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Post 'Caliphate': The Future of the Salafi-Jihadi Movement

November 2nd 2016


The future trajectories of al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) do not leave cause for optimism, nor do the faulty paradigms that have been widely accepted about both groups in recent years. Five years ago, many argued that AQ was on the verge of strategic collapse: its founding leader was dead, a succession of key lieutenants had been eliminated, and the Arab Spring was seemingly poised to bring about the changes that terrorists had promised for years. Yet when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the Senate this February, he painted a bleak picture of a newly resurgent AQ that was "positioned to make gains in 2016."

Similarly, IS was able to carry out major international attacks last year in defiance of the widely accepted paradigm that it was not interested in global terrorist operations. These and other past miscalculations raise concerns that the United States and its allies simply do not understand the pulse of IS or the dynamics of the broader jihadi universe.

If Osama bin Laden were alive today, he would be a happy man. He was confident that his death would produce thousands more Osamas, and in light of the ongoing global foreign fighter phenomenon, his threat has been realized. He also summoned his followers to commit attacks throughout Europe, and IS has realized that dream. The process of political rebranding that he wrote about is coming to pass as well; AQ affiliates in Syria and elsewhere have adopted different names and are often depicted as more palatable alternatives to other extremists.

Indeed, IS has seized upon the overarching strategy that a key bin Laden deputy laid out in 2005. This strategy was broken into seven phases complete with a timeline, and the first few steps occurred right on schedule -- for example, the fifth phase called for establishing the "caliphate" and was projected to take place from 2014 to 2016. Although this phase is coming to an end with the demise of the IS core, even partial fulfillment of bin Laden's strategy promotes AQ's narrative of a divinely ordained struggle ending in inevitable victory. The danger will persist with the fall of the caliphate as thousands of IS fighters try to return home.

AQ has been waiting on IS to do much of its work -- deepening fissures in the Middle East and the West -- until the time comes to rise again. This strategy was made clear as recently as last year, when a major AQ weapons stockpile was discovered in Afghanistan that rivaled bin Laden's pre-2001 arsenal. The conventional wisdom once held that the bloody split between IS and AQ would mean the end of both groups, but instead their competition resulted in even greater violence and chaos as IS sought to seize the mantle from its predecessor. If the IS core falls, the group will likely default to its international terrorist capabilities and perhaps heighten its efforts to outdo AQ. Reunification between the two groups remains a possibility as well given their relatively small ideological differences and behind-the-scenes conciliatory gestures -- their existing divides are rooted in a clash of egos more than anything else. Thus, the fall of IS could drive senior leaders back to AQ or, failing that, make the weakened group vulnerable to a hostile takeover.

Terrorism is a war of attrition, and the West is losing. Western societies are rife with disillusionment over the seemingly endless struggle, breeding political fissures and xenophobia. Terrorists are primed to take advantage of such divides, and their capabilities are growing faster than government security forces can be trained up. To combat this threat, Washington and its allies need to target the various AQ and IS branches that allow the core groups to bring local populations and resources under their control, while also preventing the creation of new branches.

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