The Global Insurgent Landscape

Purpose & Intent

Among the American populace whose knowledge of terrorist groups comes from the evening news or Facebook, there often exists excessive sentiments of fear and, even more so, an exaggeration of operational capabilities that inflates the perceived power of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Successful attacks within western countries work to increase such fears and perceived capability, such as the ones in Paris and San Bernardino in 2015, but what’s too often missing is a conversation around domestic policing and counterterrorism systems that work to prevent terrorists from successfully launching attacks.

With accurate information about the operational capacity of terrorist organizations, their histories, intent, motivations and objectives, as well as knowledge of the terrorist attack planing cycle, my hope is to inform readers of the realities of living in a world \ threatened by violent extremists, what can be done to secure the homeland and local communities, and what I think the U.S.’s “War on Terror” is really achieving.

This project is never going to truly be completed because terrorist organizations are never going to disappear.

**There currently exists an abundance of sites dedicated to the analysis, tracking and reporting of terrorist networks, but they are almost always oriented towards professionals within the field and they tend to be narrowly focused (e.g, terrorist financing, military strategy, recruitment tactics, counterterrorism, etc.). My goal is to aggregate the most salient points related to terrorism and terrorist networks and to write about them in a way that is accessible to everyone.

Approach & Methods

When I first began this project in 2013 my interest was mainly focused on al-Qaeda Central (AQC) and its relationships with other Islamic extremist groups around the world. But as my work progressed and global events shifted the power hierarchy between states and non-state actors, I was forced to rethink my aims and objectives; the rise of ISIS and its newly attained position as the foremost militant-Islamic group necessitated a refocus on my part. After collaborating with several of my colleagues and professors, it was ambitiously suggested that I expand my focus to encompass the global insurgency landscape as a whole. Rather than to start at AQC and move outward, I decided to begin with thorough assessments of the leading Islamic groups from various key regions around the world and move inward. By making a micro-comparison of regional influences, home of operations, sources of funding, alliances and affiliations, and signatures and tactics, my hope is to be able to paint an in-depth Seurat-styled portrait of this complex subfield of international studies in order to produce a comprehensive illustration of today’s global insurgent landscape.


This exposé will be divided into five sections:

I. Introduction and definitions

Part I introduces readers to the sub-field of international security studies that focuses on terrorism and extremist violence, the working definitions of terrorism, counterterrorism, insurgency, counterinsurgency, what they mean for crafting domestic and foreign policies, and why the distinctions matter on a practical level.

II. Composition of the global insurgent landscape

Part II provides an overview of global terrorist organizations and insurgencies, both past and present, and relates them to one another ideologically and tactically. I’ve included, at the start, forty-five of most prominent organizations and will likely expand the list over the life of this project; given that the Syrian Civil War alone has hundreds of rebel groups, this is by no measure a complete list, but it is inclusive of the biggest names in global and national jihad. I’m also considering creating a network tree to illustrate the relationships between the hundreds of smaller rebel groups in Syria and around the world, but this really depends on me having the available time.

III. Usama bin Laden and AQC

Despite the global shift in power that now seems to favor ISIS, it is necessary to have a historical discussion about Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda when talking about global jihadism. Part III will provide a history of Bin Laden and the evolution of his radical ideology, as well the purpose, means, and strategies of al-Qaeda central. This section will also discuss the effects of the September 11th attacks and America’s War on Terror.

IV. Future outlook and threat assessment

Part IV provides a future projection of Islamist insurgencies in the MENA and the threat posed by these groups against U.S. national security; it will assess the operational capabilities of jihadist groups around the world with a focus on ISIS and AQAP. Additionally, I will evaluate the state of America’s War on Terror and the implications of the Trump administration’s commitment to bolster America’s presence in Afghanistan.

V. Homegrown terrorism and the diffusion of jihadist tradecraft

Part V expands on the threat assessment from Part IV but specifies the threat of homegrown terrorism and the diffusion of jihadist tradecraft, with particular emphasis on the impacts of Inspire and Dabiq/Rumiyah magazines and the return of foreign fighters to western nations.

