The September 11, 2001 terror attack on the United States by Al-Qaida shook the world. Since that time, tremendous military, political, economic and intelligence efforts have been made to weaken and suppress international terrorism. Yet over the last few years we’ve seen the emergence and meteoric rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and its murderous actions around the world.
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Over the past four years, the number of terror attacks and attempted terror attacks directed against civilians worldwide, particularly in Europe, has steadily risen by 50 percent per year. There were 60 such events in all of 2016, but 50 such incidents have already been recorded this year, which works out at over six attacks per month. By comparison, the monthly average in 2014 was just 1.25.
Terror attacks have occurred nearly everywhere – from the Philippines and Afghanistan in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, respectively, to Finland and Sweden in northern Europe, to France, Great Britain and Belgium in Western Europe, to California on the west coast of the United States. In recent years, we’ve also seen a change in the range of targets against which the terror attacks are directed. Beyond “classic” symbolic targets of government and social institutions and modes of transportation, the terrorists have also acted in a planned and deliberate manner to strike on religious holidays, at national events and at popular cultural events.
Leading intelligence organizations and research institutes say the number of global jihadists has grown substantially over the past few years. More than 50,000 Salafi jihadists (including an estimated 20,000 in Britain, 17,000 in France and 5,000 in Spain) now reside in Europe. Some of them have returned there from Iraq and Syria, where they acquired military experience and ideological indoctrination. This unprecedented number matches that of the number of fighters who were members of ISIS at that organization’s height in mid-2015. By comparison, Al-Qaida comprised just a few hundred fighters on September 11.
The Islamic State is skillfully using cyberspace, particularly social media, to strengthen its basis of support and expand its number of followers. These people communicate “in the field” and on the social networks, in the form of actual or virtual cells, operating both as “lone wolves” and as groups (as in the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels), or acting autonomously, inspired by the ideology of global jihad (as in the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks).
Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaida’s founding leader, was assassinated in May 2011 and afterward the organization seemed to collapse and fade away. And the rise of ISIS and the establishment of its Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014 overshadowed the activity of Al-Qaida. However, Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who continued to operate “below the radar” with the support of the Pakistani Taliban, made a significant strategic shift.
In contrast to ISIS’ nihilistic approach, Zawahiri viewed the Sunni Muslim public as a source of electoral power that should be invested in and nurtured. So he essentially rebranded the organization not only as Muslims’ “protective shield” against ISIS and the Shi’ite threat led by Iran, but as an international social movement.
Al-Qaida focused on areas embroiled in political and ethnic conflict where there was a large Sunni population at risk, such as Syria, Yemen and Somalia. The organization performs governmental functions in those areas and provides civilians with a safety net and protection. As a social movement, it’s involved on a practical, daily basis in developing national infrastructure – including paving roads and building schools and hospitals.
Ironically, this pragmatic approach poses a greater potential threat to the West than the threat from ISIS. It promotes the formation of ties and the strengthening of cooperation with the local population. It offers long-term advantages such as expanding Al-Qaida’s base of support while increasing loyalty to the organization and identification with its ideology.
This approach has added a significant number of fighters to Al-Qaida’s ranks. The Syrian branch of the organization now numbers 20,000 and is considered even more deadly and dangerous than ISIS. This approach also facilitates the dissemination of religious content and the ideology of global jihad in a voluntary manner on a mass scale. Thus, it has become more likely that Al-Qaida will be able to turn the Muslim public in its favor and “engineer” both the individual and society according to its agenda. In this way, its ideology will continue to spread as its influence continues to grow.
The weakening of ISIS militarily and its shrinking territory is leading to a new stage in global terrorism. On the one hand, ISIS has been able to spread its ideas and influence largely by means of cyberspace. However, Al-Qaida’s current strategy is creating a significant threat. ISIS inspires its far-flung adherents to commit numerous terror attacks; Al-Qaida, which has previously proven its ability to carry out “quality attacks,” could resume committing such attacks.
Consequently, we could find ourselves threatened both by multiple ISIS-influenced attacks using simple, easy-to-obtain weapons such as vehicles and kitchen knives, as well as large-scale attacks akin to the September 11 attacks, with a far more devastating impact.
In the 16 years since the attack on the United States, global terror has become more complex and also more widespread throughout the world. Despite the ideological differences between the two global terrorist organizations, the “whole is bigger than the sum of its parts” – with each separately and together constantly bolstering the influence of murderous jihadist ideology.
In short, the global terror threat continues to grow and will go on threatening world peace in a range of unexpected ways.
Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom is an expert on global jihad