Bound to Fail: Transnational Jihadism and the Aggregation Problem


On Aug. 22, ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued his first message to his followers in nearly a year, calling on them to carry out lone-wolf attacks in the West. The message should alarm policymakers about a potential new wave of terrorist attacks, but it also serves as a reminder of how far the group has fallen and, more broadly, of a longstanding problem with jihadist grand strategies that ISIL has not been able to solve.

Before ISIL, transnational jihadists including Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the strategists Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, all tried and failed to achieve similar political objectives. The failure of ISIL’s grand strategy is just the latest iteration of a familiar problem. These actors all want to establish a caliphate on the ruins of Muslim nation-states and gradually expand its control, but to do this they must overcome the “aggregation problem”: how to turn disparate local successes into cross-border political impact and how to mobilize enough Muslims in support of the jihadists’ revolutionary vision. These inescapable constraints should allow the United States to contain the threat of transnational jihadi groups, even as those groups continue searching for a winning strategy. In this article, I examine why each of these five jihadist actors failed to overcome the “aggregation problem,” and argue that this consistent failure is an opportunity for outside actors to contain jihadist groups without costly multilateral interventions.

Al-Qaeda’s Strategic Plan

Bin Laden’s strategy for al-Qaeda, which remains in effect years after his death, is an example of jihadists’ tendency to overestimate their ability to expand across borders and translate local successes into regional or global ones. The strategy prioritizes attacking the United States — “the head of infidelity” — above confrontation with the “near enemy,” the “apostate” rulers of Muslim states. Bin Laden believed provoking America to openly fight Muslims and Muslim states would expose U.S. weakness and lead Muslims worldwide to unite behind al-Qaeda.

But bin Laden exaggerated al-Qaeda’s prowess and severely underestimated U.S. power and resilience. The expectation of mass Muslim mobilization against the United States turned out to be a bust as well. The masses were supposed to draw inspiration from al-Qaeda’s successful 9/11 attack, acknowledge that the United States was not invincible, and begin to believe they could beat Islam’s enemies. But al-Qaeda was astonishingly naïve to assume its target audience would prioritize religious identification over national identity. The group overestimated Muslims’ interest in living under Islamic rule within their various countries and their support for abolishing those home states for one transnational Muslim polity. Moreover, contrary to al-Qaeda’s hopes, most Muslims did not view 9/11 favorably, nor did they view the American invasion of Afghanistan as an anti-Muslim campaign. There is also no indication that 9/11 brought a radical change in Muslims’ views of U.S. power and resolve. Even the more popular cause in Iraq found the umma — the Muslim community — passive (even if disgruntled).

Al-Qaeda struggled to acclimate to the post-9/11 reality: the American-led war on terrorism decimated its ranks and required re-thinking its strategy. As I explain in my book, The Al-Qaeda Franchise, by 2003 al-Qaeda had embarked on an organizational expansion that saw the formation of several branches — some composed of the group’s own cadres, others formed through mergers with external jihadi outfits. This branching-out strategy was a reasonable response to the group’s growing inability to operate across borders. Al-Qaeda hoped that these branches — each intended to focus on a region rather than on one particular state — would facilitate gradual trans-border expansion.

As detailed in The Al-Qaeda Franchise, the expansion allowed the group to present a narrative of success even as it struggled to renew its operations in the West. However, instead of prioritizing the strategy of al-Qaeda’s central leadership, the franchises tended to focus on their local (not even regional) arenas. Segmentation also diminished the group’s multinational composition as membership at the branch level was based primarily on local forces.

Over time, al-Qaeda Central was forced to accept ever-widening exceptions to the focus on Western targets. It expanded its view of what kind of actions could legitimately trigger self-defense by the franchises, resulting in further emphasis on local struggles at the expense of the global one. Yet because al-Qaeda could not abandon the fight against the United States — its raison d’etre — while its branches pursued largely local agendas, it ended up promoting a muddied strategy.

The group did succeed, however, in dissuading its branches from founding Islamic emirates. The central leadership argued that because the United States would topple any Islamist regime, it would be premature to establish emirates, let alone the caliphate, before eliminating the American threat. Establishing emirates would force al-Qaeda to divert scarce resources from fighting to governance. Bin Laden warned that if the jihadis failed, the Muslim population might never trust them again. Instead, al-Qaeda Central asked that if a branch did end up capturing territory, it should transfer governance to local leaders and try to work behind the scenes (as al-Qaeda tried to do in the Yemen port city of Mukalla).

Management of Savagery

In 2004, a jihadi using the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji posted online an influential book, The Management of Savagery, in which he offered a formula for the formation and expansion of a caliphate. Naji envisioned the creation of islands of disorder that are eventually filled by rudimentary jihadi rule — “the management of savagery” — that provides security and basic services to the local population. These islands would serve as launching pads for expansion to neighboring lands and the gradual consolidation of an Islamic state.

