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There’s No Light at the End of Jihad’s Long Tunnel

By Monday, April 3, 2017

“We have to accept that we are in a long war. That this has no easy answers.”

Georgetown University professor and terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman made this grim diagnosis while recently speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The institute’s presentation “Post Caliphate: The Future of the Salafi-Jihadi Movement” gave a distressingly sober examination of why victory over the world’s militant groups will not come any time soon.

Referencing the 2011 American SEAL killing of Osama bin Laden and the demise of other Al-Qaeda leaders, Hoffman pointed out that five years ago, that militant group was widely believed to be on the downward slope toward collapse. But last February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke to the United State Committee on Armed Services and “painted a remarkably bleak and melancholy picture of a newly resurgent Al-Qaeda.” In a now-famous 1998 interview, bin Laden said that he welcomed “the opportunity of martyrdom, because I am completely confident that my death will produce thousands of more Osamas.” According a slide showing the number of Al-Qaeda affiliates currently operating across the globe from Nigeria to Indonesia, bin Laden’s dream may well have been realized.

According to Hoffman, the “conventional wisdom in recent years was also that [the Islamic State] would remain an entirely local phenomenon” in the Middle East. But ISIS attacks like the November 2015 event in Paris have disproved this thesis. Such miscalculations “should make us very sober about any conception that we have a good pulse on ISIS even today – much less that we truly understand the dynamics and the evolution of the broader jihadi movements.”

Hoffman warned against unfounded optimism, pointing out that the Islamic State’s expulsion from Iraq would not end the group’s widespread threat. According to his presentation, at a minimum, ISIS will go underground like Al-Qaeda did, using international terrorist strikes in particular to keep the organization vibrant. But many analysts “don’t consider one of the worst case scenarios,” he said, “and that is the potential for some sort of reconciliation between Al-Qaeda and ISIS.”

Militant groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda don’t just disappear. They are continuously attempting to rejuvenate themselves. “These groups – for more than a decade and a half – have been able to withstand the greatest onslaught directed against terrorists in history, often by the most technologically advanced military in the history of mankind,” Hoffman said, pointing out that this phenomenon seems to confirm the jihadist belief in “their divinely-ordained struggle: that there will be travails; there will be setbacks. But that victory is still possible.”

Washington Institute terrorism expert Matthew Levitt said that “the West faced an increasingly international terrorist threat before ISIS – so the demise of the Islamic State is going to be no panacea.” Referencing former Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – who was killed by a 2006 American airstrike in Iraq – Levitt pointed out that the Islamic State actually emerged from the once-defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq group. He said that tomorrow’s bin Laden or Zarqawi could very well be someone in his or her teens or early 20s in Syria or Iraq today.

Like ISIS arising from Al-Qaeda’s ashes, Levitt worried that the political instability giving rise to ISIS would promote the resurgence of jihadists yet again, after the Islamic State’s impeding loss of its territorial “caliphate.” “I don’t see any hope for the type of political reform in Iraq that would be necessary to give Sunnis there a sense of comfort and say and security in the country that wouldn’t lead eventually to Sunni resentment and uprising again,” he said. Likewise, in Syria, “we have more grievances today than we had before.”

Levitt focused on the “post-Arab Spring world and the reality that there are significantly failed states – Syria of course, but Libya, Yemen and significantly weak states like Iraq and Egypt – that create significant regional instability.” Invoking the “looming disequilibria” of the DNI report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, he noted that “there are more ungoverned spaces than there were just a few years ago,” allowing for emulation of the Islamic State’s unique type of “terrorist proto-state.” Additionally, “now you have overlain on top of all of this a tremendous and heavy layer of sectarianism,” adding to the ability of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS to “hijack some local grievance.”

Hoffman illustrated the global dangers emanating from such crisis zones by noting that, at most, 15,000 foreign jihadists passed through Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan training camps from 1990–2001, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. By contrast, approximately four times that number of foreigners joined jihadist groups in Syria, an estimation Levitt considered conservative. “To date, our efforts to build partner capacity militarily in Iraq, Mali, Yemen and Afghanistan have all miserably failed,” Hoffman said.

Levitt brought these dangers home, saying that “about 1,000 potential homegrown violent extremists in all 50 states in the United States” are under investigation, a “very sharp increase from what we had a few years ago. The ‘lone wolf’ metaphor” often used to describe these individuals is largely a misnomer. While wolves are pack animals, a lone wolf is meant to conjure up the image of someone who has rejected his nature and is now acting completely independently: a rogue individual.”

According to Levitt, the dangerous reality is that,

more often than not, the evidence indicates that suspects thought to have been “lone wolves” might more accurately be described as “known wolves,” people whose radicalization, suspicious travel and changes of behavior were observed by acquaintances. Increasingly, U.S. officials view the terrorist threat on a spectrum, from inspired individuals acting alone to terrorist operatives acting at the direct orders of Islamic State leaders in Syria or other groups.

“This will sound very dour and very pessimistic,” Hoffman concluded, “but we are losing against global jihadists. There is widespread popular enervation both at home and overseas amongst our European allies: disillusionment with what many regard as a seemingly endless struggle.”

Terrorism “is always designed to wear down one’s enemies. You just have to look around in the West and see that [the jihadists] are succeeding.”

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