The US State Department’s recently released “Country Reports on Terrorism 2010” reveals several important trends in the evolution of global terrorism. The good news is that al-Qaida is facing significant pressure, even as the organization and its affiliates and followers retain the intent and capability to carry out attacks.
What remains to be seen is if the dispersion of the global jihadist threat from the heart of the Middle East to South Asia and Africa foreshadows organizational decline or revival for al-Qaida itself and for the radical jihadist ideology it espouses. How governments and civil society alike organize to contend with the changing threat will be central to this determination.
The bad news is that governments and civil society remain woefully ineffective at reducing the spread and appeal of radical Islamist extremism.
While the Pakistan-based al- Qaida senior leadership continues to represent the most acute terrorist threat to the United States, pressure from Pakistan’s military operations in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas has left al-Qaida significantly weakened. The group suffered substantial losses in its senior leadership as a result of US drone attacks, including its head of external operations, Saleh al- Somali, in December. And successful Pakistani military strikes, such as Operation Raah-i-Nijaat in October, following the death of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, have extended the government’s control to previously ungoverned areas.
Despite counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts, terrorist attacks within Afghanistan and Pakistan persist. Attacks in Afghanistan nearly doubled from 2008 to 2009, while attacks in Pakistan increased for the third consecutive year. Furthermore, Pakistan has served as the training ground for terrorists who have attempted attacks on American soil, including failed New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi.
One troubling fact noted in both the State Department report and the 2009 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report is the number of European citizens traveling to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight on behalf of al-Qaida or the Taliban, receiving military training, and then returning to their home countries capable of carrying out attacks.
In addition to operational setbacks, al-Qaida steadily lost popular
standing within the worldwide Muslim community in response to the number
of Muslims targeted by its attacks. According to the McLean,
Virginia-based National Counterterrorism Center’s statistical annex,
Muslims accounted for well over 50 percent of terrorism fatalities in
2009. A noted increase has also occurred in the number of Muslim clerics
and former militants challenging al-Qaida as a result.
Though al-Qaida’s core leadership may have dwindled in 2009, its losses
were partially offset by the growth of its affiliated groups. In January
2009, al-Qaida affiliates in Saudi Arabia merged with al- Qaida in
Yemen to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, with the stated goals
of abolishing both the Saudi and Yemeni governments and recreating the
With the Yemeni government focused on domestic security dynamics, most
notably the “Sixth War” of the Houthi rebellion and an emerging southern
separatist movement, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was left to
operate freely in the country’s tribal areas.
The report also notes the impact of strengthened Saudi counterterrorism
efforts, as well as the return of foreign fighters from Afghanistan and
Pakistan, on the heightened terrorist presence in Yemen.
In Somalia, the terrorist group al-Shabab managed to seize control of
large swaths of territory and has publicly proclaimed its allegiance to
the al- Qaida senior leadership.
Al-Shabab is made up of distinct armed clan militias and, though not
officially linked to al-Qaida, has close rhetorical and ideological ties
to the group. Owing to the Transitional Federal Government’s weak grip
on the country, and in concert with persistent violent instability,
poorly guarded borders and coasts, and proximity to the Arabian
Peninsula, Somalia has become a main terrorist thoroughfare and launch
point for domestic and foreign attacks. In fact, several foreign
non-al-Shabab operatives penetrated Somalia’s borders and successfully
carried out attacks inside the country.
Only the Taliban claimed responsibility for more attacks than al-Shabab
in 2009, and the Somali group has also threatened to target both America
PERHAPS THE MOST worrying trend exposed in the State Department report
is the documented rise in homegrown radicalization and attempted attacks
within the United States. There have been 46 reported incidents of
domestic radicalization and recruitment since September 2001; 30% took
place in 2009. In June 2009, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a convert to
Islam, opened fire at an army recruitment center in Little Rock,
Arkansas, killing one. This attack followed closely on the heels of
Muhammad’s two-year residence in Yemen, where he was arrested in 2008
for overstaying his visa.
In September, a Pakistani-American noted earlier, Najibullah Zazi, was
arrested for planning an attack on the New York subway system. Zazi, who
received training from al-Qaida and led a domestic al-Qaida cell, is
facing charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.
The shooting attack at Fort Hood, Texas, occurred in November, and the
next month, on Christmas Day, a British-educated Nigerian trained by al-
Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen tried to blow up Northwest
Airlines Flight 253 with explosives sewn into his underwear.
According to the European Union’s latest terrorism report, two-thirds of
violent Islamists arrested on terrorism charges were not linked to a
particular terrorist group. Rather, they adhered to al- Qaida’s global
jihadist ideology without proper membership in, or support from, the
organization itself. Al-Qaida’s use of English-speaking Internet
propagandists has expanded its online reach to larger Western audiences.
While the US government is engaged in efforts to better understand how
individuals become susceptible to the radical Islamist ideology purveyed
by al-Qaida and its ilk – the “upstream” political, economic and social
factors – it does nothing to compete with the radical Islamist message.
The Country Reports on Terrorism 2010 highlights the efforts of several
Middle Eastern and European countries to contend with what the report
describes in the context of its remarks on Denmark as “militant Islamist
ideology” but has little to say on US efforts to do the same. Indeed
CRT 2010 refers to country-specific initiatives targeting self-defined
Jihadi groups and their underlying extremist ideologies, but never –
with the exception of the entry on Denmark – references as distinct
concepts radical Islamic extremism, Jihadism, or other understandings of
the ideology behind today’s global terrorist threat.
Country Reports on Terrorism 2010 does implicitly acknowledge that our
adversary’s radical ideology targets Muslim communities, noting that “in
many cases, Muslims have more credibility than the US government in
addressing these issues in their own communities.”
They are best positioned, the report notes, “to convey effective
counter-narratives capable of discrediting violent extremism in a way
that makes sense to their local community, and only they have the
credibility to counter the religious claims made by violent extremists.”
More needs to be done to empower these counter=narratives as tools
against the violent extremism that is central to the radical Islamist
narrative. Country Reports on Terrorism 2010 recognizes this need, and
implicitly agrees that not enough is being done: “The United States can
help empower these local actors through programmatic assistance,
funding, or simply by providing them with space – physical or electronic
– to challenge violent extremist views.”
For all the tactical counterterrorism successes documented in Country
Reports on Terrorism 2010, the most significant finding of the report is
the one that is missing: Strategic counterterrorism success remains
Al-Qaida senior leadership has been in hiding and on the run for several
years, but despite losing safe havens and facing hard financial times,
the organization and its affiliates and like-minded followers remain
capable of recruiting new foot soldiers and executing attacks.
Unfortunately, despite the sharp rise in terrorist plots and cases of
homegrown radicalization, specific policies and programs aimed squarely
at countering the radical narrative remain few and far between.
It is axiomatic that the United States cannot simply capture and kill
its way out of the problem; it must find a way to take on the extremist
ideology directly. As concluded by the recent Washington Institute
strategic report “Fighting the Ideological Battle,” failure to recognize
the impact of radical Islamism – an extremist political ideology
separate and apart from Islam as a religion – as a key driver framing,
motivating and justifying violent extremism hampers efforts to intervene
early enough in the radicalization process to prevent individuals from
becoming violent.Matthew Levitt is a senior fellow and
director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein
Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence
(www.washingtoninstitute.org) Copyright 2010 The Washington Institute
for Near East Policy. Reprinted with permission.