20 Years After 9/11: Tracking the Evolution of Jihadism
The jihadist landscape has changed immensely since September 11, 2001—the deadliest terrorist attacks ever to take place on US soil. In the last 20 years, jihadism has evolved from a vanguard movement with the explicit goal of attacking the United States to a franchise model with multiple jihadist insurgencies across the world.
Despite the intent and desire of al-Qaeda and ISIS, Flashpoint analysts assess with moderate to high confidence that the two groups likely do not possess the capabilities to conduct large-scale, 9/11-style attacks in the United States. This is due to increased counterterrorism measures in the West, the decentralization of the movement, and jihadist shift in focus to local conflicts in their respective areas of operation. However, these jihadist groups continue to wield a significant amount of power and influence around the world.
In this article, we examine how jihadists groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have shifted operations over the last 20 years—from how they communicate and how they’re funded, to where they organize and choose to attack, plus other significant developments.
Focus on Local Conflicts—Not the “Far Enemy”
Unlike in the early days of jihad—when groups had central meeting locations, convened in the real world, and required official membership—today the movement is more decentralized and localized, and groups are more reliant on their affiliates.
Salafi jihadism has transformed from a movement that was primarily focused on targeting the “far enemy”—namely the United States—into multiple decentralized insurgencies concentrated mostly in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The insurgencies are primarily local: They exploit local resources, capitalize on legitimate local grievances by leveraging revolutions and political instability, and embed themselves within native populations to further their cause and increase recruitment.
Africa Becoming An Epicenter of Jihadist Gravity
Over the last 20 years, the epicenter of jihadism has moved from Afghanistan to the Middle East, with Iraq and Syria becoming the primary jihadist fields. While the two countries (especially Iraq) remain central to jihadism today, over the last few years Africa has become the new battleground for ISIS and al-Qaeda. More recently, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, jihadists are rejoicing and exploiting the security vacuum.
ISIS is increasingly active in Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Niger, and Nigeria, while al-Qaeda’s main affiliates in Africa are in Mali and Somalia. France, which has led the counterterrorism mission in Africa’s Sahel region, announced in July 2021 that it plans to withdraw over 2,000 troops of its current 5,400 by early 2022. The threat in the region will likely increase after this withdrawal.
Inspired Vs. Planned Attacks
As the counterterrorism capabilities of Western countries have improved over the last two decades, jihadists have found it harder to conduct large-scale, coordinated attacks, especially in the West. The last large-scale, coordinated attacks in the West were the November 2015 attacks conducted by ISIS in Paris, where 130 people were killed and 368 others were injured. However, there have been multiple ISIS- and al-Qaeda-inspired attacks, especially in Europe, since then.
Decentralized Communications & The Impact of Social Media
Among the most notable changes in the jihadist landscape over the last 20 years has been the advent of social media and other communication platforms. Jihadists use social media platforms to attract, inspire, coordinate, and disseminate propaganda. Social media has also become a pillar of jihadist communications, allowing groups to enjoy a wide network of online global supporters who amplify their activities and conduct attacks on their behalf, making official membership nearly obsolete.
Telegram remains the primary platform for jihadist communication and propaganda dissemination. However, Telegram’s occasional campaigns against jihadist accounts—along with jihadists’ own calls for digital expansion—have prompted these actors to experiment, expand, and in some cases migrate to alternative platforms, decentralizing the online jihadist ecosystem.
Although jihadist groups are structured to withstand leadership losses, the movement today suffers from a lack of well-known and charismatic figures. In the past two decades, leaders including Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani were the public faces of these groups, inspiring many to join and many others to support the group’s efforts globally. Some of these figures continue to inspire followers years after their deaths.
Today, the majority of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership are either aging or dead. al-Qaeda’s leaders since 2011—including the uncharismatic Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is highly suspected to be dead—have been less charismatic and well-known than its earlier leaders. Similarly, ISIS failed to secure a leader who garnered the same level of clout and global support following al-Baghdadi’s death. ISIS’s current leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi (aka Amir al-Mawla), has not appeared in any form since succeeding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019.
Since 2020, the structure and future of al-Qaeda and its senior leadership has become less clear. The status of al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is unconfirmed, although many experts speculate he is likely dead. According to a United Nations report, al-Zawahiri’s last confirmed appearance was in a February 2020 meeting he held with the Haqqani network. The last audio recording that al-Qaeda released featuring al-Zawahiri was on March 12, 2021, but the video failed to prove that he is alive. Two senior al-Qaeda members, Abu Mohammed al-Masri and Abu Muhsin al-Masri, were killed in August and September 2020, respectively. In January 2020, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Qassim al-Raimi, was killed in a US strike.
Despite suffering setbacks and the loss of key personnel, at least as of late 2019 AQAP was still intent on targeting the United States, as evidenced by the December 2019 Pensacola naval base attack. On February 2, 2020, AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force—who was training in the United States—killed three people and injured eight.
Al-Qaeda Central continues to focus on the United States, releasing official magazines focused on exploiting US crises and encouraging supporters to attack US economic targets.
