure 20 years of progress and setbacks in fighting terrorism and especially difficult to do so in the immediate aftermath of potentially one of the biggest setbacks of all, the recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The United States and its allies have made significant strides in combating salafi jihadis, their organizations, and their networks. Counterterrorism assessments are always perilous endeavors, since not all factors and variables deserve equal weight. Ultimately, for both the United States and its allies on the one hand, and the global jihadi movement on the other, the result is a bit of a mixed bag for both sides. For the jihadis, the conflict with the West has always been a long game, measured in generations, not years. And nearly every positive indicator for the United States and its allies comes with potential drawbacks, negative implications, and second-order effects. For example, the United States has done an admirable job in attacking core al-Qa`ida and Islamic State, only to see these groups develop branches and affiliates in far-flung corners of the globe. In a sense, decentralization has been a relief valve to handling U.S. counterterrorism pressure. In many parts of the world, the situation more closely resembles a stalemate. But if the United States and its allies are indeed locked in a draw with the jihadis, it is the former that is prepared to blink first. The two sections below attempt to measure the current state of affairs by touching upon wins and losses on each side of the ledger.

For all of the critiques leveled against the United States over the Global War on Terrorism and notwithstanding the potentially significant setback of the late summer 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the United States has achieved several important milestones. Above all else, there has been no attack on U.S. soil anywhere near equivalent to what occurred on September 11, 2001. The U.S. government—including the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, and the military—has constructed a worldwide counterterrorism apparatus to dismantle terrorist organizations, deny terrorists entry into the country, and disrupt terrorist plots both at home and overseas, especially those targeting U.S. and allied interests.10 There is danger in taking a victory lap, but there should also be an acknowledgment that protecting the U.S. homeland has remained a top priority across several administrations.

Decapitation operations have successfully eliminated a succession of high-value targets, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (2006), Usama bin Ladin (2011), Anwar al-Awlaki (2011), Abu Yahya al-Libi (2012), Ahmed Abdi Godane (2014), Abu Khayr al-Masri (2017), Hamza bin Ladin (2019), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (2019), Qasim al-Raymi (2020), and Abu Muhammad al-Masri (2020). The strongest jihadi groups are limited operationally, and in many cases, jihadi franchise groups are preoccupied with local and regional conflicts and civil wars.11 Neither al-Qa`ida nor the Islamic State has developed into a mass movement, as the vast majority of Muslims worldwide still harbor negative views of jihadi organizations according to polling data.12

Indeed, al-Qaida and the Islamic State seem no closer to their ultimate goal of creating a durable caliphate. Al-Qaida has always envisaged this as a long-term project. When the Islamic State attempted to create a caliphate, it was crushed, deflating hardline Islamist extremists worldwide. And its horrific violence was put on display for all to see, leaving very many, including in the Muslim world, in disgust. This strengthened the hands of moderates in many parts of the Muslim world in their ideological battle with the extremists and ensured that the prospects of a jihadi takeover in the heart of the Levant remains fairly dim. However, the stunningly rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the late summer of 2021 restored significant luster to the jihadi cause, with the perception of a dramatic victory over a second superpower in Afghanistan, sending a jolt of energy through the global jihadi movement. And although al-Qa`ida is still a long way from its goal of creating a caliphate, it again has an “Islamic Emirate” in which to operate.

After a whirlwind period between 2014 and 2019 that saw the Islamic State capture and control vast swaths of territory in the Levant while attracting more than 40,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries,13 its physical caliphate was finally destroyed in March 2019 as the Syrian town of Baghouz fell to U.S.-led coalition forces.14 With the Islamic State’s core leadership focused on survival, its command-and-control has been attenuated and its core leadership mostly contained.a The same fate that befell al-Qaida in the early 2000s is now playing out for the Islamic State: its once powerful wilayats in North Africa and South Asia are struggling to rebuild. The decentralized model that al-Qaida and the Islamic State have adopted is manifestly less effective in successfully executing external operations and spectacular attacks, and as a result of relentless Western counterterrorism operations, these groups’ networks have (in practice, if not on paper) atomized into smaller, more numerous groups. For example, in parts of northern and western Africa, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)b morphed into a collection of several smaller groups, although Ansar al-Din, al-Murabitoon, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahara branch then linked up to a create a loose-knit al-Qa`ida super grouping in the Sahel known as Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM).c

While the operational tempo of jihadi groups, taken as a whole, has declined in recent years, various affiliates have become more active while others have grown semi-dormant. After climbing steadily between 2009 and 2016, the aggregate number of attacks by the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida and their affiliates has declined each year beginning in 2017, leveling off between 2018 and 2020.15 Lone actor attacks in the West—namely, North America, Europe, and Australasia—inspired by the Islamic State peaked in 2017, but have tapered off over the past several years.16 The decline in lone actor attacks is likely due to two main factors. First, when the Islamic State lost its physical caliphate, its ability to produce and disseminate propaganda and directives encouraging its supporters to conduct attacks was also attenuated. Second, as noted by the United Nations Security Council monitoring team in a report published in July 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has “artificially suppressed” the threat of terrorist activity and that attacks are likely to pick up again once travel restrictions are eased.17

For all of the gains that the United States and its allies have made against jihadi groups, most have been tactical and many fleeting, rarely rising to the level of strategic and sustained. Moreover, what appear upon first glance to be “victories” are, in reality, often more complicated outcomes with second- and third-order effects. For example, while some consider the decentralized nature of the global jihadi movement an ineffective alliance, there are upsides to this structure for these groups: no center of gravity means there is no catastrophic vulnerability. Decentralization of the global jihadi movement also results in an increasingly diverse set of actors. Entire regions have developed into jihadi hubs, catalyzed by al-Qa`ida or Islamic State branches, but extending to include local groups and front organizations. For foreign fighters and roving jihadis, the decentralized structure translates to an array of options when deciding which insurgencies to join or travel to next.18 The fact remains, an important part of U.S. military and counterterrorism efforts has been to prevent jihadis from threatening Americans and American facilities, as well as U.S. allies and interests overseas. But like a malignant tumor that has been morcellated, cancerous cells have been scattered to far-flung locales and polities, infecting new areas and perpetuating the illness represented by an ideology and worldview that advocates violent jihad.

