By Clint Watts
Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)
Dated: August 08, 2016
The rivalries between jihadist groups such as al-Qa`ida and the so-called Islamic State have oscillated between periods of destructive and escalating competition. Today, Clint Watts differentiates between these two types of struggle and argues that counterterrorism coalitions should attempt to mire the jihadist groups in destructive forms of competition. After all, that’s where the internal schisms and antipathies abound.
Fractures between jihadist groups like al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State have ushered in periods of both destructive competition and escalating competition. Destructive competition, when terror groups attack each other, arises predominately from internal splits when terrorist factions occupy the same terrain. It can be amplified by younger extremists seeking a more violent direction than older members, the presence of foreign fighter contingents with divergent interests, and the existence of terrorist ‘Pretorian Guards’ lacking a stake in a post-conflict settlement. On the other hand, escalating competition, when terror groups attempt to outpace each other through expansive competition, occurs when competing terror organizations separate geographically and the perpetration of successful attacks leads to gains in notoriety and subsequent increases in resources. In the near term, international counterterrorism coalitions facing escalating competition from an assortment of al-Qa`ida and Islamic State affiliates might look to broker an end to the Syrian conflict and target shared sources of strength between competing groups as methods for returning competition to a destructive context.
The first month of 2014 brought what initially appeared to be a positive development. Al-Qa`ida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its local Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra—rebuffed the previous summer by a belligerent subordinate then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)—hatched efforts along with other Syrian Islamist groups to attack the defiant and ascendant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.1 Throughout the spring of 2014, terrorists lamented and counterterrorists rejoiced as open fighting between once-aligned jihadis brought destructive competition to the landscape, a blessing for Western countries who had no viable or palatable method to counter the rising jihadist tide in Syria.
Tides shifted again by the summer of 2014, however, when ISIS proved victorious over al-Qa`ida, making a run across the Iraqi desert and capturing town after town. In June 2014, ISIS took Mosul, declared a caliphate, and rebranded itself as the Islamic State. Within months, significant parts of the once-vaunted al-Qa`ida global terror network fractured and transformed into a more virulent form. Affiliates across the globe splintered from al-Qa`ida or arose anew, inspired by the Islamic State. Disgruntled al-Qa`ida factions in Algeria, Pakistan, and Yemen formed new Islamic State wilayat as previously al-Qa`ida-pledged affiliates Boko Haram and Ansar Beit al Maqdisi switched alliances. The appeal of Islamic State branding has mobilized allegiance or support from more than three dozen affiliates and emerging terrorist organizations stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.2 Today, the jihadist landscape is both larger and more diverse than at any time in world history. Initially, al-Qa`ida and Islamic State groups destructively competed. Since the declaration of a caliphate, however, competition between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State has shifted from destructive to escalating with both groups’ franchises aggressively pursuing attacks in an attempt to one up each other. Counterterrorists now suffer the detriments rather than the benefits of al-Qa`ida and Islamic State competition, straining to keep up with the scale and pace of terrorist attacks globally.
The international coalition that is confronting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups must learn how to tamp down this escalating competition and return jihadis to pitched battles against one another. Those terrorists surviving Syria and Iraq’s battlefields will empower the more than three dozen al-Qa`ida and Islamic State affiliates and associated terror groups, each of which seeks ‘glory’ to inspire their ranks and refill their coffers.3
Destructive Terrorist Competition
Throughout history, terrorist groups and their movements have suffered many periods of destructive competition, predominately in the form of internal splits. Splits over strategic direction resulting in destructive competition between factions often mask more important currents fomenting dissent. Generational divergence is a consistent feature during fracturing.a
In Egypt during the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood faced off against younger, more violent jihadist groups. Similarly, Algeria in the 1990s witnessed the emergence of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. FIS leaders were then assassinated in mid-1993 by the more junior and violent Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which ultimately declared war on the FIS and Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and killed hundreds of Islamists.4 Internal fractures and splintering among Palestinian extremists, whether the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, or Fatah, show a persistent trend of the young breaking away from their older forefathers. In all of these cases, younger extremists—detecting a pause, moderation, or shortcomings of the older generation—believe a new strategic direction incorporating greater violence will bring about the ultimate victory.5 Al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State’s modern global jihad follows a similar pattern, where each generation of foreign fighters has splintered from their forefathers and become increasingly violent and aggressive.