Today, al-Qaeda relies mostly on its global affiliates to remain alive and relevant. The group maintains a presence across the world, with affiliates in Yemen and Africa, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM).
Al-Qaeda’s best chance for revival is the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, which has elicited various reactions from al-Qaeda and ISIS and their supporters. On August 31, al-Qaeda’s central media unit, al-Sahab, issued a formal statement from the group’s central leadership, celebrating the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda supporters have also rejoiced, seeing the Taliban’s takeover as their own victory and a vindication of the al-Qaeda brand of jihad. Demonstrating the emboldening of the community, a prominent pro-al-Qaeda supporter posted that they expected Somalia to be the next country to fall to al-Qaeda via its affiliate al-Shabaab.
ISIS Leadership—a Recent Timeline
Following the collapse of its physical caliphate in March 2019, ISIS has maintained a presence in at least fifteen countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
ISIS posed a significant terrorist threat to the West between 2014 and 2018. Over those four years, the group produced and disseminated a high volume of propaganda, including audio statements from key members, online magazines produced in approximately ten languages, and official propaganda videos from various affiliates. It also maintained a global network of supporters.
At its peak in 2015, ISIS produced nearly 200 propaganda items, including documentary-style videos, infographics, and radio bulletins. By 2017, the group’s media arm was producing around 25 propaganda items weekly.
The most recent audio recording from ISIS’s media unit, al-Furqan, was released on June 21, 2021. The recording featured the group’s spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, coming after nearly nine months without an appearance from senior leadership in propaganda—one of ISIS’s longest such stretches.
Today, the group continues to conduct attacks and issue threats, though the group and its affiliates themselves no longer conduct the same volume or frequency of materialized terror in the West. Most of its attacks are instead carried out by single actors inspired by the group.
ISIS is the sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and has wasted no time in capitalizing on the security vacuum amid the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. ISIS has discredited the Taliban, accusing it of doing the United States’ bidding in the region. On August 26, ISIS conducted an attack on the Kabul airport, killing thirteen US service members and injuring eighteen others. At least 170 other people were killed and another 155 injured.
The Role of Afghanistan
In the months following US President Joe Biden’s April 2021 announcement that the United States would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban began swiftly sweeping through the country, seizing large swaths of territory. By August 15, the Afghan president had fled the country and the Taliban were in control after capturing all provincial capitals, including the capital, Kabul.
These developments are of particular concern in part because of the strong relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda allegedly operates in fifteen Afghan provinces under the protection of the Taliban. On August 16, thousands of prisoners were released by the Taliban from at least two prisons, allegedly including al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will likely revitalize jihadists around the world. For al-Qaeda and its supporters, the Taliban’s victory is seen as a vindication of their methods and a propaganda and recruitment boost, which will likely grow and motivate their affiliates and supporters. For ISIS and its supporters, there is likely an increased will to launch attacks in Afghanistan—and elsewhere—to capitalize on the high-profile situation and damage the Taliban’s projection of security and control.
The Role of Africa
Over the last few years, Africa has emerged as a hotbed of jihadist activity. ISIS and al-Qaeda groups are present in at least a dozen countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, and Somalia. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda appear to be gaining ground throughout the continent through affiliates including ISIS’s Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and al-Qaeda’s al-Shabaab and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM).
In June 2021, ISIS spokesperson Abu Hamza al-Muhajir highlighted the successes of the group’s Africa affiliates and their growing importance to ISIS. He began the speech—his first in nearly nine months—by congratulating ISWAP and ISCAP, informing them that he brought a blessing and salute from ISIS’s leader.
The group Ahl al-Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ), which operates under ISCAP’s banner, has quickly grown from a few dozen fighters in 2017 to reportedly hundreds of fighters today by exploiting local grievances. In March 2021, ASWJ conducted a multipronged assault in Palma, Mozambique, that led to dozens of deaths, including of foreigners. In 2020 there was a 43 percent increase in jihadist violence in Africa, with 4,958 reported incidents.
In 2020, terrorist attack casualties in Africa reached 13,059, a 35 percent increase from 2019. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, noted that attacks have moved from Mali both toward the east, toward Burkina Faso, and toward West African countries along the coast. Chambas said that terrorist attacks are often conducted in the service of other illicit activities, such as capturing weapons and conducting illegal artisanal mining. While many of these attacks were carried out by ISIS fighters, some were carried out by al-Qaeda-linked groups such as JNIM.
Since 2014, France has led counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region of Africa, where it has been focusing on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and, to a lesser extent, al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. France has approximately 5,400 troops in the Sahel region, but in July 2021 President Emmanuel Macron announced the country would be reducing its forces to between 2,500 and 3,000 troops by early 2022. France will also close its bases in Kidal, Tessalit, and Timbuktu, Mali, by the end of 2021 and refocus on the borders between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. As of this publishing, the United States has approximately 6,000 troops in Africa focused on counterterrorism operations.
