Assessing the Terrorist Threat 13 Years after 9/11: Old Guard Al Qaeda, Team ISIS & the Upstarts

September 11, 2014

Since the tenth anniversary of al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, 9/11 has slowly become an afterthought, an increasingly distant memory of an absolutely awful day. For sure, the National Geographic Channel will dust off its 9/11 specials and run them on a continuous loop while the History Channel serves up Osama bin Laden biopics. For the superstitious, this year’s unlucky 13th anniversary might be of greater concern than past years. They are correct, but for the wrong reasons. At no time since the original 9/11 attacks has there been such a diverse set of terrorist threats that might strike the West, and so much certainty about the intentions of the dozen or more jihadi terrorist groups scattered around the world. For Americans on Sept. 11, 2014, the question is not “Will al Qaeda attack us again?” Instead, it is “Which one of these terrorist groups will attack us?”

Today’s Jihadi Terrorism: From Al Qaeda as the Primary to Al Qaeda as One of Many

The Afghan mujahideen victory over the Soviet Union concluded with the famous march of Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov over the bridge into Uzbekistan on Feb. 15, 1989. A little more than 12 years later, Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda pulled off its third attack against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, this time striking the U.S. homeland and forever changing American perceptions of their security. Most Americans have remained trapped in a psychological time warp pinned in place by the awful memories of the 9/11 attacks. Despite most Westerners not moving on from bin Laden’s great success, adherents to jihadi ideology have. Today marks 13 years since al Qaeda reached its pinnacle. Since then, jihadi terrorism has become more diffuse, both ideologically and geographically.

Prior to his death, bin Laden represented the height of jihadi terrorism, admired by his followers and respected by his challengers within the jihadi community. His resume spoke for itself: a fighter in Afghanistan, leader of three successful attacks on U.S. targets; the Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, an attack on USS Cole and 9/11. What other jihadi leader could boast such merits? More importantly, bin Laden had money and vision. He could put together a plan, staff it and resource it. Al Qaeda’s regional affiliates adored bin Laden. They needed his resources and approval, hence the push by disparate groups to take on the al Qaeda moniker to strengthen their own appeal. Bin Laden kept the lid on a violent stew brewing in the next generation of jihadis fighting in Iraq under the leadership of new men of more brutal action like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Bin Laden’s death freed a new generation of seasoned foreign fighters from the Iraqi battlefields and affiliates in Yemen, the Sahel and now Syria to push for Islamic governance – a goal for which al Qaeda has always pursued with trepidation. Each month since bin Laden’s death has seen greater autonomy on the part of al Qaeda’s affiliates. Since 2011, the Syrian civil war has breathed new life into jihadi militancy, providing an unprecedented wave of recruits, a larger number of whom were ten years old or younger on 9/11. This new generation of jihadists has grown up knowing Iraq, Zarqawi and Facebook more than bin Laden, Afghanistan or the mosque. For al Qaeda, now led by Ayman al Zawahiri and pinned down by global counterterrorism efforts, the currents of jihad have become too much to manage, leaving the group as just one voice among many rather than the uncontested leader of the jihadist movement. Today, Americans face three jihadi threats: Old Guard al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, one of the many acronyms for the so-called Islamic State) and an array of Regional Upstarts

Old Guard Al Qaeda – Still Targeting The U.S. On The Way To Irrelevancy

The time since bin Laden’s death has been rough for al Qaeda. Affiliates in Yemen and the Sahel have risen and fallen in their attempts to build a state. The group has failed to muster a serious attack against the West in years. If you are a young jihadi sympathizer, al Qaeda just doesn’t offer you much to get excited about. If you are a wealthy Persian Gulf financier of far flung jihads, Zawahiri’s leadership doesn’t entice you to send cash. The net result? Al Qaeda is largely dependent on its affiliates: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and al Shabaab in Somalia. The center has less to offer the periphery.

Despite its woes, al Qaeda still commands the loyalty of jihad’s most prominent clerics, like Abu Qatada in Jordan, and maintains strong loyalties amongst a network of older foreign fighters now in their 30s and 40s. Old Guard al Qaeda, unlike ISIS, remains fixed on attacking the West and jealously clings to the idea that it’s still not time to establish an Islamic State. Overshadowed by the next generation, al Qaeda likely wants to regain control of the jihadi movement. To do this, I predict it will return to what it can do that no other group has proven capable: big attacks on important places. As eyes and assets have shifted to other jihadi groups, al Qaeda finds itself well-placed to plan and plot a spectacular attack in the West that might put it back on top.

