On a beach in Tunisia over the weekend a gunman stalked among the recliner chairs and sun umbrellas looking for victims. By the time he was eventually killed by police, the black-clad terrorist had killed dozens of British holiday makers.
The same day in France an attack on a US-owned factory ended with a series of explosions, a severed head and the black flag of al Qaeda. Elsewhere, a bomb tore through a packed Kuwait mosque killed 27 people.
Initial assessments suggest the Islamic State (IS) has claimed some of these attacks but not others. The gunman in Tunisia claimed allegiance to the group and the Kuwait mosque bombing was claimed directly by IS. The question is whether these indicate an expansion of the jihadist movement.
After 14 years, the global jihadist movement still focuses much attention. That the jihadist movement of IS controls significant swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq proves the movement is extremely resilient and tough to eliminate. This adaptability is keeping jihadism alive, but how effective and dangerous is the movement in 2015?
There are three distinct branches of the global jihadist movement: al Qaeda Prime (AQP), al Qaeda franchise groups (including “lone wolves”) and the Islamic State. To construct a net assessment of the jihadism movement, it’s worth assessing each separately.
First it is important to understand the stark fragmentation of the movement. AQP, Osama bin Laden’s cadre in Afghanistan, focused its resources on targeting the United States, its allies and its global infrastructure. It wished to cement a “Caliphate”, but not until the US was destroyed. The group became a transnational enterprise resulting in the attacks of 9/11.
That was the high water mark of the jihadist movement. The military response by Western powers shattered AQP, forcing it to encourage semi-autonomous franchise groups in Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere. Those groups eventually became autonomous as pressure on AQP rose.
Following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the AQP branch dipped considerably both in operational capacity and overall influence. It had struggled to survive when the US-led invasion of both Afghanistan killed many of its members and forced it to hide. However, the group’s propaganda has encouraged sympathetic Muslims in other countries to carry on the fight.
AQP was unable to conduct a second strike on the US homeland as it was ripped apart by coalition military and intelligence efforts. Aside from assisting Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the AQP branch is now all but expunged. Its enduring threat is in the surviving ideology of jihadism which has spread across the world via the internet.
After AQP collapsed, a decentralised network of jihadists sprung up. This created an amorphous and, for a while, much deadlier pattern of attackers. Inspired individuals inside and outside Western countries conducted attacks without instruction from AQP. These grassroots and franchise groups have by now killed thousands of local and Western citizens over the last 10 years.
The strength of this jihadist branch is in its inherent adaptability, decentralisation and isolation. Generally speaking, the franchise al Qaeda groups have been more concerned with shaping local politics than in attacking Western countries, but some have attempted transnational attacks. The lone jihadist individuals are proving both more deadly and almost impossible to deter.
One of those franchise groups, al Qaeda in Iraq, evolved over many iterations to become the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, before choosing its current name of the Islamic State.
Last year, the Islamic State split from the AQP group very publicly. The schism was a long time in coming since the previous leader of IS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, drew criticism from AQP leaders for his exceptionally brutal sectarian terror tactics in Iraq. Any reconciliation between the two groups is now extremely unlikely.
Today, IS sits atop the jihadist pile as unarguably the most powerful al Qaeda franchise group. Its goal is to establish a worldwide Muslim polity, beginning in the Middle East. The group has taken advantage of a security vacuum in Syria and Iraq and has seen some successes. The vacuum in Iraq is currently being defended and repaired by the US, New Zealand and other nations.
Which brings us to the attacks in Tunisia and France on Friday. While they are certainly frightening the attacks exemplify a growing limitation in the overall jihadist movement.
Firstly, the attackers were not directly controlled by the leadership of IS or al Qaeda. They claimed allegiance to IS, but acted independently and alone. IS has encouraged Muslim sympathisers not to travel to the Middle East, but to attack from where they already live. This should be seen as a weakness, not strength, of the movement.
None of the three major branches of jihadism has the ability to replicate attacks on the scale of 9/11. Western intelligence and military efforts pressure the groups, squeezing attacks towards the less-dangerous but more-prolific end of the spectrum. After all, it is much easier to pick up a rifle and kill 30 people than it is to construct a viable explosive device to kill 400 people.
Secondly, the pool of talented and experienced jihadists is slowly shrinking due to airstrikes and other deaths. Each time an exceptional jihadist perishes, he cannot easily be replaced and the overall movement suffers. But ideologies are proving much harder to kill.
Thirdly, the reach and danger of these groups must be placed into context. The Islamic State controls a sizeable part of the Middle East, but it has not yet conducted a transnational attack on a Western target. Its focus is heavily on self-defence, which is exactly how the US-led coalition wants it to be.
Al Qaeda-affiliated individuals and franchise groups still pose a limited threat for the world, but will continue to fragment and dissipate over time. Failed states and security vacuums will attract jihadists, but this fragmentation and isolation is a reflection of the movement’s weakness.
Western coalition efforts against al Qaeda, its franchise groups and the Islamic State have been tactically successful, but strategically ineffective. The movement is degraded but not destroyed. Despite the weekend’s attacks, this net assessment suggests the weakening trend will continue as al Qaeda groups fragment under pressure from local and Western military forces and counter-ideologies.