Vice President of Tactical Intelligence Scott Stewart discusses some of the al Qaeda franchise groups and other jihadist threats following the death of Osama bin Laden.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, one of the things it is important to keep in mind is that jihadism is much bigger than just the al Qaeda core group. In fact, over the last several years, we have seen the franchise groups come to eclipse the core group in terms of importance on the physical battlefield and the ideological battlefield.
Many people have been saying, over the last day or so, that they believe jihadist terrorism is dead with the death of bin Laden, and that al Qaeda will be no more. But I think that a thoughtful discussion of this topic needs to look at what al Qaeda is.
At STRATFOR, when we look at jihadism, we see it as a much broader phenomenon than just al Qaeda. In fact, at the apex of the jihadist movement we do have al Qaeda core group. But below that we have a whole array of regional franchise jihadist groups. And further down we have an even broader, diffuse selection of people whom we call grassroots jihadists. Those are people who are radicalized, who have adopted a jihadist ideology but who do not have a real connection to the al Qaeda core or the franchise groups.
We have seen many franchise groups wax and wane over the years. Perhaps among the first to pop their heads up and get really active was Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia. Over the past several years they have been hit pretty hard and they’ve gone through several iterations using different names and under different people. They’ve become very fractured, and really only have a shadow of what they once were, say in 2001-2002.
So later on we saw franchise groups pop up in places like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Saudis did a pretty good job and putting the hammer down on the Saudi group; they basically wiped them out, and the remnants of that group moved into Yemen, where they basically combined with two Yemeni groups to form what we now know as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. They are the most dynamic of the regional franchises, and they’re the franchise that has really adopted the philosophy of being transnational and of attacking places like the United States the most to heart. Because of this, it has been our belief now for a couple years that AQAP has eclipsed the al Qaeda core on what we call the physical battlefield.
In addition to the physical battlefield, AQAP has also assumed the al Qaeda core’s role in propaganda. They have really become the ideological leaders of the jihadist movement right now, with ideologues like Imam Anwar al-Awlaki as well as their slick online magazines. They have really reached out to try to inspire, to try to radicalize and then equip people to conduct attacks where they are in the West.
Other franchise that we’re watching very carefully include al Shabaab in Somalia, though they haven’t been quite as aggressive in pursuing the transnational agenda as AQAP, so they are kind of on a secondary level. Other franchises we are watching include al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in Algeria, Mali and Mauritania and that area of Africa. Also, when we talk about these franchise groups, we can’t lose sight of the jihadists that are running around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. So there are organizations, such as the Haqqani movement, who have been very close to the al Qaeda core. We also have the Pakistani Taliban.
In the wake of bin Laden’s death, the bottom line is the ideology of jihadism continues. That ideology is going to continue to radicalize people and cause them to take action. This means that government security and intelligence agencies need to keep pressure not only on the al Qaeda core remnants but also on these franchise groups and grassroots jihadists.