To Include:

Abdallah Azzam Brigades (AAB), Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Ahrar al-Sham, al-Nusrah Front (ANF), al-Qaeda Central (AQC), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Din, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, Ansaru, Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, Aum Shinrikyo (AUM), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Black September Organization (BSO), Boko Haram, Caucasus Emirate, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islmamiyya (HAMAS), Haqqani Network, Harakat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), Hizballah, Hizballah al Hijaz, Houthis, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Jemaah Islamiya (JI), Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Lashkar e Tayyiba, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Muslim Brotherhood , Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLF), Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Revolutionary Organization 17 November (17N), Riyad-us Saliheen Brigade of Martyrs, Shining Path, Taliban (Afghan), Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), United National Liberation Front (UNLF)

I. Introduction & definitions: terrorism, insurgency, counterinsurgency 

This section defines and identifies the nuances of terrorism and insurgency. At face-value, the differences between each of them are, for the layman’s purposes, purely academic; but when it comes to forming solutions for combatting terrorist movements and insurgencies, and particularly when having a discussion about those solutions, the differences become critical. In his book Counterinsurgency, renown counterinsurgent strategist David Kilcullen writes at length about the importance of understanding the distinct features of these commonly misused labels. More importantly, however, he explains why having a complete understanding of these distinctions is essential in developing any sort of effective counterinsurgency strategy. I’ll start with his definition and work outward to encompass other popular definitions within the security and defense establishments in order to highlight the similarities and differences. Within the scope of this series, particularly in Section IV,  I’ll hold these nuances against current U.S. military action in the Middle East and North Africa in an attempt to assess the effectiveness, future outcomes, and implications of these operations.

II. The composition of the larger global insurgent landscape

After establishing a basic foundation for the study of terrorism and counterinsurgency, I thought it would be valuable to take a larger look at notable terrorist and insurgent groups throughout modern history and to compare their tactics, ideologies, and motives against each other. If popular depictions of terrorist organization don’t already make it clear, a majority of today’s active groups–and those of the recent past– are largely ideologically connected to extremist Islam, but I included other examples (with equally violent histories) for the sake of pseudo-completeness.

The layout of this section will be directly linked to a series of brief profiles and synopses of the included groups as well as a corresponding comparative chart meant for a graphic overview. The content of each synopsis will explore the information included in the comparative graphic and to clarify qualifications denoted by asterisks–such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) being categorized as an alias of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), when it is really just the militant wing of its parent political organization. In addition, I’ll include information indicating group mergers of organizations that on their own have prominent histories, but which have merged with other groups and taken new names; an example would be the AQIM splinter, Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which evolved for a second time to form the Mourabitounes.

Another purpose of this section is to clearly inform my readers of the breadth of the global jihadist landscape. In conversations with my friends, coworkers, and family, I find that people are often unaware of the extremist threats that also exist in south-east Asia and South America. This expanded section will ensure a thorough treatment of the Islamist extremist groups that exist around the world.

A final note for Section II will describe the seeming trend for offspring groups to adopt a more localized jihadi focus that harkens back to the Afghan-jihad era. Splinter groups have seemed to have a more regional focus as opposed to their trans-national or even globally-minded parents, which, in the short term, is potentially good news for American national security interests. I’ll talk more about this trend in Section IV where I’ll discuss the future of Islamic insurgencies in the Middle East and North Africa.

III. A focused history of Usama bin Laden and AQC and its current position in the global insurgent landscape

Part III of this exposé details the history of al-Qaeda central (AQC), its regional franchises, and how the global jihadist network evolved from its original form as a multi-celled hierarchical organization, into its current form as a global brand whose label is used by terrorist and insurgent groups across the globe. The story of AQC and UBL has been written about extensively since Operation Neptune Spear in 2010, so I will just cover the need-to-know facts that are necessary for having an informed discussion about today’s terrorist groups.

