EER was pleased to speak with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the founder and chief executive officer of Valens Global and a Senior Advisor on Asymmetric Warfare at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), about a new book he co-authored, Enemies Near and Far: How Jihadist Groups Strategize, Plot, and Learn.
EER: First of all, congratulations on your new book, Enemies Near and Far. The “Arab Spring” seriously changed the political situation in the region. At the time many thought it marked the eclipse of the jihadists. How do you view its impact on the political life of the region and al-Qaeda’s presence?
DGR: The view that the Arab Spring revolutions marked the eclipse of jihadist movements was not just held by many. It was, in fact, the view of the vast majority of observers and also of the U.S. intelligence community. Michael Morell, a top CIA official at the time of the revolutions, later recounted that the U.S. intelligence community “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage al Qa‘ida by undermining the group’s narrative.” The analytic consensus that formed around this topic prompted my co-author Thomas Joscelyn and I to refer to analytic assessments of the Arab Spring revolutions and jihadism as one of three major “consensus errors” that our field has made over the past decade-plus.
If you think about it, the analytic assessment concerning the Arab Spring and jihadism was always highly questionable. The idea that jihadist movements would be swept aside was rooted in the assumption that when instability gripped the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, militant groups might be left on the side-lines, unable to think of a way to exploit these changes. In fact, militant groups in general, and not just jihadists, thrive most in conditions of chaos.
The impact of the Arab Spring on jihadism is, at this point, quite clear. The fact that the revolutionary changes helped militant groups does not mean that democratic change is unnecessary in the region, nor does it invalidate the uprisings. But as a direct result of political chaos in the region, militant organizations grew significantly. Both Syria and Libya were home to Arab Spring uprisings, and the growth of militancy in both countries is quite clear. In Tunisia, there was a period in which militant Islamic groups were definitively on the rise. Numerous major attacks occurred in that country. That trend seems to have died down, but I would evaluate the future of militant Islamist groups in Tunisia as uncertain: in other words, a rebound is possible. The trendline in Egypt is also relatively clear. As has been discussed in various scholarly works, militant Islamic groups in Egypt were essentially defeated by the early 2000s after they overplayed their hand in the 1997 Luxor attack. Today, though, militancy is again a potent force in Egypt, with ISIS’s Sinai branch being particularly venomous. Moreover, one second-order consequence of the Libyan revolution was that it produced greater instability in Mali and the broader Sahel region, which multiple militant groups have capitalized on.
The overarching point that Tom and I make in Enemies is that jihadist groups are learning organizations. As such, they can figure out ways to benefit from chaos.
EER: The Islamic State used guides like Junaid Hussain to carry out multiple attacks in the West. In many ways, the foundation of this trend seems to have been Anwar al-Awlaki, whose influence has continued after his death. Can you explain this “Awlaki factor” in modern jihadism?
DGR: In Enemies, Tom and I characterize Awlaki as the jihadists’ key “early adopter” of social media. Awlaki was a much more charismatic and compelling figure than was Junaid Hussain. Awlaki was articulate, possessed legitimate theological credentials, and made an enduring impact as a militant ideologue and guide.
Yet at Junaid Hussain’s height, he was able to inspire a pace of attacks that rivalled or eclipsed the pace that Awlaki inspired during the latter man’s peak. Why? The primary reason, in our view, is that though Awlaki was an early adopter of social media, he failed to understand social media’s full potential. He engaged in social media as though it were a blog. Junaid Hussain, on the other hand, fully capitalized on what J.M. Berger refers to as the “remote intimacy” that social media can produce. Many of the people he engaged with every day came to see Hussain as an intimate acquaintance or friend.
Also, during Junaid Hussain’s life, ISIS adopted the virtual plotter model of attack, which changed the relationship between the information environment and would-be attackers. Where jihadist media once simply urged people to embrace the movement or to act in its service, ISIS’s virtual plotter model took advantage of advances in online communications and encryption to engineer a process by which the group’s top operatives could directly guide lone attackers—recruiting operatives and coaxing them to action, then playing an intimate role in the conceptualization, target selection, timing, and execution of attacks.
