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Jihadism and the Importance of Place

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By Scott Stewart

One of the basic tenets of STRATFOR's analytical model is that place matters. A country's physical and cultural geography will force the government of that country to confront certain strategic imperatives no matter what form the government takes. For example, Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia all have faced the same set of strategic imperatives. Similarly, place can also have a dramatic impact on the formation and operation of a militant group, though obviously not in quite the same way that it affects a government, since militant groups, especially transnational ones, tend to be itinerant and can move from place to place.

From the perspective of a militant group, geography is important but there are other critical factors involved in establishing the suitability of a place. While it is useful to have access to wide swaths of rugged terrain that can provide sanctuary such as mountains, jungles or swamps, for a militant group to conduct large-scale operations, the country in which it is based must have a weak central government — or a government that is cooperative or at least willing to turn a blind eye to the group. A sympathetic population is also a critical factor in whether an area can serve as a sanctuary for a militant group. In places without a favorable mixture of these elements, militants tend to operate more like terrorists, in small urban-based cells.

For example, although Egypt was one of the ideological cradles of jihadism, jihadist militants have never been able to gain a solid foothold in Egypt (as they have been able to do in Algeria, Yemen and Pakistan). This is because the combination of geography and government are not favorable to them even in areas of the country where there is a sympathetic population. When jihadist organizations have become active in Egypt, the Egyptian government has been able to quickly hunt them down. Having no place to hide, those militants who are not immediately arrested or killed frequently leave the country and end up in places like Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan (and sometimes Jersey City). Over the past three decades, many of these itinerant Egyptian militants, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, have gone on to play significant roles in the formation and evolution of al Qaeda — a stateless, transnational jihadist organization.

Even though al Qaeda and the broader jihadist movement it has sought to foster are transnational, they are still affected by the unique dynamics of place, and it is worth examining how these dynamics will likely affect the movement's future.

The Past

The modern iteration of the jihadist phenomenon that resulted in the formation of al Qaeda was spawned in the rugged mountainous area along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This was a remote region not only filled with refugees — and militants from all over the globe — but also awash in weapons, spies, fundamentalist Islamism and intrigue. The area proved ideal for the formation of modern jihadism following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, but it was soon plunged into Muslim-on-Muslim violence. After the fall of the communist regime in Kabul in 1992, Afghanistan was wracked by near-constant civil war between competing Muslim warlords until the Taliban seized power in 1996. Even then, the Taliban-led government remained at war with the Northern Alliance. In 1992, in the midst of this chaos, al Qaeda began to move many of its people to Sudan, which had taken a heavy Islamist bent following a 1989 coup led by Gen. Omar al-Bashir and heavily influenced by Hasan al-Turabi and his National Islamic Front party. Even during this time, al Qaeda continued operating established training camps in Afghanistan like Khaldan, al Farook and Darunta. The group also maintained its network of Pakistani safe-houses in places like Karachi and Peshawar that it used to direct prospective jihadists from overseas to its training camps in Afghanistan.

In many ways, Sudan was a better place for al Qaeda to operate from, since it offered far more access to the outside world than the remote camps in Afghanistan. But the access worked both ways, and the group received far more scrutiny during its time in Sudan than it had during its stay in Afghanistan. In fact, it was during the Sudan years (1992-1996) when many in the counterterrorism world first became conscious of the existence of al Qaeda. Most people outside of the counterterrorism community were not familiar with the group until after the August 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and it was not really until 9/11 that al Qaeda became a household name. But this notoriety came with a price. Following the June 1995 attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (an attack linked to Egyptian militants and al Qaeda), the international community — including Egypt and the United States — began to place heavy pressure on the government of Sudan to either control Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda or eject them from the country.

In May 1996, bin Laden and company, who were not willing to be controlled, pulled up stakes and headed back to Afghanistan. The timing was propitious for al Qaeda, which was able to find sanctuary in Afghanistan just as the Taliban were preparing for their final push on Kabul, bringing stability to much of the country. While the Taliban were never wildly supportive of bin Laden, they at least tolerated his presence and activities and felt obligated to protect him as their guest under Pashtunwali, the ancient code of the Pashtun people. Al Qaeda also shrewdly had many of its members marry into influential local tribes as an added measure of security. Shortly after returning to Afghanistan, bin Laden felt secure enough to issue his August 1996 declaration of war against the United States.

