Jihadists pursue insurgent and decentralized strategies after Islamic State setback

The global jihadi scene may be quieter due to the decline of the Islamic State (IS), but this setback will likely be temporary as al Qaeda is being regenerated and the jihadist movement in general is being decentralized, write political scientists Colin P. Clarke and Assaf Moghadam in the foreign policy journal Orbis (Summer). The structure of global jihadists so far has been largely bipolar, divided between IS and al Qaeda, and the authors note that these two players are likely to continue to vie for power with each other, a contest determining the jihadist landscape of the near future. Al Qaeda is in a period of recovery after the loss of several key leaders, with new fronts opening in Tunisia and India, and affiliated groups operating in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The group’s “long-game strategy,” which has prevented it from imploding like IS and allowed it to avoid such divisive tactics as using violence against fellow Muslims, has involved shifting from a terrorist to an insurgent group and achieving incremental territorial gains. The group’s successful operations in Yemen and Somalia illustrate its new approach, as it creates organizations under different names, such as al Shabab, and seeks to empower local leaders and tribes and to avoid enforcing harsh versions of Sharia (unlike IS). Eventually, the group can become a “shadow government,” as in the case of Somalia, promising to fight for the poor and disenfranchised.

Meanwhile, Clarke and Moghadam write that IS will likely regroup, still having a cadre of operatives providing the glue of the organization. The movement is seeking to co-opt Sunni tribes and threatening revenge in their former haunts in Syria. The staying power of jihadi groups around the globe seems assured since they still carry appeal and will likely decentralize further, drawing on an assortment of actors and actions, whether it be engaging in nonviolent da’wa (proselytizing) activities in Europe or becoming “digital warriors” in cyberspace. The researchers predict a more multipolar structure to jihadist groups, as they develop regional hubs of mobilization and use proxy organizations, such as in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.