I’ll first trace the history of Usama bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaeda and detail the history that was the driving force of his early radical global jihadist strategy. In the beginning, AQC had a top-down cellular structure with an organized system of leaders and followers. After the death of Bin Laden, al-Qaeda became increasingly fragmented, particularly after the Arab Spring where civil wars and popular uprisings upended the political and security balances across the MENA. Today, al-Qaeda is trying to regain its position as the leading global terrorist network that is being contested by IS. Additionally, and particularly in the past several years, AQC has become a branding title for the benefit of armed groups that seek to gain recognition and legitimacy; this trend, however, appears to be waning in response to the rise of the Islamic State.

Two crucial differences have emerged over the past decade from the original AQC and its regional franchises: ideology and tactic. What started as a mostly anti-West organization that operated under a global jihadist strategy, has become more aligned with traditional jihadist strategy. As civil wars and insurgencies rage on in Iraq and Syria, armed splinter groups have emerged and co-opted the “al-Qaeda in” branding to promote their public image. As The Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) continues to expand its reach throughout the region, the pervasive objective seems to be more concerned with national boundaries and Islamic governance, than it does about solely attacking Western targets. Once regional conflict becomes less  characterized as rebels- vs-state,  it is likely we’ll see a more lethal return to the anti-Western behavior that once flourished under Usama bin Laden. In the meantime, as al-Qaeda and other groups attempt to root themselves in the lawlessness that has besieged Iraq and Syria amidst years of conflict, it is likely AQC will continue to focus on rebuilding its capacity to fight a global jihad, and will remain localized until then. This is to say that while al-Qaeda might exploit the widespread insecurity in the region to replenish its arsenal and to attack Western targets within national boundaries, coordinated attacks on foreign soil like the 2004 Madrid bombings or the 2005 London subway attacks are unlikely to occur in the near future. Section V will discuss the rising threat of homegrown extremist and the pressure lone wolf actors place on intelligence services.

IV. Future projection of Islamic insurgencies in the MENA and the threat posed by the groups against the U.S.

Having covered the expansive global insurgent landscape–its actors, operational bases, spheres of influence, sources of funding, tactical signatures, and alliances, as well as a deeper history and current positioning of AQC–it becomes necessary to question the future of these groups and the threat they pose to the U.S. homeland. In a past article about the expanding jihadist threat, I wrote about how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have yielded porous borders that provide valuable lawless territories that have been used as jihadist encampments. Additionally, the diffusion of trained and experienced fighters throughout the MENA and Sahel, combined with an abundance of readily-accessible arms and munitions, have paved the way for a geographic expansion of jihadist activity.

In this penultimate section I will explain how the ability of extremist groups like IS to launch attacks in their operational zones doesn’t directly translate into equal threats against the U.S. homeland. It does mean though, that U.S. interests and facilities in the affected regions will be threatened thus calling into question the future state of our local assets. Finally, section IV will conclude with a discussion of America’s endless War on Terror and the Obama administration’s use of special operations forces and drone strikes.

V. The threat of homegrown terrorism and the diffusion of jihadist tradecraft: Inspire and Dabiq magazines

The response by most nations to terrorist attacks isn’t increased military operations, but rather improved domestic policing practices. Since 9/11, the capacity for terrorist organizations to launch attacks on western soil has been severely degraded due to, in part, the military operations in the Middle East and Africa. The greatest source, however, comes from the huge increases in domestic policing and intelligence gathering capabilities, particularly of the United State’s law enforcement and intelligence communities. AQAP’s response to this limitation was to encourage homegrown attacks in the United States and elsewhere, by pursuing digital recruitment and radicalization strategies, and by providing digital guidebooks for building homemade bombs and tips for evading law enforcement. The Inspire and Dabiq magazines, accessible to anyone with an internet connection, provide potential terrorists the ideological justifications for attacks, as well as the tools they need for planning and executing them; as witnessed in the San Bernardino shooting last December, it is homegrown terrorism and lone wolf attacks that pose greater threats to our national security. This section will, for now, conclude this project with a survey of the homegrown terrorist threat and the ways communities can combat it.