Team ISIS – Not Their Daddy’s Jihad

ISIS eclipsed al Qaeda this past spring as the leader of global jihad. The group rebuffed Zawahiri’s management and authority, developed a deliberate strategy to build an Islamic State and executed a bold invasion of Iraq. Using his experience, illicit funding schemes and seasoned operational commanders from years of battling the United States in Iraq, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has captured the imagination of jihadi recruits and the admiration of Gulf financial donors. Baghdadi is a man of action, and young jihadi supporters love him for it. While their elders talk of their days as mujahideen in Afghanistan and their parents think of bin Laden as the bulwark against the West, today’s jihadi recruits grew up watching videos of Zarqawi killing Shia and Americans in Iraq. They encountered the Internet through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They chat with their buddies in Syria, exhilarated by the violence they witness and jealous they are not there.

Unlike al Qaeda, ISIS has delivered on its goal of creating a state – as ephemeral as it might be. The popular support around this idea cannot be dismissed. Likewise, ISIS fights a collection of enemies: the Assad regime in Syria to the west, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and its ally Iran to the east, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, “moderate” Syrian rebels and the United States and the West in general. This plethora of enemies attracts a wide cross-section of supporter but also represents the group’s greatest weakness: It has angered everyone. Its diverse set of enemies, combined with its incomparable brutality, suggests ISIS’ reign won’t last.

The rise of ISIS, whether it endures for another month or a decade, will surely bring about new and unexpected terrorist attacks inspired by its foreign fighters, particularly in the Middle East but also in the West. Already we’ve seen ISIS-connected attacks like the Holocaust Museum shooting in Brussels, Belgium, as well as disrupted ISIS plots in Saudi Arabia and Germany. With thousands of foreign fighters in its ranks, it is only a matter of time before ISIS exports its violence throughout its international fan base.

Regional Upstarts – Hedging Their Bets, Waiting For Their Time

The West’s focus has, for more than a decade, been on al Qaeda. Only recently has it shifted to ISIS. From Western Africa to Southeast Asia, however, there are more than a dozen regional and local jihadi terrorist groups plotting their own violent paths. These “glocal” organizations are ideologically consistent with al Qaeda’s original jihadi vision but simultaneously pursue a grab bag of locally oriented objectives. Some weakly tied al Qaeda affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have probably never felt so distant from al Qaeda’s central leadership. This begs the question of when they will set out completely on their own rather than responding to al Qaeda’ senior leaders in Pakistan or AQAP’s emir Wuhayshi in Yemen. Meanwhile, other regional extremist groups and militias, like Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia (AAS-T) and Ansar al Sharia in Libya (AAS-L), have grown increasingly closer to ISIS as their ranks swell with returnees from combat in Syria.

Regional Upstart jihadi groups face a complicated decision regarding whom to back in the al Qaeda-versus-ISIS schism. Some likely feel little need to take sides, particularly those that don’t really have significant, meaningful and consistent contact with either and don’t receive support in terms of men, weapons or money. For most this will be the smarter decision. But for those upstart jihadi groups waiting on the sidelines, there remains a downside of non-alignment – a reduction in prestige, being overlooked by global jihadi audiences while facing a significant fundraising and sustainment challenge.

Today, groups like al Murabitun in the Sahel, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the AAS militias in Tunisia and Libya and many others will seek to build their own capacity locally from the experience of returning foreign fighters. Nascent extremist organizations working to establish themselves as regional leaders must constantly conduct cost-benefit analysis on whether to align with al Qaeda or ISIS, or whether to attack a Western target. Despite these complications, Regional Upstart groups will remain a serious potential threat to the West as thousands of foreign fighters from Syria float through their midst. In all cases, these Regional Upstarts know that a big, successful attack on a Western target will elevate them to new levels and open them to new audiences and potentially new donors. Remember, a year ago, we might have referred to ISIS as a Regional Upstart – today it is top dog.

What should Americans worry about with regards to terrorism 13 years after 9/11?

Between Old Guard al Qaeda, Team ISIS and the Regional Upstarts, the playing field is littered with threats, and declining counterterrorism resources to stop them are spread quite thin. Another 9/11 attack does not seem realistic today, but a host of different scenarios appear plausible and some even likely. Concerns over terrorism fall into two dimensions: American interests with regards to international security and protecting U.S. citizens at home and abroad.

International Implications To U.S. Interests For Today’s Terrorist Threats

For the United States, Old Guard al Qaeda’s star has fallen internationally, but it can still threaten American interests. Zawahiri’s new announcement of an al Qaeda wing in India likely represents his attempts to maintain his authority while also picking a fight with a U.S. partner, hoping to embroil the United States in another conflict. This is a complicated long shot on the part of al Qaeda but one that is far easier for Zawahiri and Old Guard al Qaeda’s leadership to influence from the hills of Pakistan. A second and increasingly less likely scenario would be al Qaeda working through its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to attack Israel and stir up a wider conflict. However, this seems less likely as Jabhat al-Nusra, now in decline due to the rise of ISIS, may be more interested in its own preservation than al Qaeda’s goals.