This brings me to one of our key theoretical contributions in Enemies: the violent non-state actor technology adoption curve. The curve illustrates how, over time, a violent non-state actor tends to become more proficient at making novel uses of a technology. There are several reasons for this increased proficiency over time. The violent non-state actor is becoming better at using the technology through a process of iteration and experimentation. But beyond that, usually the technology itself is improving. These improvements are, naturally, made for the benefit of customers—but technological improvements help the violent non-state actor as well.
Thus, Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrates the importance of tracking early adopters. He also shows how, as we progress through the violent non-state actor technology adoption curve, later operatives can become more dangerous than the early adopters were, even if the operatives who later employ it are objectively not the equal of the early adopters.
EER: A lot of terrorism cases in Britain, for example, pointed to social spaces as key. Has the online recruitment aspect of jihadism been overstated?
DGR: Yes, the online recruitment aspect of jihadism has been overstated by some observers. However, this fact should not detract from the overall importance of the online recruiting space. When researchers exaggerate the importance of the digital space, as opposed to physical spaces and networks, the core reason is likely that it’s just easier for them to conduct research in the digital space.
As I said, exaggerated or not, the online recruitment aspect of jihadism has also proven to be highly important to the movement.
EER: In its break with Al-Qaeda, was the Islamic State more significant as a fracture in the jihadi movement or did their methodology revive a declining movement?
DGR: ISIS’s break with al-Qaeda should be seen as a fracture within the jihadist movement and not as something that revived a declining movement. The fracture occurred in February 2014, though tensions between al-Qaeda and ISIS had been building for a long time before that.
At the time of the split between al-Qaeda and ISIS, it was clear that the movement was in a growth phase and not a decline. I have already outlined some of the overall consequences of the Arab Spring on the jihadist movement. By the time of the ISIS/al-Qaeda split, these second-order consequences were in full bloom:
- Syria had seen jihadist groups come to the forefront of the fight against the Assad regime.
- Libya was gripped by a civil war in which jihadists were not the dominant player, but were able to find space to operate. Indeed, they would eventually temporarily capture cities like Sirte and Derna.
- Jihadists had experienced an extended period of growth in Tunisia and Egypt. They were able to openly conduct dawa (proselytization work) in both countries.
- Northern Mali had been overrun by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb by 2012. A controversial 2013 French military intervention dislodged the group’s control, instead producing extended insurgent warfare.
Thus, I assess it as a mistake to view the ISIS/al-Qaeda split as something that revived a declining movement. The movement was in a growth phase at the time of the split. We have clearly seen post-split that there is plenty of market space for both al-Qaeda and ISIS to pursue their agendas at the same time.
EER: The Islamic State introduced new doctrines and concepts; did this seriously differentiate them from Al-Qaeda, or were they largely a continuation of the strategies that already existed?
DGR: This is a great question. The answer is a bit of both.
ISIS should be seen as an extension of the “Zarqawi organization” associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, born Ahmed Fadil al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, attained international notoriety for his brutality and success as a militant leader, primarily during the course of the Iraq War. Zarqawi and his network were responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed in Iraq during the height of the country’s civil war. This made Zarqawi one of the world’s most wanted men, with the U.S. government offering the same reward amount for Zarqawi as it did for Osama bin Laden.
Zarqawi took a public oath of baya to Osama bin Laden in 2004, renaming his group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Despite his oath of baya, Zarqawi always had a different strategic vision than did al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. Zarqawi was more brutal and also more overtly sectarian, two factors that prompted a famous rebuke in 2005 from Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-Bin Laden’s deputy and his successor as Al-Qaeda Emir, who was killed in July 2022.
