Fifteen years after 11 September attacks: Terrorism a mutating virus adapting to changing world

A visual spectacle like the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre was grandly shocking and left an indelible mark, not just on US citizens, but citizens across the world. Post-9/11, if there has been one constant in most foreign policy rhetoric, it has been about counter-terrorism measures. Even talking points from the candidates for US presidential elections have significantly circled around terrorism and how the nation must unite together to tackle it.

But terrorism, as it was understood immediately after 9/11, is not how we can understand it now. While the enemy was initially understood as someone from the ‘outside’, the threat is now from within the nation/State with homegrown violent extremists. According to Homeland Security’s Create Research Archives paper: Assessing the Evolving Threat of Terrorism, domestic terrorism in the US is a growing threat compared to transnational terrorism. “Domestic terrorist groups often graduate to attacking foreign targets at home and abroad as a way of gaining attention,” write the authors, Khusrav Gaibulloev, Todd Sandler and Charlinda Santifort.

World Trade Centre during 9/11 attacks. Getty Images

World Trade Centre during 9/11 attacks. Getty Images

Technological advancement has both helped terrorists and deterred them. Data encryption, smartphones, and newer applications have provided terrorists with more ways of communicating with each other. Al-Qaeda used to issue the rare video; now there are YouTube channels full of propaganda videos and Islamic State beheadings and warnings. Sympathisers and radicals, unfortunately, don’t have to be in the physical proximity to the terror groups. The Islamic State and other terror groups are also active on social media such as Twitter and Telegram (an alternative to Whatsapp).

As argued in an earlier article on Firstpost, the terror outfits are not old dirty men hiding in caves, but in fact those who are creating a high-brow, coherent and intelligent discourse dealing with deep interpretations of Islam. Islamic State’s chosen method of pushing propaganda in addition to their slick videos online is a magazine called Dabiq, a sophisticated publication (available even in English) that could compete with mainstream magazines in terms of production quality. In addition to planning attacks that have an impact, terror outfits are riding the social media wave to gather recruits for their cause. In fact, recruitment has become easier to achieve since the aggressive ‘War on Terror’ narratives that have alienated Muslims, causing deep resentment even within the second generation Muslims in the UK and US. Consider this, even a 16-year-old from Pune was convinced by various Islamic State sympathisers to work for the organisation.

It is improbable that a spectacle like 9/11 might repeat — it needs great coordination, planning and stealth, all of which have a greater chance of being intercepted by counter-terrorism agencies in this day and age. But this also means that online radicalisation has made terror activities smaller and localised, yet it has a similar impact in terms of creating fear. (Take, for example, the Mumbai terror attacks of 2009 and the attacks in Nice, Brussels, Istanbul, Dhaka this year.)

Terrorism has evolved a great deal since 9/11. Getty Images

Terrorism has evolved a great deal since 9/11. Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, the annihilation of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers shook the world into taking cognisance of the global threat that had always existed — terrorism. As a result of the ‘first world’s’ awakening, new sets of meanings have been ascribed to this word that was coined during the French revolution. Terrorism, as we have come to understand today, is warfare against a nation by a group with particular religious alignment. But terrorism is like a mutating virus with little to no cure; it is constantly evolving and only its symptoms can be managed.

To fully understand the change that’s taken place since 2001, one must go back even further, to the formation of the Al-Qaeda in the early 1980s. Developed by Osama bin Laden, the purpose of this outfit – comprising US-trained Mujahideen fighters – was to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

And once the Red Army had been driven out of Afghanistan, the movement of jihad was born, as this FBI report points out. Al-Qaeda fighters returned to their home countries — whether in West Asia or North Africa — and took the fight further; from targeting governments that weren’t Islamic in nature to attacking US forces and those of its allies.

It’s during this post-Cold War era that the scope of this jihad began to take on a more global scale.

Let’s start with the Islamic State. In 2003 and after the US and its allies had successfully dismantled Saddam Hussein’s army, a lot of Sunni men were left without jobs and for the first time in a long time, vulnerable and unprotected in a Shia-majority country. It was around a year later that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would recruit a number of these ex-armymen to his group of insurgents known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – a group that had pledged its loyalty to the Al-Qaeda.

And for a while, all was well between the Al-Qaeda and its junior partner in Iraq. But AQI’s violent methods and perhaps even motives began to rub the Al-Qaeda and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri the wrong way. Zawahiri would write to Zarqawi telling him to dial down the brutality, particularly the savage slaughter of hostages.

Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike in 2006 and by the end of the decade, the AQI had become rudderless and a shell of its former self with most of its members behind bars. The year 2010 would see the crowning of a new leader with a far more hardline agenda that his predecessor: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

(L to R) Al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. Reuters

(L to R) Al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. Reuters

A year later, the civil war that resulted from the so-called Arab Spring in Syria would give the AQI an opportunity to expand its base of operations. And a Baghdadi lieutenant by the name of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani would head operations in Syria.

As the AQI (and its Syrian branch) began to grow more powerful, there was one major change underway: Financing. Traditionally, it would either be sympathetic governments or the Al-Qaeda that would send finances to fledgeling terrorist groups. Now, it was private individuals sending money to Baghdadi and co. These private individuals mostly wanted to see Syria’s Bashar al-Assad fall.