When times get tough and terror groups fail, international foreign fighter legions appear as a second ingredient of destructive competition. A hallmark of recent jihads has been the mobilization of an international force blending fighters of many nations and ethnicities. Al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and even the PLO before them showcased the foreign fighter phenomenon to advocate the broad appeal for their cause and sustain their manpower. But international volunteers join extremist ranks for reasons that quite often diverge from their local ‘brothers.’b Disenfranchised locals tend to participate for better wages and services or in the absence of a political alternative. Meanwhile, foreign volunteers take up arms more for the groups’ pronounced ideological visions. When victories are plenty, local fighters and international volunteers tend to get along, as seen recently in the Islamic State’s strong unity during its late 2014 and early 2015 expansion.
Both Algeria and Somalia provide relevant examples of foreign fighter versus local fighter fracturing. Disenchanted with failed political solutions, the GIA emerged in 1992, bringing together frustrated local Algerian militants of the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) with international jihadist foreign fighters returning from Afghanistan. ‘Afghan Algerians,’ notably Djafar al-Afghani and Cherif Gousmi, initially led the GIA to its zenith through escalating violence precisely focused on political objectives, namely the assassination of politicians and those connected to the regime. GIA gains brought more local manpower under the jihadist tent and forced its Islamist rival FIS to create the militant wing AIS to accelerate violence against the regime.6
Algerian leadership decapitation of the GIA led to the rise of local Algerian leaders who alienated both their local Algerian base of support and their foreign backers in al-Qa`ida. Gousmi’s death led to the mysterious appointment of a young, religious novice, Djamel Zitouni, who led a terrorist campaign against France. GIA terrorism against France in late 1994 and 1995 brought renewed French support for the Algerian regime. This strategic misstep brought further challenge from the FIS and Algerian government as well as dissent within the GIA’s ranks. In mid-1995, Zitouni, gripping tight to power, began declaring other jihadist leaders apostates and even killed GIA challengers. Zitouni’s internal violence led to mass GIA defections and the London-based al-Qa`ida magazine Al-Ansar withdrawing its support for the GIA. Zitouni, in return, banned foreign jihadis in his organization and declared bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida “soft.”7 Zitouni was assassinated within a year and an even younger Algerian replacement, 26-year-old Antar Zouabri, continued the GIA’s disastrous trend, advocating further violence, declaring the Algerian population apostates, and inciting widespread violence against civilians. Younger Algerians Zitouni and Zouabri fractured the GIA along several seams: local versus foreign, young against old, poor and disenfranchised opposing elites. The GIA’s expansive, violent decline crumbled the jihad in Algeria and opened the way for a more peaceful political settlement.8
When defeats outnumber victories and objectives appear unattainable, fractures routinely form between local and foreign fighters. Locals with a post-conflict stake in the region or in need of resources to sustain their families and clans rapidly break with foreign volunteers who are more fully committed to the cause and lack local alternatives. Omar Hammami, the infamous American foreign fighter with al-Shabaab, wrote frequently during 2012 and 2013 of the growing separation between local Somalis (Ansar) and foreign fighters (Muhajir). The split became more pronounced when al-Shabaab’s local clansmen defected in the face of advancing African Union forces from Mogadishu. Hammami and some of his foreign fighter associates pushed al-Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed Godane, to pursue an integrative sharia governance model while other international volunteers sought a closer relationship with al-Qa`ida. Ultimately, Godane and al-Shabaab assassinated Hammami and warred with former al-Shabaab emir Mukhtar Robow.9 Fratricide and fracturing characterize al-Shabaab’s bloody descent into regional terrorism in Kenya and Uganda.10 A breakaway Islamic State faction now challenges al-Shabaab.11 Al-Shabaab’s remaining global-minded, al-Qa`ida-linked foreign fighters and Somali clansmen stand separate from an Islamic State affiliate manned by locals and East Africans.12 Al-Qa`ida’s foreign legions in Pakistan 15 years earlier, in comparison, avoided this destructive rivalry through inter-marrying in local communities, preying on the local custom of Pashtunwali, and paying sizeable sums to secure the loyalty of their Taliban hosts.13
Destructive terrorist competition can also be heightened when extremist organizations employ an internal security organization that amplifies divisive demographic forces in the ranks. Many international forces employ a Pretorian Guard-like group to protect the organization and its leaders from infiltration by spies. As the group’s success declines, this internal security apparatus increasingly becomes the protectorate of the ruler against legitimate criticism and emerging challengers. These internal security services, regardless of their time period and location, share many qualities. Their ranks often consist of international volunteersc who lack local ties in the communities with which they fight. They also pursue violence against any potential rivals to ward off threats.
