Are Jihadist Groups Shifting Their Focus from the Far Enemy?
May 22, 2012
Many jihadists in the 1990s focused locally, with the bloody uprising in Algeria and the attacks in Egypt directed at President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, rather than on “far enemy” targets that have been at the center of the spread of al-Qa`ida and affiliated groups. The incubator of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, however, helped change jihadists’ field of vision, and the later genius of al-Qa`ida stemmed not from the execution of its spectacular attacks on 9/11, but instead from its ability to use its operations against distant U.S. targets as a means to inspire a new network of like-minded militants around the world. Affiliates then broadened their horizons and embraced a view that attacking distant enemies should become a priority over strikes against local targets.
Today, media analyses commonly look to the decline of al-Qa`ida’s core operators in the tribal areas of Pakistan as an operational matter, focusing on the importance of arrests, raids, and drone strikes that have gutted the organization so effectively. The decline of al-Qa`ida’s ideological message, however, is more subtle, but there are indicators that the far enemy strategy may be waning. Although it is far too soon to make a definitive statement, this article speculates that the diffusion of the al-Qa`ida message, and the death of so many senior operatives, may indicate that jihadism is coming full circle: from local jihads in the 1990s to the al-Qa`ida internationalist wave of the 2000s back to groups that claim to inherit the internationalist mantle but act more locally.
Ideological Shift: From Global to Local
Jihadist groups around the world have suffered a number of leadership setbacks. Their overreaching tactics, which have caused thousands of Muslim civilian deaths, have reduced support for jihadist ideology in general and al-Qa`ida in particular.
There are now signs that jihadist ideology is coming full circle, as some al-Qa`ida affiliates shift back to more domestic issues of civil war and local Muslim rights, with a renewed focus on overthrowing local regimes with less attention paid to the United States or causes such as Palestine and Iraq. Such signs include the loss of AQAP’s and al-Shabab’s foreign-focused leadership; the criminality of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the still-local focus of the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram; the limited objectives of the Pakistani Taliban; and the shift to more reactive statements from al-Qa`ida’s central leadership.
To start at the core, statements over the past year by al-Qa`ida’s post-Bin Ladin leadership reflect a loss of ideological leadership that matches the group’s severe operational setbacks. The backdrop, a decade ago, was an environment in which the United States and others battled to keep al-Qa`ida’s leadership from maintaining a global voice via a steady stream of televised messages that ranged in substance from Palestine to Sudan to Iraq. Ayman al-Zawahiri, far from driving global jihadist thought, has been reduced to supporting uprisings with which he has little or no affiliation, and over which he has no influence, particularly since many of the new Arab revolutionaries reject al-Qa`ida’s ideology. His remarks on Syria this year, for example, simply expressed post-facto support for the Syrian protesters; in a fight to remain relevant, he and other al-Qa`ida speakers are less interested in whether these new populists who are emerging reflect al-Qa`ida’s ideology than whether they represent a swath of the population that al-Qa`ida cannot afford to ignore or alienate. The same ideology that appeared so threatening in the Arabian Peninsula and through North Africa and Southeast Asia just a decade ago is now an afterthought in every revolution convulsing the Arab world and on Arab airwaves where broadcasts of al-Qa`ida leadership messages were once so prominent.
The recently released documents from Bin Ladin’s Abbottabad compound indicate that Bin Ladin bemoaned the decline of al-Qa`ida’s influence. As he reflected the rapid ascent of AQAP, the actions of the Pakistani Taliban, and the potential of al-Shabab, Bin Ladin appeared to understand the significance of al-Qa`ida’s failure to capture the popular spike in support that vaulted the group to such prominence in popular opinion after 9/11. Recent Pew polling suggests that Bin Ladin was right to worry about the weak ideological foundations of al-Qa`ida: in polling from April-May 2012, only 13% of Pakistanis held favorable views of al-Qa`ida; in Jordan, support dropped significantly from 2010. Bin Ladin’s view of the state of his own organization’s revolution was possibly more dire than that of many U.S. analysts.
As the al-Qa`ida ideology that once inspired a jihadist offensive around the world now slips to the defensive, the al-Qa`ida “affiliates,” which appeared just a few years ago to represent the future beacons of the “far enemy” message, have shifted their attention from the global jihad. In Yemen, AQAP is engaged in a fight for Yemeni territory. After taking control of a town in Yemen in January 2012, an AQAP leader, Tariq al-Dhahab, claimed that “The Islamic Caliphate is coming…and it will be established.” His goal had less to do with the globalist vision of Anwar al-`Awlaqi than with a conventional insurgency. Even the recent AQAP plot in May 2012, dramatic as it was, may suggest as much about the importance of a sophisticated bombmaker (presumably the same technician who designed the failed Detroit airliner device) and his single-handed impact on anti-Western plots than it does about lingering internationalist intent within the group.