The Sahel is the epitome of jihadis realizing so-called ‘glocal’ (global and local) ambitions, as al-Qaida has made crucial headway with local tribes in the region, successfully marrying local grievances with al-Qaida’s global ambitions.19 The jihadi threat in North and West Africa has mostly remained local and regional, although those dynamics could change.20 JNIM propaganda regularly singles out France,21 and it is not entirely inconceivable that Sahelian jihadis could set their sights on Paris or other Western targets at some point. Moreover, there have been important examples of terrorist group alliances within these regional hubs, with the Sahel once again proving instructive. Notwithstanding the fighting between them, JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have been known to cooperate at various points.22 When terrorist groups form alliances, it can provide opportunities for increased operational effectiveness, while also enhancing the reputation, legitimacy, and stature of some of these organizations.23

Competition and cooperation between jihadi groups will look different in different parts of the world. What happens in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula might be the inverse of what unfolds in the Levant or the southern Philippines. What is certain, though, is that the global jihadi movement will continue to adapt, transform, and evolve, as some groups splinter while others form anew. By some estimates, there are four times as many jihadis today than there were on September 11, 2001, a massive increase by any measure.24 The global al-Qa`ida network alone, to say nothing of the Islamic State, operates in more countries now than it did on September 11, and can call upon nearly 20,000 fighters.25 d When many analysts predicted that the Arab Spring would be a death knell for jihadis, the opposite was true, as these groups capitalized upon the ensuing instability to insert themselves as key actors in civil wars and sectarian conflicts.26

As others have noted, less pressure tends to equal more terror.27 According to the U.N. monitoring team report published in July 2021, “the United States military withdrawal and the partial drawdown of the African Union Mission in Somalia left Somali special forces struggling to contain Al-Shabaab without strategic support,” while in the Sahel, JNIM is expanding as France reduces its military effort against the jihadis.28 As Western counterterrorism efforts subside, with resources shifted to great power competition, the global jihadi movement is capable of mounting a comeback. The chaotic scenes that followed the Taliban takeover of Kabul will be used by jihadis to evoke images of the Soviets departing the “graveyard of empires” more than 30 years ago. Usama bin Ladin’s assessment of the United States as a ‘paper tiger’ following the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia in the early 1990s will receive new attention. And the Taliban’s late summer 2021 takeover of Afghanistan will be offered as proof that by staying the course, al-Qaida and its jihadi allies have prevailed, bleeding the United States economically and setting the conditions for U.S. disengagement from the Arab and Islamic world, something that bin Ladin and his jihadi contemporaries have long declared among their top priorities through an endless stream of propaganda and information operations. Indeed al-Qaida Central in congratulating the Taliban for their takeover of Afghanistan stated that “the rubbing of the nose of America and NATO in the mud of Afghanistan has ended the era of American and European arrogance and their ambitions for military occupation of Muslim lands.”29

Part Two: The Future Geography of Jihadi Terror
Two decades of Western-led counterterrorism efforts have dealt a serious blow to both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. If current trends continue, even further decentralization of both organizations should be expected, with affiliates balancing local and global objectives, with local grievances, including economic stagnation, high rates of youth unemployment, and demographic pressures, a daily reminder of the failed expectations that have contributed to recruitment and mobilization among Muslim youth in the past. Demographics, socioeconomic conditions, youth culture, geopolitical context, and (poor) governance all matter as drivers of extremism.30 As noted by a RAND Corporation study looking at the next generation of salafi-jihadis, “the underlying grievances that drove radicalization in past generations of Sunni Muslims remain salient in Gen Z.”31 And while local grievances may initially serve to motivate interest in potentially joining a jihadi group, distinct online recruitment strategies, as evidenced by the Islamic State, speak directly to potential recruits and engage in a process of “grooming” to inculcate followers and work to shape individuals’ worldviews.32

The result of further decentralization will likely be weaker organizations and groups, but more numerous and still lethal offshoots that have the potential to metastasize into menacing threats in their own right. Instead of two blazing infernos, the result is likely to be dozens of more contained, smaller fires, each capable of growing into a more widespread conflagration. Jihadi groups, especially al-Qa`ida, have been adroit in adapting along tactical, operational, and strategic lines. The structure of these organizations allows them to transition between terrorism, insurgency, and guerrilla warfare with relative ease. When counterterrorism pressure becomes difficult to bear, many of these groups have proven adept at operating clandestinely, and shifting resources from attack planning to proselytizing and making inroads with local clans and tribes.

For the United States and its allies, the tradeoff of less intense fires but a greater number of smaller ones may be acceptable. In an ideal world, al-Qaida and the Islamic State would have been thoroughly extinguished as threats, their respective support and logistical nodes vanquished, and jihadi ideology sufficiently undermined. But the reality is quite different. Still, given the choice between the two, dealing with decentralized networks with weakened core apparatuses and degraded command-and-control is preferable. Jihadi affiliates will still be able to destabilize regions like the Sahel and the southern Philippines, but in their current state, it is far more difficult, though not impossible, for al-Qaida and the Islamic State to plan spectacular attacks on Western interests or launch external operations in major European capitals. Jihadi propaganda will still inspire attacks in the West from lone actors and small cells, many with no connections whatsoever to terrorist organizations. Between September and late November 2020, there were six terrorist attacks in Europe inspired by jihadi ideology.33

The decentralization of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State makes particular countries and regions that received less attention from the U.S. counterterrorism community far more important in the overall strategic picture. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is now a major arena for near-peer competition, and many analysts see it as a region where jihadi groups are poised to thrive over the coming months and years.34 With the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it is possible that the country could once again become a major hub for foreign fighters and jihadis from around the world. The worry is this could lead to international terror again being plotted from the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) region. One of the lessons of the last 20 years is that wherever jihadis have found significant sanctuaries—in Afghanistan before 9/11 and then in the tribal areas of both Pakistan and Yemen, and most recently in Iraq and Syria—major terrorist attacks or plots against the West directed from these regions have followed.