Jihadist Presence on Messaging Platforms
Jihadist communications have significantly changed over the last twenty years from traditional online forums including al-Shamukh, Ansar al-Haqq, and al-Fidaa to a decentralized, multi-platform landscape today. Telegram is currently jihadists’ primary platform for communication and propaganda dissemination. However, the platform’s occasional campaigns against jihadist accounts—along with jihadists’ own calls for digital expansion—have prompted actors to experiment, expand, and in some cases migrate to alternative platforms, making the online jihadist ecosystem more diffuse.
While ISIS and al-Qaeda supporters widely use Telegram and Rocket.Chat, jihadists have also established accounts, albeit in smaller numbers, on many other platforms, including Element, Hoop, Conversations, and TamTam. Jihadists’ success on these platforms largely depends on the platforms’ ease of use and permissibility. Hoop and TamTam have targeted jihadist accounts fairly consistently, forcing jihadists to abandon them as reliable options.
Based on Flashpoint’s research, ISIS supporters—as opposed to al-Qaeda supporters—tend to be more forward leaning and innovative with their online application use, and thus more likely to expand to and experiment with new platforms. A notable exception is ChirpWire, an obscure social media platform that launched in July 2020. Flashpoint analysts noticed an increase in activity in February 2021, likely driven by several online pro-al-Qaeda units promoting their ChirpWire accounts when disseminating propaganda. As of May 2021, out of 126 groups on ChirpWire, at least 70 bore the names of official al-Qaeda or pro-al-Qaeda entities.
The Role of Cyberattacks
ISIS and al-Qaeda, and their supporters, have repeatedly highlighted the importance of launching cyberattacks. With the exception of a few well-publicized incidents around 2014, which largely rested on ISIS hacker Junaid Hussain, jihadists’ cyber capabilities continue to lack sophistication. Despite their often lofty rhetoric, jihadists have yet to demonstrate any sophisticated cyber skills or conduct damaging cyber operations.
Under Junaid Hussain’s leadership and example—even after his 2015 death in an air strike—ISIS published lists of personally identifiable information (PII), repurposing them as “kill lists,” and called upon attackers to perpetrate violence against the individuals named in them. Despite the repeated calls to violence, there is no evidence to suggest that attacks were actually conducted against any of the individuals named in these lists.
Nonetheless, jihadist chatter and propaganda highlighting the importance and effectiveness of cyberattacks—especially on financial targets—has continued. For example, the June 2020 English-language edition of al-Qaeda’s magazine One Ummah urged supporters to launch cyberattacks against US economic targets, noting how vulnerable the US economy would be to such operations. This continuing focus indicates that actors will very likely seek to acquire the skills necessary to conduct such operations.
Terror Financing Systems
With severe restrictions imposed on terrorist financing following the attacks of 9/11, jihadists have constantly had to adapt, leveraging both old and new technologies. While the informal Hawala system remains a critical method for the transfer of funds among jihadists, they also use traditional methods such as PayPal, Ria, and similar money transfer systems, as well as commercial activities and cryptocurrencies, primarily Bitcoin.
Turkey plays a crucial role in the transfer of funds to a variety of jihadist groups and questionable charities, given its proximity to Syria and the prevalence in the country of supporting networks for both ISIS and al-Qaeda. Additionally, while transactions in or with Syria are banned in the international financial system, Turkey has access to this system, which enables potential donors to send money to couriers in Syria with minimal risk and suspicions.
Entities such as Bitcoin Transfer (BT), an Idlib, Syria-based cryptocurrency exchange office that facilitates the transfer of funds to al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria, play a crucial role. The province of Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—which the US has designated as a terrorist group—and is home to other al-Qaeda-linked groups. BT also appears linked to a commercial entity, Souq Net, that imports goods into Idlib from Turkey for a fee.
Conclusion: The Future of Jihadism
Although the broader jihadist movement has splintered since 2001 and has suffered from infighting, ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to conduct attacks outside their primary areas of operation and capitalize on local conflicts, grievances, and political instability. Expanding their theater of operations beyond Afghanistan and the Middle East has allowed this movement to remain operational. In addition, the movement has expanded its support base, shrewdly wielding the power of social media to its favor. Since 2001, jihadist fighters quadrupled—from between 30,000 to 60,000, to around 230,000 fighters as of 2018.
Afghanistan and Africa are two areas where jihadists will be able to continue to thrive. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan complete, jihadists appear poised to fill the growing security vacuum. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will likely revitalize jihadists around the world. For al-Qaeda and its supporters, the Taliban’s victory is seen as a vindication of their methods and a propaganda and recruitment boost. For ISIS and its supporters, there is likely an increased will to launch attacks in Afghanistan to capitalize on the high-profile situation and damage the Taliban’s image.
Africa provides a fertile battleground from which to recruit, conduct attacks, and enhance jihadists’ capabilities. Although deaths from terrorist attacks decreased from 2014 to 2019 by 59 percent globally, to 13,826, sub-Saharan Africa had the largest increase in terrorism deaths. The victims of terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso increased from 86 in 2018 to 593 in 2019. In addition, 41 percent of all ISIS-related attacks in 2019 took place in sub-Saharan Africa.