The rugged and remote region of eastern and northeastern Afghanistan, bordered by the Pakistani badlands, provided an ideal area in which to operate. It was also a long way from the ocean and the United States' ability to project power. While al Qaeda's stay in Afghanistan was briefly interrupted by a U.S. cruise missile attack in August 1998 following the East Africa embassy bombings, the largely ineffective attack demonstrated the limited reach of the United States, and the group was able to operate pretty much unmolested in Afghanistan until the October 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. During their time in Afghanistan, al Qaeda was able to provide basic military training to tens of thousands of men who passed through its training camps. The camps also provided advanced training in terrorist tradecraft to a smaller number of selected students.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan radically changed the way the jihadists viewed Afghanistan as a place. U.S. military power was no longer confined to the Indian Ocean; it had now been brought right into the heart of Afghanistan. Instead of a place of refuge and training, Afghanistan once again became a place of active combat, and the training camps in Afghanistan were destroyed or relocated to the Pakistani side of the border. Other jihadist refugees fled Afghanistan for their countries of origin, and still others, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, left Afghanistan for the badlands of northern Iraq — which, as part of the U.S. no-fly zone, was out the reach of Saddam Hussein, who as a secular leader had little ideological sympathy for the jihadist cause.

Pakistan's rugged and remote Pashtun belt proved a welcoming refuge for jihadists at first, but U.S. airstrikes turned it into a dangerous place, and al Qaeda became fractured and hunted. The group had lost important operational leaders like Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan, and its losses were multiplied in Pakistan, where important figures like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were captured or killed. Under extreme pressure, the group's apex leadership went deep underground to stay alive.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iraq became an important place for the jihadist movement. Unlike Afghanistan, which was seen as remote and on the periphery of the Muslim world, Iraq was at its heart. Baghdad had served as the seat of the Islamic empire for some five centuries. The 2003 invasion also fit hand-in-glove with the jihadist narrative, which claimed that the West had declared war on Islam, and thereby provided a serious boost to efforts to raise men and money for the jihadist struggle. Soon foreign jihadists were streaming into Iraq from all over the world, not only from places like Saudi Arabia and Algeria but also from North America and Europe. Indeed, we even saw the core al Qaeda group asking the Iraqi jihadist leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for financial assistance.

One of the things that made Iraq such a welcoming place was the hospitality of the Sunni sheikhs in Iraq's Sunni Triangle who took in the foreign fighters, sheltered them and essentially used them as a tool. Once the largesse of these tribal leaders dried up, we saw the Anbar Awakening in 2005-2006, and Iraq became a far more hostile place for the foreign jihadists. This local hostility was fanned by the brutality of al-Zarqawi and his recklessness in attacking other Muslims. The nature of the human terrain had changed in the Sunni Triangle, and it became a different place. Al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, and the rat lines that had been moving jihadists into Iraq were severely disrupted.

While some of the jihadists who had served in Iraq, or who had aspired to travel to Iraq, were forced to go to Pakistan, still others began focusing on places like Algeria and Yemen. Shortly after the Anbar Awakening we saw the formation of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and a revitalization of the jihadists in Yemen, who had been severely weakened by a November 2002 U.S. missile strike and a series of arrests in 2002-2003. Similarly, Somalia also became a destination where foreign jihadists could receive training and fight, especially those of Somali or other African heritage.

And this brings us up to today. The rugged borderlands of Pakistan continue to be a focal point for jihadists, but increasing pressure by U.S. airstrikes and Pakistani military operations in places like Bajaur, Swat and South Waziristan have forced many foreign jihadists to leave Pakistan for safer locations. The al Qaeda central leadership continues to lay low, and groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have taken over the leadership of the jihadist struggle on the physical battlefield. As long as the ideology of jihadism persists, transnational and itinerant jihadist militants will continue to operate. Where their next geographic center of gravity will be hinges on a number of factors.

Geographic Factors

When one looks for prime jihadist real estate, one of the first important factors (as in any real estate transaction) is location. Unlike most home buyers, though, jihadists don't want a home near the metro stop or important commuter arteries. Instead, they want a place that is isolated and relatively free of government authority. That is why Afghanistan, the Pakistani border region, the Sulu Archipelago, the African Sahel and Somalia have all proved to be popular jihadist haunts.

A second important factor is human terrain. Like any militant or insurgent group, the jihadists need a local population that is sympathetic to them if they are to operate in numbers larger than small cells. This is especially true if they hope to run operations such as training camps that are hard to conceal. Without local support they would run the risk of being turned in to the authorities or sold out to countries like the United States that may have put large bounties on the heads of key leaders. A conservative Muslim population with a warrior tradition is also a plus, as seen in Pakistan and Yemen. Indeed, Abu Musab al-Suri, a well-known jihadist strategist and so-called "architect of global jihad," even tried (unsuccessfully) to convince bin Laden in 1989 to relocate to Yemen precisely because of the favorable human terrain there.

