While it has been apparent for some time now that the al Qaeda core has been eclipsed on the physical battlefield by the franchise groups, over the past year we’ve seen indications that it is also beginning to play a secondary role in the ideological realm. Some posts on jihadist message boards criticize bin Laden and the al Qaeda core for their lack of operational activity. Some have even called them cowards for hiding in Pakistan for so long and consider their rhetoric “tired and old.” At the same time, AQAP has received a great deal of attention in the international media (and in the jihadist realm) due to operations like the assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed, the Fort Hood shootings, theChristmas Day underwear-bombing attemptand, most recently, the printer bomb plot. This publicity has given AQAP a great deal of credibility among radical Islamists. The result is that AQAP has moved to the forefront of international jihadism. This means that people have begun to listen to what AQAP says while they have begun to ignore the messages of the al Qaeda core. AQAP was well-positioned to take advantage of the bully pulpit afforded by its media-stimulating attacks. In addition to AQAP’s popular Arabic-language online magazine Sada al-Malahim, the emergence of AQAP’s English-languageInspire magazineand the increased profile and popularity of American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki have also helped propel AQAP to the forefront of jihadist tactical and ideological discussions. In a March 2010 video titled “A Call to Arms,” American-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn openly advocated a tactical approach to terrorist attacks — conducting simple attacks utilizing readily available weapons — that was first publicly advocated by AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi in Sada al-Malahim and expanded upon in each issue of Inspire. Ordinarily, it is the al Qaeda core that sets the agenda in the jihadist realm, but the success of AQAP in inspiring grassroots operatives has apparently caused the core group to jump on the AQAP bandwagon and endorse al-Wahayshi’s approach. We believe it is highly likely that we will see more examples of deference to AQAP from the al Qaeda core in the coming year. Overall, we believe that the al Qaeda core will remain marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2011 while struggling to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield.
·U.S. and Europe:Tactically, we anticipate that the core and franchise groups will continue to have difficulty attacking the United States and Europe directly and will continue to reach out to grassroots operatives who have the ability to travel to the West. This means we will likely see more plots involving poorly trained operatives like Zazi and Shahzad. While such individuals do have the capacity to kill people, they lack the capacity to conduct spectacular terrorist attacks like 9/11. This trend also means that travel to places such as Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or contact with jihadist planners there, will continue to be anoperational weakness that can be exploitedby Western intelligence agencies.
While al-Wahayshi’s appeal for aspiring jihadist militants to avoid contacting franchise groups and travel overseas in search of jihadist training makes a great deal of sense tactically, it has proved very difficult to achieve. This is evidenced by the fact that we have seen very few plots or attacks in which the planners were truelone wolveswho had absolutely no contact with outside jihadists — or with government agents they believed to be jihadists. So while the leaderless resistance model can be quite difficult for law enforcement to guard against, its downside for the jihadists is that it takes a unique type of individual to be a true and effective lone wolf.
Since we believe most plots in the United States and Europe will again involve grassroots jihadists in 2011, we also believe that soft targets such as public gatherings and mass transportation will continue to be the most popular target set. We can also anticipate that franchises will continue to seek ways to attack aircraft. Certainly, AQAP has a history of such attacks, and perhaps even groups like al Shabaab or TTP could attempt to hit this long-popular jihadist target set. In places like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, we believe that hotels and housing compounds could serve as attractive and softer alternative targets to more difficult targets such as U.S. embassies or consulates. As we have recently noted, we also see no end to the targeting of people and institutions involved in theMohammed cartoon controversy.
We also believe it is likely in the coming year that more grassroots militants in the United States will heed al-Wahayahi’s advice and begin to conductsimple attacks using firearmsrather than attempting more difficult and elaborate attacks using explosives.
·Pakistan:The number of jihadist bombing attacks in Pakistan is trending down, as is the size of the devices involved. This means that the Pakistani government seems to have reduced the capabilities of the TTP to conduct attacks. It may be no coincidence that such attacks have trended down at the same time that U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes along the border have been picking up. That said, the Pakistani tribal areas are teeming with weapons and ordnance and there is a wide array of jihadist elements that could employ them in an attack, from the TTP to al Qaeda to al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters. This means that Pakistan will face the threat of attack for the foreseeable future. The area along the border with Afghanistan is rugged and has proved hard to pacify for hundreds of years. We do not think the Pakistanis will be able to bring the area under control this year.
·Afghanistan:In the coming year, as the spring thaw sets in, we will be watching closely for a Taliban resurgence and a more concerted attempt to reverse gains made by the International Security Assistance force in 2010. Our 2011 forecast for this conflict can be foundhere.
·Yemen:We will continue to monitor Yemen closely. As mentioned above, so far the large influx of U.S. intelligence and military assets has not seemed to have helped the Yemeni government to seriously weaken AQAP, which is the strongest of the jihadist franchises outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, region and the one with the longest transnational reach. Interestingly, the group has not had a very good track record of hitting international targets inside Yemen, aside from occasional attacks against unarmed tourists. This might cause AQAP to divert from harder targets like embassies and motorcades of armored vehicles toward softer targets like individual foreigners and foreign housing compounds. In December, a Jordanian jihadist conducted a poorly executed attack againstU.S. Embassy personnel who had stopped at a pizzeria. This could have been a one-off attack, but it could also have been the start of a change in AQAP targeting in Yemen.
