WASHINGTON – Terrorism experts warned Congress last week that Islamist terrorist groups are expanding in complex networks across the Middle East, highlighting the evolving nature of the threat these organizations pose to the region.
Seth Jones, a national security analyst with the RAND Corporation, told the House Armed Services Committee that there has been an increase in the number of Salafi jihadist groups, particularly in North Africa and the Levant. Al-Qaeda is the largest one, and all emphasize the importance of returning to a pure Islam and believe that violent jihad is a religious duty.
He said that while about a half-dozen terrorist groups have sworn allegiance to al Qaeda’s core, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, there now exists various Salafi jihadist groups that have not formally pledged allegiance to the militant group, and yet they share a common goal of establishing an extreme Islamic emirate.
“They are committed to establishing an Islamic emirate, and several of them have plotted attacks against the U.S., against U.S. embassies, against U.S. diplomats, against U.S. targets overseas,” Jones said.
Among these groups are also al-Qaeda-inspired individuals and networks, including the Boston Marathon bombers, who had no direct ties to the terrorist organization but listened to al-Qaeda’s propaganda and used it to plan attacks.
“I think there’s been a tendency among some journalists and pundits to lump all Sunni Islamic groups under the title al-Qaeda, which I think has clouded a proper assessment of the movement,” Jones said.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate hearing recently there are at least five al-Qaeda franchises in 12 countries that “this movement has morphed into.”
According to data compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, more then 6,800 terrorist attacks killed more than 11,000 people in 2012, making it the most active year of terrorism on record.
Bill Braniff, a terrorism analyst at the University of Maryland, said the six most lethal groups in 2012 – the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in Iraq, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabaab – were responsible for approximately 5,000 deaths.
He noted that these groups are generally considered affiliates of al-Qaeda, and yet al-Qaeda itself has not been directly responsible for an attack since 2012.
Braniff said that a dozen of the 20 most lethal terrorist organizations and half of the 20 most active organizations had connections to al-Qaeda in 2012, suggesting that al-Qaeda remains a “central hub in a network of highly lethal and active terrorist groups.”
“What should we take from these seemingly contradictory developments?” he said. “Did al-Qaeda succeed by inspiring widespread jihadism, or has it lost to a variety of more parochial, albeit popular, actors?”
Braniff warned that it would be wrong to conclude that because al-Qaeda itself is not carrying out violent attacks that the group’s strategy has become ineffective.
“This has been the most active two years in the history of modern terrorism and al-Qaeda remains at the historical, organizational and ideological center of the most lethal terrorist threats of our time,” Braniff said.
Several Republicans have accused the Obama administration of downplaying the threat from al-Qaeda, its affiliates and the groups that it has inspired.