Similarly, the successes in eliminating many of the foreign-focused jihadists among al-Shabab’s senior ranks might have lessened, at least for now, the overseas threat from Somalia; the group, fighting for survival after its ouster from Mogadishu last year, has staged terrorist attacks in Somalia and surrounding countries, with less focus on more distant targets as they lose ground in their battles against domestic enemies. Recent al-Shabab threats surrounding the possible deportation of prominent extremist Abu Qatada from the United Kingdom to Jordan show there are still sparks of internationalism in the group, but these statements appear to reflect less an operational interest by al-Shabab’s leadership than a simple echoing of press releases from al-Qa`ida in Pakistan.
The newest player, Boko Haram, has claimed contacts with and inspiration from al-Qa`ida affiliates, but the attacks by the group, and its public statements, reflect a more circumscribed vision. Most attacks strike local targets, such as churches and security installations, although a United Nations building was hit in August 2011. Boko Haram appears focused on the local priority of carving out an Islamic state in northern Nigeria (along with defending the rights of Nigerian Muslims), not on the global jihadist priority of the far enemy. Its affiliation with other jihadists across Africa might have given the group access to weapons and training, but the kind of ideological interaction with global jihadists who might broaden its target set—the interaction between al-Qa`ida and Jemaah Islamiya (JI), for example, that helped spawn the Jakarta and Bali attacks—does not appear to have occurred.
Furthermore, Boko Haram’s al-Qa`ida claims, and the affiliation of al-Shabab with al-Qa`ida, may represent a more universal shift among jihadists from global to local concerns. These superficial al-Qa`ida affiliates may be adopting the al-Qa`ida brand name without absorbing the globalist ideology; over time, they may accelerate the fragmentation of al-Qa`ida’s ideology by simply characterizing any local or Islamist cause they choose as “al-Qa`ida.” The al-Qa`ida name, then, might live on, even as the idea behind it blurs beyond recognition.
The slow emergence of new, post-revolutionary governments in the Middle East could easily accelerate this decline of globalism. Hardline Salafists in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt are already having to compete against much broader support for more mainline Islamists. These mainliners, such as Ennahda in Tunisia, will not hesitate to use force against al-Qa`ida-affiliated individuals or groups who harbor the illusion of returning to a caliphate by sponsoring violence. The struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist politicians in Egypt shows that the most prominent future threat to hardliners might be Islamists at home, not a far enemy abroad. It is not hard to imagine Brotherhood-linked governments in the future pressed to use their security forces against more extreme elements.
Anti-Globalist Trend Not Irreversible
If an anti-globalist trend is emerging, it is not irreversible. The persistent threats of a return to global jihad in countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan retain the potential to resuscitate “far enemy” targeting because their globalist roots are deeper. Their leaders have had longstanding involvement in the past decades’ rise of global jihad. Lashkar-i-Tayyiba founder Hafiz Saeed, for example, has an extensive association with the movement that is at the core of global jihadist ideology in Pakistan, and his rhetoric reflects his broad view of the group’s goals. In April 2012, after the announcement of a $10 million reward for him by the United States, Hafiz Saeed remarked, “This is the same jihad which caused the USSR to break and now America is failing because of it. Analysts and journalists don’t realise why America is failing, the only reason is jihad.” AQAP in early May 2012 reportedly attempted another airline strike, and al-Shabab still makes internationalist statements. Yet these groups’ attention is primarily domestic; LeT, by contrast, has not shifted its targeting strategy away from India, and there is evidence that formerly Kashmiri-focused groups, like the LeT, are becoming increasingly involved in al-Qa`ida-affiliated jihadist violence. Similarly, Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, with his long background in the globalist movement, persisted in thinking about how to expand outside Iraq even as he was preoccupied with the raging fight inside the country. Leaders like him could recharge the revolution; al-Qa`ida’s participation in Syria, now marginal, reflects their interest in finding new locales to continue the fight they fueled in Iraq.
In this vein, JI’s alleged spiritual head, Abu Bakar Bashir, coming out of the decades of Islamist thought in Indonesia and the expansion of JI’s vision during the past decade, still oversees an ideological war in which targets representing foreign powers or culture are a priority; although Bashir has recently been imprisoned, many suspect that he still continues to control his movement from behind bars. The recent arrest in Pakistan of JI terrorist Umar Patek, a conspirator in terrorist attacks a decade ago, underscores the commitment of the group to maintain contacts with the jihadist ideologues in Pakistan’s tribal areas who helped sponsor JI’s attacks in 2002. His visit suggests continued commitment and cooperation among global jihadists today, even in the midst of the operational pressure that is crushing the core leadership in Pakistan. Indonesian security has severely damaged JI’s infrastructure during the past decade, but persistent reports of plots against Western targets and the breakup of a JI-linked training camp in Aceh in 2010 are reminders of the depth of al-Qa`ida sentiment remaining among Indonesian jihadists.
