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Terrorist Threat Evolves

​DESPITE EXCEPTIONS LIKE LAST YEAR’S Boston Marathon bombing, the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks have taken place outside the United States, which has led to a policy debate over how active the United States should be in engaging terrorists abroad.

Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number of attacks perpetrated by al Qaeda and its affiliates, and a rise in the number of Salafi -jihadist groups and fighters, particularly in Syria and North Africa, says a new report issued by the RAND Corporation’s National Security Research Institute. Salafi jihadists follow a version of radical Islam that promotes violent resistance.

“First, and most important, the United States faces a serious and growing Salafi-jihadist challenge overseas,” author Seth Jones writes in the report, A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists. Besides the rise in attacks, the sheer number of attackers has also substantially increased. The number of Salafi jihadists more than doubled from 2010 to 2013, the report finds, with the war in Syria constituting the single greatest attraction for jihadist fighters.

In 2013, the most recent year for which full data is available, most of the al Qaeda-related violence was perpetrated by four separate groups. Topping the list of four is the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, which accounted for 43 percent of the violence, according to the report. This group eventually left al Qaeda but continued its violent ways in Iraq, where it has continued to capture territory.

Rounding out the top four are al-Shabaab, in Somalia, accounting for 25 percent of the violence; Jabhat al-Nusrah, which operates in Syria and Lebanon, at 21 percent; and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, at 10 percent.

Organizationally, the report finds that the overall Salafi-jihadist movement has become more decentralized, generally among four tiers: core al Qaeda in Pakistan, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri; formal affiliates, such as al-Shabaab, that have sworn allegiance to core al Qaeda and are located in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa; a panoply of Salafi-jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, that are not allied with al Qaeda but are committed to establishing an extremist Islamic caliphate; and individuals, such as the Tsarnaev brothers, the alleged perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Given this decentralized structure, the level of threat that these groups pose to the United States varies widely. “Some are locally focused and have shown little interest in attacking Western targets,” Jones writes. “Others, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, along with radicalized individuals like the Tsarnaev brothers.” In the middle are Salafi -jihadist groups like al-Shabaab, which pose a medium-level threat because of their desire and ability to target U.S. citizens and facilities overseas, such as U.S. embassies.

Another recent report, conducted by the International Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START), finds that the most active perpetrator group in 2013 was the Taliban, with 641 attacks. Next on START’s list was ISIS/Islamic State, with 401 attacks; Boko Haram, with 213 attacks; the Communist Party of India-Maoist, with 203 attacks; and al-Shabaab, with 195 attacks.

The Taliban, like al Qaeda, has shown clear signs of decentralization in the last few years, according to a third report, by the United Nations Security Council’s Taliban Monitoring Team. According to this report, smaller “start-up” groups, called fronts, are spinning off from the main organization and establishing their own activities, websites, and social media. “These fronts developed in the field, and over time acquired sufficient direct control over funding to behave with increasing autonomy vis-à-vis the Taliban central command,” the report finds.

Although terrorist attacks in 2013 occurred in 93 different countries, the majority were heavily concentrated geographically. About 57 percent of all attacks occurred in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with the highest number of attacks taking place in Iraq, according to the START report.

This concentration pattern was especially true for al Qaeda-affiliated groups. According to the RAND report, approximately 99 percent of the attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates in 2013 were against “near enemy” targets in North Africa, the Middle East, and other regions outside of the West. “This suggests that [al Qaeda] and its affiliates have deliberately chosen to focus on the near enemy for the moment, found it increasingly difficult to strike ‘far enemy’ targets in the West, or a combination of both,” Jones writes.

This does not mean that the threat to the United States has passed, according to Tom Kean, the former cochair of the 9/11 Commission who now heads the homeland security project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The terrorist threat is evolving, not defeated. Al Qaeda’s various spinoff s are, at the moment, enmeshed in their own local conflicts, but hatred of the United States remains a common thread,” Kean told the House Homeland Security Committee at a recent hearing on terrorist threats.

Given this, what should U.S. policy be regarding these groups? Jones argues that the United States should calibrate its counterterrorism actions so that it takes direct action, such as raids and drone strikes, only when the capacity of the local government where the terrorists are based is low. In other cases, Jones advocates for a “forward-partnering” strategy. Under this approach, the United States may deploy small numbers of military forces, intelligence operatives, and other governmental personnel for training local security forces. Outside of that, U.S. forces would not directly become involved.

“In sum, the terrorist threat has evolved, but it is still very real and very dangerous. The absence of another 9-11-style attack does not mean the threat is gone. As 9-11 showed, a period of quiet can be shattered in a moment by a devastating attack,” Kean said.