According to one tally, over the first six months of 2021, the Islamic State claimed 1,415 attacks worldwide, an average of just under eight attacks per day.35 The analyst who compiled the tally compared the data with data from the same period in previous years. The comparison36 suggests that based on figures from 2020, several affiliates have gained momentum—Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK) in Afghanistan—while Islamic State branches in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Islamic State in East Asia (ISEA) have experienced a marked decrease in activity. There has also been a near complete drop-off in attacks by Islamic State franchise groups in both Yemen and Libya, although a claimed Islamic State attack in Zillah, southern Libya, in August 2021 could indicate the group’s opening stages of a campaign to revive its organization in that country.37

This section now examines the trajectory of jihadi terrorism in several regions of the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa

According to a recent report by the United Nations, “the most striking development” of the first half of 2021 “was the emergence of Africa as the region most affected by terrorism, and in which the largest numbers of casualties inflicted [by jihadi terror groups] occurred.”38 Nowhere is the situation deteriorating faster than in sub-Saharan Africa. From Mali to Mozambique, jihadis are on the march, as al-Qa`ida and Islamic State affiliates seek to take advantage of sub-Saharan Africa’s porous borders, weak security forces, and ethnic and tribal tensions. Many of the same drivers that enabled the growth of violent jihadi groups, including poor governance, still exist and in some cases are more poignant. The Islamic State in particular has made expansion in sub-Saharan Africa one of its overarching priorities, devoting more strategic direction and material assistance to a region previously neglected by the group.39 The results speak for themselves, and will likely encourage further investment of manpower and resources in African affiliates.40 In August 2020, ISCAP in Mozambique captured the port city of Mocimboa de Praia in Cabo Delgado province, launching the group to prominence and setting the stage for future attacks.41 Seven months later, in March 2021, ISCAP launched an attack on the town of Palma in northern Mozambique, taking over territory for four days, killing dozens, and beheading some of the victims.42 The militants behind the attack belong to Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ), one of the two branches that comprise ISCAP.43 The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) constitute the second branch of ISCAP.44 In late June 2021, ISCAP’s DRC-based affiliate claimed responsibility for its first suicide bombing in the country, raising fears of a growing insurgency that increasingly mimics core Islamic State tactics and strategy.45

Al-Qaida affiliates, including JNIM in the Maghreb and al-Shabaab in Somalia and East Africa, have demonstrated impressive resilience, honing their operational and organizational capabilities, including recruitment, propaganda, and targeting. In parts of the Sahel, both al-Qaida and Islamic State militants have sought to gain control over gold mines in order to finance their operations and organizations.46 If the United States and its allies, including France, continue to draw down forces throughout Africa, it could lead to security vacuums that will be immediately contested by a range of jihadi groups. The concern is such that the Biden administration is reportedly considering47 a Pentagon proposal to send dozens of Special Forces trainers back to Somalia, reversing a policy decision taken by the Trump administration in January 2021.48

Al-Shabaab remains a threat in Somalia and the surrounding region, having first explored cross-border attacks with a 2010 attack in Uganda during the World Cup.49 Over time, al-Shabaab developed a regional strategy that included several high-profile terrorist attacks in Kenya. A complex attack targeted the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 and a coordinated attack at a university in Garissa, Kenya, followed in April 2015. These attacks foreshadowed al-Shabaab’s evolution into an organization with the capabilities to strike throughout the region.50 In January 2019, al-Shabaab launched spectacular attacks against an office complex and hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 21 people and injuring 28 more in a siege that lasted overnight.51 In a two-week span at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, al-Shabaab’s resurgence became impossible to ignore, with the group launching a spate of attacks in Mogadishu and northern Kenya. In early January 2020, in an al-Shabaab attack on Manda Bay, a Kenyan military base hosting U.S. personnel, three Americans were killed.52

Al-Shabaab may also be expanding its focus beyond East Africa. Between 2007 and 2010, al-Shabaab successfully recruited dozens of Somali-American youth, one of whom served as a suicide bomber.53 In 2019, authorities foiled a terrorist attack that led to the arrest of a Kenyan al-Shabaab operative in the Philippines. The plot featured a 9/11-style plan to hijack an airplane in the United States and crash it into a building.54 As noted by the most recent U.N. monitoring team report, al-Shabaab has man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) in its arsenal, has increased its use of drones, and maintains both the intent and capacity to launch attacks against aircraft and civil aviation infrastructure.55 In 2016, al-Shabaab detonated a bomb concealed inside of a laptop, blowing a hole in a Somali passenger jet.56 And while Somalia is primarily dominated by al-Shabaab, the Islamic State has managed to maintain a foothold in the country, especially in Puntland.57 The Islamic State’s presence in Somalia is also beneficial because of the Al Karrar office, which acts as a liaison with ISCAP in Mozambique.58

