From Al-Qaeda to ISIL: Continuity and Change in the Jihadist Movement


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Policy Roundtable: What is the Future of the Jihadist Movement?from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

In summer 2010, the National Intelligence Council organized a small, one-day conference with Europe-based academics to get their read on possible futures for the jihadist movement. I was one of the approximately 20 participants. Osama Bin Laden was still alive, but the core al-Qaeda organization was beginning to come under rising pressure in Pakistan as a result of increasingly intense drone strikes. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was degraded thanks to the surge of U.S. forces and the Sunni Awakening. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was emerging as the most dangerous jihadist group in the world. We looked for trends and debated the future of the core of the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan, whether AQAP might take up the mantle of leadership and what that would augur, and who could emerge as the next bin Laden, among other things.

Today, with the core of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) increasingly squeezed in Syria and Iraq the jihadist movement may be facing an even bigger inflection point. Will al-Qaeda be able to regenerate and fill the void? Could another group — perhaps an ISIL or al-Qaeda affiliate, or maybe an independent actor — take the reins? Or might we witness the atomization of the jihadist movement after years in which ISIL and al-Qaeda became its competing lodestars? In either case, what would this mean for the long-running fault line between globalism and nationalism? And what of the 40,000-plus foreign fighters who flocked to Syria and Iraq, or the technological advances that ISIL exploited to recruit them and direct or inspire attacks around the world? To help clarify the problem, we brought together three scholar-practitioners — Kim Cragin, Josh Geltzer, and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross — to weigh in on what lies ahead for the jihadist movement and the threats its adherents pose.

Evolution of the Jihadist Movement: A Brief History

Any assessment of where the jihadist movement might go, must account for how it has evolved to date. Despite their pretensions to universalism, jihadists have often disagreed over issues such as which enemy to prioritize, where to fight, and whether it is appropriate to attack fellow Muslims. The two main currents in the jihadist movement before 9/11 were revolutionary and pan-Islamic. Revolutionaries prioritized changing the political order in their own homelands by overthrowing the ruling powers. Pan-Islamic jihadists were focused on defending the umma — the worldwide community of Muslims — and liberating all occupied Muslim lands.

Al-Qaeda was one of the few truly multinational jihadist groups that existed prior to 9/11. It developed its concept of global jihad while based in Sudan during the first half of the 1990s and then in Afghanistan for the latter half. Al-Qaeda’s global jihadist ideology prioritized attacks against the United States as the first step in a larger plan to create the conditions for toppling apostate regimes in the Arab world.

Bin Laden and his inner circle believed that as long as the United States could project power into the region, it would be able to pressure Muslim countries to bend to its will and keep jihadists from toppling local regimes. Driving America out of the region would enable jihadists to confront local regimes directly and inspire the youth to rise up and join these revolutions. At that point, al-Qaeda leaders believed that regimes in the Middle East and Persian Gulf would collapse.

Numerous groups expanded their enemy hierarchies after 9/11. While jihadists who had previously been pan-Islamic began pursuing revolutionary action, some revolutionary groups grafted pan-Islamic or global jihad onto their preexisting local agendas. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to this phenomenon, muddying the waters between pan-Islamic jihad against non-Muslim invaders and global jihad against the United States specifically.

Al-Qaeda also evolved. Its leaders refined and expanded their organization’s rationale for action, blending takfiri thought, which justifies attacking apostate Muslims, with the requirement to fight the United States and its Western allies. Being more overt about its revolutionary tendencies helped al-Qaeda reduce the barriers to alliances with other organizations. This became increasingly important once al-Qaeda started adding affiliates. As a result, although bin Laden continued to prioritize the United States, al-Qaeda increasingly boasted an agenda that made less of a distinction between local and global enemies.

By 2011, analysts worried more about some of al-Qaeda’s affiliates, especially AQAP, than they did about the core organization, which was under significant pressure in Pakistan as a result of U.S. drone strikes. Initially, it appeared that successful political transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen following the Arab Spring would undermine the jihadist narrative that violence was a necessary handmaiden for revolution or that the United States was willing to prop up autocratic regimes. Yet, far from being a death knell, the revolutions ushered in by the Arab Spring reinvigorated the jihadist movement. The weakening or outright removal of police states created space for mobilization in places where jihadists had previously had little room to maneuver and enabled a level of activity unforeseen hitherto.

As the Arab Spring gained steam in 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took the reins of al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed, directed AQI to form a group and deploy it across the border into Syria. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of AQI, sent a contingent of battle-hardened fighters to form Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). It became one of the most effective rebel groups in the Syrian conflict. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi issued a statement officially absorbing JN and renaming his organization the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL). The move both revealed and exacerbated a rift between the two groups. JN prioritized jihad against the Assad regime in Syria, was willing to cooperate with other rebel groups to realize this objective, and pursued a population-centric approach. ISIL sought to use Syria as a launching pad for a renewed offensive in Iraq and remained committed to the old AQI strategy of intimidation and sectarian provocation that sought to pit Sunnis and Shiites against one another. Before long, ISIL controlled substantial territory in Syria. These battlefield successes, combined with a mastery of social media, helped ISIL attract the lion’s share of foreign fighters in Syria.

In June, four months after al-Qaeda disowned it, ISIL launched its major military offensive in Iraq that captured the country’s second largest city, Mosul. Afterward, al-Baghdadi announced the reestablishment of the caliphate and declared himself the leader of the umma. Numerous jihadist groups — some of them previously loyal to al-Qaeda — offered their allegiance. Although primarily focused on building its proto-state, ISIL also used the territory as a base for launching international terrorist attacks. Indeed, as Kim Cragin points out below, the group conducted more external operations — attacks conducted outside Syria, Iraq, or its 25 so-called provinces (used interchangeably with affiliates) — than the al-Qaeda network (AQN) did during a similar time period in its heyday. ISIL’s ability to conduct external operations has diminished since the group lost Mosul in July 2017 and its fighters fled Raqqa, Syria the following October. These losses have also called into question the wisdom of ISIL’s aggressive approach, fueled speculation about whether al-Qaeda will resume the titular leadership mantel of the jihadist movement, and ignited debates about the nature of the jihadist threat in the years to come.

