15 years after 9/11: the evolution of Islamist terrorism

15 years after 9/11: the evolution of Islamist terrorism

September 11th this year marks the 15th anniversary of one of the most defining terrorist attacks in modern history. Al-Qaeda’s plot that left almost 3,000 dead shook the western world and had political and economic impacts still felt today. On 9/11, a new and more unstable period began.

The 9/11 attacks became a watershed moment that brought radical Islamist terrorism to the fore of western foreign policy. With this spectacular attack, al-Qaeda succeeded in dealing a dramatic blow to the United States on their own soil.

As 15 years passed from that day, it is essential to assess the evolution of the radical Islamist terrorist threat and its impact on the West and the Muslim world. Understanding Sunni extremists’ positions more than a decade after the attacks is key to analysing the ongoing fight in the Arab world and the evolution of the terrorist threat in Europe.

Al-Qaeda’s initial strategy: Partially a failure

The 9/11 attacks were designed to trigger a global stand-off, pitting al-Qaeda against the United States. The attacks were part of the initial strategy defined by the core al-Qaeda group in the late 1980s and mid-1990s and developed in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “Knights under the prophet’s banner”, a manuscript outlining the will to defeat the United States and Arab regimes, in an attempt to form a global Islamic caliphate.

The key objective of 9/11 was to carry out an exceptional terrorist attack to force the US into a land war in a Muslim country. The rationale of such an action derived from  the Afghan war, pitting Mujahedeens against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Al-Qaeda’s initial plan was to inflict heavy losses in a protracted combat against US forces, leading to the economic and political demise of their foe.

While the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may be assessed as failures for the US to some degree, they did not translate into the collapse of the American political order or export of a globalised Jihad through al-Qaeda in Arab countries. As such, the immediate post-9/11 strategy of al-Qaeda failed to deliver due to an over-estimation of the potential appeal anti-American Jihad in Afghanistan could have had on Arab masses.

Although al-Qaeda fell short of igniting a global Islamic war sparked by 9/11, the group managed to adapt to the so-called War on Terror and to maintain its combat capabilities by creating a looser command and control structure. The development of al-Qaeda franchises have propelled the group into regional conflicts and provided it with the capacity to remain a key actor in multiple ongoing insurgencies in the Arab world. It is through al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) that the original brand of the group has kept its notoriety and managed to score strategic regional successes as well as conducting international terrorist attacks.

The “Arab Spring” and growth of the Islamic State

The 2010-2011 revolts dubbed the “Arab Spring” provided al-Qaeda with a second breath via two key developments. On the one hand, the weakening of military-backed governments and the empowerment of Islamist groups created a new power dynamic in countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. Within this new reality, Sunni extremist organisations, building upon the traditional al-Qaeda rhetoric, managed to gain and hold territories as well as expand their support base. On the other hand, with the expansion of deadly civil wars, especially the Syrian one, al-Qaeda-aligned militants managed to push within territories in which their presence was very limited up until 2011.


Celebrations in Tahrir Square after the announcement of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.


The Syrian conflict saw the rise to power of the Islamic State (IS), a terrorist organisation that grew on the structure laid down by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  IS has been able- within a limited amount of time – to achieve something that al-Qaeda has not achieved within the past two decades: to occupy and hold large territorial spaces across Syria and Iraq, challenge Arab regimes and implement a state-like structure. This was facilitated by focusing on local operations in the early phase of the conflict rather than international ones, marking a clear break from al-Qaeda’s 9/11 strategy.

IS has also achieved at least in part  to ignite the spark which did not occur immediately after 9/11. With tens of thousands of foreign fighters reaching Iraq and Syria, IS built its strength on an ideology skilfully marketed to appeal to large parts of the global Muslim community. As such, from the North Caucasus to Egypt and Western Africa groups that were closer to al-Qaeda at first started pledging allegiance to IS. This posturing enabled IS to claim to be waging a truly global Jihad via a loosely centralised command and control structure.

War in the West and exploiting the Syrian conflict

Since 2001, al-Qaeda rose to global prominence and was subsequently outpaced by the rise of the Islamic State. While IS appears to have developed wider recruiting and operational capabilities, al-Qaeda’s position in Syria highlights how it managed to once again adapt to an unfavourable strategic situation and is now becoming a key player in the regional Jihad. Al-Qaeda-aligned militants are steadily gaining strength within the Sunni insurgent forces in Syria, where al-Qaeda-linked cells have been actively planning to carry out major international attacks.

15 years after 9/11, the global radical Islamist war has substantially changed. Europe has become a key target for Sunni extremists. Local radicalised militants have conducted several high-level terrorist attacks, in which the boundary separating IS from al-Qaeda partially faded. While Islamist militants continue to view the 9/11 attacks as a pivotal success,  the strategy is increasingly aimed at sparking tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe rather than forcing a major conflict in the Middle East. Syria and Iraq are used as territorial safe havens from which to pilot thousands of militants operating in networks throughout the world. With this strategy, complex attacks such as the killing spree in Paris are for propaganda purposes, aimed at increasing recruitment and financing. On the other hand, radical Islamists hope to ignite social strife by creating a climate of insecurity via a large number of lone wolf attacks.

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.