This year saw both victories and setbacks in the fight against Islamist terrorism as al Qaeda suffered serious blows while Islamist terrorism rose dramatically in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia, according to a new report from a U.S. security think tank.
But just because Islamist terrorism grew this year does not mean the risk of Islamist terrorists attacking the U.S. homeland has increased, explains the report "Are We Winning?" from the bipartisan American Security Project. Rather, aside from the al Shabaab militia in Somalia, many Islamist groups seem to have focused their attention on attacking and fighting local enemies rather than "the far enemy"—the United States—as envisioned by al Qaeda leaders such as second in command Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
"The era of 'far enemy jihadism' may be waning," the report concludes. (For more on the theory of far enemy jihadism, click here.)
By separating al Qaeda and Associated Movements (AQAM) from other Islamist movements worldwide, the think tank believes it has spotted another important trend.
"For the first time since we began this series of reports, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the strength of al Qaeda has begun to diverge significantly from the general level of Islamist violence," the report states.
The report finds that CIA drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan have killed many of al Qaeda's high-ranking leaders and kept the rest on the run or in hiding, degrading the terrorist organization's ability to plan, finance, and conduct terrorist attacks and to spread jihadist propaganda through its media wing, As-Sahab.
The report also references U.S. and U.N. reports and sources that indicate the Taliban does not pay off or fund al Qaeda with drug money, further degrading its estimated financial capacity.
Another success against AQAM was the killing of Noordin Top, who led a splinter group of Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia. Top is believed to have participated in the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, July's attacks on the Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, as well as many other attacks this decade.
Counterterrorism operations have also gone virtual, according to the report. On the anniversary of 9-11, a coordinated cyberattack temporarily brought down the online forums used by AQAM to spread its jihadist ideas.
"Episodes such as these damage the credibility and confidence of the AQAM community in these websites and online forums and thus undermine their ability to further terrorist goals," the report concludes.
Despite these successes, general Islamist violence has surged over the past year. The report finds that Islamist terrorist attacks this year could double those of 2008. There were 671 Islamist terrorist attacks last year and ASP believes there could be more than 1,000 this year. These numbers also exclude attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel.
Iraq, however, has seen a 70 percent drop in Islamist attacks. ASP further notes that al Qaeda in Iraq has provoked "a durable backlash" for its wholesale slaughter of civilians. Nevertheless, the report describes Iraq as a moderate success story, cautioning "only Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan, and Somalia have more attacks on average."
The surge in Islamist terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia has been dramatic though. Terrorist attacks in Afghanistan have jumped 15 percent over the record-setting levels of last year, while the attacks in Pakistan and Somalia have increased 171 percent and 223 percent, respectively, during the first two quarters of 2009 over the same period of 2008.
These areas, particularly Somalia, worry the report's authors because they have become "ungoverned spaces" and provide terrorist organizations safe havens to sustain their operations.
♦ Screenshot of report