ISIS presents a more immediate threat to U.S. international interests than Old Guard al Qaeda. Since taking Mosul in June, ISIS has created a stir of concern. Its advances could set off a larger Sunni-Shia proxy war in Iraq. Of greater concern is an ISIS safe haven. Having established and now effectively governing a state, ISIS has created a safe haven for planning and executing terrorist attacks. As the pressure mounts and the international community advances to uproot it, ISIS will likely begin conducting attacks outside Iraq and Syria. Saudi and Iraqi oil infrastructure is a critical and enticing target for a group like ISIS, and easy access from Syria through transit routes in Turkey provides the group a host of Western targets in Europe to engage.

For Regional Upstarts, the international implications of their terrorism are less severe but also potentially harder to anticipate. The Western reaction to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of girls illustrates how these far-flung jihadi groups can create an international reaction. One can expect that one or many of these groups will hit the headlines in the coming years provoking the United States to engage in a conflict of some form or another.

Jihadist Threats to U.S. Citizens: Varied But Real

Old Guard al Qaeda – Capable, Committed and Conceivable

Despite its troubles, al Qaeda still represents the terrorist group most capable of and most committed to attacking the U.S. homeland and U.S. targets abroad. Old Guard al Qaeda’s top affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has proven on three occasions it has the skills and desire to attack the United States using complex bomb plots on civilian airlines. Even more concerning are the plethora of U.S. foreign fighter recruits fighting in Syria, some of whom have floated into al Qaeda’s primary affiliate there – Jabhat al Nusra – and one from Florida who conducted a suicide bombing on the group’s behalf. With eyes on ISIS, today Old Guard al Qaeda has more time and space to execute an attack on U.S. targets than anytime since 9/11. Additionally, Zawahiri and his cohorts are likely further motivated to take back the spotlight from ISIS by conducting a spectacular attack on the United States abroad or at home.

An Example Of What Americans Might Worry about with Regards to Old Guard al Qaeda

An American foreign fighter, undetected by U.S. counterterrorism efforts, who having joined Jabhat al Nusra in Syria is connected with AQAP’s top bomb makers to deliver a suicide mission at a U.S. transportation hub – a complex attack of great magnitude that would capture and sustain media attention.

Team ISIS – Conventional, Cunning and Crazy

ISIS has threatened and will continue to threaten the United States, but its commitment and ability to attack U.S. targets at this point is up for debate. Sure, ISIS will always grab a Western hostage abroad or hit an American target of opportunity. As seen by the recent American airstrikes, which have blunted its advance, ISIS would be smarter to taunt the United States rather than rile the U.S. military into a battle that would shatter its embryonic caliphate. ISIS doesn’t yet have the same external operations capabilities of Old Guard al Qaeda to plot a serious attack in the West involving complex explosives or other weapons. Nor, with its current operations in Syria and Iraq, has it had sufficient time and space to properly plan out a successful effort on the United States. But its adherents are loyal, fanatical and love violence.

An Example of What Americans Might Worry about with Regards to ISIS

Lone jihadis inspired by ISIS online or loose bands of ISIS foreign fighters returning to the West conduct conventional shootings of innocent civilians, or even worse, a Mumbai style attack lightly coordinated and commanded by ISIS – less sophisticated and maybe poorly executed, but devastating nonetheless.

Regional Upstarts – Random Targets of Opportunity That Can Mobilize A Nation

As seen by the American reaction to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, Regional Upstarts with little or no connection to global al Qaeda or ISIS can have a huge impact. In addition to Benghazi, in just the last few years the United States has seen regional groups conduct attacks killing Westerners. The In Amenas gas plant in Algeria (by an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb splinter group) and the siege of the Westgate Mall in Kenya (by al Shabaab operatives) provide two such examples.

An Example of What Americans Might Worry about with Regards to Regional Upstarts

In need of attention and cash, a regional terror group pools its resources to attack a U.S. embassy or Western business in its local area. This tactic is completely plausible and difficult to protect against, as it is highly random.

Jihadi Threats to the United States in 2014

As seen by the above discussion, jihadi terrorism has not gone away in the past decade and does not look to be going away in the next decade. For Americans, every Sept. 11 will represent a day on which they remember the suffering and loss in 2001. But it should also provide a reminder of the enduring and evolving qualities of their country’s conflict with jihadi extremism. At no time have these qualities been more apparent on this somber anniversary than they are this year.


Clint Watts is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University.  Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.


Photo credit: slagheap