clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Al-Qaeda's getting weaker — but terrorism is getting worse

Iraqi militants in Anbar province on January 21, 2014.
Iraqi militants in Anbar province on January 21, 2014.
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Terrorism is getting more dangerous. According to new data, first released in an official State Department report on Wednesday, almost 7,000 more people were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide in 2013 than in 2012 — almost all of them by al-Qaeda or other jihadi terrorist groups. Terrorists also wounded and killed more people than they did in the prior year.

Terrorism_figures There are two big reasons for this surge. One is familiar: chaos in places like Syria and Iraq. The other is new: al-Qaeda is morphing, with local groups taking on more and more responsibility. And the US government isn't quite sure what to do about it.

We've got one familiar problem

The OG al-Qaeda was born out of a military crucible: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Bin Laden and his compatriots built a network of foreign fighters who worked together against the Soviets, and the war itself taught them the practical skills (like bomb-making) necessary to run a successful terrorist group. After the war, many of these people returned to their home countries but retained their network, laying the perfect groundwork for a transnational terrorist group.

The big concern is that we're seeing a rerun today, particularly in Syria and Iraq. "The [country] that accounts for nearly half of the increase in the two years is Iraq," Gary LaFree, the University of Maryland researcher whose institute compiled the raw data for the State Department, told me. Moreover, since attacks in Iraq were more frequent and deadlier than in the other 9 nations with the most terrorist attacks, it's responsible for much larger percentages of the increases in deaths and injuries.


LaFree told me his numbers undercounted attacks in Syria, as it's hard to verify responsibility for any one attack in the midst of a civil war. But the State Department sees a classic al-Qaeda pattern. "Thousands of foreign fighters traveled to Syria to join the fight against the Assad regime," the 2013 report warns. According to State's counterterorrism coordinator, Tina Kaidenow, "we're concerned over the long term that [Syria] will attract individuals who will be radicalized."

Syria and Iraq are linked. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is the leading jihadi group in both countries, which share a long and porous border. The Syrian civil war and a weak government in Iraq allowed the group to feed off itself, growing more powerful in both countries and executing bolder attacks.

The groups are also becoming increasingly skilled. Look at the State Department data on the number of people killed and wounded per terrorist attack in each of the top 10 most victimized countries:


Not only are jihadis in Syria and Iraq growing in numbers, but they're learning how to mount the most lethal terrorist attacks in the world. We've seen this movie before.

The new problem: fractionalizing groups

There's a crucial difference between now and then, however — al-Qaeda is fracturing. Until recently, al-Qaeda's home base in Afghanistan and Pakistan directed the global jihad.

But, according to the State Department report, two things happened to break this pattern. First, al-Qaeda's top leadership has been decimated by NATO's 2001 invasion of and war in Afghanistan, which has included a big targeted strikes campaign in neighboring Pakistan. Second, chaos in Syria, Iraq, the Arab Spring countries, and some African states created openings for individual jihadi groups to build organizations independent of the ones their friends in Pakistan run.

Al-Qaeda head honcho Ayman al-Zawahiri struggled to rein in these regional groups last year. "Tactical guidance by Ayman al-Zawahiri to reduce collateral damage was routinely disobeyed," according to Kaidenow. That's a bloodless way of putting a somewhat scary point: al-Qaeda told groups like ISIL to kill fewer people, and they refused. This bloodthirstiness got ISIL kicked out of the al-Qaeda network in February 2014.

ISIL's break with al-Qaeda core is an unusually sharp break between headquarters and a regional group. To varying degrees, the groups in other countries that saw the most terrorist attacks maintain links with al-Qaeda. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Kenya, and the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula all maintain some connection to the al-Qaeda's central leadership, but analysts differ over how much control the folks in Pakistan exercise over them.

Analysts also disagree, crucially, on what kind of a threat these groups could pose to the US. Very few American citizens were killed by terrorist attacks in 2013, but that could change if these groups currently have, or eventually develop, a desire and an ability to attack American targets. "This is a huge debate within the [intelligence community] and the Pentagon," Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies threats to the US homeland, told me.

And no one knows exactly what to do about either

The picture that emerges from the State Department report on terrorism is a bit confusing. On the one hand, you have foreign fighters training and socializing in Syria and Iraq in the same way they did in Afghanistan in the 80s. But, now, it's far from clear that they'll join a relatively predictable al-Qaeda branch. These new foreign fighters could diffuse in all sorts of different ways, meaning that immediately post-9/11 playbook is out the window.

So what do we do now? Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, suggests focusing on the "sustainability of counterterrorism efforts." This means, among other things, developing an intelligence structure that focuses on terrorist threats from groups that don't use al-Qaeda in their title.

Apparently, today's CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies heave money at any problem group that can be linked to al-Qaeda, but under-resources other counterrorism efforts. As al-Qaeda central weakens, this will have to change.

Will McCants, director of Brookings' Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World, wants the US government to think about addressing the instability that gives rise to the new jihadi groups in places like Syria.

"There isn't a one-size-fits-all policy prescription that would address the political crises behind the terrorism spike," he says. "The United States will have to weigh short-term solutions to terrorism (e.g. providing security force assistance) against long-term drivers of terrorism (e.g. state repression of political dissent in Egypt, security vacuums in Yemen and Libya)."

But it's also important to keep in mind that terrorism's rise is not inevitable. LaFree, the Maryland researcher, thinks this terrorism spike is temporary. "Terrorism tends to be wave-like. It does not go on forever," LaFree explains. "We've been tracking back to 1970 and if you look at the sort of big picture, most of the action in the 70s is between Western Europe and North America. Most of the action in the 80s is in South America and Latin America more generally."

So why does he think that jihadi terrorism will decline in Arab and Muslim world in the same way? "Violence like this is highly unstable, and at the end of the day communities start to demand changes," LaFree explains. "Eventually, calmer ideas prevail."