Scott Stewart examines how jihadist organisations may seek to inspire grassroots terrorists globally in the coming year, the setbacks they face and the extent of the danger they pose.
Grassroots jihadists are homegrown operatives who think globally but act locally. They include people from many different backgrounds who may have close contact with the jihadist movement or next to none. Some grassroots jihadists are merely inspired by like-minded groups they have heard of, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, while others have been trained and equipped by professional terrorists.
Since the modern jihadist movement began in 1979, Muslims from every corner of the world have travelled to the theatres of jihad to defend their fellow Muslims. In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of prospective jihadists trained in Pakistani camps; thousands more followed suit in Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew. At first, most of these foreign fighters didn’t feel as if it was their duty to bring jihad back to their home countries. But with the birth of al-Qaeda, which espoused a transnational jihad aimed first and foremost at ‘the far enemy’, that attitude began to change in 1988.
Just two years after al-Qaeda’s inception, a grassroots jihadist linked to the group, Elsayyid Nosair, assassinated Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane in midtown Manhattan. A group of his comrades then provided manpower and logistical support to the 1993 bombing attempt against the World Trade Center. For the following decade, al-Qaeda continued to rely on cells of grassroots jihadists living abroad to execute attacks, including the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the 2000 Millennium Bomb Plot. And as was true in the first World Trade Center attack, the group’s core leadership planned and directed each one.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the nature of grassroots terrorism has changed dramatically. For the most part this can be explained by improvements to national security worldwide that have made it harder for al-Qaeda to send operational planners to the West. In response to these newfound obstacles, the group turned to grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks farther afield. For instance, it sent New Yorker Jose Padilla back to the United States to launch attacks inside the country, and it dispatched Briton Richard Reid to detonate a shoe bomb on a flight to Miami.
Despite its persistence, al-Qaeda struggled to make headway in its war against the West. Hoping to find more success with a different strategy, jihadist leaders such as Abu Musab al-Suri began to promote the concept of leaderless resistance in 2003. According to this approach, grassroots jihadists should work alone or form small, autonomous cells that are driven by ideology rather than the direct guidance of formal terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula picked up on the theory six years later, and by 2010 it had taken root among the al-Qaeda core. The Islamic State has also openly advocated the model since September 2014.
Though counterterrorism forces have proved particularly adept at targeting known jihadist groups and their members, they have had trouble finding the same success in combating the ambiguity and anonymity of the leaderless resistance model. Cells and individuals do not always carefully follow the model’s guidelines, though, and they often fail to maintain the strict barriers between themselves and the rest of the jihadist movement that the concept of leaderless resistance calls for. All too often, grassroots jihadists link to and overlap with other terrorist elements, making themselves more vulnerable to detection in the process.
Of course, all grassroots jihadists are not created equal. The danger operatives pose can vary widely depending on their connections to other terrorists. On average, a grassroots jihadist who has received direction and equipment from professional terrorists tends to be a greater threat than amateurs operating alone. Though this rule of thumb generally holds true – last year’s botched plots in France and Germany are certainly evidence of the limitations those who lack proper training face – it is by no means universal.
Despite having few means and capabilities, grassroots jihadists aim to inflict the most casualties they can. Sometimes they succeed, attacking the right place at the right time with the right weapon. This is exactly what happened in June 2016 when Omar Mateen attacked Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, and in August 2016 when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a truck through a crowded Bastille Day celebration in France. Both attacks were conducted by grassroots jihadists who lacked sophisticated tradecraft and yet took more lives than many professional operatives have.
In reality, most lone wolves are so inept that it would be more accurate to label them stray mutts. But attacks such as those in Orlando and Nice are deadly reminders that even stray mutts can bite. It’s also important to keep in mind that grassroots jihadists do not always act alone. Consider Richard Reid, or the ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. These operatives came into contact with more experienced terrorists who gave them the instruction and resources needed to carry out their attacks. While some would-be terrorists choose to work alone, it’s not uncommon to see them coalesce into more dangerous and capable cells. In fact, grassroots jihadists who are truly self-radicalised and operate independently are quite rare.
By and large, most grassroots jihadists have to make do with fairly little when it comes to knowledge and supplies. The majority of fighters who attend the training camps run by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are taught only the basic military skills needed to wage an insurgency. Very few move on to the more advanced courses that mould students into skilled terrorist operatives. Because of this, most grassroots jihadists – even those who have travelled abroad to fight with terrorist groups – lack sophisticated tradecraft. This has historically resulted in perpetrators trying and failing to carry out overly ambitious missions, or getting caught in sting operations when they reach out to undercover informants for help.
By comparison, recent attacks in Orlando, Nice and Berlin were relatively simple operations that were well within the perpetrators’ skillsets. Given the success of these attacks, it is likely that grassroots jihadists will try to copy their tactics, relying on less complicated means of attack in the year ahead.
Because the Islamic State will come under mounting pressure in 2017, grassroots jihadists will find it much more difficult to travel to Iraq and Syria to join the group. At the same time, the foreign fighters currently inside the self-proclaimed caliphate will find themselves in an increasingly hostile environment, where they can be readily identified as outsiders. Throughout the year, some of these foreign fighters will almost certainly make their way home from Syria and Iraq. (The same can be said of al-Qaeda fighters in the region.) The possibility that some of these fighters will try to carry out attacks in their home countries, whether individually or as part of a cell, cannot be discounted.
Still, several things will mitigate this threat. Chief among them is the jihadists’ own ideology. Many who believe it’s acceptable to fight against the Syrian government’s oppression of Muslims do not believe it’s acceptable to attack non-combatants in the West. Meanwhile, other foreign fighters have grown disillusioned by jihadist groups’ persistent rivalries. Governments, for their part, have also taken to closely monitoring citizens who leave to join jihadist groups abroad and are aware of the danger they might present when they return. That alertness has grown in the wake of a spate of terrorist attacks across the West, and many governments have redoubled their efforts to share intelligence with one another and monitor returning fighters.
Even so, reports have surfaced that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are looking to recruit foreign fighters to carry out attacks on their homelands. And with tens of thousands of fighters in war zones in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia, it will be impossible for states to keep an eye on every one. Some combatants will undoubtedly return to their homes with every intention of launching an attack. Other aspiring jihadists will listen to the propaganda and forgo the risky journey to the Middle East, opting instead to hatch plots inside their own countries.
Grassroots jihadists should not be underestimated. Though they often have many shortcomings, they can cause significant harm if they are in the right place at the right time. And as long as they are difficult for security forces to detect, they will continue to pose a persistent, if limited, threat.