By Scott Stewart
Over the past two weeks we have examined the al Qaeda and Islamic State portions of the global jihadist movement. As we discussed those two opposing — and in many locations, warring — militant organizations, we examined the core of their organizations and their franchise or affiliate groups. In doing so, we purposefully left out the phenomenon of grassroots terrorism because both the Islamic State and al Qaeda seek to inspire grassroots operatives. At the same time, potential attackers can be motivated by either, or both, organizations.
Defining the Grassroots
Jihadist ideologues such as Abu Musab al-Suri have promoted the leaderless resistance model since 2003, as we explained in the insurgent and terrorist theory portion of the 2013 Gauging the Jihadist Movement series. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began heavily promoting the concept in 2009, and the core of al Qaeda followed suit in 2010. For its part, the Islamic State began openly supporting leaderless resistance in September 2014.
Jihadists adopted the leaderless resistance model of operations because of the difficulty they have experienced in getting trained terrorist operatives into the West to conduct attacks. In other words, the shift to leaderless resistance is an admission of weakness rather than a sign of strength. But while counterterrorism agencies and programs have proved adept at targeting known groups and individuals — as they were designed to do — they struggle with the ambiguity of leaderless resistance.
That said, the leaderless resistance model is not always strictly followed, and there is not always the strict separation between the various elements of the jihadist movement that the model calls for. Indeed, there are often links and overlaps between grassroots jihadists and other elements of the jihadist movement. As noted in last year's assessment of the grassroots jihadist threat, there is a wide spectrum of involvement between grassroots operatives and the rest of the jihadist movement, and the danger posed by grassroots operatives tends to vary depending on their connections to other terrorist elements. Grassroots operatives who receive direction and equipment from professional terrorists, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing cell or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tend to pose a greater danger than amateurs operating alone.
The spectrum of levels of connection has been illustrated by recent events in France. The operatives involved in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris who were trained and directed by the Islamic State were able to conduct a far deadlier attack than the lone amateur who, merely inspired by the Islamic State, attempted to attack officers at a Paris police station with a meat cleaver Jan. 7 before being shot dead.
It is also important to keep in mind that grassroots operatives do not just operate as lone attackers. Though many choose to work alone, it is not uncommon for them to group together to form more dangerous grassroots cells. As illustrated by the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, members of a jihadist cell working together and conducting simultaneous attacks against different targets pose a far greater challenge for law enforcement than lone operatives.
Of course, the threat from grassroots jihadists is nothing new. In the time since a grassroots jihadist assassinated Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane in midtown Manhattan in November 1990, such attacks have posed a constant, albeit low-level, threat. Grassroots jihadists have occasionally executed successful attacks, such as the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and failed in others, such as Faisal Shahzad's planned Times Square bombing in May 2010. Authorities have also thwarted planned attacks such as the June 2006 Canada 17 plot or the September 2009 Najibullah Zazi case.
Following the Islamic State's call for grassroots attacks in late September 2014, we saw an unprecedented spike in such attacks. But since that time, the tempo of attacks and plots has returned to a level similar to that witnessed in the past. However, the complexion of the plots has changed. As Stratfor forecast in 2010 grassroots jihadists have shifted their tactics away from complicated bombing plots to simpler armed assaults that they are more capable of conducting without assistance.
Most jihadists who attend training camps set up by al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups are taught the types of basic military skills required to fight in an insurgency. This means they are provided basic physical conditioning, given some hand-to-hand combat lessons and then taught how to operate basic military hardware such as assault rifles, hand grenades and, in some cases, crew-served weapons such as machine guns and mortars. Very few students move on to the more advanced training required to become a skilled terrorist operative.
Because of this, most grassroots jihadists, even those who have traveled to fight with groups such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State, lack the type of sophisticated terrorist tradecraft that professional operatives possess. Lacking such skills often causes grassroots jihadists to fail in overly ambitious attacks or to be ensnared in government sting operations after reaching out to more established groups for help.
Consequently, the move toward armed assaults using the type of basic military skills possessed by most of the attackers is a logical trend. It has also proved to be a deadly one, with armed assaults resulting in more casualties in the West than bombing operations in recent years. Even in those operations that have utilized bombs and firearms, such as the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, far more casualties resulted from gunshot wounds than from explosions. We believe that this trend will continue well through 2016.
Last week we forecast that the Islamic State will be under intense pressure in the coming year. This means two things: that grassroots jihadists are going to have a far more difficult time traveling to join the Islamic State, and that those foreign fighters who are currently in Iraq and Syria are going to increasingly find themselves in a hostile environment where they can be readily identified as foreigners. As a result, many of them will leave Syria and Iraq to return home. (This same dynamic will also apply to the al Qaeda Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups in the region.) Consequently, many of these fighters pose a risk of returning to their home countries to conduct attacks either individually or as part of grassroots cells.
That said, there are some factors that will help constrain the threat returning jihadists pose. Perhaps the most significant of these is ideological: Many jihadists who believe it is proper to fight the Syrian government (which is oppressing Muslims) do not believe it is acceptable to conduct attacks in the West against noncombatants. Other foreign fighters have become disillusioned by jihadist groups that frequently fight one another. At the same time, governments are closely monitoring the flow of their citizens leaving to fight with the Islamic State and are aware of the danger posed by returning combatants, especially in the wake of the Paris attacks. Across the West, governments have redoubled their efforts to monitor returned fighters and to share intelligence with allies to disrupt plots.
Still, reports have surfaced that the Islamic State and al Qaeda are looking to recruit foreign fighters to return home to carry out attacks. With tens of thousands of fighters currently in places like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia, it will be impossible for their home governments to monitor them all. Undoubtedly some combatants will return home intending to conduct terrorist attacks, while other grassroots operatives will stay home and attack. But the threat they represent is not a totally new phenomenon: The grim truth is that there are undoubtedly jihadists in the United States, Europe and elsewhere planning attacks at this very moment — just as they have over the past two decades. Though some of them will succeed, as I outlined a few weeks ago, such attacks are vulnerable to being detected and thwarted, and the plots highlight the need to maintain vigilance and not panic.