After 9/11: The Evolution of Jihadism

In this Sept. 14, 2001 file photo, Joseph Esposito, chief of department of the NY Police Department, offers help as President George W. Bush steps off rubble after speaking at ground zero of the World Trade Center site in New York. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)
In this Sept. 14, 2001 file photo, Joseph Esposito, chief of department of the NY Police Department, offers help as President George W. Bush steps off rubble after speaking at ground zero of the World Trade Center site in New York. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Next week is the 16th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. An event immortalized by the simple title 9/11.

No other reference or explanation is necessary.

Like Dec. 7 or July 4, every American knows what 9/11 refers to and its significance.

Sept. 11 was not the beginning of jihadism or jihadist violence; it was not even the first attack of jihadists in the United States.

Still, 9/11 marks a beginning. Sixteen years later, however, it is still unclear what it is that actually began on 9/11.

In the ensuing 16 years of the "War on Terror," the United States and its allies have invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban government.

Despite relentless fighting, however, they still have been unable to defeat it or secure rural Afghanistan.

In roughly that same period, the U.S. and its allies have invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein and enabled Iraq's Shia majority to finally exercise political power in the area for the first time in more than a millennium.

The U.S. and various combinations of its allies have also intervened in several jihadist-inspired civil wars either directly or via proxies and have supplied arms, financing and military trainers and advisers from Syria to Somalia, and from Mali to the Philippines.

All this at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

During that time, al-Qaida, the original jihadist organization, spawned a variety of other jihadist groups around the world. One of which, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seized an area in eastern Syria and western Iraq roughly comparable in size to the United Kingdom, with a population of roughly five million people, declared a caliphate and, for a period of roughly three years, will have ruled the first jihadist state. Although depending on your point of view, Afghanistan under the Taliban might deserve that dubious honor.

In this same period, al-Qaida and ISIS have recruited hundreds of thousands of jihadists to take up arms. They have created close to 100 different franchises around the world and backed them with highly sophisticated social media and propaganda efforts.

They have also carried out thousands of terrorist attacks around the world, as well as dozens of attacks in Europe, North America and Australia.

London, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Ottawa, Brussels -- not to mention American cities such as New York, Orlando, San Bernardino, Boston and Fort Hood/Killeen -- have all witnessed major terrorist attacks since 9/11, which have left hundreds of dead and even more wounded.

Since 9/11, the FBI has recorded more than 300 incidents of terrorist violence in the United States.

While it may still be unclear what beginning 9/11 marked, there are some notable conclusions that can be drawn about the threat posed by jihadism and its evolving character.

Unprecedented Scope

First, although terrorism is not new, the scope of present jihadist terror networks is unprecedented.

Historically, terrorist groups had relatively few members. The terrorist groups of the 1970s and 1980s, Baader Meinhof, Brigate Rosse, Direct Action, to name a few, never had more than a few dozen members and, at most, several hundred core supporters that they could rely on for help.

A significant amount of their funding came from the Soviet Union. When the USSR disappeared, they did too.

In contrast, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 jihadists have been members of one or more jihadist organizations and have had battlefield experience.

At least 10 percent of these fighters carry European or American passports and can freely travel throughout Europe or North America. Many of them have returned home and joined or organized jihadist cells.

Transnational Organizations

Second, the jihadist networks are transnational in scope. This development too is unprecedented.

Terrorist organizations in the past often had informal links. They would, from time-to-time, assist each other but, for the most part, they operated independently.

Al-Qaida and ISIS, on the other hand, have set up around 100 franchises around the world. Each franchise in turn controls multiple cells of members.

Other organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah do not have specific franchises, but still have many affiliated cells in dozens of countries around the world.

Criminal Networks

Third, those jihadist networks are using their skill sets, access to arms and transnational links to carry out criminal activities on an international basis.

The Taliban has become a major player in the Afghan narcotics trade. It's estimated that between 65 percent and 90 percent of Afghanistan's heroin, now 90 percent of the world's supply, passes through the Taliban's hands at one point or another.

In addition, the Taliban has become involved in scores of criminal activities from cigarette smuggling to illegal mining and timber harvesting to distributing hashish. Islamic State has become increasingly involved in the marijuana trade in Europe, as well as profiting from its involvement in the organization of illegal migration from North African ports and the looting and sale of antiquities.

This is not the first time that terrorist organizations turned to criminal activities to finance their operations. Terrorist organizations like the Brigate Rosse or Baader Meinhof robbed banks or kidnapped prominent individuals for ransom. Many 19th century anarchist groups did the same thing. Even the Bolsheviks robbed Russian banks, before they came to power, to finance their activities.

The FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, began as a Marxist-Leninist-inspired guerrilla movement intent on toppling the government of Colombia. It turned to the cocaine trade to fund its activities. Over time, it evolved into a hybrid narco-terrorist organization, as much a criminal drug syndicate as a guerilla movement.

Over the next several decades, it is likely that many of today's jihadist groups will turn to criminal activities to finance their operations. In the process, they will spawn new global criminal syndicates. The transformation is already well under way.

