In 2019, the global Salafi-jihadi architecture is very different from the one that emerged in September 2001, when transnational terrorism burst on to the international scene, or July 2014, when ISIL controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq and thousands of young men and women were flocking to be part of its ‘caliphate’.
Many of the leaders of the Salafi-jihadi movement are gone. Some, like Osama bin Laden and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, have been killed, and many others have been captured or are in hiding. And yet, despite having no territory and having lost many of their leaders, both al-Qaeda and ISIL continue to pose a threat to the maintenance of international peace and security. In fact, one could argue that they pose more of a threat today, as the structure of the groups has moved from integrated to fragmented, making command and control more tenuous.
In 2018, there were at least 66 Salafi-Jihadi groups around the world, the same number as in 2016 and three times as many as there were in 2001. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has pointed out that in 2018 there were at least 218,000 Salafi-jihadis and allied fighters around the world—a 270% increase. These figures indicate that, despite 18 years of combat and the spending of trillions of dollars, we’re nowhere near ending the jihadist threat, as the ideology continues to resonate with people.
This Strategic Insight reviews the post-caliphate Salafi-jihadi environment, focusing on two issues: the franchising strategy of al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the evolving threat of online messaging. I highlight a change in the threat posed by Salafi-jihadis to Australia; it’s now less a ‘top-down’ threat than a ‘bottom-up’ one and emanates from homegrown individuals whose links with and understanding of Salafist-jihadism are minimal. Consequently, I offer three sets of recommendations for how Australia’s official counter-terrorism community should change its strategies.