Looking Ahead: The Future of the Jihadist Movement

All three contributors to this roundtable point out ways in which the essence of the jihadist movement remains largely unchanged, while simultaneously identifying various factors that are shaping its ongoing evolution. Each essay has its own take on which elements will be the most critical. Four issues are worth highlighting:

  1. The Local and Geopolitical Terrain: Analysts have worried for years about jihadists’ access to ungoverned or poorly-governed territory that could be used for training, communications, and operational planning. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross observes, although ISIL has lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, jihadist safe havens and enclaves have grown more numerous since 9/11, especially in countries roiled by the so-called Arab Spring. Josh Geltzer also points out that the core ISIL organization is not yet defeated. Eradicating it is likely to prove challenging, in large part because of the continuing complexities of the overall dynamic in Iraq and Syria. Both authors also sound the warning about Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — al-Qaeda’s erstwhile affiliate in Syria — and the dangers that other al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates continue to pose because of their ability to exploit both local grievances and grinding conflicts in weak states. Kim Cragin foresees no end to these ongoing conflicts. She argues the status quo is likely to remain in places where al-Qaeda or ISIL affiliates operate, with the important caveat that veteran foreign fighters will bring new tactical knowledge to these conflicts that could make regional groups even more lethal and push them towards greater brutality. Cragin contends a more dramatic impact from foreign fighters will likely be felt in many of the Muslim majority countries where ISIL and al-Qaeda do not have affiliates.
  2. Tensions in the Movement: Scholars identified two fault lines that have defined the jihadist movement. One is between centralization and decentralization, and the other is between globalism and nationalism. Just as al-Qaeda affiliates have thrived even with the core of the organization under enormous pressure, it is unlikely that the fate of ISIL affiliates rests entirely on ISIL’s fortunes in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, Geltzer contends that as ISIL’s core loses territorial control, it is possible that some of its affiliates will distance themselves from the central organization. Gartenstein-Ross argues forcefully that analysts should not be too eager to view such a development as evidence of decentralization within the wider movement. Despite the difficulties the core organizations of al-Qaeda and ISIL are each facing, he asserts that the trend within the jihadist movement has been toward centralization. Global jihadism has simultaneously continued to spread according to Gartenstein-Ross. Most groups likely will continue to fixate primarily on regional objectives, but more of them have also adopted a transnational vision and continue to engage in transnational activities even if they do not prioritize attacks against Western targets. The spread of foreign fighters, which Cragin documents, could reinforce this trend.
  3. Technology and Foreign Fighters: According to Cragin, the most immediate threat to the West — North America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand — depends on foreign fighter returnees, specifically whether they are motivated and able to conduct attacks or recruit another generation of Western jihadists. As Cragin notes, foreign fighters have conducted the majority of external operations directed by ISIL leaders. Gartenstein-Ross and Geltzer zero in on how jihadists take advantage of technological advances to enable these operations. Jihadists have combined mastery of social media with the use of end-to-end encryption, which is often inaccessible to governments, to radicalize new adherents, mobilize them, and provide the kind of assistance to remote operatives that physical terrorist networks used to provide in person.
  4. Leadership of the Movement: All three contributors to this roundtable posit that ISIL and al-Qaeda appear poised to remain key players in the jihadist movement, even if some of their affiliates may be better positioned in the near term. Their respective leaders — al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda and al-Baghdadi of ISIL — both lay claim to leadership of the movement. The competition is not simply organizational. Al-Qaeda leaders have criticized ISIL for splintering the movement, declaring a Caliphate that did not have staying power, and pursuing a brutal, takfiri strategy that has often included attacking other mujahideen (Muslim holy warriors). Al-Zawahiri lacks charisma and has struggled to motivate followers like bin Laden did, but ISIL’s losses in Iraq and Syria create space for al-Qaeda to reclaim its vanguard position. As Cragin notes, al-Qaeda has taken more of a population-centric approach and sought to present itself as a less virulent alternative to ISIL. Geltzer and Gartenstein-Ross identify various developments, such as the fortunes of HTS in Syria and its relationship with al-Qaeda’s core, which could influence whether al-Qaeda is successful in its bid to retake the titular mantle of the jihadist movement. Geltzer also posits that ISIL’s ingenuity and pioneering use of the Internet may have paved the way for a new jihadist group to capture some of the jihadist “market share” by combining online technologies with a compelling narrative and a leadership capable of inspiring followers.

Although plenty of us who came together that summer day in 2010 noted the potential for instability in the Middle East — not exactly a bold prediction — no one foresaw the Arab revolutions that would begin months later or the effects they would have on the jihadist movement. Nor did anyone predict that, within a half decade, a former soccer enthusiast in Iraq who had done time in a U.S.-administered prison camp would command the most powerful jihadist group the world had ever seen and declare himself the leader of the Caliphate. What we tried to do, and what the three authors of the following essays have done so well, is to identify the trends and factors that could inform the trajectory of the jihadist movement. Then, like now, major actors in the movement were under strain, but the fundamentals suggested the jihadist threat would not disappear any time soon.


Stephen Tankel, an associate editor at the Texas National Security Review, is an assistant professor at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New America Security, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. His new book — With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror — will be published in May 2018.

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