Sophisticated Social Media Users

Fourth, jihadist organizations have developed highly sophisticated social media and propaganda campaigns that give them an extra physical dimension.

Not only are they able to recruit and radicalize members remotely via social media, but they can exist and continue operating in cyberspace. Moreover, even after their leaders have been killed, their speeches and proselytizing continue unhindered across the Internet.

This unprecedented cyber aspect of contemporary jihadism has also given rise to the "lone wolf" terrorist.

A lone wolf is a jihadist who is radicalized remotely and who carries out acts of terrorist violence with minimal if any direction or assistance from the central organization. In some cases, they are not even part of an organized cell.

Typically, lone wolves publicly pledge their allegiance to a jihadist organization, usually by making a statement or posting a video on social media prior to carrying out an act of violence, but otherwise have little or no contact with jihadist organizations.

Since lone wolves have little communications with other jihadists or their organizational leadership, and since many of these attacks use readily available weapons, there is little "chatter" or activity within the jihadist network that would tip authorities to the possibility of an impending attack.

This lack of organizational activity makes lone wolf attacks virtually impossible to predict.

Low-Tech Success

Fifth, jihadist terrorists have gone decidedly low-tech. In the period following 9/11, there was widespread concern among Western governments that jihadist organizations would obtain weapons of mass destruction, even though the 9/11 attackers did not use anything more sophisticated than box cutters to obtain control of their aircraft.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was justified, in part, on the supposed fear that Saddam Hussein might supply such weapons -- chemical, biological and even nuclear -- to such jihadist organizations. Intelligence obtained from raids on jihadist organizations confirmed that their leaders were intent on obtaining or creating weapons of mass destruction.

Recent attacks, however, have not involved high-tech weaponry or weapons of mass destruction. Instead, they have involved readily available automatic weapons, simple improvised explosive devices and the use of vehicles to run down civilians.

During the Battle of Mosul, Islamic State militants dropped grenades from civilian and toy drones. Such drones are readily available over the counter. We have not yet seen such attacks in the West, but it is certain that they are coming.

The reality today is that every crowd is a potential target of terrorist violence. Anything that can be used to kill people, from grenades delivered by toy drones to an automobile, is now a potential instrument of terror.

Both ISIS and al-Qaida have shown remarkable talent at improvising weaponry from common household items.

The most recent innovation was an attempt by ISIS militants to blow up an Etihad plane, EY 455, flying from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, with a bomb packed inside a Barbie doll.

Such attacks will not create mass casualties like those that occurred on 9/11, but they are tragic nonetheless for those killed or injured by them. Collectively, they can create a climate of fear and apprehension.

They also serve to poison the social fabric of a community; cause suspicions of immigrants and minorities, not to mention Muslims; and lead to a polarization of society. The rise of right-wing anti-migrant groups is, in part, a direct result of the climate of fear that persistent terrorist attacks are creating.

Are We Winning?

Sixteen years into the war on terror, are we winning?

The simple answer is no! The U.S. has succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and scores of al-Qaida leaders. The U.S. also killed Abu Musa al-Zarqawi, the founder of Islamic State, and the Russians claim to have killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its most recent head.

The U.S. and its allies have ejected ISIS from Mosul and virtually all the territory it once controlled in Iraq.

Likewise, they have rolled back ISIS in Syria and have liberated about half of the Syrian city of Raqqa, where Islamic State has its capital.

On the other hand, the level of terrorist violence around the world continues to increase. Jihadist organizations continue to spread, and their ability to recruit and radicalize potential converts continues unabated.

The issue is that jihadism is fundamentally a movement that has a broad appeal to a small percentage of the world's Muslims, but that, collectively, still amounts to several hundred million people.

Only a tiny percentage of those supporters will ever take up arms or engage in acts of terrorist violence, but that still leaves a pool of several million potential jihadists and several tens of millions of supporters and sympathizers.

To date, the U.S. has focused on destroying jihadist organizations and their leadership. But no sooner is one leader killed than another one comes forward to take his place.

Killing bin Laden did not end al-Qaida, and killing Ayman al-Zawahiri, his successor, won't either.

Likewise, killing Zarqawi or Baghdadi has not ended the Islamic State.

Degrading the operational leadership of a jihadist organization may make them less effective, but it is insufficient to eliminate them or the underlying conditions that created them.

Even if a jihadist organization is completely and utterly destroyed, new organizations will rise up to take their place.

We have spent the last 16 years fighting the symptoms of jihadism, but we have made little progress in dealing with its root causes.

Indeed, it's not even clear if we know how to deal with its root causes or if Western governments are even equipped to understand or address them.

What should give us cause for concern is that there was a lag of five to 10 years before the jihadist networks that were created by the mujahedeen fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets were able to organize and carry out attacks in Europe and North America.

The jihadist organizations and the number of militants that have graduated from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East are a whole order of magnitude greater from the first wave of jihadists that emerged from the Afghan war.

They have only just begun to organize their campaign against the West.

The wave of jihadist violence that has engulfed the world over the last 16 years is just the beginning. The beginning of what, remains to be seen.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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