Naji separates target states into primary and secondary countries. Primary countries are those that have the most favorable geography, weak ruling regimes that cannot control the country’s periphery, readily available weapons, and a weak sense of nationalism. Secondary states neighbor primary states and serve primarily as logistics bases. Ideally, success in establishing jihadi rule in the primary locations enables expansion to the secondary countries.

Naji acknowledges that one obstacle for Islamist actors seeking to overturn the state-based order is the consolidation of that order — specifically, existing nationalist regimes and state borders. Similarly, great powers would resist the jihadi expansion he describes. Naji argues, however, that neither challenge is insurmountable, due in part to great powers’ tendency to overextend. Thus, like bin Laden, Naji advocates for using terrorism as a means of driving the United States to spread its forces thin and exhaust its economy.

But this logic, too, is flawed. Naji anticipates popular support for the jihadis, ignoring Muslims’ rejection of the jihadis’ radical interpretation of Islam, hatred of their oppressive rule, and attachments to their nation-states. Naji also exaggerates the level of unity among jihadi groups, believing that independent groups operating outside the nascent Islamic state would exhibit solidarity, carrying out attacks to relieve the pressure on the new governing entity. Finally, Naji underestimates states’ resilience and solidarity, assuming that attacks on U.S. allies would lead them to break with Washington, making it easier for jihadis to govern the administered areas.

The Call to Global Islamic Resistance

The Syrian jihadi Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar, commonly known as Abu Musab al-Suri, presented an alternative view in a 1,600-page volume (published online in 2005), titled The Call to Global Islamic Resistance. Al-Suri offers a strategy for a global insurrection after jihadi organizations — under siege from the United States — are eventually crippled. This insurrection would be carried out by multiple independent perpetrators and small cells across the world — what is generally known as “lone-wolf” terrorism. Al-Suri’s work focuses on creating systemic effects from numerous uncoordinated terrorist attacks. It is built on bonds between individuals, cells, and small groups. These bonds are not organizational, but reflect shared beliefs and a mutual goal of resisting the United States and its allies through jihad. Terrorism by disconnected perpetrators strikes fear among the civilian population, and because it is difficult to prevent, al-Suri optimistically anticipates “tens of operations or more daily.” Notably, al-Suri sees operations in Muslim states as the primary mission. Attacks in Western countries are mostly for retaliation or for creating deterrence.

Al-Suri offers a different path for continued jihadi activity, but he does not have a solution to the aggregation question. The success of individual jihad depends on persuading Muslims — whom al-Suri admits self-identify with their nation-states, however arbitrary those borders may be — to belong to the umma. The jihadis must also convince Muslims whose countries will bear the brunt of the attacks that they are paying a necessary price for their “liberation.” Additionally, al-Suri assumes that independent small groups who have not been groomed by experienced jihadis will be able to avoid counterproductive attacks that risk backlash due to collateral damage (something more seasoned jihadists like al-Qaeda are well-versed in). Most importantly, individual attacks on their own cannot bring the umma’s desired results. The global insurgency requires the re-opening of “open fronts” — open and enduring military campaigns — to seize territory and establish Islamic rule.

Al-Qaeda and ISIL both followed al-Suri’s advice and encouraged lone-wolf terrorism. But al-Qaeda, burned by its experience with undisciplined agents (primarily al-Zarqawi), did not go far in incorporating independent jihad into its strategy. ISIL did more to embrace individual jihad, but its experience exposed the limitations of al-Suri’s analysis. ISIL had little reason to fear that independent operations, even if they lead to collateral damage or backlash, would harm its reputation and strategy because it favors indiscriminate violence. With lone-wolf terrorism, the group seeks to produce a self-sustaining dynamic in which one attack inspires other individuals to carry out their own operations. To that end, ISIL even sought to present the attacks its operatives carried out or directed as lone-wolf attacks by awakened Muslims not affiliated with the group. Ultimately, however, ISIL-inspired attacks failed to generate momentum, demonstrating once again the difficulties transnational jihadi groups face.

The Master Plan

In a 2005 book about al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian author Fu’ad Husayn described a detailed 20-year, seven-stage action plan that would ultimately end with the establishment of the caliphate and the victory of the Muslims. Two interlinked factors would facilitate defeating the United States: First, the expansion of the battlefield would exhaust American resources while exposing its inability to shield its allies; second, the opportunistic use of existing conflicts — primarily the conflict between the United States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other — would advance the jihadi agenda. A positive feedback loop would strengthen al-Qaeda’s image, drawing more and more volunteers to its ranks.