The threat is also high on the other side of Africa. In late May 2021, Mali suffered its second coup in less than a year, complicating the French counterterrorism mission in the region.59 The following month, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would be ending Operation Barkhane, which includes 5,100 French troops operating across Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.60 The departing force is expected to be supplanted by a more international force, but concern is growing throughout the region that whatever replaces Barkhane may not be enough. No matter the size of Western counterterrorism forces on the ground, if dysfunctional governance and regional instability remain the norm, jihadis will exploit these opportunities to their own advantage. ISGS,e ISWAP, and JNIM have each displayed a remarkable propensity to capitalize on recent political developments throughout the Sahel.61 Jihadi activity is spreading throughout the region, now impacting or putting at risk countries such as Togo, Benin, Ghana, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire,62 and Burkina Faso.63 Of the top 10 countries impacted by Islamic State and al-Qa`ida attacks in 2021 (as of July), seven are located in sub-Saharan Africa: Somalia (95 attacks), Nigeria (65 attacks), Cameroon (30 attacks), Mozambique (29 attacks), Niger (22 attacks), Mali (19 attacks), and Kenya (19 attacks).64 The situation remains dangerous, with Western counterterrorism strategy in flux at the same time that the region is experiencing a surge in jihadi-driven violence.65

In late May 2021, ISWAP claimed credit for an operation that led to the death of longtime Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.66 The attention-grabbing operation could propel ISWAP to further gains in the region, as it seeks to consolidate territory and poach fighters from other jihadi groups. ISWAP is also undergoing an organizational restructuring, delineating semi-autonomous leadership between four geographic locales, including the Sambisa Forest, Alagarno Forest, Tumbuma, and the Lake Chad islands. To this end, ISWAP has already begun appointing leaders in the Shura Council and the various “caliphates.”67 Terrorist groups like ISWAP have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to go on the offensive, particularly as African militaries are repurposed to help deal with the public health response.68 The Lake Chad region, which is believed to have between 3,000 and 5,000 ISWAP fighters,69 could be high on the list of territories that the Islamic State seeks to control, and it could potentially use the area as a model for future growth throughout the rest of the continent. ISWAP is currently in a phase focusing on consolidation of territory and expansion of its ranks. When this phase reaches maturity, ISWAP could reassess its priorities and, if sufficiently encouraged by core Islamic State, alter its calculus to begin looking to target the homelands of Western countries directly.

South Asia
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan underlines the pivot the United States has made from counterterrorism to great power competition. Core al-Qa`ida has suffered major setbacks, including a high number of leadership losses, but it retains an ongoing relationship with the Afghan Taliban,70 and their late summer 2021 takeover of Afghanistan could serve to breathe new life into the group just as it is looking to rebound.71

ISK has launched several high-profile terrorist attacks, including attacks against a maternity ward72 and a school for girls, and targeted Shi`a Hazaras over the past two years.73 And in late August 2021 it carried out a suicide bombing outside Kabul’s international airport killing as many as 170, including 13 American troops. Without the presence of U.S. troops, ISK may be well positioned to stage a comeback, with the United Nations assessing that ISK has strengthened its positions around Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and that it has made the recruitment and training of new members a top priority.74 In May 2021, ISK reported 15 times as many attacks as it did during this same time period in 2020, which corresponded to the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic.75 However, the coming months may be challenging for ISK because jihadis may bandwagon around a victorious Taliban and the Taliban may move to stamp out the rival group.f Yet, if the Taliban pursues more moderate policies than before 9/11 and attempts to build bridges inside and outside Afghanistan, ISK may see opportunities. A June 2021 report from the U.N. Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team concluded that “by positioning itself as the sole pure rejectionist group in Afghanistan,” ISK could benefit by recruiting disaffected Taliban members and other militants to join its organization.76

In a scenario that should concern all members of the international community, with the Taliban’s recent overthrow of the Afghan government and tightening grip on key cities and large parts of the country, Afghanistan could once again become a magnet for foreign terrorist fighters.77 The Taliban’s victory has been celebrated by a large number of jihadi groups all over the world,g from Gaza to Idlib; this is an issue that has resonated widely and has the potential to catalyze the global jihad. As noted by one analyst, “many al-Qaeda supporters distributed a message from a jihadist calling [the] Taliban victory a watershed moment akin to 9/11, a moment that vindicates the view that ‘what was taken by force can only be recovered by force.’”78

If Afghanistan again becomes a major global hub for foreign terrorist fighters, there will be serious international security ramifications. Since the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, Western nations have dedicated significant resources to preventing an outflow of their citizens to combat zones in order to join terrorist groups. Many of the laws and policies put in place over the past seven years would likely prevent a similar migration of European citizens to Afghanistan, although the issue of so-called “frustrated” foreign fighters—those prevented from leaving but who subsequently seek to conduct attacks at home—will remain a pressing issue for policymakers and intelligence services.79 And while any outflow of foreign fighters from Europe and other Western countries to Afghanistan would likely be smaller than what occurred with the rise of the Islamic State, many of Afghanistan’s neighbors and other countries in the region are either unable or unwilling to enact similar laws to prevent their citizens from seeking out new conflicts. A revived ISK in Afghanistan would also threaten Iran, which might then redirect more Liwa Fatemiyoun (Shia militia) fighters, battle-hardened from Syria, to Afghanistan with the specific mandate of protecting Afghan Shia and fighting Sunni jihadis.80 The more violent non-state actors involved in a civil war, the lengthier and deadlier these conflicts tend to be, which in turn contributes to destabilization in neighboring countries.81