There are also other clues—based on the globalist actions and ambitions of jihadist groups during the past decade—about what indicators might foretell a more globalist shift by these groups. In Indonesia, for example, the government has been tough on the successors to JI and, in the past few years, on Bashir himself. Yet the post-9/11 political sensitivity of the fight in Indonesia, where Islamism has a prominent history, underscores the difficulty local politicians face in speaking out against Islamists who benefit from an undercurrent of public support. In Pakistan, the virulence of anti-Americanism and LeT-sponsored support for social programs, such as education and disaster relief, have given the jihadists an anchor in society. Like Hizb Allah in Lebanon, which used social services to vault from a terrorist group to a political player, they are not fringe elements. Finally, in Yemen, where the infusion of Saudi jihadists has energized a new incarnation of al-Qa`ida, Ansar al-Shari`a (Supporters of Islamic Law), the fact that the movement is holding ground in the heartland of al-Qa`ida’s ideology suggests that long-term territorial gains might result in a return to globalist thinking.
None of this is to say that the more locally-focused groups pose no long-term globalist threat. Stability of leadership among these groups, steady contact with charismatic globalist ideologues, and access to new safe havens that allow for the growth of ideology (and more sophistication in plots) could give new jihadists an opportunity to embrace a vision that encompasses Western targets. More immediately, many of these groups, such as those in Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen, are today forced to spend time and resources on winning battles at home, a problem core al-Qa`ida did not face as it spread its ideology from its safe haven in Afghanistan in the 1990s. If these groups gain ground, they may find both the time and the space to think bigger; they still perceive themselves as jihadist revolutionaries, and their commitment to spreading the cause might grow if they succeed in spreading their ideology at home.
International involvement in their countries, such as the international activities in Somalia in the mid-2000s that drove Somali youth to join militias fighting foreign troops, could also spur a change in how these groups think about broadening their target sets. In Nigeria, training or arms for Nigerian forces fighting in the north will capture Boko Haram’s attention; statements by senior commanders in the U.S. military’s Africa command about any U.S. support for Nigerian security elements will by definition bring the West into the narrative. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent statements about support for Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram similarly might draw the Nigerian militants’ attention.
The globalist agenda of al-Qa`ida’s revolutionary movement broadened local jihadist agendas in the decade leading up to this century. The decline of al-Qa`ida, and the growing lack of legitimacy of its message from the heartlands of North Africa through the Arabian Peninsula, has left an ideological vacuum now filled by Arab revolutionaries and violent groups with local wars to wage. Without a group and leader who can ignite another al-Qa`ida-inspired wave, and with the loss of credibility of al-Qa`ida’s message, the threat environment may be shifting again—from groups years ago driven by local agendas, to an al-Qa`ida revolutionary movement with a grand vision, and back again toward the local agenda. Although this does not necessarily portend a reduction in locally-directed jihadist violence, it could mean a decline in the globalist ideological threat to the West that drove national security policy after the 9/11 attacks.
Philip Mudd is Senior Global Adviser, Oxford Analytica. He was the senior intelligence adviser at the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his departure in March 2010, and he was Deputy Director of the Counterterrorist Center at the Central Intelligence Agency until his assignment to the FBI in August 2005.
 Although Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan was involved in the May 2010 plot to bomb Times Square in New York City, it has almost exclusively been focused on attacks inside Pakistan—although a number of its fighters are involved in cross-border fighting in Afghanistan.
 There are, to be sure, embers in the movement that threaten to rejuvenate the internationalists; Lashkar-i-Tayyiba and Jemaah Islamiya’s current incarnation (Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid) seem possible inheritors of al-Qa`ida’s mantle since they enjoy residual local support.
 “On Anniversary of Bin Laden’s Death, Little Backing of al Qaeda,” Pew Research Center, April 30, 2012.
 “Yemen Amends Immunity Law, Saleh Still Protected,” Asharq al-Awsat, January 19, 2012.
 Although AQAP remains a threat to the United States, the author finds it unlikely that it will be able to inherit the “al-Qa`ida central” mantle. AQAP’s leadership, organization and global reach—in addition to its ability to front leaders who can capture a global audience—pale in comparison to their ideological inspirers a decade ago.
 Rana Tanveer, “Hafiz Saeed Calls for Jihad Against America,” Agence France-Presse, April 6, 2012.
 Also, during the Mumbai attack in November 2008, LeT militants attacked a Jewish site, a target that has nothing to do with Kashmir and directly reflects an absorption of “far enemy” targeting—concepts LeT would not have considered years ago.
 Olivia Rondonuwu and Stuart Grudgings, “Analysis: Bali Attack Plot Shows Indonesia Terror Threat Evolving,” Reuters, March 22, 2012.
 Sidney Jones, “Terrorism: What Have We Learned from Aceh,” Tempo, March 26, 2010; “FBI Says Bomb-Maker Umar Patek Met Osama bin Laden,” AAP, April 20, 2012.