One example of this extremist phenomenon is Yasser Arafat’s Force 17 from the early 1970s through the 1990s. He created the internal security force to sustain his authority over the PLO as conflict waned and political settlements began. Staffed primarily with Tunisians who joined the ranks during Arafat’s exile, Force 17 had no ties to the West Bank or Gaza and found little incentive in pursuing a political solution. When no longer needed to guard Arafat and left out of the Palestinian Authority, Force 17 became Amn al-Ri’asah, pursuing deadly attacks to protect its place among a crowded extremist landscape. Force 17 killed Palestinians undertaking business with Israelis and intimidated and tortured members of the Preventative Security Force. Hamas claimed Force 17 attempted to kill the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, leading to a series of retaliatory attacks between the groups.14
More recently in the jihadist context, al-Shabaab has exerted harsh violence and strict sharia through its violent internal security forces. Al-Shabaab’s now deceased emir Ahmed Godane deployed his internal security force, the Amniyat, to locate, imprison, and often kill “spies” and dissenters in the ranks. Many Amniyat, like Godane himself (an Isaaq clansman), come from Somalia’s lesser clans and stand to lose should the terror group crumble. Those with al-Qa`ida connections and more ideologically committed foreign fighters reinforce the Amniyat’s ranks. The Amniyat’s violence seeks the unity of al-Shabaab’s fragile collective. Under the reign of Godane, the Amniyat went so far as to kill his once top advisor Ibrahim al-Afghani. The Amniyat’s harsh justice and unfair imprisonments, however, have emboldened defectors and rivals, leading to sustained destructive competition from a new breed of Islamic State-minded jihadis.15
Obtaining financial resources and control over manpower can also be a key component of destructive competition amongst terror organizations.16 Whether it involves the opening or closing of a conflict zone, terror groups bound to specific geographies must compete for fighters and money or fade from power. Hamas and Fatah, two Palestinian powerhouses, clashed in 2006 and 2007 as they sought a larger stake in a future Palestinian state and the subsequent resources and authority over security forces that would follow.17 Despite the ideological differences and egomaniacal battles between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri, initial fighting between ISIS and al-Qa`ida’s Jabhat al-Nusra focused on the financial lifeline of Syria’s eastern oilfields and control over foreign fighter flows. ISIS won both and secured the upper hand by paying higher wages and offering better benefits than any other Syrian competitors.18
Escalating Global Terrorist Competition
Mounting concern quickly replaced the momentary satisfaction counterterrorists enjoyed when terrorists killed each other in Syria. By 2015, the Islamic State proved dominant, and fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra lessened as both groups reached a steady state. Having separated geographically and no longer occupying the same terrain in Syria or even globally, affiliates of both networks swiveled their weapons outward, attacking local and international targets at a quickening pace on an unprecedented scale. Rather than pointing their guns inward to stave off competitors, jihadist competition rapidly shifted from internal splintering and fratricide to extremist groups on three continents solidifying their stake in a crowded global jihadist landscape. The last year has ushered in a confusing, complex terror picture. The Islamic State and its affiliates and supporters raced to execute ever more spectacular attacks, and freelancing, al-Qa`ida-connected jihadis matched them with a string of hotel attacks in West Africa while al-Zawahiri instructed his promising Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, to hold back from launching attacks on the West.19
As opposed to the destructive competition found when groups occupy the same territory, escalating terrorist competition naturally arises when terrorists have operational space, freedom of maneuver, and a need to garner resources. Terror groups lacking local competitors and facing minimal counterterrorism pressure do not waste time, manpower, or money freeing the space they occupy from rivals. Likewise, these same groups, lacking human and financial resource pipelines from a higher headquarters, will need to execute successful, escalating attacks to draw media attention in order to bring in manpower and money.