Instability in Afghanistan would also have an impact across the border in Pakistan, where the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is enjoying something of a revival, as well as further north in Central Asia. Starting in approximately 2009 and continuing for the next several years, the TTP was beset by internal divisions, splintering, and counterinsurgency operations by the Pakistani military and from 2015 competition with ISK.82 Yet, since the summer of 2020 TTP has absorbed numerous jihadi groups in Pakistan, including erstwhile rival groups, and has done so in a process reportedly moderated by al-Qaida.83 Over a four-month period in mid- to late 2020, the TTP conducted more than 100 cross-border attacks, and its current fighting strength is estimated to be somewhere between 2,500 and 6,000 militants.84 And while most of the analysis looking at what happens next in Afghanistan has focused on al-Qaida, the Taliban, and ISK, there has been less attention paid to the TTP, which could benefit tremendously from a more permissive environment in Afghanistan. Extortion, smuggling, and taxation have all contributed to the TTP’s increased coffers, and the group seems to be gaining momentum and absorbing smaller groups in preparation for a full-throated comeback in the near future. Other parts of South Asia might also see an uptick in jihadi activity, including Bangladesh, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the disputed Kashmir region. Additional attacks in India could be a way for jihadis to use sectarianism as a cudgel to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the subcontinent.

Middle East
One of the most important developments in countering transnational terrorist groups has been the recent move by jihadis toward localization. The most poignant example has been the strategy pursued by al-Qaida, wherein its affiliates seek to embed themselves within regional social movements. Al-Qaida has done so successfully in Yemen and North Africa with AQAP and AQIM, respectively.85 In Syria, al-Qaida’s affiliate went so “native” that it broke with its former, parent group. As Charles Lister has observed, al-Qaida today is far less hierarchical than in the past, with its organizational structure giving way to “a loosely networked movement, comprising likeminded but regionally distinct groups, each pursuing local agendas.”86 Indeed, over time, authority has shifted from core al-Qa`ida senior leadership to branches and affiliates, which in turn have developed greater autonomy, which is reflected in target selection and propaganda tailored more toward local grievances than global jihad.87

The case of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is, in fact, instructive in this regard. Headed by veteran jihadi Muhammad al-Julani, HTS is the result of several iterations of what was initially al-Qaida in Syria—first through Jabhat al-Nusra, subsequently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS).88 The rebranding caused a rift between JFS and al-Qaida leadership.89 The tension between local and global objectives was a major source of the breakup, and JFS rebranded once again as HTS, officially marking its break from al-Qaida.90 What this development portends is the possibility for other branches to undergo a similar transformation, moving away from al-Qaida core and its globally oriented agenda to focus more on local issues, governance, and consolidating political legitimacy among tribes, clans, and local populations, relying on social service provision combined with coercion, intimidation, and violence. As the journalist Rania Abouzeid observed in a recent PBS Frontline documentary about al-Julani, he recognized that if he was attempting to gain political influence in Idlib province, there were practical reasons to distance his group from al-Qaida. Without linkages to al-Qaida, al-Julani would be more successful in managing relations with external patrons, including Turkey, which is reported to have provided various forms of support.91

The challenge this development presents to counterterrorism practitioners is significant. Jihadi groups that are able to ingrain themselves in the social fabric of local and regional communities, much as HTS has done in Syria’s Idlib Province, can blur the line between terrorists and local political actors. From a counterterrorism point of view, the tradeoff is dealing with organizations with more localized objectives, but an enhanced potential for longevity and durability. Over time, as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon, terrorist groups can become inextricably linked, yet still autonomous from the state, morphing into hybrid entities with political, military, social, cultural, and economic responsibilities.92

Another important development to continue monitoring will be how geopolitics in the Middle East impact the trajectory of support for transnational Islamist terrorist groups. Fierce fighting between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in May 2021 thrust the Arab-Israeli conflict back into the spotlight. But the conflict itself and sympathy for the Palestinians is no longer the cause célèbre it once was in many parts of the Arab and Islamic world. Following the so-called Abraham Accords, several countries—Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—entered into “normalization” agreements with Israel.93 Al-Qaida was quick to denounce any country entering into an agreement with Israel, and may look to refocus its propaganda efforts on the plight of the Palestinians in an effort to generate more support for its global jihad. Often critical of Hamas in the past for its decision to enter elections, following the most recent round of fighting, al-Qaida was quick to praise the group for its “victories” against Israel and called for expanding the battlefield beyond Palestine to the rest of the Islamic world, moving to “liberate” other mosques, in addition to al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.94 Al-Qa`ida’s détente with Hamas could even improve its relationship with Iran, which has been tense and transactional, but which has also provided benefits for both parties.95

And although it gets far less media attention than it has in the past, the Islamic State continues to operate throughout Iraq and Syria, and could very well stage a revival in the Levant. Deir ez-Zor province in Syria remains a hotbed of Islamic State activity, with jihadis conducting hit-and-run attacks, assassinations, and kidnapping for ransom (KFR) operations with relative impunity.96 As the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are preoccupied with operations in Aleppo and Hasakah, the Islamic State has taken advantage by reconstituting the hisba, or religious police, in parts of northeastern Syria.97 Across the border in Iraq, the Islamic State is waging a largely rural insurgency and remains active in large swaths of the country.98 As evidenced by a July 2021 bombing at a market in Baghdad, the Islamic State also still retains the ability to launch spectacular attacks in Iraq’s capital.99

Part Three: The Future Technology of Jihadi Terror
The rise of the Islamic State coincided with a trend in jihadi tactics that saw a greater focus on opportunistic attacks. Islamic State leaders encouraged their followers to conduct vehicle attacks, which a number of terrorists did—in Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, and New York City, among other places—with significant lethality. “If you are not able to find an I.E.D. or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman or any of their allies,” Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged in a speech from September 2014. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”100 By turning airplanes into suicide vehicles, al-Qa`ida displayed a penchant for realizing the previously unthinkable. The Islamic State adopted more of a “kitchen sink approach”101 to terrorism, just as content to claim a small-scale knife attack in Finland as it was a meticulously planned, multi-person operation in Sri Lanka.

