A new RAND Corporation study finds that there has been a “surge” in the Salafist jihad since 2010, with the number of jihadists doubling since 2010. The study also found that the number of groups has more than doubled since 2001 and that Syria and Libya are the two main bases for Salafist jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa.
The study determined that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group based in Yemen that used to be led by Anwar al-Awlaki until he was killed in a done strike, is the biggest threat to the U.S. Its leader, Nasser al-Wuhaishi, is now the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda in general.
The most active Al-Qaeda-linked group is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which split from Al-Qaeda in February. It is responsible for 43% of Al-Qaeda-linked attacks from 2007 to 2013. The runner-up was Al-Shabaab in Somalia (25%), followed by Jabhat al-Nusra (21%) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (10%).
The number of Salafist jihadists more than doubled since 2010, with estimates ranging widely from 40-100,000. In comparison, there were 10-30,000 in 2001. There has been a 58% increase in the number of groups since 2010. There are now 49, whereas there were only 20 in 2001. However, the increase in groups may be attributable to the decentralization of Al-Qaeda and the splintering of other large jihadist groups.
The number of attacks tripled since 2010. This is due in large part to an increase in opportunities like the civil war in Syria and a decision to carry out smaller, more achievable attacks. For example, the study found that 99% of attacks target the “near enemy” in the closest battlefield, as opposed to launching more difficult operations against the “far enemy” like the U.S. and Europe.
Over half of the Salafist jihadists are in Syria, reflecting this focus on the “near enemy.” The largest one is Ahrar al-Sham (10-15,000); followed by Liwa al-Islam and Liwa al-Tawhid (each with 5-10,000); Jabhat al-Nusra (2-6,000); Suquar al-Sham (2-5,000) and the ISIS with 1-5,000 members.
The biggest reason for the Salafist jihadist “surge” is the increasing weakness of North African and Middle Eastern governments. The instability permits terrorist groups to gain a foothold, drawing in networks from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The study dovetails with the State Department’s published findings in its Country Reports on Terrorism. The number of fatalities from terrorism increased 60% from 2012 to 2013 and the overall number of attacks increased 40%. There were 9,707 attacks in 2013, killing almost 18,000 people and injuring over 32,000. Another 3,000 people were seized as hostages or kidnapped by terrorists.
The State Department’s numbers are attributable to a rise in terrorist attacks in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and the Philippines. The sharpest increase occurred in Iraq, where attacks doubled, and Pakistan, which saw a 37% increase in terrorism.
The international community, chiefly the U.S., has succeeded in reducing the chances of a 9/11-level terrorist attack. Such an operation requires major logistical support and operational security across many borders. However, the statistics show that the threat of Salafist terrorism in general is increasing.
There are more Salafist jihadists, more jihadist groups and more terrorist attacks. The trend foreshadows an increasingly dangerous future.
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Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.