In addition to strategic differences between the Zarqawi organization and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, another influential factor shaping the conflict between them was the defeat of the Zarqawi organization/AQI in the 2007-08 period. Multiple factors prompted this defeat. One was the Sunni tribal uprising against AQI. Many Sunni tribal leaders saw the jihadist organization as brutal, foreign in its conception, and forcibly imposing an oppressive form of the Islamic faith that was alien to Iraq. These leaders formed the Awakening (Sahwa) movement, which played a key role in the Zarqawi organization’s defeat during this period. In addition, the United States made two major changes to its approach in Iraq that contributed to the Zarqawi organization’s setbacks: increasing the number of soldiers on the ground (the “troop surge”) and dramatically shifting the way troops were used, shifting to population-centric counterinsurgency.
The Zarqawi organization’s falling fortunes were discernible by late 2007, perceived by the United States and the jihadists alike. Thereafter, despite several rebrands and attempts to obscure its connections to al-Qaeda, it seems that the Zarqawi organization/ISIS remained a part of al-Qaeda until the February 2014 split. The split was the product not of failure but rather success: by 2014, jihadism was experiencing growth in the Iraq/Syria theater, largely due to the Syrian civil war.
All of this explains why I say that the Islamic State’s new doctrines and concepts both seriously differentiated the group from al-Qaeda and that these doctrines and concepts were largely a continuation of strategies that already existed. When al-Qaeda and ISIS split, ISIS’s approach was very different from that of the remaining al-Qaeda organization, which had moved in the direction of less overt brutality following the 2007-08 defeat in Iraq that I have described. ISIS, in contrast, was determined to maintain or even ramp up its brutality. Its approach thus contrasted with that of al-Qaeda’s leadership but was consistent with the pre-existing approach of the Zarqawi organization.
The most recent UN report examining ISIS and al-Qaeda assesses al-Qaeda’s methods as having been the more effective of the two over time.
EER: In establishing a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, did the Islamic State lay the groundwork for a new movement by showing it was possible, or did they vindicate Al-Qaeda by showing that the caliphate-now strategy was a disastrous failure?
DGR: Both. As I said, ISIS and al-Qaeda derived very different lessons from the Zarqawi organization’s defeat in the 2007-2008 period. They also derive different lessons from ISIS’s attempt to build a caliphate in Syria.
Leaving aside the groups’ differing perceptions, I would say that ISIS’s attempt to establish a caliphate objectively showed that a jihadist state, even with the whole world fighting it, could last a lot longer than many outside observers predicted, including myself. But on the other hand, ISIS’s attempts to build a caliphate also showed that the group’s strategy of taking on new enemies constantly and going to war with everyone at once is not as sustainable as is al-Qaeda’s coalition-building strategy.
EER: Despite the defeat and destruction of its “caliphate,” will the Islamic State be able to recoup or has it been lastingly wounded?
DGR: ISIS is already seemingly on a bit of a rebound. There are mixed signals concerning how it is doing in the Iraq/Syria theatre, but I would say that overall the signs—though perhaps disputable—suggest that the group is recovering in that theater. ISIS’s major area of growth, however, has been in Africa. Among other things, ISIS has been able to open new battle fronts in countries that previously had not been seen as hotbeds of jihadism. The situation in northern Mozambique is emblematic of this dynamic.
EER: In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of Taliban rule, the United States is now contending with a resurgent terrorist threat. Both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province are growing in strength and could pose a significant threat beyond Afghanistan. Do you examine this issue in your book?
DGR: Yes, we have a long chapter examining how al-Qaeda was able to survive two decades of Western counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan. Essentially, al-Qaeda played the long game. It also frequently downplayed its presence in Afghanistan. There are several reasons that it did so, but one reason was likely to avoid giving too much strength to objections that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would cause major counterterrorism challenges. ISIS Khorasan is, on the whole, significantly weaker than is the Taliban. However, ISIS Khorasan may be more intent on carrying out external operations at present than is al-Qaeda.
EER: Thank you very much for your time.