To continue to up the ante and achieve greater shock value, terrorists will very likely seek out emerging technologies and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and creatively engineer novel weapons or ways to kill in their indefatigable pursuit of inflicting psychological fear on civilian populations. A plot that was disrupted in Germany in April 2020 combined both of these aspirations. The Tajik Islamic State cell, which was responsible, allegedly researched chemical artillery shells and using drones to drop munitions.102 As the barriers to entry for access to newly emerged and emerging technologies, including sophisticated systems, continue to be lowered, the counterterrorism community should expect to see more violent non-state actors attempting to harness these technologies. As Audrey Kurth Cronin has observed, “the degree of systems integration and command-and-control that emerging technologies are providing has never before been within reach of individual actors of small groups.”103

Terrorist groups have traditionally been early adopters of cutting-edge technologies and used them in ways that serve as a force multiplier of sorts for their organizations.104 The terrorist behind an October 2019 far-right extremist attack targeting a synagogue in Halle, Germany, during Yom Kippur used homemade firearms with 3D-printed components.105 h Jihadis likely took notice, and could soon follow suit in working to develop a similar capability. As former U.S. national security official Mary McCord warned in 2018, “worldwide availability of the blueprints for printing plastic guns means that would-be terrorists could make undetectable and untraceable firearms for use against Americans here in the homeland.”106 The manufacture of 3D-printed explosives is likely to follow just behind the interest in firearms.107

Terrorist groups including the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Jabhat al-Nusra have all demonstrated an increasing interest in weaponizing drones.108 The Islamic State has even gone so far as to establish a dedicated unit to drones, known as the “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen.”109 Drones can be used for surveillance and reconnaissance, or to film attacks that can later be edited and packaged as part of propaganda; they also provide non-state actors with additional tactical capabilities and a greater range of operations.110 Drones can bring an added operational and psychological element to otherwise orthodox terrorist attacks.111 The widespread availability of drones and sensors could be a boon for terrorist groups, especially those more adept at exploiting bureaucratic, legal, and policy seams.112 The Islamic State, in particular, has demonstrated that when it comes to drones, it is resourceful, solution-seeking, and has adopted a do-it-yourself (DIY) mindset among those militants assigned to the program.113 The DIY community offers extensive information on how to construct and modify drones, something that could be exploited by individuals with nefarious intent.114

In the future, it is not inconceivable that more technically advanced terrorists, insurgents, and militias could leverage the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous technologies to enhance existing capabilities. By leveraging AI, in the near future terrorists may be able to unleash drone swarms or rig a self-driving vehicle to be deployed as a driverless car bomb.115 As AI matures, along with the further development of lethal autonomous weapons, terrorists will be attracted to the relatively low cost, more difficult to trace, and likely effectiveness of these weapons.116 In many cases, the technology for terrorists to commit acts of mass destruction already exists.117 Indeed, as lethal autonomous weapons become more readily available, it is not states and superpowers that stand the most to gain, but rather terrorist groups and small rogue states—many states already possess advanced conventional capabilities but these weapons would close the asymmetry gap between states and non-state actors in some cases.118 The integration of AI into current and future weapons will expand the potential pool of actors capable of conducting an attack, the speed at which an attack can take place, and the overall number of viable targets.119

As cryptocurrencies become more ubiquitous in everyday society, it will provide terrorists with an opportunity to send funds to operatives abroad anonymously. In other words, terrorist adoption of cryptocurrencies will likely mirror adoption patterns by the general public.120 Recent advances in cryptocurrencies have made them attractive for terrorists seeking to move, store, or launder funds beyond the purview of the licit financial system.121 In August 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the largest-ever seizure of terrorist organizations’ cryptocurrency accounts, when terrorist financing cyber-enabled campaigns by al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and Hamas’s military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, were dismantled.122 In the constant cat-and-mouse game of terrorist financing, it is inevitable that these terrorist groups, and others as well, will continue to seek ways to avoid scrutiny by authorities while adapting to the cyber age. U.N. member states have echoed these concerns about a growth in the use of cryptocurrencies by terrorists.123

Terrorists have made tremendous strides in improving the resonance and reach of their propaganda, enabled by common technologies, including smartphones and social media apps.124 With greater access to commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, a bevy of violent non-state actors can now livestream propaganda from virtually anywhere in the world, in real-time or near real-time. The Islamic State considered social media so important that the group specifically recruited individuals with a background in information-related capabilities, including production, graphic design, and editing.125 And while it would be a mistake to conflate the ability to produce and disseminate slick propaganda with higher-end capabilities like offensive cyber-attacks, groups like the Islamic State will continue to look for innovative ways to leverage digital capabilities.126 The availability of encrypted communications will likely continue to see terrorists adopt attack models like the “virtual plotter” approach fashioned by the Islamic State, an innovation that has “revolutionized jihadist external operations.”127

And after witnessing the death and destruction wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as disruptions to society more broadly, it should be expected that terrorists and extremists will pursue WMD, including chemical and biological weapons, with newfound zeal.128 Foreign terrorist organizations, domestic extremist groups, and state sponsors of terrorism have demonstrated an interest in acquiring and using chemical, radiological, and nuclear weapons.129 Of these, acquiring and using a nuclear weapon remains currently beyond the reach of terrorist organizations, in the absence of large-scale state support. Meanwhile, chemical weapons and radiological weapons, although fear-inducing, pose considerably less danger of mass destruction than nuclear bombs.