Two relevant examples of this escalating terrorism competition are Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). LeT, Pakistan’s go-to extremist group against India prior to September 11, 2001, found itself losing recruits to the Taliban and al-Qa`ida as those groups engaged in active combat against the United States in Afghanistan. Rather than pursuing violence against its Taliban extremist brothers, LeT deployed operatives to Afghanistan to fight the United States simply to maintain the local recruits in its ranks.20 More recently, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM commander known for disobeying his superiors, rapidly increased his attacks against international targets via his splinter group al-Murabitun. Immediately following the French intervention in Mali, Belmokhtar seized the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Having watched the Islamic State’s prowess and its growing affinity among locals for its brand, Belmokhtar initiated a sustained terrorism campaign throughout West Africa, hitting hotels in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast.21
Most importantly, by escalating the pace and scale of their attacks, those terrorist groups perceived as winners become agenda-setters. The more aggressive executors of violence not only win the men and the money, but they also set the future direction for all that follows and seek to adopt the most successful strategy and supporting structure. Hamas violence during the second intifada influenced the PLO to pursue a more Islamist discourse. Islamic Jihad’s accelerated violence pushed Hamas to move from peaceful activism toward violence.22 The failure of Algeria’s political movements created space for violent Islamic groups to emerge.23 Today, al-Qa`ida, which long urged patience in creating a caliphate, has aggressively shifted toward governance after seeing the Islamic State successfully attract international jihadist admiration for executing governance for more than two years in Syria and Iraq. After bin Ladin’s death, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) flirted with governance during its brief rise in Yemen in 2012, and today Jabhat al-Nusra has followed in the Islamic State’s footsteps in pursuing governance in Idlib, Syria.
Implications of Terrorist Competition
Destructive competition proves doubly useful for counterterrorists. Terrorists in combat with each other deplete their ranks and resources, while souring their global supporters and donors and diminishing their supply of future foreign fighters. The benefits to the West when terrorists fight become exponential rather than additive. In contrast, escalating terrorist competition spells danger. With an unprecedented number of foreign fighters available to power terror affiliates, al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State seem poised to outpace each other via violence on several continents. Counterterrorism efforts moving forward should focus on decelerating escalating competition and pursuing methods to identify and replicate those conditions where terrorists undertake destructive competition.
Recognizing Tectonic Shifts and Ideological Aftermath
Internal fractures arise for many reasons, but they predominately develop during transformational periods brought on by jihadist success or failure. The likely eventual collapse of the Islamic State suggests another transformation, and splinters will soon follow. Bickering over strategic direction, future objectives, and violent methods naturally becomes the principal argument for splinter group formation. With each generation of fighters serving together on jihadist battlefields, from the Afghan mujahideen to al-Qa`ida to the Islamic State, the tendency has been for ideology to evolve to incorporate new goals and justify increasing violence.
Abdullah Azzam and bin Ladin agreed on expelling communists from Afghanistan but sought different directions upon departure of the Soviets, the former preferring to focus on Palestine and the latter on global jihad ultimately shifting to targeting the ‘Far Enemy’—the West. Bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qa`ida in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, saw the need for jihad in Iraq but did not see eye to eye on killing Shi`a. Bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri, and al-Baghdadi all agreed on the need to develop an Islamic State but differed considerably on when and how to implement one. It is highly unlikely that any of jihad’s forefathers—Azzam, bin Ladin, Abu Musab al-Suri, or al-Zawahiri—would approve of the Islamic State’s current justifications for violence. Notably, each of these ideological derivations has occurred at a quickening pace with the opening of new battlefields. Each fractious evolution has resulted in younger, more zealous fighters parting with their less aggressive, older elites. As has been noted, groups stressing jihad ultimately push toward destructive splits as they lose control of the violence that is so enticing to the younger generation.24
Some policymakers have repeatedly called for countering the Islamic State’s ideology as a counterterrorism silver bullet.25 Thirty years of jihadist competitive history suggests that such an approach would stand little chance of success. Jihadist ideology over the past three generations has repeatedly evolved based on battlefield successes and failures and local conditions precipitating conflict. The Islamic State’s or al-Qa`ida’s ideology is not static, but rather it is a current shaped by the survivors of the last jihadist conflict as well as emerging global issues. Much like a virus, defeating one ideological strain will ultimately precipitate another that shares some original jihadist tenets and justifications for violence while incorporating components of emerging conflicts. Even if an international coalition could clearly identify those ideological tenets appealing to young jihadist recruits, they would likely change again before any counterterrorism effort could be implemented.