·Indonesia:The Indonesian government has continued tohit Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad very hard, and it is unlikely that the group will be able to regroup and conduct large-scale terrorist attacks in 2011.
·North Africa:In the north of Algeria, AQIM has continued to shy away from the al Qaeda core’s targeting philosophy and concentrated on attacking government and security targets — essentially functioning as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat with a different name. The Algerian government has hit AQIM very hard in its traditional mountain strongholds east of Algiers, and the ideological rift over whether to follow al Qaeda’s dictates has also hurt the group. An increase in the abduction of Westerners and clashes with security forces in the Sahara-Sahel is not a convincing indication of AQIM’s expanding reach. Nor are incompetent attacks like the Jan. 5 attack against the French Embassy in Bamako, Mali. Much of this expanded activity in the south is the result of rivalries between sub-commanders and efforts to raise money via kidnapping and banditry in order to survive. This is a sign of weakness and lack of cohesion, not strength.
AQIM is a shell of what it was four years ago. It will continue to kidnap victims in the Sahel — or acquire kidnapped foreigners from ethnic Tuareg rebels in Mali and Niger — and the occasional small attack, but it is not at this time a unified militant organization that poses a regional, much less transnational, threat.
·Somalia:Al Shabaab went transnational with the Kampala attacks and has also been able to consolidate its grip over the jihadist landscape in Somalia this year by absorbingmain rival Hizbul Islam. However, al Shabaab itself is not a monolithic entity. It is comprised of different factions, with the main subsets being led by al Shabaab chief Ahmad Abdi Godane (aka Abu Zubayr) and one of his top commanders, Muktar Robow (aka Abu Mansur). Abu Zubayr leads the more transnational or jihadist element of the organization, while Abu Mansur and his faction are more nationalist in their philosophy and military operations. This factionalism within al Shabaab and the general unpopularity of jihadism among large portions the Somali population should help prevent al Shabaab from conquering Somalia (as will an increase in the number of African Union peacekeeping troops and the operations of other anti-al Shabaab forces like the Ethiopian-backed militia Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah).
However, Abu Zubayr maintains close contact with people in the Somali diaspora in East Africa, South Africa, Australia, Europe and the United States. These contacts provide funding and fighters that will help sustain the insurgency in Somalia, but they could also be used to conduct transnational attacks outside of Somalia.
·India:India continues to face a very real threat from transnational jihadist groups such as the LeT and HUJI, which will continue to plan attacks in India and against Indian interests in places like Afghanistan. India also faces a persistent, though lesser, threat from domestic jihadist groups likeIndian Mujahideen (IM).
·Egypt:The Jan. 1, 2011,bombing at a church in Alexandriaraised the possibility that transnational jihadists were once again becoming more involved in Egypt — especially in light of threats by the Islamic State in Iraq to attack Egyptian Christians in Iraq in early November 2010. However, it now appears that initial reports that the Alexandria attack was a suicide operation may have been incorrect, and Egyptian authorities are reporting that the device was similar in construction to devices used intwo 2009 attacks, indicating that the bombmaker in the Alexandria attack was not likely a recent import from Iraq. The Egyptian militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyahpublicly joined forces with al Qaedain August 2006, but little has come from the union. It will be important to watch and see if the Alexandria attack was an anomaly or the beginning of a new pattern of attacks in Egypt.
·Caucasus:The rise of theCaucasus Emiratein 2009-2010 brought with it an increase in operational tempo and resulted in theMarch 29, 2010, suicide attacks against the Moscow Metro. The group also attempted to provide a unified umbrella for a number of disparate militant groups operating in the region — an umbrella that had more of a jihadist than the traditional nationalistic bent seen in militant groups operating in the region. However, apower struggle within the group, combined with a Russian counteroffensive, has resulted in the group being unable to provide the unified leadership it envisioned. There are still militant groups active in the Caucasus, and while they can kill people, they do not possess the cohesion or capability to pose a true strategic threat to Russia. It appears that in the coming year the Russian authorities will launch an operation in Dagestan that will utilize the tactics they have used in Chechnya. Such an operation could produce a significant backlash.
·Iraq:The year 2010 was highly successful for U.S. and Iraqi troops in the fight against the Iraqi jihadist franchise,the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Combined U.S.-Iraqi efforts, with local assistance, have severely damaged the group’s finances, leadership and ability to recruit. It is unlikely that the ISI’s propensity for violent attacks will wane, but the group’s diminished leadership, operational capacity and logistics infrastructure make its future seem bleak. At the beginning of 2010, the trend was for ISI to conduct an attack every six to 10 weeks against government ministries, but by the end of the year major attacks were occurring less frequently and against softer, less strategic targets, like churches.
While the al Qaeda core has been marginalized, the ideology of jihadism continues to survive and win new converts. As long as this ideology is able to spread, the war its adherents are waging to subjugate the rest of the world will continue. While jihadists do not pose a strategic geopolitical threat on a global