The importance of human terrain is very evident in the Iraq example described above, in which a change in attitude by the tribal sheikhs rapidly made once welcoming areas into hostile and dangerous places for the foreign jihadists. Iraqi jihadists, who were able to fit in better with the local population, were able to persist in this hostile environment longer than their foreign counterparts. This concept of local support is one of the factors that will limit the ability of Arab jihadists to operate in remote and chaotic places like sub-Saharan Africa or even the rainforests of South America. They are not indigenous like members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Sendero Luminoso, and differences in religion and culture will impede their efforts to intermarry into powerful tribes as they have done in Pakistan and Yemen.

Geography and human terrain are helpful factors, but they are not the exclusive determinants. You can just as easily train militants in an open field as in a dense jungle, so long as you are unmolested by an outside force, and that is why government is so important to place. A weak government that has a lack of political and physical control over an area or a local regime that is either cooperative or at least non-interfering is also important. When we consider government, we need to focus on the ability and will of the government at the local level to fight an influx of jihadism. In several countries, jihadism was allowed to exist and was not countered by the government as long as the jihadists focused their efforts elsewhere.

However, the wisdom of pursuing such an approach came into question in the period following 9/11, when jihadist groups in a number of places began conducting active operations in their countries of residence. This occurred in places like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and even Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where jihadist groups joined al Qaeda's call for a global jihad. And this response proved to be very costly for these groups. The attacks they conducted, combined with heavy political pressure from the United States, forced some governments to change the way they viewed the groups and resulted in some governments focusing the full weight of their power to destroy them. This resulted in a dynamic where a group briefly appears, makes a splash with some spectacular attacks, then is dismantled by the local government, often with foreign assistance (from countries like the United States). In some countries, the governments lacked the necessary intelligence-gathering and tactical capabilities, and it has taken a lot of time and effort to build up those capabilities for the counterterrorism struggle. In other places, like Somalia, there has been very little government to build on.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has paid a lot of attention to "draining the swamps" where these groups seek refuge and train new recruits. This effort has spanned the globe, from the southern Philippines to Central Asia and from Bangladesh to Mali and Mauritania. And it is paying off in places like Yemen, where some of the special counterterrorism forces are starting to exhibit some self-sufficiency and have begun to make headway against AQAP. If Yemen continues to exhibit the will to go after AQAP, and if the international community continues to enable them to do so, it will be able to follow the examples of Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, countries where the jihadist problem has not been totally eradicated but where the groups are hunted and their tactical capabilities are greatly diminished. This will mean that Yemen will no longer be seen as a jihadist haven and training base. The swamp there will have been mostly drained. Another significant part of this effort will be to reshape the human terrain through ideological measures. These include discrediting jihadism as an ideology, changing the curriculum at madrassas and re-educating militants.

With swamps such as Yemen and Pakistan slowly being drained, the obvious question is: Where will the jihadists go next? What will become the next focal point on the physical battlefield? One obvious location is Somalia, but while the government there is a basket case and controls little more than a few neighborhoods in Mogadishu, the environment is not very conducive for Somalia to become the next Pakistan or Yemen. While the human terrain in Somalia is largely made up of conservative Muslims, the tribal divisions and fractured nature of Somali society — the same things that keep the government from being able to develop any sort of cohesion — will also work against al-Shabaab and its jihadist kin. Many of the various tribal chieftains and territorial warlords see the jihadists as a threat to their power and will therefore fight them — or leak intelligence to the United States, enabling it to target jihadists it views as a threat. Arabs and South Asians also tend to stick out in Somalia, which is a predominately black country.

Moreover, Somalia, like Yemen, has broad exposure to the sea, allowing the United States more or less direct access. Having long shorelines along the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, it is comparatively easy to slip aircraft and even special operations teams into and out of Somalia. With a U.S. base in Djibouti, orbits of unmanned aerial vehicles are also easy to sustain in Somali airspace.

The winnowing down of places for jihadists to gather and train in large numbers continues the long process we have been following for many years now. This is the transition of the jihadist threat from one based on al Qaeda the group, or even on its regional franchise groups, to one based more on a wider movement composed of smaller grassroots cells and lone-wolf operatives. Going forward, the fight against jihadism will also have to adapt, because the changes in the threat will force a shift in focus from merely trying to drain the big swamps to mopping up the little pools of jihadists in places like London, Brooklyn, Karachi and even cyberspace. As discussed last week, this fight will present its own set of challenges.

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