Al-Zarqawi’s master plan (discussed elaborately in a book by Brian Fishman) also does not present a viable solution to the aggregation problem. Iraq was supposed to be a springboard to the rest of the region, but al-Zarqawi lamented the lack of commitment from Iraqi Sunnis and the insufficient number of foreign fighters. He therefore sought to foment a sectarian war, expecting that it would bolster local Sunnis’ commitment to fighting. The gambit failed, putting the jihadis on the run in Iraq as the Awakening Councils, Shia power, and the U.S. surge improved the security situation. Similarly, the promise of clashes with Israel — an important mobilization tool — did not match jihadis’ capabilities. Another shortcoming was his assumption that corrupt regimes and jihadis were the only important forces in Muslim states, neglecting other actors — like political parties, merchants and other economic players, Sufis, nationalists, and more — and ignoring widespread intra-jihadi divisions. Finally, al-Zarqawi’s plan, like those before him, failed to imagine that Muslim publics might prefer more open regimes that create economic opportunities over oppressive jihadi rule. The reality of the nation-state-based order and the attraction of open societies, as well as the difficulty of uniting fractious radical groups, never matched these jihadis expectations.

ISIL’s Grand Strategy

ISIL had different ideas for turning transnational jihadis’ vision into reality. It placed the introduction of the caliphate and fighting the near enemy at the center of its grand strategy, rather than making the caliphate the end goal. This was meant to be a solution to the aggregation problem: Washington’s reluctance to send American forces back to the Middle East would create favorable conditions for the jihadis to fight local enemies, while the restoration of the caliphate would attract numerous volunteers eager to participate in building and defending the caliphate. The alleged authority of al-Baghdadi, the self-anointed caliph, over all Muslims was supposed to also legitimize ISIL’s call for mass mobilization and pressure the group’s jihadi competitors to join it as subordinates.

Thus, in 2014, ISIL launched a blitzkrieg attack, capturing Mosul and other Sunni-dominated Iraqi cities before quickly turning its attention to expanding its territory into war-torn Syria. Soon after, the group announced the formation of its caliphate. However, in what should now seem a familiar pattern, ISIL’s illusions soon crashed against the walls of reality. Emboldened by its initial success, the group believed it could continue its expansion and strengthen the caliphate. In the process, however, it provoked stronger enemies. After the United States joined the fight, ISIL’s advances gradually came to a halt. American airpower decimated ISIL forces, essentially eliminating the group’s ability to move in large formations. Evidently, notwithstanding the approximately 40,000 foreign volunteers who joined ISIL, the group had exaggerated its appeal and capabilities. ISIL was also overly optimistic in believing that jihadi groups would line up behind it simply because it proclaimed itself a caliphate. By the end of 2017 ISIL’s caliphate was reduced to a shadow of its former self.

A Longstanding Problem

The eventual failure of ISIL despite enjoying the most favorable conditions for jihadi expansion — a civil war in Syria, the marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis, and the U.S. retreat from Iraq — attests to the jihadi predicament. Even if it had not made the mistake of prematurely drawing the United States into the fight, ISIL was unlikely to succeed. As it continued its focus on the near enemy, the group was bound to soon face close U.S. allies with much stronger forces such as Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (in addition to Iran), which would have meant either ISIL’s defeat at the hands of those countries, or a U.S. intervention on its allies’ behalf. And if ISIL could not make sufficient gains to guarantee its survival, weaker transnational jihadi groups would inevitably face even greater difficulties.

What if ISIL had focused on state-building in the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, and postponed further expansion? This would have required accommodations and even cooperation with neighboring countries in contravention of ISIL’s transnational ideology. It would also likely generate stronger pressures to deal with local management issues (at the expense of more global objectives) and risk integrating ISIL into the state-based order it strongly rejects as un-Islamic. Moreover, with the element of surprise gone, ISIL would not be able to defeat vigilant neighboring states and a U.S.-led international intervention.

The coalition-based interventions in Syria, Iraq, and Mali show that the international community does have the ability to roll back jihadi advances. But given the constraints of the aggregation problem, a cheaper strategy of containment is available: the international community must be vigilant about emerging jihadi threats and seek to reduce the ability of jihadi groups to gain power. At times, an intervention might be needed to prevent jihadis’ territorial expansion. For that purpose, the international community should establish arapid response force. Such a force would allow a quick reaction to cross-border expansion, and under some circumstances could even be used to target transnational jihadi groups that expand their control locally. Importantly, this approach would strengthen the internationalization of the efforts against transnational jihadis and allow greater burden-sharing among states. It would reduce the American role in the fight against transnational jihadi groups, freeing Washington from the need to form ad-hoc international coalitions that are often a mask for what is really a U.S. military campaign. Strengthening existing international regimes to prevent terrorism financing, reinforce border controls, and most importantly, to deny armed nonstate actors’ access to nuclear weapons — a potential game-changer — would bolster the international community’s ability to confront transnational jihadis.

If the pattern of dubious assumptions and unrealistic expectations that have plagued jihadi grand strategies continues, policymakers may yet encounter new jihadi campaigns. But given the aggregation problem and other debilitating constraints that groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL face, the international community’s ability to thwart transnational jihadis’ goals — even without a costly, U.S.-led military campaign — should not be in doubt.


Barak Mendelsohn is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College and a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is the author of The al-Qaeda Franchiseand of Combating Jihadism. His new book, Jihadism Constrained: The Limits of Transnational Jihadism and What It Means for Counterterrorism, will be published in this fall.

Image: Adam Jones/Flickr