On the other hand, the threat of bioterrorism, or even a clandestine, state-sponsored biological attack, has intensified because of miniaturization, proliferation, and the manipulation of genetics, all of which diminish the probability of detection and enhance plausible deniability for potential attackers. The 2018 National Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism130 stated that “in contrast to chemical, radiological, and nuclear weapons, some biological agents are contagious and may thus spread in an uncontrolled manner. Furthermore, such agents are the only other class of WMD that has the potential to match nuclear weapons in the scale of casualties they produce.” The U.S. strategy document also stated that “advances in biotechnology could theoretically allow even a single individual working in a laboratory to engineer pathogens that could have catastrophic effects.”131 Lone individuals can have an outsized influence for terrorist groups, particularly those who have experience working with pathogens and other biological agents.

As already noted, the societal devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic has likely accelerated terrorists’ efforts to harness the capabilities to conduct a biological attack, as they watch with great interest and monitor ongoing developments related to the coronavirus.132 One nightmare scenario is that terrorists engineer or obtain a virus more dangerous than COVID-19 and unleash it on the world. Advances in biotechnology, combined with technologies that are more accessible and available, have increased the likelihood that bad actors will be able to create biological agents and pathogens that could be used in an attack.133 An article in this publication on the potential threat posed by the “rapidly developing and diffusing technology” of synthetic biology concluded that the “wide availability of the protocols, procedures, and techniques necessary to produce and modify living organisms combined with an exponential increase in the availability of genetic data is leading to a revolution in science affecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb.”134

Moreover, the ability of the United States, its allies, partners, and other sovereign states to limit access to potentially lethal biological agents is minimal, as these are increasingly pervasive throughout the medical and research worlds. In the scenario of a bioterrorism attack occurring on U.S. soil, there is more to consider beyond the death toll or physical impact. As General Michael Nagata has stressed, due to the novelty of a bio-weapon attack and the resulting public fear, stoked in part by around-the-clock media coverage, such an attack will likely “create strategic effects completely out-of-proportion to how many, if any, actual casualties result from it.”135

A bioterrorism attack could be conducted surreptitiously by a relatively small group with catastrophic effect, especially considering the challenges in managing the aftermath, which could include contagion of humans or animals, or contamination of food and water sources or medicines.136 There will be serious challenges posed by physical-to-digital conversion technologies—for example, gene sequencing technology and the ability to send genome sequences by e-mail. Being able to send these sequences by e-mail means that terrorists in far-reaching corners of the globe could collaborate, potentially utilizing technologies like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to create viruses, crop-destroying plagues, or “killer mosquitoes” that spread disease.137 This is another area where barriers to entry are being lowered, offering more opportunities for nefarious individuals and small groups to do harm.

Part Four: What Happens Next?
The global jihadi movement has survived an onslaught from arguably the most powerful military coalition in modern history, led by the United States, and while its transnational stature has been diminished, the movement has gained both local and regional influence.138 It remains a determined foe, and jihadi ideology continues to resonate, providing, as Ali Soufan notes, a “renewable resource.”139 Despite jihadi terrorists’ battlefield losses, their ideology still inspires homegrown violent extremists in the West to launch attacks, occupying substantial bandwidth of Western security services and intelligence agencies.140 This concluding section will look at the prospects for the continued evolution of the global jihadi movement over both the short and long terms.

Short-term trajectory
Even as the jihadi threat persists, and will continue to for the foreseeable future, the zeitgeist in the United States is “ending endless wars.” This is essentially a euphemism for bringing the two-decades-long Global War on Terrorism to a close. But far from withdrawing from the world and flirting with isolationism, Washington is transitioning its focus to great power competition with a rising China and a revanchist Russia.141 This transition will have an immediate impact on counterterrorism operations against al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and their respective affiliates.

The way the current debate is often framed, the choice for the United States is great power competition or counterterrorism, with the former taking precedence. And although, as Sam Mullins has noted, this choice is a “false dichotomy,”142 there are important implications for the reallocation of resources away from counterterrorism strategy. The conventional wisdom in the Beltway suggests that the United States can save hundreds of billions of dollars by pivoting away from counterterrorism missions while still keeping terror threats in check. Still, as Brian Michael Jenkins has noted, “the potential savings by cutting counterterrorism expenditures in future defense budgets is likely to be relatively small,” and “cutting too deeply will have adverse strategic effects” in protecting the United States against terrorism.143

The pendulum has swung completely in the other direction, away from an obsession with non-state actors and back toward the centrality of the nation-state. Besides Beijing and Moscow, some expect Iran and North Korea to occupy more of the United States’ bandwidth than al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State in the decade to come.144 There are some who see this as a much-needed course correction, arguing that the United States overreacted to the attacks of September 11, 2001, by placing counterterrorism at the center of American grand strategy. And while there may be more than a grain of truth to that assertion, continuing to invest significant resources in counterterrorism operations is the most surefire way to prevent another major attack on U.S. soil or against key partners overseas. In the past, there have been periods when the U.S. government sought to shift resources from counterterrorism to great competition, including during the Obama administration during its “Pivot to Asia,” when counterterrorism resources in Africa were downsized.145

Leaner security cooperation programs with partner nations in volatile regions and a less robust Western counterterrorism presence in fragile states are already providing jihadi groups with the opportunity to regenerate their networks, recruit new members, and control large swaths of territory that could be used to plan terrorist attacks outside of their borders. This is apparent in Mali and the broader Sahel as the French draw down, and in Somalia in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal.i When violence raged in Mozambique, the weak counterterrorism response from the Mozambican state further emboldened jihadis.146

Even where terrorism remains a concern, the Biden administration has made it clear that dealing with domestic terrorism and the threat posed by far-right extremists on U.S. soil will be high up on the agenda. Some counterterrorism analysts are growing concerned of an overcorrection. In other words, Washington should not narrowly focus just on domestic terrorism at the expense of jihadi organizations like al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, which, while weakened, still comprise a significant threat, both to the United States and globally as well.147

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably require a change in priorities, with more resources allocated to public health preparedness and emergency response, shifting attention and manpower to dealing with recovering from the current pandemic and preparing for future crises.148 The impact of COVID-19 will be felt in both the short and long-term, nearly certain to be a major factor in creating enabling conditions for jihadis in some of the hardest hit parts of the developing world. The COVID-19 pandemic has already, and will continue to provide a host of opportunities to terrorist groups. In Lebanon, Hezbollah filled a governance void and gained public support by fulfilling a public health role in the midst of the pandemic.149 In Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad have provided critical assistance to citizens impacted by COVID-19.150 All over the world, terrorists, insurgents, and other violent non-state actors are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to discredit governments, recruit new members, and spread propaganda. As the world emerges from the worst of the pandemic and people begin to gather in larger groups, it could provide a plethora of soft targets suddenly vulnerable once again to being attacked.

