With the demise of Osama bin Ladin and the killing of Al Qaeda’s top leadership as a result of the over one thousand declared and covert U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan carried out over the past five years, the terrorist threat for the coming years has been severely degraded, leaving the question of what might motivate today’s militant jihadi (or AQ inspired) terrorist and if they can continue on with their top leadership decapitated?
In terms of terrorist ideologues and instigators these drone strike victories may not have accomplished as much damage as hoped for. In fact for every “martyr” created by a drone strike, the words and teachings of most AQ ideologues lives on in semi-permanent form in the virtual “university of jihad” already existing on the Internet. So although struck down—these “martyrs” will unfortunately carry on—continuing to incite acts of hatred and teach methods of carrying out terrorist operations for years to come.
Likewise as AQ found its leadership caught in the noose of unremitting military attacks and its safe havens closing in upon them, the AQ propaganda machine started in recent years to churn out calls for “homegrown” and “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. Using pictures of U.S. military “collateral damage” from drone and other military strikes they targeted their call to Western and U.S. Muslims in particular, inciting them to rise up against so called U.S. infamy—taking a gun or any other weapon to make attacks inside the homeland. Given this call we must remain vigilant for more “lone wolf” attacks here in the U.S., keeping in mind that when it comes to the militant jihad there is really no lone actor. Most have had some interaction with an ideology and group that is operating—even at a distance—goading the individual on, convincing him of the ideology and helping him to self-equip for his mission
While remaining alert for “lone wolf” attacks, here and abroad, particularly those aimed at U.S. military bases and soldiers—such as the one carried out by Major Nidal Hassan inside his military base or others such as drive by shootings at recruiting stations etc. we should also be aware of new methods and targets. Assassinations may also increase, and diplomats—as we saw in the case of the murder of the honorable U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya—are also not immune. In fact the New Year opened with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) offering a bounty of one hundred and sixty thousand dollars in gold for their U.S. Ambassador’s assassination.
It remains to be seen if militant jihadi terrorist groups will continue to focus on taking down airliners and blowing up large symbolic targets or if they will become more creative, going after equally crippling—but less dramatic targets—such as taking down electrical grids which could potentially cause massive disruptions and deaths (in hospital, on transit, etc.). And cyber attacks—which may require a state sponsor (one can easily imagine Iran in that role)—may also in the end be far more devastating than attacking an airliner, but may not have the same fiery war-like action that draws many of today’s terrorists. Likewise, for all our airport security, if the terrorists shift their focus to numbers killed versus the sensationalism of downing an aircraft, they may find it much easier to detonate a bomb in the crowds of people waiting to pass through security than to attempt to smuggle one through the screeners.
The Arab Spring, while opening up democratic aspirations for many has also left a vacuum of frustrated and unfulfilled hopes among millions of Arabs for a better life. Who will ultimately emerge and where they will lead is still an open question. Israel enters the New Year in an uncertain position waiting to see how the conflicts in Syria, the potential threats from Iran and the political changes in Egypt will play out and what new allegiances will emerge. A recent announcement from a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt stating that he does not expect Israel to exist in the coming ten years is not a good sign of things to come. And Israel, as always, must also walk a tight rope between balancing security and human rights concerns. Any action it takes in response to threats from Palestinians or from any of its neighbors will likely act as a lightening rod in the region and potentially well beyond it. And as the U.S. shifts its military presence from Afghanistan, more global focus from militant jihadi ideologues will also likely shift back to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
The continued use of U.S. drone attacks to decapitate terrorist leadership in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc. will also likely continue to fuel the militant jihadi practice of identifying with the secondary victims of such attacks and this will likely offset any positive boost we might have seen in countering militant jihadi propaganda from a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. The current conflicts in Yemen, Mali and Syria leave openings for Al Qaeda inspired groups to flourish and to continue to showcase their fights against what they claim are non-true Islamic regimes while they also potentially create havens for terrorist cadres. Swift and strong foreign policy actions to keep societies from disintegrating in conflicted areas can help to reduce terrorist threats in the coming year, although anywhere we place troops also has the potential for radicalizing effects if things do not go smoothly.
Militant jihadi groups often use graphic films and pictures from conflict zones for recruitment purposes and terrorist recruiters are adept at creating identification with victims, naming them “Muslim brothers and sisters” (i.e. fictive kin) while reminding potential recruits who may live far from the conflicts of their duty to join the global jihad in the defense of the downtrodden. By these means, militant jihadi recruiters manipulate vulnerable young Muslims in nonconflict zones to believe that there is a global cosmic battle they must join, that it calls for extraordinary means and is worth sacrificing one’s life for.
The EuroZone crisis is also important to watch, as it increases pressure on European Muslim immigrant communities already challenged with discrimination and marginalization. A growing group of well-educated Muslim second-generation immigrants potentially face long-term unemployment as their parents also face economic challenges. This combined with the growth of far right groups demanding tighter immigration policies and ratcheting up societal tensions and a general feeling of hopelessness could create a substantial pool of disenfranchised, alienated and vulnerable individuals susceptible to terrorist recruiters. Branching into some of these new areas such as cyber attacks—particularly if there is state sponsorship—may be a draw for highly educated unemployed marginalized youth who may be encouraged to find a positive identity in outsmarting the West. Shock austerity programs in the Euro Zone, while providing the answer for some, may increase vulnerabilities for others.
Continued vigilance is called for and well thought out and well-informed policies that keep in mind all four levels of the terrorist cocktail – the political grievances and aims of the groups, their social support, their ideologies and the individual vulnerabilities of those who answer their call—will be important for keeping us safe in the coming year.
 Woods, C., & Ross, A. K. (December 4, 2012). Revealed: US and Britain launched 1,200 drone strikes in recent wars. Retrieved from http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/12/04/revealed-us-and-britain-launched-1200-drone-strikes-in-recent-wars/
 Paz, R. (2011). Reading their Lips: The Credibility of Militant Jihadi Websites as “Soft Power” in the War of the Minds. In A. C. Speckhard (Eds.), RTO Technical Report (Vol. Psychosocial, Organizational and Cultural Aspects of Terrorism, Available from http://ftp.rta.nato.int/public//PubFullText/RTO/TR/RTO-TR-HFM-140///TR-HFM-140-06.pdf
 Associated Press. (December 30, 2012). AQAP offers bounty on U.S. Ambassador in Yemen. Retrieved fromhttp://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2012/12/aqap_offers_bounty_on_us_ambassador_in_yemen.html
 Jihad Watch. (2012). Egypt: Deputy chief of Muslim Brotherhood’s political party and adviser to President says Israel will cease to exist within ten years. Retrieved fromhttp://www.jihadwatch.org/2013/01/egypt-deputy-chief-of-muslim-brotherhoods-political-party-and-adviser-to-president-says-israel-will.html