Ending the Syrian Conflict
Ending the Syrian conflict could help usher in a new period of destructive terrorism competition by again bounding territory and resources. Brokering negotiations to end the conflict would not only stunt foreign fighter inflows and donations but reorient Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State, and their allies toward their stake in a post-conflict Syria, increasing the likelihood of a return to conflict with each other. With Palestinian terror groups, simply discussing negotiations focused groups on fighting each other rather than collectively attacking Israel.26 Jabhat al-Nusra, in particular, has strategically integrated with several combinations of Islamist groups to secure parts of northern Syria. These local Islamist groups, however, consist predominately of Syrians who seek local goals rather than al-Qa`ida’s global agenda. Putting forth brokered negotiations will incentivize Syrian members of this coalition to seek their own local stake and shed their alliance with the more globalist Jabhat al-Nusra.
Amplifying Destructive Competitive Currents
Both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State embody contingents of foreign fighters with global ambitions. A Syrian settlement might push al-Nusra allies filled with local Syrian elements to seek more turf and power. They may distance themselves and compete with those al-Nusra members tied to al-Qa`ida’s global agenda. In the Islamic State’s case, witnessing the end of the Syrian civil war as they lose ground in Iraq, local Iraqi leadership will be further inclined to defect and seize any available local turf and resources before the caliphate completely crumbles. A wedge will likely emerge between local Islamic State members and the group’s international cadres who have far less stake in a post-caliphate Syria and Iraq. This will trigger a secondary thread of destructive competition: the Islamic State’s internal security.
The Islamic State, like al-Shabaab in Somalia, relies on its state security, Amn al-Dawla, to maintain control over its crumbling caliphate. Members of al-Dawla, like Pretorian Guards centuries ago, receive more compensation, live in better quarters, and deliver the harshest punishments. During an interview with Michael Weiss, an Islamic State defector who served in al-Dawla, Abu Khaled, noted the masked men of the amniyeen sit separately from the military. Amn al-Dawla’s chiefs, unlike the Islamic State’s Iraqi-dominated leadership, “tend to be Palestinians from Gaza”—a security force naturally well versed in internal intelligence from an early age and also lacking a stake in a post-caliphate Syria or Iraq.27 As airstrikes have repeatedly killed Islamic State leaders, the amniyeen have been hard at work executing “dozens of fighters on charges of giving information to the coalition or putting (GPS) chips in order for the aircraft to strike at a specific target.”28 As the Islamic State continues to lose ground and if a potential Syrian settlement looms, the amniyeen will pursue even harsher punishments to maintain power, increasing the chances of destructive competition.
Containing Escalating Terrorist Competition
Outside of Syria and Iraq, Islamic State and al-Qa`ida competition appears more likely to be escalating than destructive as terror groups from both strains of jihad project freely throughout a range of weak and failing states. For counterterrorism forces, reversing this escalating trend in Yemen, the Sahel, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will be essential to stopping the current spate of terrorist attacks. First, the West may look to contain terrorist groups geographically, such as AQIM and al Murabitoon that currently roam with relative ease of movement. Geographic containment will impede the pace and breadth of terrorist attacks. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets would likely need to be doubled or tripled in all regions where today’s Islamic State affiliates continue to expand.