Counterterrorism fatigue is evident throughout the West more broadly, and reflected in the international community’s seeming disinterest in dealing with tens of thousands of Islamic State members and their families being held in Al-Hol, a detainment camp located in northeastern Syria.151 COVID-19 has further compounded the challenges associated with the prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of individuals associated with the Islamic State, and the conditions in these camps leave thousands vulnerable to the prospects of further radicalization and extremism.152 As a recent U.N. report assessed, Al-Hol is “a major security threat owing to its visible ISIL presence and the ongoing indoctrination of residents, including children.”153

Long-term trajectory
The failure to resolve longstanding conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali will fuel future jihadi recruitment, especially over the long term. Civil wars and sectarianism continue to plague large sections of the Arab and Islamic world, leading to a dearth of social services, high levels of poverty, a lack of education, corruption, and weak governance—all drivers of radicalization and enabling conditions that will very likely fuel jihadi ideology and push people to join violent extremist groups. If the region-wide struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to fuel sectarianism, the most extreme jihadi groups will benefit.154

The Islamic State in particular was able to leverage its virulent brand of sectarianism to recruit new members into its ranks and to appeal to hardcore takfiris.155 Between 2006 and 2014, the “vengeful sectarian clientelist politics” of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki alienated Iraq’s Sunni community and contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.156 During the rise of the Islamic State’s caliphate, localized geographic recruitment hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa developed into jihadi foreign fighter hubs—three-quarters of Islamic State foreign fighter recruits from the Middle East hailed from areas comprising merely 11 percent of its total population.157

In the long-term, the future of the global jihadi movement rests on the outcome of the ongoing struggle within Islam between moderate Muslims and radicals, epitomized by jihadis and their supporters. This is a struggle that has unfolded over decades, and it could be decades more until a resolution is reached. The rise and fall of the Islamic State was detrimental for the radicals. The caliphate was characterized by wanton violence, rape, slavery, and the use of child soldiers in battle, creating a powerful backlash against it in the Muslim world.

There is also a war-within-a-war that has been unfolding within jihadi circles, and how this internecine fighting plays out will also impact the strength of the radicals. For the past several years, al-Qaida and Islamic State ideologues have engaged in a back-and-forth, trading barbs and accusations over a range of topics, including the legitimacy of targeting Shias, and at one point the legitimacy of declaring a caliphate.158 The rivalry goes beyond mere rhetoric, however, and has been seen most vividly on various battlefields throughout the world. In East Africa, the Islamic State and al-Shabaab have been fighting for the past several years, with the latter exerting its dominance and holding the upper hand. In the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP and Islamic State Yemen have repeatedly clashed, battling over territory and access to recruits.159 The Taliban-al-Qaida alliance in Afghanistan has continuously fought with ISK, although the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could impact intra-jihadi dynamics in that country. In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the possibility that al-Qaida and the Islamic State will make amends seems as distant as ever. In the editorial of Al Naba issue 300, published after the Taliban entry into Kabul, the Islamic State accused the Taliban of being a “fake Muslim group” that the United States is deliberately using to mislead Muslims.160 The Islamic State has long considered the Taliban’s Deobandi ideology misguided, but the latest war of words has intensified the rivalry. The Islamic State also said it is preparing for a new phase of jihad, which could signal a plan to intensify its focus on the Afghan theater in the coming months. Even in the Sahel, where al-Qaida and ISGS seemingly coexisted for years, in part due to personal relationships between commanders in the respective groups, as already noted, fighting has broken out between them in Mali and Burkina Faso.161 Rapprochement between al-Qaida and the Islamic State seems unlikely, but if it occurs, it could be a tremendous boost to the global jihadi movement and significantly improve its prospects for success in its struggle with moderate Muslims.

Finally, the impact of climate change on the future of the global jihadi movement will likely be an important trend to monitor. Humanitarian disasters, flooding, droughts, wildfires, and numerous other climate-related issues will likely lead to a steady stream of irregular migration that will crisscross borders and cause regional upheaval. This instability is likely to manifest in already vulnerable states that lack the infrastructure to protect populations from the most extreme effects of climate change. Economic distress and tensions over finite resources could further destabilize some of the fragile states in which terrorists already thrive.

In summary, the long-term effects of climate change could be completely devastating, leading to a dramatic upsurge in conflict and violence while sustaining and amplifying the drivers of terrorism that plague weak and failed states today. State failure and civil war provide jihadis no shortage of options. Jihadis have also proven undeterred when their proto-states are crushed. Over the past three decades, jihadis have announced the formation of Islamic emirates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Gaza, Sinai, Cairo, Libya, Syria, and northern Mali.162 None of these proto-states have lasted long, yet jihadi ideology has adjusted to the losses, demonstrating flexibility in the face of new circumstances.163 Physical territory has been revoked, but the ideology remains resilient. With the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan, a re-energized global jihadi movement has another inflection point, with the opportunity to reinvent itself and thrive yet again.

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