Leaderless Islamist terrorism poses grave threat

Darrell Pack

The structure of jihadi/takfiri Islamic terrorism has begun to take a significant turn. Terrorist Muslim groups are becoming leaderless. This new form borrows from the anarchist theory that by being diverse, amorphous, and flexible they are less easily attacked and destroyed.

Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula in particular, faces an existential threat from these autonomous groups. Western news outlets scarcely report them, but local organizations, such as the non-government group Eshhad, track sectarian attacks against religious minorities in Egypt do. Since it was founded on August 14, 2013, Eshhad has documented over 500 sectarian incidents or attacks in the country.

The new approach using leaderless terrorist groups has significantly increased domestic terrorism there.

Essentially, leaderless cells are small, with only three to eight members. They act without a leader’s command. They do not report through a hierarchy of authority. Most members have no systematic training in terrorist operations nor a connection to geographic headquarters. Instead, they have been indoctrinated by extremist content on the internet and through direct contact with extremists and terrorists in mosques, prisons, and elsewhere.

This shift to direct and internet contact was addressed by Steven Stalinsky in American Traitor. He reported that jihadis today use social media so effectively that printing presses are becoming unnecessary. Traditional publishing methods have been outdistanced.

The Anarchism and Islamic Leadership Hybrid

Anarchists are normally ambivalent or even negative to any form of leadership. A popular anarchist slogan is: ‘No Gods, No Masters!’ It remains to be seen if Muslim society—especially in Jihadi and takfiri circles—can absorb the tools of anarchist thinkers. Is it possible that leaderless anarchy can bend their opposing worldview of “Only One God and his appointed leaders”? Or is this polar opposite?

On the other hand, famous leaders who are lauded in anarchist circles have expressed potential hybrid arguments. For example, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon recognize how individuals and groups can autonomously take temporary leadership of the wider collective without assuming a formal position of power or authority. There are, then, theoretical ways Islamists can apply anarchist theories about leaderless movements to Islamic ideals, and use them to advance their cause.

The Challenge for Anti-Terrorism

For decades, Western political, military, and intelligence officials have subscribed to a counter-terrorism approach that I would call “Strike the Shepherd”. In biblical terms, the principle is found in Zechariah 13:7, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” Applied as a core operating assumption to battle terrorism, it presumes that if the primary leader is removed, the group that follows that leader loses direction, passion, and commitment to the group’s cause. It has often worked, and Muslim Jihadis have become aware of this weakness. This is why they are moving toward the anarchist leaderless model.

A terrorist group that seems to be moving to a leaderless structure is Ansar al-Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) now using the name Wilayat Sinai (WS). ABM emerged in 2011 when it claimed responsibility for an attack into southern Israel from the Sinai.

Since then, ABM (and now is called WS) has carried out other cross-border attacks, launching rockets against Israel and repeatedly bombing the natural gas pipeline in the Sinai that supplies both Israel and Jordan.

Much of their violent Jihadi action is also aimed at Egypt. In late 2013, it expanded into the Nile Valley.

In November of 2014, they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and considered themselves ISIS’ branch in the Sinai Province. They seek, from the peninsula, to destroy Israel, establish an Islamic emirate, and implement sharia in the Sinai Peninsula.

In a defiant move just six months after officially declaring allegiance to ISIS, ABM launched rocket and mortar attacks against the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) base in the Sinai.

On July 1, 2015, Egypt’s North Sinai endured the most violent terrorist attack in years. Wilayat Sinai (WS) claimed attacks on 21 security facilities and checkpoints using a variety of weapons, including suicide bombings. They briefly gained control of the city of Sheikh Zuweid.

The number of casualties remains unclear. The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces stated that 17 members of the armed forces were killed, while militants reported it to be over 100. Egyptian military launched airstrikes drove militants out of the city, and claimed to have killed at least 100 terrorists.

And the attacks continue. May 31, 2020, the Egyptian military raided terrorist hideouts in the northern Sinai Peninsula, killing 19 and labeling some as “extremely dangerous” fighters. The army reported discovering caches of automatic rifles, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades.

Other Egyptian Takfiri organizations also target the Egyptian state. To mention some: Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), Jund al Islam (Soldiers of Islam), al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula (AQSP), Ansar al Jihad, the Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN), the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC), Al Salafiya Al Jihadiya in Sinai (Salafi Jihadist Movement in the Sinai), and al Tawhid wal Jihad. The extremist organization called al-Furqan fired on ships in the Suez Canal to great international concern.

All of those groups are moving toward leaderless organizations. They are not inclined to join an umbrella organization with a declared leader. But when they see tactical advantages in cooperating, they do join forces.

How to Combat Leaderless Terrorists

This trend toward anarchist-type non-leadership implies that we must now view social media as part of the war zone. Governments need to track and trace social media to curtail Jihadi action. Private actors need to flood social media where Jihadi groups are spreading their message. Confront them with humor, parody, mockery, documentaries, fiction, drama scholarship—anything that discredits the jihadi/takfiri message. A targeted effort needs qualified, proficient practitioners of social media, traditional, writers, scholars, and advocates to confront the Jihadi message. We must evolve tactics to match the threat.

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