Within current zones of escalating competition, international counterterrorism forces should aggressively identify centers of gravity—those sources of strength that power a group—shared by competing terrorist factions. In Yemen, a shared center of gravity between the Islamic State and AQAP may be turf or manpower. In Afghanistan, counterterrorism forces could seek to manipulate rather than destroy shared economic lifelines powering the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Khorasan wilayat. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has sustained its bloody campaign since 2009 through unity of leadership and command. However, recent military pressure may have certain segments of Boko Haram reconsidering the group’s shift from al–Qa`ida to the Islamic State. In this case, counterterrorists may have an opening for seeding mistrust within the group’s leadership.29 Whatever the “center of gravity,” an international counterterrorism coalition shaping the terrorist resource picture will be essential to fomenting destructive competition. Again, in select cases, pushing regional conflicts toward brokered peace agreements may orient terror groups toward destructive competition.
Broadcasting and amplifying the atrocities committed by competing terror groups, such as the killing of women, children, and fellow Muslims, can also diminish the incentives for aggressive attacks. As seen by the decline of al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad, which competed with other Egyptian jihadist factions, senseless killing of civilians will erode popular support and blunt escalating competition.30 Counterterrorists should identify jihadist Muslim-on-Muslim violence and amplify accounts of these atrocities in fertile recruiting grounds. Citizen journalism programs offering local accounts of these atrocities provide effective means for credibly undermining jihadist groups.31 Finally, assessing and selecting a range of proxies incentivized to repel terror group affiliates and fractious upstarts will be key to squelching escalating terrorist competition.
Successfully managing terrorist violence moving forward requires a nuanced understanding of how groups compete. The Islamic State has already begun to fracture, and the enduring narrative of al-Qa`ida versus the Islamic State oversimplifies what the future holds. The two to three dozen terror groups currently spread across several regional nodes are more diffuse than ever. With the headquarters of both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State under stiff counterterrorism pressure, affiliates for both groups will likely choose their own objectives as much or more than the jihadist strain with which they currently identify.
Terrorist competition over the horizon will likely look more like the fragmented jihadist landscape found during the 1990s. Contrary to popular notions of a singular, dominant al-Qa`ida, the 1990s saw a plurality of terrorist groups all seeking their own space. The diaries of Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qa`ida leader operating logistics in Pakistan, reveal that he saw himself as a peer rather than a subordinate of bin Ladin.32 The same might be said for other prominent jihadist leaders like Abu Musab al-Suri, who at one point in 1999 chastised bin Ladin for not abiding by his pledge to Mullah Omar and putting their Afghanistan safe haven at risk.33
Examining this earlier multi-polar jihadist period and its rivalries may be instructive for policymakers and counterterrorism practitioners moving forward. The Islamic State’s decline has seen the diffusion of foreign fighters and inspired supporters in a host of regions. These disparate groups coordinate to varying degrees, but should the Islamic State’s headquarters collapse completely or go underground similarly to al-Zawahiri, bonds between them will weaken and their interests will diverge.34 As seen with al-Qa`ida after bin Laden’s death, those groups only lightly communicating with al-Baghdadi and not receiving manpower or money from Islamic State “Central” and its brand will need to seek out their own path for survival and growth. Peripheral Islamic State affiliates, resurgent al-Qa`ida proxies, and fresh upstarts loosely connected to both jihadist networks will be highly incentivized to accelerate their own attacks, seeking publicity and new lifelines from resulting successes. Terror groups have learned from the Islamic State’s meteoric rise that those who go bold and big stand to gain more support than others, and attacks on Westerners have proven time and again to reap the greatest benefit for those seeking notoriety and new bases of support. Many, if not most, of jihad’s next generation have ample operational room to maneuver and few counterterrorism impediments, and they will be highly inclined to make their mark with a noteworthy local, regional, or international attack against the West.
Finally, policymakers should be wary of two situations predicating terrorist mobilizations. First, harnessing destructive terrorist competition and mitigating escalating competition will be best achieved by minimizing new jihadist opportunities within civil wars and failing states. Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria have all triggered massive foreign fighter mobilizations that have ultimately brought jihadist guns to bear on international targets. In the future, preventing the opening of new jihadist battlefields will be the best way to disrupt emerging foreign fighter flows and mitigate the growth of jihadist groups that ultimately lead to a second compounding problem—military interventions. Regardless of the current state of terrorist competition, large-scale military interventions unify divisive jihadist groups more than any other single factor. International coalitions can avoid demands to intervene by ending conflicts where jihadis flourish.
About the Author
Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. He previously served as the Executive Officer at the Combating Terrorism Center.