Finally, in April 2013, Baghdadi united his group’s operations in Iraq and Syria under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. To say Zawahiri was displeased is an understatement and in February the following year, the then ISIS had been exiled by the Al-Qaeda.

Civil war that resulted from the so-called Arab Spring in Syria gave the AQI an opportunity to expand its base of operations

In  the years since, numerous groups have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, some have remained loyal to the Al-Qaeda. A useful graphic in The Telegraph explains this web of allegiance and enmity a little better.

Let’s take a look at two specific examples:

Starting in East Asia, and the Philippines to be specific. The Moro National Liberation Front, the main separatist group – which is no longer classified a terrorist organisation following numerous rounds of peace talks with Manila – active in the southern parts of the country since the early 1970s, sent fighters to Afghanistan during the standoff with the Soviets.

Among them was Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who is believed to have met bin Laden in Pakistan and secured funds from the Al-Qaeda leader for the formation of Janjalani’s own group, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Right from inception, the ASG was more violent and brutal than the MNLF or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in resisting the Philippine government and military in its efforts to secure an independent Moro State. Over the years, Al-Qaeda support to the ASG would endure – with arms, training and funds being provided.

But after 9/11 and the death of Janjalani a few years later, an irretrievable strain in relations had set in. In 2015, the ASG swore an oath to Baghdadi and in the months that followed, ASG had begun undertaking kidnappings in the IS’ name.

That brings us to Nigeria and the Boko Haram. Founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, the group endeavoured to exploit the Muslim-Christian equations in the country. He was able to capture the imagination of unemployed youths by establishing some sort of link between their plight and the western-influenced governments that had been governing Nigeria.  

It was in 2009, however, that Boko Haram experienced its rebirth. The death of Yusuf, the prison break that freed 700 or so men and the adoption of a more Salafist-jihadi ideology saw the group – now led by Abubakar Shekau – also turn increasingly violent and vicious.

According to the Congressional Research Service:

The group built ties with transnational extremist groups in the region, notably Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which reportedly provided training and access to increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Boko Haram attacks since 2011 have featured improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs, and suicide attacks, but fighters also continue to inflict a heavy toll using small arms and arson. 

However, in a couple of years, Shekau’s interpretation of Islamic law began to drift away from that of the Al-Qaeda. And in March 2015, Shekau pledged loyalty to Baghdadi and the Islamic State.  

Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag. Reuters

Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag. Reuters

Whether Boko Haram or the ASG or any of the other jihadi groups, a certain pattern has emerged in the years since 9/11. The Al-Qaeda is very much seen as outdated and more rigid than the more ‘exciting’ and modern Islamic State.

Here are some key differences in perception:

Recruitment and joining: Al-Qaeda is still viewed as difficult to join. Training must be undertaken. The Al-Qaeda ideology must be understood and accepted. Membership of the group requires changing one’s way of life (Think of it as the ivy league of jihadi organisations). The Islamic State, on the other hand, is always looking for new recruits who are willing to do as they are commanded. Ideology seems less important than obedience.

Careful planning versus shock-and-awe: In 2005, the Al-Qaeda unveiled its blueprint for world domination that would be split into seven distinct phases that would culminate in 2020. The Islamic State, on the other hand, was quick to try and establish a caliphate with what seemed like little planning. The Al-Qaeda had cadres dedicated to the development of new techniques and programmes to carry out attacks. The Islamic State-type groups appear to embrace the concept of instant violence instead.

Training and indoctrination: The concept of self-radicalised or being radicalised through YouTube videos was clearly unheard of at the start of the century, and it’s not just because there was no YouTube back then. Organisations like the Al-Qaeda have always been particular about their training and their recruits. With today’s groups, it seems to be a case of ‘the more the merrier’.

Minds vs territory: Land before learning or the other way around? Linked to the second point is the difference in both groups’ perception. The Al-Qaeda believes in occupying minds before territory, while it seems to be the opposite in the case of the Islamic State. It also probably explains why the Al-Qaeda had a 15-year-plan for world domination, while the Islamic State probably had no plan at all apart from occupation and expansion.

All publicity is good publicity: The Al-Qaeda’s public messaging was limited to videos from its leader and articles/press releases in select publications. With the advent of social media, the monopoly on communication is no longer in a few select hands. Instead, anyone and everyone can send out communiqués on behalf of the group as the thousands of social media accounts by group affiliates and sympathisers demonstrate.

Ownership and credit: The Al-Qaeda has always been particular about the sort of attacks for which it would take credit. The Islamic State on the other hand, appears happy to take credit for any attack, whether by a member of the group or by an unrelated lone wolf.

All of these factors contribute to the very different face of jihadi terror today compared to back in 2001. And given the sort of security levels we have accepted as part of our daily lives, the risk of a group of people you have never met, hijacking an aircraft and flying it into a building is shrinking. However, the risk posed by people you’ve known for years, picking up a gun and going on a shooting spree – inspired by something they’ve seen online – is growing.

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Updated Date: Sep 12, 2016 11:22 AM

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